Vance and Vanimal: How the Phillies' Worley got his swagger

Vance Worley's Vanimal was born at Long Beach State. That's where Worley started writing a message under the bill of his cap to stay fired up during games.
Vance Worley's Vanimal was born at Long Beach State. That's where Worley started writing a message under the bill of his cap to stay fired up during games. (MATT A. BROWN)
Posted: August 28, 2011

There is a moment, immediately before Vanimal hurls a baseball with his right hand, when Vance Worley surfaces. He separates his hands and reaches back until the ball is hidden behind him. His right arm rises, ready to unload as his body catapults toward home plate, and that's when it happens.

Six years ago - before Vance was Vanimal, before he wrote angry messages to himself inside his hat, before he transformed from middling non-prospect to one of the best rookie starters in Phillies history - he was an unassuming freshman with a buzz cut. He asked Chris Aquino, then a junior catcher for Long Beach State University, if he would catch a bullpen session before the school year even started.

Aquino had never before been asked to do that. When they were done Worley said, "Thank you." But Aquino was disturbed.

"Every time you got into your balance point and you separated," he said to Worley, "you gave me this big smile right before you delivered the ball."

People tell Vance that the Vanimal has swagger, and the 23-year-old bespectacled kid with a mohawk snickers. "I mean, I guess," Worley says. "I think it's my stupid haircut and glasses more than anything." Vanimal is a goofy nickname from his freshman year, bestowed during one sleepy morning of workouts by a weightlifting coach named Steve. (Fittingly, Worley does not remember Steve's full name.)

Inside the Long Beach dugout, Vance became Vanimal, but merely by name. He slogged through freshman year, was "soft" on the mound, and twice suffered an elbow injury during his sophomore year. Until then, he was never challenged. His college teammates described him as quiet. He kept to himself. He never went out.

Worley thought his coaches had disrespected him with a demotion to the bullpen that caused the second injury. He had something to prove. Only then was Vanimal really born. "That turned me into who I am," Vanimal said.

Now, he is nothing short of stunning. The cocksure righthander who averages 90 m.p.h. on his fastball leads all major-league rookie starting pitchers with a 2.65 ERA. Fans are enamored of Vanimal's style, the way he struts after every strikeout he notches, or how he indignantly peers through his trademark glasses.

Yet the fleeting smile remained. It was Worley's secret, shared only with his catcher and the opposing hitters, umpires, and fans behind home plate who could see it. The TV cameras rarely show his face as he throws. Sometimes, a photographer captures Vanimal mid-smirk, the rare instance when the two personalities of Vance Worley merge.

"I've seen some pictures," Vanimal said. "I wonder, 'Why am I smiling right now?' "

Channeling aggression

The underside of his Long Beach State hat was white, so Vanimal could write his message all over it. This was before his junior year, and now there was purpose. Worley was injured his sophomore year and considered leaving school. He was angered at how he was treated "like a piece of meat" and shuttled between the rotation and the bullpen until he blew out his elbow.

But dumping Long Beach was the easy way out.

"I was always too nice when I took the field," Worley said. "I was soft. That's when I wanted to show them I belonged here."

He took a marker and wrote "- you" all over the inside of the cap. It was a reminder. In the early days, becoming Vanimal was not as simple as hopping over the white chalk baselines. He had to make himself angry before he fired a baseball.

When his sophomore season started, Worley was the Dirtbags' Friday starter. He was going to represent Team USA, a travel team stocked by collegiate baseball's best players, in the summer. Nine games into the season, he strained his elbow. He was rushed back a little more than a month later and sent to the bullpen. Once, he warmed up in the second inning and didn't pitch until the ninth. He reinjured the elbow. His season and summer dreams were finished.

He channeled that resentment into daily, two-hour sessions with the team's assistant athletic trainer, Shauna Horton, and returned for his junior year with even longer hair and a newfound drive.

"He outworked everyone else," said Horton, who now works at the University of California. "His junior year that swag definitely came out. He carried himself with a confidence he could back up."

Says Worley, "They were looking at me like, 'Who is this guy?' This is a guy who is going to help you win this year."

It remained difficult for a laid-back, sarcastic 20-something to concentrate the aggression. He likes classic cars. (His dream ride is a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS/SS.) He has a closet full of shoeboxes and is an admitted sneakerhead. (Nike, specifically Jordans, are his favorites.) He has a passion for video gaming. (He even purchased an arcade game console for the clubhouse at triple-A Lehigh Valley.)

But the energy he harvested from the injury made separating Vance and Vanimal manageable.

"It was one of those monsters that was going to come out," said Aquino, who talks to Worley almost daily and catches him in the winter. "I knew his stuff was good. I was waiting for everyone else to see it too."

Including Vance.

In minors, it clicks

Danny Espinosa watched recent highlights of a Vanimal start and laughed.

"I can't believe he still has that thing on his glove," said the Washington Nationals second baseman and former college teammate of Worley's.

Vanimal was an inside joke until Vance ran out of options. His first glove as a professional baseball player had his name on it. Then the Phillies jumped Worley to double-A Reading to begin 2009, and he wore a glove with "VDub" inscribed on the leather. Vance went 7-12 with a 5.34 ERA there. At the end of the season, he turned 22 and was not a prospect by any definition of the word.

He had "Vanimal" etched onto the glove before the 2010 season began.

"If it weren't for me putting it on the glove," Worley said, "I don't think anyone would know."

In his first two starts while repeating Reading, he allowed nine runs and walked more than he struck out in 91/3 innings.

"Who the . . . are you?" Worley said he told himself. "You're better than this!"

This is a story about confidence as much as it is pitching. Worley was trying to overthrow, so his fastball was faster. He used different mechanics to make that happen. His off-speed pitches suffered. So he ditched it all and embraced the name on the glove.

In his next 17 starts, Vanimal posted a 2.70 ERA in 1031/3 innings, including a three-hit shutout of Harrisburg on July 9, 2010. Bob Milacki, Reading's pitching coach, had a message for his rising pupil after that effort.

"I knew they weren't going to score off you," Milacki said, "just because the way you were standing on the mound and the way they walked out of the box."

Eleven days later, Vanimal was a major-leaguer.

"I was confident in my stuff," he said. "That's the only way to pitch in this game. If you're not confident on the mound, you're going to get shelled. You have to look like you're not going to get beat."

One becomes the other

Why is Vance Worley smiling?

He doesn't have it all figured out. Far from it. Eventually, the National League will catch up to him, and the next set of adjustments will be required. But that's for later.

In less than a year he skyrocketed through the Phillies' minor-league system, captured the fans' affection, and won over his manager. On the penultimate day of the 2010 season, he tossed five innings of one-hit ball against a desperate Atlanta Braves team. "I remembered that all winter," Charlie Manuel said.

Vance still clings to that shell off the field. It's cool, he said, that fans wear glasses and No. 49 T-shirts when he starts, and more than 17,000 people follow him on Twitter. But popularity is an awkward sensation.

"I think the Vanimal is eating it up," Vance said. "For me, when I go out, I like to not be known. I like to enjoy my normal lifestyle. If I want to get a bite to eat, I want to get a bite to eat. People are tweeting, 'Oh hey, the Vanimal is eating here.' Well, I can't eat there anymore."

Worley still writes that message on the inside of his cap. Vanimal needs a reminder sometimes, even as this magical season hurtles from fluke to reality. Now he's sitting in the Phillies dugout the morning after he achieved a career-high nine strikeouts and staring at the empty field.

"I'm Vanimal out there," he says, "and Vance over here."

A month ago, Vanimal was three outs from his first major-league complete game against the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. Worley sat on the top of the dugout bench with his right arm wrapped in a towel. He saw Dong Lien, the team's strength and conditioning coordinator standing nearby and focused on the game. "Hey Dong," Worley said, "what's that?"

Lien turned to look at Worley, who had casually stuck a fist inches from his face. "Oh!" Worley said. Lien shook his head.

Fifteen pitches later, Vanimal could break character. He watched an 84-m.p.h. slider land lazily in John Mayberry Jr.'s glove. The game was over. He looked back at his catcher, Brian Schneider, and nodded his head.

Then Vanimal smiled.


For Starters, Worley Stacks Up

The Phillies' Vance Worley has worked his way into contention for the National League rookie of the year award. Here is how he compares to other standout rookie starters in the NL this season:

PITCHER               TEAM             GS         IP          REC        ERA

Vance Worley         Phillies         16         981/3        9-1      2.65

Brandon Beachy      Braves         20         1141/3       7-2       3.31

Josh Collmenter         D'backs         19         124       8-8       3.19

Dillon Gee            Mets            21         1272/3    11-5       4.37   


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb

on Twitter.

 

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