Life is full of transitions and over the past several years, Hickory Crawdads reliever Tyler Ferguson has had several. Growing up in Fresno, CA – he attended West Clovis High – a chance-pitching appearance while overcoming an illness led to a spot with one of the premier college baseball programs at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN.
A “Sunday starter” with the Commodore in 2014, the opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen in key spots during the team’s run to the College World Series title has since led to a pro career in that role.
The Rangers sixth-round pick in 2015, Ferguson, now 23, struggled with control (9 walks in 4.2 innings) in the Arizona Summer League, but he returned to have a brilliant stay with short-season Spokane (WA) in 2016. Posting 46 Ks to 10 BBs over 30.1 IP, he made the Northwest League all-star team before getting a promotion to Hickory. Another transition at hand in a league with better hitters, Ferguson reverted to his control issues with 18 walks to only 10 Ks over 13.1 innings.
A fresh start in 2017 has been mostly fruitful for the right-hander. He has a 6.14 ERA to date, but all of that came in one bad outing on April 17. Otherwise, he’s been nearly flawless, going scoreless during his other four outings. More importantly for his development, Ferguson has fanned 12 and walked only three over 7.1 innings.
A power pitcher on the mound – mid-to-upper 90s fastball and slider – he’s a cerebral person in his craft on the field and his approach off the field. This is no bull-in-the-china shop, off-kilter reliever. He’s a three-time All-SEC Academic honoree and has a bright future in the game once his on-the-field days are finished.
First of all, I’m curious. You grew up in Fresno, if I recall correctly. How did you wind up at Vanderbilt?
Ferguson: So, I happened to play out with the Area Code teams down in Los Angeles. I didn’t really get recruited a ton until the junior summer going into my senior year. I hadn’t visited anywhere. I actually ended up getting shingles and was sick for like the first four days and pitched on the last day. That’s when Tim Corbin, the head coach of Vanderbilt, saw me. I did pretty well and then he called me and I had a conversation with him. After that, I decided to wait as long as I could and took all my official visits. So I got to go out there and check it out and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the coaches, the school, the baseball program, which was on the rise. I hadn’t really heard of it before he actually called me, other than seeing them on TV maybe one time.
It’s a pretty big program, especially the last decade with a lot of guys coming out of there. David Price is the one that comes off the top of my head. Did you talk to any of those guys in making your decision?
Ferguson: No, I didn’t really talk to any of the guys that had come out of the university before I got there. For me, it was kind of, I went there to visit with my mom and I just had a really good feeling about the school and where it was headed. The pitching coach Derek Johnson was there and that was huge. The pitching coach was a huge reason for me to choose the school. Now he’s the Brewers pitching coach – it took him three years to get there. So, it was kind one of those things where you fell in love with the school, fell in love with everything about it. I had a really good feeling about it.
What were some of the adjustments you had to make when moving to the south from California?
I didn’t really feel like it was much of an adjustment. My sister transferred to play volleyball at Belmont, which is right down the street. So, I had my sister there, and so, it was kind of like having a family member. It wasn’t like I was just moving across the country by myself. It really nice to have her there with me.
Let me ask you about your College World Series experience, getting to go there a couple of times and getting a ring.
Ferguson: So, the crazy thing is, the time we didn’t go to Omaha, my freshman year, might be one of the best college teams ever. It is quietly, because we went 26-3 in the SEC, which will probably never be broken. It was just a lot of seniors. A couple of guys on the teams have played in the big leagues already. That team was unbelievable.
My sophomore year, we had another really good team. That was an unbelievable experience. I pitched on Sundays that year. We had a great team. We were up and down throughout the year and hit stride at the right time. We caught fire and were able to pull it off.
My junior year, another really good team. We played great all year, but couldn’t win one of the last two.
You had a couple of successes. You pitched in the Super Regional against Stanford?
Ferguson: Tyler Beede started that one. We got off to a little bit of a lead and then he kind of struggled and then I came in and threw pretty well, I think 2.2 (IP). I held us there long enough to where we could maintain that momentum and win that first game in the Super Regional, which is huge in a best two-out-of-three.
You had a tough outing against Texas in the College World Series, but then you get to come back and pitch a huge inning.
Ferguson: Yeah, a tough start there. Luckily, we kept that one close and we were able to beat them and then move on to Virginia. There, I pitched one inning against Virginia. I threw well and pitched a quick inning.
How did you make the conversion from a starter to a reliever?
Ferguson: So, I just struggled over the last couple of years with command, and so, making that adjustment’s been alright. It took a little while for me to mentally just accept that role. It’s a little bit less of a routine; you don’t always know when you’re throwing. But, I’ve come to really enjoy it over the last year.
Pitching in that situation, coming in with the bases loaded the other night, it was huge adrenaline rush. I didn’t throw a lot of pitches. I was able to get that out and save Tyler (Phillips) a couple of runs. So, that was fun.
Coming out of the bullpen, does that fit your personality more?
Ferguson: I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, whether it fits or doesn’t fit. I think it’s just one of those things where you adjust. That’s a tough question.
There are certain times a role fits a personality. Joe Filomeno, when he was here, was a guy that was gregarious, bull-in-the-china-shop sort of person. Then you’ve got somebody else more reserved and the tactician sort of thinker in putting a start together.
Ferguson: Yeah, I’d say it does fit my kind of personality. I’m all arms and legs coming at you and I’m just to throw it hard and throw past you, and throw a good slider and make you miss. So, I kind of like that. I’m just coming at you with what I’ve got here and now. So, I’m starting to really like that, because for most of my pitching career, my first four or five years, I was a starter. I was always in that role and it’s taken a little bit of an adjustment. Now, it’s not, I’m setting a guy up for later, necessarily, it’s I’m coming at you with what I’ve got and I’m going to beat you with my stuff. It’s a more important time of the game.
You went to Spokane last year and had a good run there and made the All-Star Game team and pitched in that. Then you came here and struggled with control. What was the switch that flipped from Spokane to here?
Ferguson: Last year, I got hurt in spring training. So I was out and then I finally got healthy right before Spokane and then I went there and had a lot of success. It couldn’t have gone better there, honestly.
I then came here and to jump to that level, I just kind of tried to do too much. I tried to overthrow. I felt like I needed to throw harder and throw better breaking balls instead of just being myself and doing what I do best. So, when I stay in control and don’t try to overdo it – I know I throw hard and I don’t need to try and throw it harder. It’s something I’m still working on and it’s always a struggle.
When you come into certain big situations, you’re trying to throw it hard and make better pitches. When you stay within yourself and you stay relaxed and make the right pitch, it’s going to go out in your favor most of the time.
I saw that you were All-Academic in the SEC three times.
Ferguson: Yeah, I’m a little bit of a nerd. I always did well in high school and got two really nice plaques in Omaha, because I had the highest GPA on the team. So, I got some really nice plaques for my parents to hang up, so they really like that, too.
What was your major in college?
Ferguson: It’s an interdisciplinary major. They don’t have a business major at Vanderbilt, so I had a basically created major that would be called Sports Management and Finance. It’s basically finance management and whatever sports classes they have there and kind of put it together. After baseball, I see myself working in baseball still on the business side or financial side.
Maybe an agent?
Ferguson: No, I don’t think an agent. I think I’d rather work for an organization.
What was the bigger thrill, getting to throw in the College World Series or getting All-SEC Academic?
Ferguson: (laughs) I’m going to take the World Series ring. It’s hard to beat that. We had 50 people within our Vanderbilt family, so only 50 people get a ring every year. I think that’s a little bit more special to me.
What are the goals for the remainder of the year?
Ferguson: I haven’t really set out any goals. For me, it’s getting into a routine, being into the bullpen and just being as consistent as possible out of the bullpen. I don’t want to be someone that’s up and down all year. I want to be as consistent as possible throughout the year. So, doing the same things every day and working out on the same days each week, whether I’m throwing or not throwing. Just, creating consistency throughout my day-to-day and that way, I’ll see consistency out on the field.
How will it mean the most to when you get a call up to the major leagues?
Ferguson: My parents. They gone through all the struggles with me. They’ve been in all those phone calls when (crap) hits the fan. Whenever I get that call, I want to be able to call them. I think they’ll feel as excited as I am.
What do you think your reaction will be?
Ferguson: Tears. Probably, yeah.
Who’s the next person you’ll call after your parents?
Ferguson: My sister. Family first.
You guys do all the bus rides and do all the lifts, and so on. What is the thing you’ll look back on and say, “that was worth it”?
Ferguson: All this situation isn’t the best, it’s not the nicest, but when you harp on that, it brings you down and it makes you negative. I just enjoy what we have here. It’s nice. Then, as it gets nicer, you just kind of appreciate all the little things that you get. You get to fly on nice planes and get nicer food. You’ve just got the appreciate what’s in front of you.