When Royals pitcher Jason Adam stepped onto a major-league mound for the first time, he stared toward home plate to receive the signs from his catcher. Crouched behind a Detroit Tigers hitter, Salvador Perez wiggled four fingers toward the ground.
The sign initially surprised Adam, who had spent the first month of the season in the minor leagues, just two pitches comprising his options there. In 12 minor-league appearances, Adam estimates he threw his fastball and curveball in all but three total pitches.
But as he saw Perez’s four digits, Adam simply nodded. The ensuing pitch had life. So Perez called it again. And then once more.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Two months later, the Royals’ catcher won’t stop calling for the pitch.
“I threw maybe three changeups the entire time I was in the minor leagues, and now I throw three of them every time I go out,” said Adam, an Overland Park native and Blue Valley Northwest graduate. “There was some (hesitancy) the first time I threw it, but when Salvy liked it, I was like, ‘OK, it’s working.’ I think it was really good for me to see it work that first game. That gave me the confidence that this pitch competes. Let’s use it more.”
It’s transformed Adam into a three-pitch pitcher. He unleashes the changeup 13.13 percent of the time, per Brooks Baseball. It has been effective, too. Adam, 26, has yet to allow a hit off his change this season, though even he acknowledges it’s still a work in progress.
As is his development at the big-league level. Royals manager Ned Yost has spoken of Adam’s need to command his fastball better down in the zone and trust his secondary pitches.
Altogether, in his rookie season, Adam has a 4.43 earned-run average in 21 games while working out of the Royals’ bullpen.
“Consistency is huge for these young kids. They all got really, really good stuff. It’s just can you consistently go our and produce it,” Yost said. “It’s just understanding how good your stuff is and learn to go out and consistently attack with it.”
In the vein of not trying to be too perfect with every pitch, the changeup is an asset. Adam still works off his fastball, throwing it three out of every five pitches. But he finds that a third pitch prevents major-league hitters from sitting on the fastball.
“It just helps to have that extra pitch to get them off the fastball a little bit,” Adam said. “In the minor leagues, it was just intended to speed their bats up. Whereas here, these guys can turn on 95. They can in the minor leagues, too, but just not as consistently. Throwing that changeup, when I throw it with intent, that just gets them off my fastball.”
For Adam, the climb to this point has been well-documented. He needed four elbow surgeries and did not throw a pitch in 2015 or 2016.
A week ago, the Royals sent him back to the minors — for less than 24 hours. After an injury to pitcher Ian Kennedy, Adam learned he would be returning the Royals only hours after his plane home had landed.
“It was a really quick turnaround, but I could not have been more thrilled to make it,” he said.
The objective, of course, is to stick around for the long-haul. A struggling bullpen offers a window for opportunity.
The Royals relievers have combined for a 5.45 earned run average this season, the worst mark in the major leagues.
“Up here, you have to adjust a lot quicker,” Adam said. “Where I could get away with blowing it by hitters in the minor leagues, I can sometimes do that here, but it makes lot of a lot easier if I’m working three pitches in the zone where I want.”