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March 22, 2014 at 7:00 AM

Haley uses fastball, mental fortitude to thrive in spring start

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After a full-season debut in which his pitching coach said he labored despite statistical success, right-hander Justin Haley has sharpened a different part of his game to help his skill set show better as he moves up through the organization.

“It’s something I worked on a lot in the offseason, the mental aspect of my personal game,” Haley said Friday after a four-inning start against the Twins at Minnesota’s minor league complex. “I think if you asked [pitching coach Paul Abbott] last year, that’s what was suffering for me last year. It was a goal of mine to be mentally strong and confident throughout the whole season.”

“This spring, he looks much more sure of himself,” Abbott, who oversaw Haley’s development in 2013 in Greenville, said Friday. “Last year, he pitched well but it was a grind. He’s got some more weapons to use than he was working with last year, and this year, he’s a lot more confident in using them.”

That confidence showed early in Haley’s start against the Twins, when he mowed down the High-A Twins batters in the first three frames before losing his command in the fourth. Much of Haley’s success came off his fastball, which sat 89-91 mph and touched 93 in this look. Though reports from his time in Lowell in 2012 had Haley up to 95 mph, the velocity isn’t a true indicator of his success, according to Abbott.

“He’s got good extension through the zone, so his fastball is a little quicker than what the actual gun reads,” Abbott said. “He really gets through the zone, and there’s deception in there. They just can’t quite pick it up. The plane involved just jumps on them.”

Haley’s fastball elicited five swinging strikes in the first two frames, and he located it well to the arm side throughout the outing. He also showed the ability to add cut to the fastball, and worked effectively in the lower half of the zone. The outing was highlighted by a pair of swinging strikeouts with his fastball against Twins infielder Pedro Florimon, who was down from big-league camp and batted second in the first three innings Friday.

His off-speed offerings were also effective, when he used a changeup with vertical fade and flashed a biting slider that he was able to locate in the zone or bury for swinging strikes.

The 6-foot-5 righty was drafted in the six round of the 2012 MLB Draft out of Fresno State, and made his full-season debut in 2013 with Greenville, when he fanned 124 batters in 124 2/3 innings en route to a 7-11 record with a 3.68 ERA in 26 appearances. The one pockmark on his resume was the 75 walks, which were fourth-most in the South Atlantic League.

Those control issues appeared in Haley’s fourth and final inning Friday, when he issued a pair of free passes and hit a batter. Haley also issued a walk in the second inning, but his newfound mental toughness was effective in dealing with it. He was able to rebound by fanning the next two batters on fastballs and coaxing a ground ball out of Twins outfielder Max Kepler to get out of the frame unscathed.

“It helps me be comfortable with adverse situations,” Haley said. “I walk a guy and it doesn’t bother me. I just get to the next guy.”

Photo Credit: Justin Haley by Kelly O'Connor

Jon Meoli is a senior columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.