Note: I sat down with John Lamb for a lengthy interview in the summer of 2014, with the intention of writing a nice 'John Lamb redemption story' after a stretch of great starts. The timing for that story never panned out, but the interview was too good to waste.
An awful lot of people are suckers for a good 'Before & After' story: Makeover shows, The Biggest Loser, 24 hours of HGTV programming every day. Before:After :: Bad:Good. What happens when a guy's "Before" is the good part, and the "After" makes people forget him for a while? There's no TV channel for that.
John Lamb's "Before" is a story most of us are familiar with: Southern California kid with a strong arm and a dedicated dad becomes a top pitching prospect, gets on lists, wins awards. Then, an injury, a Tommy John surgery, and much different results on the mound.
The "After" has been a meandering road, with no neat montage set to inspiring music to denote victory. In the four years since Lamb's surgery, lots of other pitchers have completed the cycle from injury to Tommy John to successful comeback. It hasn't worked out so neatly for Lamb. He went through his rehab process and resumed pitching in 2013.
"Everybody was treating me as healthy, I was going out there and pitching every five days, but I didn’t feel comfortable," he said. "I didn’t feel healthy."
Late in 2013, even after a somewhat surprising promotion to Omaha, Lamb decided "enough is enough." He was sitting in hotel room after hotel room, not feeling any closer to 100% healthy. For five years, Lamb had stuck to the Royals' workout program.
"I was struggling to throw the ball hard, not to mention, I was thin. I still am thin. Whatever strength I had at that time, it wasn’t helping me on the mound. I wasn’t either mechanically embracing things to maximize it, or I just didn’t have the strength, one or the other."
Lamb said the Royals' offseason workout program is perfectly nice, but after so long, it wasn't doing it for him. "I had had enough. I was bored with the monotony."
So after repeatedly seeing a late-night infomercial featuring a 25-minute-a-day workout, Lamb placed an order and started following this program on DVD. It wasn't perfect – it left him too "frail," but it was a start. From there, he shifted his focus to adding some muscle, and one oft-overlooked form of fitness: posture.
"There’s only three things you need to do: Shoulders back, hips forward, keep your ribs down," Lamb said. "For me as a pitcher, it helps shoulder strength, flexibility, and recuperating. It was something that never clicked until [the winter of 2013]."
From that point on, he and his longtime girlfriend Paige would encourage each other to stay straight and tall. One exercise was to hold pen in each hand while standing or walking, making sure to keep the pens parallel to the floor. His dad, James Lamb, was concerned with whether the sudden alteration to his 20+ year-old posture would change his throwing mechanics.
That was a valid concern, John thought, but at the end of the 2013 season, "my shoulder was hurting; I could barely lift my elbow because of the constant stress I’m putting on my body [by slouching]." He slumped forward on the couch to demonstrate:
"My shoulder is stressed out right now, but if I sit up straight, it’s like different muscles start working. That’s where it’s so exciting for me, there’s a purpose behind the posture, rather than just sit tall because mom told you, or dad told you to."
It's hard to write about John Lamb without also writing about his outspoken dad. Odds are, if you're in the habit of reading about baseball online, you've seen James Lamb in comments, defending his son. John describes it as "crazy, unconditional love," but notes he struggled with what all the online crusading may have done for his image early in his career.
"It was a distraction earlier in my career because I didn't know about it and I was kind of caught off guard because my dad didn’t talk to me about it," John said. "I ‘let’ him, in a sense, because I’m not here to tell him what he can and can’t do. He raised me, I know how passionate he is as a man and as a baseball guy. I gotta take all that into consideration and pick my battles."
On the mound, much of the focus on Lamb has been on fastball velocity, which tops at 96 or so and sits around 92. But along the way, other factors have evolved to support the fastball. He added a slider in 2013, because he wasn't getting left-handers out, which is the first thing a left-handed pitcher ought to be able to do. And his curveball, which he can sometimes drop in at 65 mph, is more effective now that his fastball has gotten, well, faster.
Lamb describes his early career as too reliant on the fastball, and not enough thoughtfulness. Now, with a more robust pitch mix, his game has changed.
"I think you’re pitching when you start to play with the hitter, literally, up and back, forward, changing eye levels. Until you’re able to play catch and change speeds, I don’t think you’re pitching."
This season, Lamb was 9-1 with a 2.67 ERA and 3.57 FIP for Omaha before he was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds as part of the Johnny Cueto trade. His first callup to the Majors was as the 26th man for a double-header on July 17, but he never got to appear in a game for the Royals. When he was held out of the the Triple-A All-Star Game on the 15th, it was easy to guess that a callup was in the cards. To try to confirm this after team representatives weren't allowed to, I asked Lamb if any congratulations in advance were owed. He smiled, and deflected the question by pondering whether anything is ever really owed, or if everything is a choice to give or not give. This kind of answer makes it tough to root against Lamb, because he could have easily given the "I'll just do whatever the team asks me to, and take it one day at a time" cliche.
John Lamb is now a member of the Cincinnati Reds organization and although he was assigned to the minor leagues, with their club out of contention, Lamb will likely get a full opportunity to show what he can do at the Major League level. The life of a professional baseball player has no guarantees, and just when you're on top of the world, at the cusp of achieving your dreams, life has a way of knocking you down. John Lamb has overcome many obstacles to get where he is, and a fresh start in a new organization may provide just the opportunity he needs to flourish.