Hitting the Switch: An Interview with DeMarcus Evans
DeMarcus Evans, 25th round pick of the Texas Rangers, has found the proverbial magic bean on the mound. The native of Petal, Mississippi – a suburb on Hatttiesburg in the southeastern part of the state – struggled as a starter with Hickory in 2017 and wasn’t trusted with key game situations out of the bullpen in the early part of this year. In 15 outing in the first half, he pitched with lead in only three of them, and even those were games mostly in hand. Just once did he see a game that had a hold or save situation in the balance.
In the second half, Evans been as untouchable as anyone in the South Atlantic League. He has nine saves since the SAL all-star break – five in August – with a 0.66 ERA. Of the 100 hitters he’s faced in the second half, 56 have struck out. Just 18 have reached base. He went from non-descript “guy” to a player that should start showing up on some of the Rangers top-30 prospect lists over the winter.
I talked with Evans in July, but then the “day job” sidetracked me doing anything with this until now. Since the time of the interview, Evans was named the Rangers reliever of the month award in July. Barring a rough rinal 9 days of the month, he’s the odds-on favorite to win it again.
What’s different? The velocity on his fastball went from 91-92 to 95-96 at its beak. The curveball hits the strike zone with frequency and is nearly unhittable at this level. But for Evans, he admits that gaining trust in his own ability has been the biggest hurdle.
In the interview below, Evans talks through his struggles from 2017 and how he conquered some of the mechanical issues, as well as the mental ones.
Demarcus, well first of all, what switch did you find?
Evans: I just been learning to pitch in the bullpen. I have been starting the last 2 years, so I’ve been picking up stuff in the bullpen. I’ve been learning from (Tyler) Ferguson and (Josh) Advocate and all them. I been talking to them. They’ve been helping me out along the way from the first half to the second half.
In the second half, I still remember I was on the mound and skip (Crawdads manager Matt Hagen) came out there and was like “We’re going to need you the second half to come in situations like this to get out of it.”
I pitched against Kannapolis and I think Louis Robert hit a double off the wall and he got to third, and it was like one out. He came out there and talked to me and told me I need you second half. So, then I just start talking to Ferg and he been helping me out on my curve ball and I’ve been trusting myself a lot lately.
The curveball. Is that a new pitch for you? I don’t remember you throwing that.
Evans: No, I’ve been throwing that ever since. They think it’s a slider but its just hard. Because, I try to throw it as hard as I can like a fastball. It breaks like a curveball and sometimes it goes like a slider. Ferguson told me it’s like a breaking ball. It could go like a slider or a curveball.
Do you throw a slider much?
Do you throw much of a change?
Evans: I threw one or two. I used to, but I didn’t have confidence in it, so I just banged it. So, I’ve just been throwing fast ball.
So, you’re pretty much a fastball and a curveball?
Evans: Yes, I have it, but I just haven’t used it. None of the teams have been on my fastball so I’ve been throwing my fastball and curveball.
So, I’m going to be honest with you. I see you come out – you’re at 91 – 92 – you’re a big guy and I’m thinking “He’s gotta throw harder” then all of a sudden 95 – 96. What have you found? What switch on that have you found?
Evans: I’ve been working out a lot harder and running a lot harder and I’ve been using my legs more. I used to just use my arm, but I’ve been staying back on my legs and driving and my velo’s been going up a lot.
Let me go back to the conversation Matt had with you. Was that after they found out (Alex) Speas wasn’t going to come back?
Evans: No, he was here. It was just my first year in the bullpen and so they’ve had been putting me in situations where it was easier for me to come in to get used to it. But then he said, “The training wheels are off and it’s going to be your situation the second half to make a push for the playoffs.”
I actually learned a lot from Speas, too, since he was in the bullpen.
What did you learn from Speas?
Evans: He’s quick, too. He’s just been trusting his stuff and just throwing and not thinking as much. I was just loving that.
I remember both you and Tyler (Phillips) were here last year and you both struggled. You came here when you were 20 and you were – don’t take this the wrong way – but you were still a baby. How much growing up did you do last year?
Evans: I had to do a lot. When I got sent down, I was going to throw out of the bullpen, but they said they still wanted me to start. This year, they said wanted me to go to the bullpen, and I was like, “Oh well.”
I figured out a little stuff at Spokane when I went back. That team was a lot better atmosphere for me with them, and we clicked a lot better. So, I learned stuff from people like Tyler (Phillips). Me and Tyler have been together since we were drafted. I guess I felt more comfortable. Here, I was stressing and trying to be perfect every time I went out.
What was the biggest thing you learned?
Evans: Honestly, everybody tells me, “DeMarcus, when you throw your fastball, nobody can hit it” and all this stuff. I just didn’t trust myself, as much. But now, I’m like, I can do it and I been learning to better myself by having more confidence and trusting my ability more.
Is the game much more mental than you thought it would be when you got into it?
Evans: It was. It’s a lot more mental, but I’m starting to block all of that out and focusing on a tunnel vision. It’s been working ever since.
You said you went back to Spokane and things began to click. What were some things that clicked for you?
Evans: Mechanic wise, staying behind the ball more. Getting out in front and let it come off the fingers.
Who are some guys, maybe more specific, and some of the things they said that helped you?
Evans: Joey Seaver – he’s not with us anymore, he’s with the Pirates. He had me do these drills every day where he’d set these cones behind me and they let me stay straight. He held my belt inside and it made me stay back on my back leg. I worked with (Crawdads pitching coach Jose) Jaimes a lot in spring training on up/down so I can keep my ear over my back shoulder and get out in front with it and use my legs more.
What is the biggest thing mentally that you figured out? I know you mentioned that you’d block things out, but that can be easier said than done. Some guys can do it a couple of times and things creep back in again.
Evans: Sometimes last year, when I was with Matt, I’d do bad walking a lot of guys. I’d get into the dugout and I’d get mad at myself and do stuff. Now, I’m just like, there’s nothing I can do about it except work harder. So now, if I do something bad, I’ll just flush it out, work harder and do better next time.
So, what do you do next time when have a bad outing? You’ve rolled lately, but it’s coming where something is going to happen.
Evans: I’ll just focus on what I need to work on. Like, I had a couple of breaking balls yesterday that I left up, so today I worked on breaking balls and tried to get out front with it. I’m keeping the same mind focus. If they’re going to hit me, they’re going to hit my best stuff, so I just let everything go. Because, I’ll usually hold something back and try to make perfect pitches sometimes. Now, I’m just like, “All right, throw everything. Don’t use max effort, but try to let the ball eat and see if they’re going to hit it or not.”
Petal, Mississippi. You’re 6-4, 240 now?
Why didn’t you play football?
Evans: I did, but
I gotta ask because you’re in the heart of SEC country.
Evans: I had a couple of offers for football, but my main focus is baseball.
Where did you get offers for football?
Evans: I had offers from two JUCOs. I had one from Pearl River and Jones County Community College, which was right down the street from me.
So, why did you decide baseball?
Evans: I thought it would be the best fit for me.
Evans: I think my heart was more with baseball than football because I was always around it since I was little.
What influenced you?
Evans: When I was growing up around two years old, my mom coached at this boys and girls club. So, it was around that time that I started to play baseball. Me and Ti’Quan (Forbes) grew up playing together. I was playing from the time I was two all the way to 16, 17 years old.
I really thought I wasn’t going to play baseball, because I got hurt in my ninth-grade year. It was something in my growth plate. Out of nowhere – I had to sit out three months – I was throwing like 88. I was like, “what in the world happened?” That was about it.
When did you get a sense that you might get to play professionally?
Evans: Actually, my 11th grade going into my 12th grade year. We had this thing where all the best players in the state of Mississippi played in a tournament. I tried out for it and I got home and this man called me. I was like, “Who is this?” It was a man from the Miami Marlins scout team. He said, “Do you want to come play for – you get a free month to come play for Perfect Game.” I had never heard of Perfect Game.
I pitched two innings and the Miami scouts were like, “Wow, that’s nice.” They said my fastball was kind of live. A lot of people were swinging and missing and stuff. So, I went down there, and I was pitching and everybody was swinging and striking out. I struck four batters out and I was like, “Wow, these guys have never heard of me.” I just kept going on and on and on. I had a lot of strikeouts. It was that way the whole summer and that’s when people started contacting me, calling my house, coming to my games.
Did you have offers to play baseball in college?
Evans: I had USM (Southern Mississippi), Tulane, every JUCO in the southern part – San Jacinto, Chipola. I had Alabama State, Jackson State.
Anything thoughts about playing and not signing?
Evans: I did sign. I dual committed. I was going to go to Hinds Community College, where Chad Bradford was the pitching coach. I was like, if I go anywhere to pitch, I’ll probably go there because he pitched in professional baseball and he’d probably give me a lot of good aspects of the game.
All of the sudden, I got drafted by Texas. I wasn’t going to go because they drafted me the third day. I was like, “No, I’m going to go to school.”
Why did you decide to come out?
Evans: I had a long talk with my agent. He was like, “If you want to play professional baseball, then go. It’s a better percentage if you go out of high school than out of college.” A lot of kids go into college and get hurt and stuff like that. So, my agent said, “If you want to go, then just go and you don’t have to worry about nothing. Just keep going and you don’t have to pay me until you get to the big leagues.”
Who’s been the biggest influence for you?
Evans: I’m very close, player wise, with C.D. (Pelham). I talk a lot with Keone Kela. Coaching wise, Jono Arnold, he’s the pitching coach at Spokane now.
Tell me about Keone Kela. He’s now a closer and eating it up.
Evans: We started hanging out last year. It was me, Ti’Quan and C.D. We all hang out with him and he’d always take us out to eat and stuff. He’d talk to us about the game and how we should play it. I’ve learned a lot from him.
He’d tell us, “You’ve got to go out there and change your mind focus. Don’t dwell on it, if you go out there and do bad. Just be ready to go next time, when they call your name.” I’d talk to him about how the bullpen works, because I’d never been in it. How to recover, because everybody’s different.
I don’t mean this in a bad way, but he has an attitude, doesn’t he? I don’t mean it in a negative, but it’s what you’ve got to have in the bullpen, I guess.
Evans: He’s a competitor.
Does that rub off on you?
Evans: Emotion wise, I don’t try to show as much. I get fired up, but I don’t try to show it.
You get a call to the major leagues, what does that mean to you and who’s the first person you call?
Evans: Ohhhh. That would mean a lot; that’s what I’m working for. The first person I’ll call will probably be my mom.
She was your first coach.
Evans: My mom coached me in everything from soccer, basketball, football, everything. She coached me from the sideline.
Was she an athlete?
Evans: She played basketball at JUCO. (Pearl River CC).
What did she teach you as an athlete?
Evans: I used to have a lot of anger problems. She always told me, “You’ve got to go out there and give it all you’ve got because a lot of kids don’t get the chance to do it.” That’s just stuck with me ever since.
Did she have to get on you?
Evans: Yes, a lot.
More than other kids?
What was the biggest thing she’d get on you about?
Evans: I used to get mad if I’d strikeout, or if I’d walk a lot of people, I’d get mad all the time and throw stuff.