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05/21/09 1:26 PM ET

Leyland looks for high heat from Zumaya

Skipper thinks reliever more effective with pitches up in zone

DETROIT -- Joel Zumaya has shown a lot of progress in his mix of pitches since last year, and it's helping him transition back into a key role. But it's not just about changing speeds, manager Jim Leyland said. It's also about changing location, and in turn, changing eye level.

When Zumaya throws his 100-mph fastball, Leyland suggested, it's much more effective high than low. It was the latter that Rangers hitters slapped for two of their three straight eighth-inning singles to knock in a run and put the potential tying tally on base before he racked up back-to-back strikeouts, the latter with a high fastball to end the threat.

"He got the ball down," Leyland said. "And when he gets the ball down, he gets hit a little more frequently than he does than when he gets the ball down. And that's what happened. With left-handed hitters, most of them are low-ball hitters; not as many as there used to be, but a lot of them are. When he needed to, he got it back up a little bit, elevated it."

Of the three straight Rangers with singles, both David Murphy and Hank Blalock are left-handed hitters, though Murphy hit more of an elevated fastball. The other single came from Michael Young, who hit a low fastball.

One night earlier, Leyland said, many of Zumaya's fastballs were elevated, leaving Rangers hitters struggling to extend their arms and get around on a pitch. The result was a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Tuesday that Leyland said was "the most impressed I've been by Joel Zumaya in a year, because he pitched to hitters by design and [executed] what we talked about -- being able to throw the ball up, being able to throw the ball down. He did that [Tuesday] by design, and that was the thing that pleased me more than anything."

Tuesday, Leyland continued, "was of my happiest moments with Joel Zumaya since 2006."

There's some statistical evidence to support the idea. According to fangraphs.com, hitters have swung at 28.3 percent of Zumaya's pitches outside the strike zone, the highest percentage of Zumaya's career. Yet of those swings, just 46.7 percent have made contact, by far the lowest percentage of his career. Hitters are swinging at more than half of all his pitches, 56.7 percent, for the first time in his career, but are connecting on just 72.2 percent of strikes, a career-low.

It'll be interesting to see if and how those percentages shift as Zumaya continues to vary his locations as well as his pitches.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.