No one studies pitchers more closely than Tony Gwynn, and after years of watching video - and facing him in games, he knows exactly what pitches Jeff Fassero will throw him.
“Oh yeah, I can tell you what he’ll throw me, and I can tell you what he’ll throw every hitter he faces,” Gwynn said, cackling in the San Diego clubhouse. “Fassero will throw you his pitch, whatever the count, whatever the situation. And I can guarantee you this, too, he will never - EVER! - throw you the pitch you want.”
A few hundred yards away, in the Seattle clubhouse at the Peoria complex, Fassero laughed at Gwynn’s analysis. And then smiled even more broadly at Gwynn’s final pronouncement on the subject.
“That man, on that team, wins 20 games this year, period,” Gwynn said. “He won 15 games with a team that never scored any runs.”
“That is the goal this year,” Fassero said. “Twenty wins is still the way starting pitchers are measured, and there seem to be fewer and fewer of them.”
When the Mariners traded Chris Widger and Matt Wagner to Montreal for Fassero, general manager Woody Woodward and manager Lou Piniella felt they’d pulled off one of the better deals in memory - snatching the No.1 pitcher on another staff, and a man they thought of as one of the better pitchers in the National League.
What they got is a left-hander who could (depending on the status of Randy Johnson) be their opening-night starter. And they got a man who loves his work.
“Spend five, six years in the minor leagues and you come away with more respect for the game,” Fassero said. “Getting to this level isn’t easy. Learning to pitch isn’t easy. There are guys who are called up too soon, and I’ve seen them fail and leave baseball before their time.
“I remember thinking in the St. Louis farm system, ‘If I’m pitching this well and can’t get called up, what must the major leagues be like?”’
It took Fassero nearly eight years to find out - and the last three minor-league seasons he posted earned-run averages of 1.64, 2.80 and 1.47.
“I had about reached the point of looking into another line of work,” Fassero said.
Instead, he became the setup man to John Wetteland and Mel Rojas in the Montreal bullpen. Late in the 1993 season, when the Expos changed managers, new skipper Felipe Alou offered Fassero the chance to start.
He was 30 years old and a practical man.
“I looked at our bullpen and saw Wetteland and Rojas, and I knew I was never going to be the closer with those guys there,” he said. “I’d paid a lot of dues getting to the big leagues, and I was making good money as a setup guy, but there was a ceiling on what I could make doing that. I saw the opportunity as a starter and I took it.”
Money isn’t the only motivating force in Fassero’s career, but after surviving for years on minor-league salaries, he says he’d have been a fool not to consider the financial implications.
“I was making $30,000 my last year in the minors (1991), and that’s not bad money for six, seven months of work,” he said. “I worked another job in the off-season and we made about $40,000 altogether. A lot of people live on less.”
Fassero has started 100 major-league games and produced a 45-35 record that is deceiving. Last season, for instance, he went 15-11 - and lost only once when his team scored more than three runs.
A left-hander with a three-pitch arsenal, Fassero can throw a 92 mph fastball with movement, a forkball Gwynn said he never hit, and a slider. And just as Gwynn studies pitchers, Fassero studies hitters.
“I look at film, I listen to the reports of advance scouts,” he said. “I’ll watch the team I’m going to face hitting against another left-hander, to see what pitches each hitter likes.”
“I throw the pitch I want, not the one he wants,” Fassero said. “And if that’s the same pitch, I challenge him.”
Since the Oct. 29 trade that sent him to Seattle, however, Fassero has been grinning whenever he thinks about his new team’s hitting. “Sometimes good pitching will shut down anybody, but this team can run up seven, eight runs in a hurry,” he said.
“That means I should win more games. If I do my job, I should win more games.”
To understand what a relief that is, all one has to do is look over Fassero’s career with the Expos. In 1994, he had a 2.99 ERA and won eight games. Last summer he was the N.L. Pitcher of the Month in June, when he went 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA.
The kicker? He was the N.L. Pitcher of the Month in July, too - when he went 3-2 with a 1.00 ERA.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ARSENAL A left-hander with a three-pitch attack, Fassero can throw a 92 mph fastball with movement, a forkball and a slider.