It was a long fall for Walker Weickel from first-round stardom to his release five years later. The native of Orlando, Fla, Weickel was taken as the 55th overall selection by the San Diego Padres out of Olympia High School. With a 6-6 frame that had room to fill, the right-hander presented a 91-94 fastball with a curve. With seasoning in the minors, Weickel would likely land at Petco Field before too many years. At least, that’s what he thought.
He went through a tough, first full-season in 2013 and took some poundings at Low-A Ft. Wayne (IN), as many pitchers do. But the rough outings continued the next season and he finished the 2014 season at short-season Eugene (OR).
The Padres challenged him with an assignment to high-A Lake Elsinore (CA) before six weeks into the season he heard the three words feared by every pitcher: Tommy John surgery. After a little over a year at rehab, he made pitched ten innings at the Padres short-season and rookie affiliates with mixed results. This spring, he was released.
Sitting on the sidelines and rehabbing gave Weickel time to think about how his career had gone to that point, and consider how much effort he had put into his development. Not just effort, but honest effort.
With time to reflect, Weickel adjusted his attitude and recaptured his love for the game. Weickel took on his release from the Padres as a matter-of-fact business decision and dedicated himself to the next opportunity. That door-knocker came with the Texas Rangers, with whom he signed this April.
Since joining the Crawdads on June 3, Weickel has gotten deeper into games and, in the process, dominated South Atlantic League opponents. His OBA is currently at .170 with a 0.89 WHIP. Over the last two starts, Weickel has allowed five hits, walked two and struck out 12 over 13.2 innings. He threw a two-hitter over seven innings against Kannapolis on July 4 in front of a packed house. Weickel’s outing was punctuated with an emphatic fist pump after fanning the final two hitters in the seventh.
Below is part of his story.
First question for you: the first thing I noticed when you came off the mound after the last strikeout was a huge first pump. Reading your story a bit about your Tommy John surgery and then you get released by the Padres, and then you pitch well before a big crowd here, how much of that was the moment itself or you’re finally getting some things going in your career?
Weickel: I think it was a culmination of things. July 4th has always kind of an interesting day for me in my career. I’ve been scheduled to pitch July 4th two times, but it’s been rearranged for numerous reasons, and this prior to surgery. So, now in my first complete season from Tommy John and with a new team an having an opportunity to pitch on July 4th, it’s always been kind of a career checkpoint for me to pitch. Growing up as a kid and watching The Sandlot, you see the scene where everyone’s playing baseball under the fireworks; it’s something I’ve always wanted to experience and definitely wanted to get a win out of.
I was feeling good on the fourth, and yeah, that last strikeout, it was a culmination of all that. It was also their number four hitter (Kannapolis rightfielder Micker Adolfo). He had kind of given me a little bit of a tricky out the first two times before, so I finally got him on that third at-bat. It felt like a nice little way to end off the outing.
It looked like you had all four pitches going: fastball, change, curve and slider. Did I read that right?
Weickel: For me, I heavily run a two-seam fastball and try to sink the ball a lot and then pitch a changeup and curveball off of that. I change speeds on my curveball, so sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s tighter and gets mistaken for a slider. I was pretty pleased with how my pitches were working. Ricky (Valencia) had a good game plan going into the outing and I was able to stick to it. Ricky did a great job calling pitches all night and kept me comfortable and kept me fluid.
I think I had seven flyouts and six ground outs. So, it definitely helped that the hitters put the ball in play quick and let the defense make plays quickly and get back into the dugout and back to the bats. I was pleased with the overall efficiency and quickness of the game.
I’m guessing the answer to the next question might take up the rest of the interview. Describe how good it feels for you finally to get back into a rotation and you are taking the ball every six games.
Weickel: It’s tough to put into words. It almost feels like my career is starting over again. I was a starter out of high school and then my first couple of years in pro ball. I’ve definitely had some battles and some ups and downs. Then the Tommy John was a big point in my career and I really felt that allowed me to mentally collect myself and figure out who I was as a pitcher. It allowed me to craft my process for off the field, in terms of preparation and in terms of how I go about my business.
So, it’s been really rewarding getting a chance here and I’m so thankful the Rangers gave me an opportunity to put all that work into play and to see where it goes from here.
What was the journey like going from first-round pick to Tommy John and then your release essentially four seasons after your selection?
Weickel: It was ups and downs and a lot of emotions. It was definitely not something I planned for, that’s for sure. I think everyone has the grand idea of signing and then maybe a couple of stops in the minors and then right up to the big leagues. I would say that’s not quite the path, but at the same time there is no set path for anyone. Everyone kind of has their own journey and battle.
Even though I’ve had quite the ups and downs, and I’ve dealt with injuries and I had to sit out a year-and-a-half for recovery, quite frankly, I don’t think I’d put it any other way. It’s really allowed me to develop, I think, at the right time and it’s allowed me to really enjoy certain aspects of my career and different opportunities. But now to be back playing, to be fully healthy, knowing that my arm is secure and stable, knowing that I’ve had these past 24 months of just hunger and preparation to get back on the mound and prove that I’m still able to get out there and do the job, I couldn’t be more excited.
You talk about how everybody has their own path. There are guys that get into the game and realize that it’s much more of a mental game. You guys are growing up, especially if you’re drafted out of high school. There are some guys that are arrogant; there are some guys that are still little boys in many ways. Maybe the question I have to ask is what is the adjustment mental-wise or lifestyle-wise that you had to make?
Weickel: It’s easy to get caught up into the day-to-day activities of being at the park and spending 12 to 16 hours a day, roughly, at or on the baseball field and then essentially your home, your apartment or hotel to sleep and then back to the field. So, it’s easy to kind of fall into a rep versus routine.
You do the rep thing, you show up and kind of go through the motions. You play catch, or you take batting practice, whatever it might be. You actually physically do the practice, but you might not have definitive points that you’re working on or things you’re trying to get out of it. You might not necessarily be challenging yourself at practice. I thought I fell victim to that a little bit. I fell victim to potentially practicing some mechanical adjustments that weren’t quite right for my body, and for how I pitch in my game as a pitcher. So, over the course of time, failure definitely teaches you a lesson; it’s whether or not you want to listen to it.
When I actually had the surgery, and had to sit there on the sidelines, it really gave me nothing but time to think about all the things I’ve practiced, all the things I’ve done, the approaches to the game that I had taken, and really narrow down what was really working and what really wasn’t. I felt like I was able to sit down and craft a new approach for when I finally got healthy and was able to get back out there. So far, it’s been a much more efficient and a much more manageable process for the day-to-day grind.
What’s the biggest appreciation you have for the game now that you maybe didn’t have before?
Weickel: Just the fun that comes with playing baseball. I think a lot of guys, when you get into pro ball, it immediately becomes this business. There’s obviously that aspect to it, but it’s a game.
If you can’t get joy out of showing up to the baseball field and playing the game and putting on a uniform and getting excited about fireworks and pitching in front of fans, just the camaraderie with the guys in the clubhouse, or the jokes, or being around batting practice, the competition on the field and the childish fun that you get from this game, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not getting the full value of the game. Coming back and getting a second chance, it’s definitely been a lot more enjoyable and a lot more fun playing.
What was the bigger reality check, getting released or having the Tommy John surgery?
Weickel: I would definitely say Tommy John. Like I said, baseball is a business. At the end of the day, teams they have plans and you can’t take it personal. It is what it is.
For the injury, that was something I could control. I could really buy into my rehab and buy into my time down and get something out of it, or I could just go through the motions. When I had the surgery, my mentality towards a lot of things, not just baseball, but my approach in general of how things could change unexpectedly. It really kind of gave me more of an appreciation for game activities, to interactions, friendships, time available with family and friends, and time to work.
I feel like that really was to me was the greatest challenge and greatest test of my willpower and my dedication to the game, to sit through all the rehabs, to sit through maybe the minor setbacks and discomforts and negative thoughts during the rehab process and come out victorious on the other side.
Tell me about the Rangers contact and how that all came together.
Weickel: I was let go the last week of spring training. I had some calls out and was looking to see if any teams had any interest. It’s a tough time right then and there because a lot of teams are looking to finalize rosters and it’s tough to make additions.
I actually went home for a couple of weeks and never once had a doubt that I was going to be out of baseball. I felt like that after all the work that I had put in rehab and the work I had done to come back and prove myself – and I felt like I was at a stronger point than in my previous years before surgery. So I was able to actually get home and work a little bit and continued throwing bullpens, and stay sharp and stay strong.
I was able to finalize a workout with the Rangers scout back home. It was great because immediately he was excited and pumped and full of enthusiasm. To see that from the team really made me excited that they would give me an opportunity. When things finalized and came together, I was able to get out to Phoenix and join the club at extended spring for a couple of weeks and get my feet wet and adjusted to the organization. It was just all positives from the get go.
I feel like I was able to jump right in and continue my work and continue getting better with the coaching staff and the training staff down there, and really get a strong foothold into getting myself ready to come here and give the Crawdads a shot at winning some ballgames.
When you get a call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you?
Weickel: I can’t imagine. I really can’t imagine it. It would definitely be surreal. I honestly don’t even know what I would say on the phone to my parents, or my girlfriend or my parents or anyone. I guess it’s going to have to be an in-the-moment experience.
But, I got carried away early in my career trying to think too far into my future. And now, I think about the next hour, the next two hours, the ballgame that night, and then go to sleep and wake up and try to do it all again tomorrow. I pitch from inning-to-inning, start-to-start and then go from there and try not to get too ahead of myself.
You have you, you have (Matt) Smoral, who was a former first-round pick with the Blue Jays who’s come here. You’ve got (Michael) Matuella, who was going to be a potential first-round pick, but then had the Tommy John and dropped to third. You’ve got (Jake) Lemoine, who battled injuries. Do you guys trade stories, in the sense that you have similar experiences?
Weickel: Yeah, it’s actually kind of funny, because all four of us are roommates. I feel like between the four of us, we definitely have a collection of experience and knowledge in just about every aspect, in terms of struggles and triumphs and things going not the way we’d planned for them to go. But, I’ll tell you what, I’ve never met a more positive group of guys. Guys that are willing to come out and give everything that they have each and every day, for their hunger to be better each and every time on the mound.
And that goes for the whole team. I think it’s exemplified in some of our performances this second half. They’ve really bought into the process. We have a fantastic team here – the pitching staff and the infield and outfield. It’s impressive.
If you get here during b.p. and watch some of the batting practice that goes on and some of the infield work, flashes of it are here in the game, but there’s some serious talent on this team. It’s enjoyable to pitch and to have solid defense behind me – guys that are going to bust their butts and do whatever it takes to win a ballgame. Our bullpen and coaching staff wants the exact same thing. So, it’s really refreshing being here with a winning team and a winning environment and a winning organization.
The Texas Rangers over the past several years have had good luck with drafting mid-round college level pitchers that have midwestern roots and seeing them develop into major league talent. Nick Tepesch (14th round from Missouri), Jerad Eickhoff (15th round Olney Central College) are a couple that come to mind. Connor Sadzeck (11th round Howard College) is another that’s on the doorstep currently at AA Frisco (Tex.). They’re like pre-packaged foods, in a sense: 6-foot-6ish 240 pounds with mid-90s fastballs, well-developed breaking balls and fledgling changeups. Just add seasoning and they’re ready to pitch.
At 6-7, 245 pounds with three pitches in hand Kyle Cody may be the soon on line at the major league buffet.
The Chippewa Falls, Wisc. native was the sixth-round pick of the Rangers in 2016 out of Kentucky. The Gatorade player of the year in Wisconsin his senior season pitched four seasons for the Wildcats, spurning the chance to turn pro out of high school with the Philadelphia Phillies (33rd round) in 2012 and with the Minnesota Twins (73rd pick overall) in 2015. Cody, 22, comes with a fastball that tops 96 mph, slider and a changeup that he admits is a work in progress. He’s been a constant force in the rotation as of late. A one-hit, eight-strikeout, eight-inning affair at Lakewood (NJ) on June 17 earned him South Atlantic League pitcher of the week honors. Two starts later on July 3, he gave up one unearned run on one hit and fanned 10 at West Virginia. The SAL is hitting .132 against him so far in the second half with 19 Ks in 11 innings.
In talking with Cody for this interview, there is that quiet, midwestern manner that has an unmistakable, matter-of-fact confidence. He’s faced some of the SEC’s best over the past four years with the Wildcats and there is a sense, as he has seen those former foes attain major league dreams, that Cody feels he belongs with that group and soon. Yet, for now, he knows there is work to be done in gaining consistency, not only from game-to-game, but pitch-to-pitch.
In the interview below, Cody talked about his progression this season, some of his experiences with the SEC that has gotten him to the point, as well as his current dream matchup in the majors.
First question I have for you is what was it like pitching for Lexington? I know you went to UK (Kentucky) and unfortunately had a rain-shortened deal.
Cody: It was pretty cool to go back and get to see some friends back at school. It wasn’t like how it usually was, where you get the college atmosphere. There was no one there pretty much because school was out, but it was still nice to see some familiar faces and just to get back in that area. I love that place. It’s a beautiful area. It was cool to get back to some of the restaurants there and stuff. It was pretty fun.
How many tickets did you leave?
Cody: When I started, I think I left 15 tickets. It kind of sucked that I only got to pitch two innings. Because everyone left, because of the rain, I didn’t really get to see anyone, but, it is what it is and things happen.
Did the folks with the Legends give you any recognition or did they just let it slide?
Cody: When I was on the mound the first time they played the fight song when I pitched, but nothing unusual. They said that I had pitched at University of Kentucky and a few of the fans clapped, so that’s about it.
You pitched at a high school in Wisconsin, so how did you wind up going to Kentucky?
Cody: I was offered by Minnesota, Ohio State and Kentucky. It was just I left like it was the best offer. They really took me in there and it felt like home. It just felt like I had a good connection with all the coaches and I felt like it was the best decision for me.
What was it like to pitch in the SEC?
Cody: It was pretty cool. At first, it was kind of a tough adjustment coming from a small high school where I was pitching in front of 15 or 20 people, all the way to 12,000 the next year. So, it was kind of tough at first, but it was quite an experience to play there and you get used to it and get better.
What was the biggest adjustment as far as going to college from high school? Obviously, the competition was different, but as far as pitching wise, what did you have to do?
Cody: Locating my fastball on both sides of the plate. In high school, I just kind of threw it by everyone. That was the big thing was command of the fastball and then having a second pitch, and getting better with that, and then developing a changeup, which I’m still trying to do now and still trying to get better with that. In college, you’ve got to try and show one (changeup) for a strike and then now, you’ve got to get outs with it.
What was your second pitch in college?
Are you still developing that or are you pretty comfortable with that?
Cody: I’m pretty comfortable with my slider, now. It’s gotten a lot better the past year or so, I’d say. It’s little more sharp and has a little more velocity than it used to. So, I’m pretty happy with where that’s at right now.
Let me stay on the adjustment thread. Coming to pro ball, what were some adjustments you had to make?
Cody: From college, I worked a lot on my stride length and getting that a little bit longer. At college, it wasn’t very long and then last year in Spokane. And now, I’ve been working on that so I can get a little more extension with my pitches and get a little bit closer to the plate. So, that’s one thing I worked on. Also, just messing around with the changeup and trying to find a comfortable grip and get some velocity off of that pitch.
You had some games where you had some double-digit strikeout totals and then some where you didn’t, but you’re getting outs. Are you more comfortable as a strikeout pitcher or getting your groundballs and letting your defense work?
Cody: I don’t really have what I would prefer. I would say I just get outs anyway I can. The name of the game is to get outs any way possible. If one day it’s strikeouts and the next day it’s groundballs, I’ll take it. It doesn’t matter to me. If my pitches are working and I’m striking people out, I’m happy with that. If my fastball is working that day and I’m getting groundballs, then I’m happy with that, too.
Do you have a sense early if something is working that this is going to be a good day, versus, maybe it’s going to be a little tougher today?
Cody: Yeah, there’s been a few games already where I don’t really have command of my fastball early and then I have to work off my slider and get a few swings, and my changeup. There’s other times where I won’t have my offspeed pitches and I’ll have to just pound the fastball in and out. Those are days you have to battle just to try and get groundball outs and try to keep yourself in the game to save the bullpen.
What was the first reality check in pro ball when you realized that this is a whole different level?
Cody: I think it was my second outing. I came out of the bullpen and I just got roughed around a little bit. I think we were playing Everett and they had their first-rounder on the team – I think his name was Kyle Lewis. He hit a ball pretty hard off of me into the gap. I kind of feel like that was the moment where I was like, “Okay, it’s for real now. I’m ready to go. Let’s go.”
Was there a moment – and maybe it was that one – where a guy hit what you thought was a good pitch?:
Cody: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. You think you make a pitch and all of a sudden it’s in the gap or over the fence. So, that’s just something where you tip your cap and say, “they hit my pitch where I wanted it to be located.” You’ve just got to live with.
Talk to me about mental adjustments. Everyone I talk to says that when they get to the pro level there it’s much more of a mental game than a physical game. Have you found that to be true to this point?
Cody: In college, my coach preached that about the mental aspects of baseball. He always talked about being positive with yourself when on the mound and telling yourself where you’re going to make the pitch, where the pitch is going and stuff like that and keeping it simple. Right now, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of just keeping it simple and just focusing on executing pitches when I’m on the mound. That’s all I’m going to focus on right now is where the next pitch is going to be.
Is this more of a mental game than you thought it would be at this level?
Cody: Oh yeah, definitely.
Cody: (laughing) I mean, I feel like the whole thing is mental until you just execute a pitch. Off the field, you’ve got to talk to yourself a certain way and do the same stuff every day and just having a routine and going about your business. I feel like the mental side is what keeps you going, too, and what drives you in baseball.
How much did SEC play prepare you for the pro level?
Cody: I’d like to say quite a bit. You see all of the talent that comes out of the SEC and just all the pro players that are already in the big leagues and guys that I’ve faced already that are from the SEC. I’d like to say that it helped me to get where I’m at now. I’ve just got to keep working and hopefully move on and keep moving up.
Have you faced a guy in the pros that you faced in college where you’ve nodded and said, This is pretty cool; we’re both here.”?
Cody: I faced Dansby Swanson (Vanderbilt) in college. I faced Alex Bregman (LSU) in college. My teammate A.J. Reed, he went to the bigs, but he’s in AAA right now. Just guys like that, you kind of look back and you’re like, “Wow, two years ago I was pitching against him in college. Now he’s in the big leagues getting paid.” It’s kind of a reality check when you think about that for a second. Like, they’re already there and you’re still working to get there yourself. It kind of makes you work harder.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of as far as your progression this year?
Cody: I’d say, one thing I’ve been lacking in the past is consistency. As the season’s gone on, I’ve gotten more consistent with each start. I used to be up-and-down a little bit, a good start here and then a bad start and then a good start. Now I’m getting into a trend where I’m getting five or six innings almost every start. So, I’d say that’s the thing I’m most happy with now.
What’s the thing you’re working on next?
Cody: Limiting the walks. I’ve heard that if you want to move up, you’ve got to be able to throw the ball over the plate and not walk as many people. I think I lead the team in walks right now, so I want to cut some of those out.
You get a call to the major leagues, what is that like for you, do you think?
Cody: I feel like that will be a dream come true. Hopefully it’s not that long away, but it could be two or three years away. If that time comes, I’ll just be ecstatic to share that with my family and friends and just be very fortunate to be able to do that.
Is there a mentor that’s helped you along?
Cody: My parents have honestly gotten me so far and helped me be the person like I am today. They’ve helped me with anything and everything off the field. I can go to them about anything, so it’s something I’m very fortunate to have.
Who’s the big leaguer you’re looking forward to facing? Whether he gets a bomb off you or not, who do you want to face?
Cody: I want to face Bryce Harper, just because there’s a lot of hype there. I feel like he carries himself into the batter’s box like he’s going to hit a home run every time. I just want to look at him and be like, “I’m here, too.” I feel like that would be fun at bat.
It takes a special person to wait as long as Ricardo (Ricky) Valencia did for an opportunity to play and sometimes baseball has a way of rewarding that patience.
Valencia’s selection to the South Atlantic League all-star game played at Columbia, S.C. a couple of weeks ago was all that is right with the minor-league baseball world. At 24, the Valencia, Venezuela native, who signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012, has done everything he’s been asked to do. Unfortunately, through the first half of 2016 very little of that had been during games. He played for four of the Rangers affiliates in 2015, but that totaled 15 games. And that was up from seven games in 2014. Over his first four pro seasons, Valencia played in just 78 pro games.
Injuries to several Crawdads got Valencia out of bullpen catching duties and into the lineup on June 11 at Kannapolis. He walked and doubled in that game, then two days later Valencia singled in a run and walked. The next day he added a single and double. Valencia put together a four-hit game on June 28. His season ended with a six-game hitting streak. His run through the second half of 2016 earned him a chance to play on a regular basis this year.
Playing time aside, Valencia is one of those guys that you want to see succeed. He is a kind soul and here is an example of that. In the interview below, Valencia named a list of those who had helped him improved. After the interview, I walked away to my next task. Ricky caught up to me and wanted to make sure I included Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook in his list of mentions.
Valencia is about the team – catching the bullpens, or working with a pitcher through a tough outing, or providing a steady presence in the lineup – he will give his best to help the team succeed. It’s guys like that I love seeing get his own recognition. Our interview happened two days after his all-star selection.
First of all, what was your reaction when you found out you made the all-star team?
Valencia: First of all, I didn’t know about it until my host family texted me and told me, “Congrats”. I didn’t know and then when I found out, I didn’t believe it. This is my sixth year and the first time I’m playing every day and I’m just doing my best. I knew I had some chance to make it, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was so happy that right away I texted my mom and she was so proud and my dad, too, and all my family were really happy for me.
This has to mean a lot more to you because of all the time you put it. You haven’t got to play a lot until this year. Describe what this means to you.
Valencia: it means a lot to me because, first of all, this opportunity I have right now, I’ve been waiting for it since I signed back in 2012. It means a lot to me, because it means that I can actually play. Before, I was only catching bullpens and not even playing was frustrating. But, I knew that I can do it and that’s what I’m showing right now, that I can actually play and do my best every time I go out there on the field. That is a goal that I wanted to achieve this year.
Before the season started and I found out that I was going to be the catcher every day, what I had in my mind was, “okay, I’m going to do my best.” I wasn’t even thinking on making the all-star game, I was just thinking about doing my best for the team. Being the old guy on the team, they expect you to be the leader and talking to the guys, helping them. That was really my focus, to help the team do better every night. That was pretty much what I was thinking from the beginning. But then, when I started good, I was trusting myself that I can do it. This step makes me feel more comfortable and more trusting in myself that I can do good. So, it means a lot to me to make the all-star team.
What was it like to sit so much the last few years and watch other people play and not really get an opportunity to play?
Valencia: It was frustrating, because I know who I am and I know I can do good. It wasn’t sad, because I knew in my mind that at some point I’m going to get an opportunity. I was working really hard, even though I knew I wasn’t playing. I was still working every day and getting my work in and keep faith.
Who was the people that helped you to keep focused, even when you weren’t playing?
Valencia: My mom and my dad, even though we are apart for seven months. Every day they would tell me, “You are good, keep trusting yourself.” Every day they would talk me because I would go back home and be sad. They would tell me, “Ricardo, you’re good; you’re fine. You’re going to get your opportunity. Just keep working hard and you’ll see. You will get the chance, too.”
As far as working on your catching skills, who have you worked with to improve that to get this opportunity.
Valencia: All the catching coaches and coordinators. They focused a lot on me with anything that could help me. Last year, here, I spent a lot of time with Matt Hagen, our assistant coach. He was also our catching coach. I learned a lot from him last year. He talked to me a lot about calling games and all of that.
All the coaches I had before and our old catching coordinator Hector Ortiz, he taught us a lot, and then catching Chris Briones. He was the one that told me to keep working because he knew that I was going to get this opportunity. All of them together, all that information that I got from everybody, it kept me going to get better every day. And then, even though he’s not a catching coach, Sharnol Adriana, anything he could do to help me, he would do it. Also, the pitching coaches, like Jose Jaimes. He helps me a lot with calling games from the pitching side.
Did it ever go through your mind that you wouldn’t get the chance to play every day?
Valencia: Yeah, it went through my mind, because I had never got the chance to play. This year, the fact that I finished up last year playing good baseball, and then I went to play winter ball in Venezuela, and I played really good – and I played with some big leaguers – it helped me to say, “I can do this.”
So, I real prepared myself really good because, in my mind, I told myself, “This is going to be a good year.” I don’t know how, but I knew this was going to be the year. So, I prepared myself really good and working hard every single day during the offseason. I went to spring training focused on doing what I do, not saying, “maybe I’m going to play every day.” No, that wasn’t my thinking. My goal was, I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and do my job and see what happens.
What was the area of your game that you had to work the hardest on to be able to play every day?
Valencia: My body. Last year, I went to spring training at 226 pounds and they at the end of the season told me I can play, but I needed to focus on my body. They said if you can drop some pounds, you may have the chance to play more, because your body can handle that. So, I focused on that and came back at 206 pounds. I dropped 20 pounds just working and putting in some strength in my body. I think that impressed the team more to give me the opportunity, because they saw that I was able to do it.
Everybody’s goal is to get to the major leagues. What do you see as your path to get there?
Valencia: Baseball is not about skills or about how many tools you have, it’s about your mentality of what you can do in the field. Mostly, for me as a catcher, it’s how you handle a game, how you call a game, how you can help the pitchers. Most of the catchers get to the big leagues as good catchers and then they’ll focus on their hitting. You have to be a plus catcher to get to the big leagues, so that is my focus every single day is to be the best catcher.
How’s your throwing?
Valencia: It’s been good. It’s getting better. I’ve been working with Sharnol and Chris Briones. At the beginning of the season I was working on some different things, but then it’s getting altogether and lately it’s been good.
When you go home in September and you go to winter, what’s a good year look like for you?
Valencia: First of all, finish up strong here and then go back to Venezuela and rest up a little bit and then have a good winter ball season. They gave me a chance last year to play and this year hopefully I get more of a chance to play there. Winter ball is a pretty tough league because you play with big league guys, but at the same time that’s good experience.
Do you see yourself coaching or managing some day?
Valencia: A hundred percent, I see myself coaching. I like baseball a lot. I don’t see myself out of those lines. I’ve doing this my entire life since I was three-years old. At some point at my life, I’ll be coaching and I really like managing. I see myself managing at some point.
Have you started to look ahead at those plans and talking to those guys and learning what they do?
Valencia: Not that much. What I do is, I see what they do. I don’t talk that much. I don’t go to them and ask them how they do it, but I see what they do. I’m not going to go to them and say, “Tell me how to coach.” I’m not at that point of my life right now. I want to play as long as I can, but at some point, obviously, in everybody’s career there is an end and that’s when I’ll start asking. But right now, all I see, from any coach and any team I go to, I will take something from them.
What catchers have you learned the most from?
Valencia: Robinson Chirinos. Since I got to the states in 2015 for my first spring training, he’s been there. I just listen to him and watch him and all that. This year, we had a meeting with him and Jonathan Lucroy and I starting learning more from them. Last year during winter ball, I learned a lot from Jesus Sucre – he’s the catcher from Tampa Bay – I learned a lot from him last year because he was the catcher for the winter ball team and I was his backup catcher. He taught me a lot how to call games and helped me a lot with pitch sequences. I learned a lot from him.
Looking ahead as a possible manager, who do you see yourself being like? Who has impressed you as a manger that you might be like?
Valencia: The one that impressed me the most in the big leagues is Jeff Banister. The way he treats the guys, the way he fights for the guys out on the field. I had the opportunity, he had a meeting in the Dominican a couple of years ago when he had his first year with the Rangers. He went to the Dominican and talked to us the same way he talked to the big league guys. That means a lot because he cares for everybody in the organization. It’s just the way he’s in the game. He’s managing, but at the same time it’s like he’s playing. He’s there for everybody and caring for everybody. He’s strong mentally and that impressed me a lot.
My first encounter with Yanio Perez was in Columbia, S.C. I went there in early April to interview Fireflies manager Jose Leger about ex-football player Tim Tebow, who plays at Columbia. I arrived early and had a chance to catch some of the Crawdads batting practice and I passed this well-built, I mean solidly-build, hunk of a human being. I remember saying, “Now that’s a football player”
Since the Crawdads hadn’t had a home game to that point, the players and names were still unfamiliar to me, so I made a mental note of the number: 28. When I got to the press box, I looked it up. The name: Yanio Perez.
He’s listed at 6-2, 205, but I’m guessing he’s a little heavier than that. Had circumstances been different for his life, I could imagine him as a linebacker. He has a thick neck, battleship arms and the thighs of a weightlifter.
Looking back in my mind’s eye, the Crawdads player I could best compare him to, as far as the build, is former outfielder Jordan Akins. He doesn’t have Akins speed, but as a baseball player to this point, he is further along.
Perez had a quick start to the season, then slow dropped to a .245/.365/.377 slash by April 20. At that time, the whole club had struggled, some of it due to very little field time because of an unusually rainy period. But for Perez adjustments had to make. He had become jumpy in hitters counts, swinging through fastballs that seemed off the plate.
“For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter,” said Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook at the time. “He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.”
Finally, Perez figured out how pitchers were trying to get him out and he had a homestand to remember at the end of April. Over the final eight games of the month, he went 16-for-28 with five homers, a double, four walks, eight runs scored and 15 RBI. He ended the month at .358/.453/.642. Perez was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week and the Texas Rangers tabbed him as their minor league player of the month.
“What you saw in the Columbia series,” said Hook, “And kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.”
Perez continued to put up good numbers and was in the top-five in the SAL in all three slash categories. (.322/.392/.533). He earned a SAL all-star selection, but a well-earned promotion to high-A Down East has changed those plans.
As well as he’s played, there is a certain sadness that Perez acknowledges: he misses his family. While Perez was able to leave Cuba to come and play baseball in the states, his family is still on the island. He talks to his parents daily, but the 21-year-old hasn’t seen them in two years. He wants to succeed in order to help his family, but behind his infectious smile, the pain from separation is real.
I had a chance to speak with him late last week with the translation help of pitching coach Jose Jaimes. It’s not my best interview and I’ll admit my questions were not the most hard-hitting. We were all rushed for time and it’s hard to get too deep when over half of the 13-minute interview was spent in translation. But for the reader, I hope you get a sense about this kid.
How do you feel about making the all-star team?
Perez: I feel very happy, more because this is my first year in professional baseball and playing in this league. I feel very proud of what I accomplished.
Are you accomplishing this year what you had hoped to?
Perez: I didn’t have as my goal to make the all-star team. My goals were, number one, try to help the team as much as I can. I would like to hit .300 for the year, which I am doing and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.
You signed with the Rangers last October. Has it been a whirlwind getting to the states and then to play ball?
It has been a hurricane to adjust to everything I’ve gone through over the last year – leaving my family, coming here, going to Arizona. So, I’m still going through the process of transition.
What’s been the biggest adjustment personally coming to the states?
Perez: The biggest challenge for me is the language and being away from my family. I have my wife with me right now, but everybody else is away. That has been the biggest challenge, the language and the family.
What made you decide to leave Cuba to come to the states?
Perez: I played baseball for a while in Cuba, but I felt like coming over to the states I was going to be able to compete in a better environment and I am also able to help my family from here. That was the main reason I left Cuba.
Who did you grow watching Cuba?
Perez: I didn’t grow up watching a specific guy. The way that I learned how to play the game was more about thinking I’ve got to get better every single day. It’s easier in Cuba to watch Major League games, so I watched A-Rod and guys like that and names that everybody in Cuba knows. But for the most part, I was just trying to do better every single day with training and listening to coaches.
Who is your favorite player?
Perez: Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout
What do you like about them?
Perez: About Puig, I like the way that he hits. He’s pretty aggressive with the bat. About Trout, I like the way that he plays the game. He’s very professional and I like the way that he looks on the field.
Have you had a chance to meet any of the players that you watched in Cuba?
Perez: I met with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez in spring training, I knew them from Cuba. Those where guys that were famous on the island.
What was it like to meet Beltre?
Perez: It was very exciting meet a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.
You talk about missing your family. Do you get to talk with them very much?
Perez: Yes. I talk to them every day. It helps having a cell phone and the apps to make it easier to communicate. But still, I miss them a lot because it’s been two years since I left the country.
Is there a time you think your parents will get to see you play?
Perez: I don’t know. We’re working on that.
Is it easier now for Cubans to come here and play baseball than in the past?
Perez: It’s easier right now than in the past.
What’s the biggest difference playing baseball here than in Cuba?
Perez: The biggest difference is that the games here are faster. The pitchers here throw harder than most of the Cuban pitchers.
What do you mean about the game being faster?
Perez: The runners are way faster, but you have to more to think about and more plays you have to be aware of.
You hear about baseball in the Latin countries being a party atmosphere. Is it too quiet here?
Perez: I don’t need that. I actually like the people here in this country that actually come to watch the game and enjoy it. With that said, I do miss playing in front of my people, but the craziness and all that, I don’t miss that at all.
What is the biggest thing you are working on for the rest of the year?
Perez: I’d like to be faster and keep working on my hitting. That’s something I’m working on, to be consistent every day.
Is first base new to you?
Perez: I had first base two times before coming here.
First base, third base, outfield before coming here?
Perez: I’ve played almost every position since I was a little kid. I think it’s more valuable to be able to play a lot of positions.
When you get a call to go the major leagues, what do you think your reaction will be?
Perez: I’m going to be really happy, but in my mind I know I will have to work hard to stay there as long as I can. That’s my goal.
Nearly every athlete will repeat the mantra, “control what you can control”. While at Duke, Michael Matuella’s right arm seemed to be in control of a future destiny.
As a sophomore for the Blue Devils in 2014, Matuella allowed just 55 baserunners and struck out 69 over 58.1 innings. Towering at 6-7 on the mound the downward angle of his 97-mph fastball along with a developing change, and an advanced feel for the curve and slider, Matuella was on the track as a possible first-overall pick in the 2015 first-year player draft. This, despite dealing with spondylolysis in the lower back.
Then, a little more than two months ahead of the June draft. the dreaded MRI confirmed a different destiny: “Tommy John” surgery.
Almost two years after his selection by the Texas Rangers in the third round – and in the process getting first-round bonus money, a reported $2 million – Matuella finally has his pro career underway. The innings are limited, the results aren’t always pretty, but Matuella is healthy and ready see his long months of rehab pay off.
I had a chance to interview Matuella a little over two weeks ago in preparation for a feature writeup. Here is that interview:
How did you get started in baseball?
Matuella: I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I have an older brother; he’s four years older than me. I just remember just going out in the yard and playing with him and my dad. That just grew as I started playing travel ball, at whatever age that was, through middle school.
Obviously, I played in high school and my coach, he really pushed me to be the best that I can be there. He saw the potential in me to go Division I. I had the offer to Duke and I absolutely loved it. I had another offer to Maryland, but from the first visit I had there, I loved the place and the people. Duke is really where I took off, where I had the little velocity jump and where I started to figure some things out. My command really improved and it shifted my mentality to a more aggressive one. That’s how I got here today.
Who was your high school coach?
Matuella: Chris Rodriguez
What were some things that he said or did that helped you along to where you are now?
Matuella: I remember, this was the fall of my sophomore year. I was on JV my freshman year and by the fall of my sophomore year I started doing some workouts and he told me I was just as good as his seniors on the team and I could go Division 1 wherever I wanted if I put in all of the work. I think I hadn’t really thought of it like that until that point, but then I realized like, “Wait, this could be a possibility.” That’s when I really started dedicated myself to becoming the best I could be.
Did you have any inkling that professional sports could be a career for you until that point?
Matuella: I would say that point came even later. I admit, I was just thinking step by step at that point. Then, once I got to Duke, probably my freshman year, that I really decided, “Alright, I want to pursue this and I want to see what I can do.” I didn’t know if it was possible yet. My sophomore year, that’s when I realized that this is going to be a thing for me if I keep putting in the work. It definitely started in high school where I was going from working hard and playing and enjoying the game, obviously competing and wanting to win, to where I said, “I can actually maybe take this a step further” and that’s what carried over again at Duke.
You went to Duke, which is not known as a powerhouse, but the program has turned out some players, Marcus Stroman being at the top of that list. What sort of things have happened to help turn that program around to where they are starting to produce some talent?
Matuella: I would say the coaching staff was a big one. Chris Pollard, he didn’t actually recruit me. There was an entirely new coaching staff when I get there my freshman year. I think he’s done a really good job, not only developing players physically, but also really hammering home the mental side of things. I think that’s been really huge for everyone. I really benefitted from that kind of stuff. A lot of people spend time on the physical side, but not as much on the mental side. I think that that’s a huge reason.
Once you see a couple of guys like Stroman that get drafted, and then there was my class. The class above me had three or four guys drafted, then my class had three guys. Basically, it’s been three to four guys every year the past four or five years or so. It’s good to see some more guys go into pro ball.
That’s (ACC) a tough league, especially that they’ve added Louisville and Notre Dame during your time.
Matuella: It’s a lot of fun playing in it though. You know every weekend there’s going to be a really good opponent and you have to really be ready and locked in. I always looked forward to those ACC weekends.
Does that sort of competition helps, not only the program, but the individuals to have that competition against other potential top prospects? How did that help you looking ahead to getting drafted and prepare you for the pros?
Matuella: I think a lot of the talent you see in the ACC – and you see that in other leagues as well, like the SEC and these other top programs that are turning out pro guys – you’re seeing professional level talent. I think it really prepares you, especially knowing you can do well in that setting, that prepares you for pro ball mentally, to where I was like, “I know I can get guys out like this.” Obviously, it’s a step up to pro ball, but for me, it gives me confidence to know, “Alright, I’ve been there before” and “I’ve done well against guys like that.” It gives me confidence to know that if I can pitch my game, I’ll be fine.
So, when you start hearing potential 1/1, what does that say in your mind during that stretch when you’re looking ahead to 2015 and you think, “My gosh, I could be first overall.”
Matuella: I really tried not to think about that at all. I tried to just focus on the work I had to do in and the preparation I had to put in for the 2015 season. Sure, you hear the rumors, but you try not to get distracted by it. You just try to focus in on and lock in on the daily routine and what you have to do to get better.
So, tell me about the back injury. I tried to pronounce it before I came here and still can’t get it right.
Matuella: It’s called spondylolysis. It sounds a lot worse than it is. It’s basically a lot of people have it. It’s something that I manage. I’ve been asymptomatic for two years. I don’t feel it. It’s something that once you do the rehab and once you develop a stronger core and basically develop strength all around that, you just don’t feel it.
Is it upper or lower back?
Matuella: Lower back. You can have it on any of the vertebrae, but I guess it’s more common to be lower.
Was it something that was spurred by all the pitching motions and the twists and turns?
Matuella: You just never know what contributed to it. There’s probably a number of things. Pitching, probably, contributes to it, but also weightlifting. Really a lot of stuff, the running, jumping. There’s a lot of guys, I think they estimated that probably 20 percent of athletes have that injury, but they don’t know they have it because it’s not causing any issues. So, for me, I’m at that point – and I’ve been at the point for a while now – where it’s not a big deal for me. It’s not that I’m frustrated with people – and I’m not frustrated by the question – but some people are really scared by it. I feel like a normal person and I don’t think it’s a big deal at all.
Then you get the “Tommy John” stuff. How long after the back injury did that start?
Matuella: I was cleared to throw in January 2015, which was basically when our spring practices started. It was March 27 in my last game when I injured it. It was only about two-and-a-half months.
Was it something that suddenly came up? Did you have issues before?
Matuella: It was pretty sudden. After my first start, I took the next weekend off, just because I was feeling some tightness in my forearm. We got the MRI and it showed that it was fine. So, I basically went on with a clear head. We felt that the innings might be too much, after I had gone out there for six innings.
They threw me back out there for one inning and then three innings and then four innings. I basically felt it on one pitch. I didn’t feel any popping sensation or pulling sensation. It just felt like a lot of pain in there, so I didn’t think it was UCL until we got the MRI and saw that it was. That was frustrating.
What was your mindset at that point, which, of course, you couldn’t be happy?
Matuella: I was honestly shocked. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me the news and he showed me the MRI. I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t cross my mind that was going to be what it was. Obviously, after that it was pretty tough for the next couple of days to process it and then reset my focus and acknowledge that “Tommy John” was going to happen. So, I started to focus on what I had to do each day to get better and come back from that.
Did you have any worries that you wouldn’t recover from it?
Matuella: No, I never did. I came out fully confident. It’s interesting at how common it is now. People just do it and it’s not a big deal. A lot of people have done it and a lot of people recover from it.
Did you have any worries as to how that was going to be perceived in the draft and where you might go and would you have to come back to Duke another year?
Matuella: I definitely knew that there were going to be some teams turned off by that. I think for me it wasn’t worry as much as I was annoyed because I know how I worked and I know how good I can be and I know that this isn’t going to be a big deal for me in the long run.
For me, it wasn’t worry like, “Am I going to do this?” or “Am I going to be able to come back and pitch again?” It was more like, teams shouldn’t be thrown by that. I was hoping they would judge me based on what I would do going forward versus the injury.
You dropped to the third round. Obviously, the Rangers saw something in you and were able to sign you above what they would normally pay a third-rounder. Tell me about those conversations with the Rangers.
Matuella: The Rangers, they were probably one of the teams that contacted me the most and they were the most interested from the beginning. So, I was happy that they did a lot of research on me and I really appreciated how much research they did on my back issue and, obviously, everyone knows about “Tommy John”.
I had talked with them prior to actually getting picked by them. They had put together a plan for me moving forward about they wanted to me to do and where they wanted me to go and a timeline for certain things. I was super impressed and super happy that they were so invested and put so much time and thought into what my program would be. It was awesome and I’m really happy to be with the Rangers.
Who helped you through the process? “Tommy John” is common and all that, but there are still some guys who go through this and never really get it back. Who helped you mentally through that process? I met you ten minutes ago and you’ve got such a positive attitude.
Matuella: Definitely my parents are a big one. They’re always there to talk and always there to keep me positive whenever I’m feeling down, or I’m feeling upset by things.They were always at Duke, too, which was awesome. They came for every weekend series. So, I got to see a lot of them and they’re always available to talk whenever I want.
My coaches at Duke at the time were really helpful. They were very positive with me. I had a couple of teammates that had undergone “Tommy John”. One was about a year earlier and one was about six months earlier. I had talked to them about what the process was like, so that was really helpful. There’s really so many people. I talked with my coaches. They were super upset for me because you never want to see an athlete go down with that type of injury. They weren’t upset about me not being able to pitch for the team. They were upset for me as a person not being able to pitch, which I thought was really nice.
The coaches I had for three years there and even afterward, I still stayed in contact with them when I went back there to take classes this fall taking classes. They’ve were super thoughtful and just caring, really overall caring. They asked how I’m doing and wanting me to do well for me, not just for the program. Obviously, I want to do well for the program. I love representing Duke and I loved representing Duke while I was there. A ton of people, as you can gather.
You pitched last year at Spokane and you get the one start in and here you are again. Take me through that process. That had to be more mental than physical.
Matuella: That was a lot tough mentally than the first time around, because the first time around I was like, “Alright, I’m going to get the surgery, not a big deal.” There’s no expectations of re-injury. Then it was like, “Whoa, what just happened?” and “How did that happen again?” So, there was a lot of frustration and a lot of questions of why it happened and how did that happen again. But it doesn’t do a lot of good to ask “what if?” or going back and thinking in the past. It was really tough because I had come off an injury that I’d spent 14 months to that point rehabbing.
To go down and know that you’re done for the season again and you won’t be able to pitch again until opening day – not that I was here opening day – but it wound up being ten months. That was tough and that was definitely a lot tougher to walk in and focus on what I was doing each day. I think, looking back, I’m even stronger for it, mentally and physically, to be able to push through as tough a time like that. Not that I had to go back to square one, because I didn’t have to have surgery again, but to really get knocked on my butt again. It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad I avoided surgery.
Did you pitch at instructionals?
They basically shut you down until spring?
Matuella: Yeah, I didn’t begin my throwing until the beginning of October, so they gave me plenty of time to heal up.
How do you feel now?
Matuella: I feel good. Overall, I feel good.
Results aside, how much more do you appreciate being on the mound than you did in 2015?
Matuella: Coming back from the first injury and the surgery, I definitely appreciated every time I stepped on the mound, whether that was a bullpen or that was pitching in an extended game or at Spokane. But this time around, even more so knowing it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a chance to go out there and compete the way I’m supposed to compete. It makes you appreciate it. You just never know with certain things and so many guys that go down with injuries and it stinks. But you just deal with it and you appreciate what you have each day.
Do you worry so much with results at this point as opposed to going out there and getting your work in?
Matuella: Obviously, you want to get results, too. This season is a lot about me being to get through it healthy, but I’m not going to happy unless I’m pitching well and doing what I need to do on the mound to pitch well.
If you get through the season with the health as opposed to the results, which are you happier with?
Matuella: Obviously, I need to be healthy and I need to be able to move forward and pitch and have a full season under my belt. But, like I said, it’s not like I’m going to be happy if I’m pitching, but doing crappy every outing. There needs to be both in order for me to be happy.
First outing, you got some pitches up, but got through it and then you had a couple of rough outings. What’s been the fine line for you right now to have success?
Matuella: Making sure that I’m commanding the fastball. I think you’re going to hear that out of anyone on the team that you talk to. That’s a big emphasis the Rangers have. For me, I need to make sure that I am committing to pitch down in the zone as opposed to committing to pitch in the zone. You’re going to get hurt if you stay up too much. You’ve got to mix up the eye level at some time, but I think I do a better job if I stick to a pitch down in the zone. I just need to keep working on that. I had a really good bullpen this past week, so I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow.
How was it pitching against Tim Tebow in your first outing?
Matuella: I really don’t pay attention to hitters that I’m facing. I’m just kind of looking at it like, there’s a left-handed hitter up there. After the first swing, you could read that he wasn’t going to time a fastball, so we just kept pounding fastballs. It was nice to see a big crowd there, I’ll say that. It’s really impressive that he brings the crowd everywhere he goes.
Obviously, he was a big story, but that was a big story involving you, too, a convergence of two stories.
Matuella: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The adrenaline was high. It was a lot of fun being able to look around and soak it all in and like, I’m back in the game. I’m here with an affiliate and a sold-out game. It was just a lot of fun.
Are you getting an idea of how long they will let you throw, maybe 50-60 pitches?
Matuella: I’m not entirely sure. I’m sure it will be a little bit longer. I think the more important thing this year is that I take the ball every six games. You don’t want to get too crazy with the innings, given the back-to-back injures, which is why I’m not too sure when it’s going to expand. I doubt I’ll ever go 100 pitches; I’m not entirely sure of that this season. Obviously, I want to pitch as much as I can, but I understand the plan the Rangers have in place for me.
Are you throwing much of the breaking ball right now?
Matuella: A little bit. I’ll start incorporating it some more, but the Rangers big emphasis is on establishing fastballs and fastball command. So, I’m really trying to stick to that.
When you get a call to major leagues, who is the first person you call?
Matuella: My parents. That will be a great conversation to have and I look forward to that one. Definitely, my parents.
Who is the next non-family member?
Matuella: Does my girlfriend count? She’s been there for me and she’s been super helpful mentally to be able to block stuff out. She’s the one that helps keep me really positive in times when I’m struggling. There’s been, obviously, a lot of those over the past couple of years.
What’s the biggest thing mentally you’ve learned through all this?
Matuella: The biggest thing is to stay consistent. Stay pitch-to-pitch and not focus on the outing-to-outing, but each pitch. You have to be consistent with your approach on every single pitch with a routine, and with how you step on the mound. Basically, doing the same thing every time, no matter what happened the pitch before, whether you struck the dude out on a great pitch, or he just hit a bomb. You step in knowing that this pitch is the only pitch that matters.
Is there an inspirational poster moment or quote that has stuck in your mind?
There’s an article that came out in 2010 in Sports Illustrated that’s called, “What Makes Roy Run?” It’s about Roy Halladay and basically his story about how he was a first-round pick and he made it all the way to the big leagues in his second year. He fell flat on his face and he really struggled and got demoted all the way down to single-A.
He basically emerged as a different pitcher and a different style of pitcher and he emerged as the best pitcher of that generation for a number of years. There’s a lot of details in there about his work ethic and the consistency he had and the mental approach that he had. I actually just read it again the other day. I’ve read it, I don’t know how many times now, but every time it’s super interesting to me. He was my favorite pitcher growing up. I definitely think that article is a cool one.
Following the interview with Matuella, I had a chance to get Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes’s perspective on the progress of Matuella.
How do you see Matuella progressing on the mound in just throwing pitches?
Jaimes: I think so far, we don’t have any concerns results wise. It’s more about him healthy. It’s been almost 16 months basically, since he got hurt last year. He’s going through a little tough time mentally wise. Naturally, he has some concerns about his elbow and his arm, but for the most part he’s getting better. His last bullpen was pretty good, so it’s a process for him just to trust he’s fully healthy. Hopefully, the next start will be better, but we don’t have any concerns about what he can do on the field. It’s more about him staying positive and knowing that all the work he put in the last year and a half is good for him.
Is there any concern about him not wanting to cut it loose and let go?
Jaimes: Yeah, most of the time when guys coming off an injury, it takes them a month just to get through that. They’re afraid to feel something in there. The last bullpen, he actually said, “you know what, I’m going to let it go and whatever happens, happens.” It was a good start for him.
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.
Hickory Crawdad pitcher Dillon Tate is experiencing what nearly every minor leaguer goes through: a slump. The number four pick overall by the Texas Rangers in the June 2015 draft has looked mortal after a quick start this season.
A hamstring injury seems to have separated the two worlds that has been Tate this season. After allowing one unearned run over his first two starts and striking out sixteen to just one walk over 10.2 innings, Tate retuned three weeks later a different pitcher with different results. Over his last 13 outings (12 starts), Tate has given up 32 earned runs over 44 innings with 34 Ks to 21 walks. The South Atlantic League hit .390 against him in May and is at a .326 clip in July.
Scouts I’ve talked to say Tate’s mechanics are a mess. The velocity that was 96-98 mph is down as low as 91-92 when he is struggling. The high, Juan Marichal-like leg kick is gone from his delivery and it’s been a process of finding a consistent, repeatable motion. There are moments we see the brilliant stuff and then the next inning it falls flat.
To his credit, Tate is not flustered. He understands there is a process to go through to get things right again and is confident it will happen.
I had a chance to talk with Tate after his last start against Lakewood on Thursday. Here is that conversation.
I want to talk to you about the last couple of months. You started well and then had the hamstring injury and it’s been a work in progress to get back to where you were before that. Take me through your last couple of months and the process of getting back to where you were earlier this year and when you came here last year.
Tate: Recently, I’ve just been scuffling and just battling out there and working on things in between starts. I’m trying to get some angle on my fastball to try to help me out. The organization has been helping me out to do that and giving me some things. I’ve been doing it well other times, sometimes not so much. It’s one of those things that you just need to get reps at it until it becomes an actual habit for you. I’m just going to keep going out there and battling and keep working on what I need to work on.
We’ll notice, for example you started well last night. You were and 94-95 in the first and hitting spots. Then we could watch the velocity come down. Is there a fine line with what you’re working on that your successful verses not being as successful?
Tate: I think, as of late, it’s been me trying to do multiple things out on the mound, instead of focusing on one thing that I need to do. So, I think that’s probably been the root of it, for some of it, I should say – not all of it. Simplicity is probably best for me at this point in time. So, just really focusing on working on one thing out there, rather than trying to do three or four different things right now.
So give me a couple of the things you are working on. Maybe at the top of the list the main thing and then maybe a 1A, 1B, 1C sort of thing.
Tate: There’s probably not even a 1A, 1B, 1C to it. I think the headline of it all is to keep the ball down. And then, how are you going to keep the ball down, etc. How are you going to keep it down and doing the things that I need to do to keep the ball down to make it a habit. I think that’ll come within time. This is just part of the minor league process. Everybody’s got a different journey, and this, right now, is mine. I’m going to roll with it, learn from it and keep going.
We notice the leg kick isn’t quite as high as it was when you got here. Is that something the Rangers had you work on or is that something you picked up on. Mechanically, is that part of the whole picture?
Tate: They talked about it a little bit. It was one of things where it’s so extreme that it can throw me off at times with certain pitches. At the end of the day, when you’re up there on the mound, to be successful, consistency is the key. To be consistent, you’ve got to repeat the same thing over and over again. Having that leg kick to be toned down a little bit will help me be more consistent. So, I think that’s all it is.
Saw a couple of curveballs last night? Is that new?
Tate: I threw a few curve balls. It was a pitch that I’ve had; I’ve just never really thrown it. The organization wants me to bring it back, so I’m working on it again and trying to bring it back.
One of the things you were working on – it was at the top of the checklist when you and I talked at the beginning of the season – was the changeup. How do you feel that pitch is working for you?
Tate: I’ve thrown some good ones and I’ve thrown a handful of not so good ones. It’s a feel pitch and some days it’s really good when I’m out here, and other days, like yesterday, not so much. I’m really just trying to focus in on that one thing that’ll make me throw that pitch over the zone and be more consistent with it. When I find it, I’ll hit my stride.
When you get into a rough patch, does it get to the point where you try to do too much to where you try to overthrow and pitches flatten out? You mentioned that you’re trying to do three and four things at once. Is that a part of that process?
Tate: I think so. There’s just a lot of information coming and I need to do a better of sifting through the information and just getting just one piece of information at a time. Work on this and then get that down. Then I’ll a work on this, instead of trying to take it all at one time and master it all. It’s just too tough to do.
When you’re on mechanically, what has to happen for you?
Tate: I think for starters, you’re not thinking about anything, for one. I think that’s for anybody when things are going well. Then to get down to the logistics of it, I think, me not leaning back. When you see the really high leg kick and how it was last year and how it is now, I’m not leaning back as much. So that’s going to help me stay over the rubber a little bit better and I’ll be able to better control my body better. That’s just one thing. There’s others things that go in there, too: hand and when they separate, head movement, things like that.
Has then been much more of a mental process than you thought it would be at this point, even last year?
Tate: Certainly, because last year, I’d just go out there and pitch and throw and I’m not thinking about anything. But now, there’s some things that need to be addressed and I’ve got to go out there and work on them. I’m definitely thinking about those things. So, that makes it a little tough. But, I think if anything that I’ve learned anything from this year is how to turn the page when things aren’t going well. That’s what you’ve got to do at the big league level and that’s something I’m learning how to do now. So, there is are positive things that are coming out of this.
Last Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Erik Swanson took the mound at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, which was held at Lexington, KY. It was exactly one year to the day that Swanson made his debut with the Hickory Crawdads.
The plan was to begin his stint out of the bullpen and then work into the rotation. However, after seven relief outings, a forearm flexor strain ended his season, save for a brief rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League near the end of its season.
A lot has changed for Swanson in the course of the season, especially a renewed attention to his training. That training has paid off in velocity – his fastball sits in the 94-96 mph range and has been clocked up to 98 – and in the ability to take the ball every six games as part of the Crawdads rotation. After throwing 38 innings total over his first two pro seasons, Swanson is already at 57.2 innings following his last start at Greensboro.
In the interview below, Swanson talks about the benefits of his training, the adjustments to his repertoire, and coming to the pros from Iowa Western Community College.
First off all, considering where you were this time last year, you’ve got to be especially pleased with how things have gone for you.
Swanson: Yeah, I am. Last year, coming up here at the all-star break and pitching for about a month and then getting hurt and missing the rest of the year, my main focus this year was to stay healthy. Making the all-star team was another goal of mine coming in here and playing for Hickory. It was a pretty good accomplishment that I was able to do.
What do you think has been the key to your success this year versus where you were last year? Obviously getting healthy is a big part of that, but a lot of guys are hurt one year and come back the next and don’t do what you have put together in the first half.
Swanson: Obviously, like you said, health has been the biggest key for me. Being in a little different role this year – last year I was out of the pen when I was here – this year coming in as a starter, I feel that that’s a big key for me. I think it’s what I do best. I’m able to prepare myself a lot better – getting that routine. Being on a six-man (rotation) here, I’m able to get into the six-day routine, which has been really big for me this year.
One of the things that Mike Daly (Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations) mentioned when he was here, he said one of the things that he was pleased with was that you’ve owned the strength and conditioning and the training and the arm care. What was the turning point for you in that area?
Swanson: Obviously health was my biggest. Last year, missing as much time as I did, I knew that year was going to be a big year for me. This offseason, I got after it as much as I could. I felt like I prepared myself going into spring training and put myself into a situation to succeed. Then, being able to carry that from spring training to Hickory this year was been huge for me. Working with Dustin (Crawdads trainer Dustin Vissering) on some different arm care routines that I’ve been doing that have been working. I’m just trying to do that and continue that to stay healthy.
Did you take the training less serious before you got hurt?
Swanson: No, it’s not something that I took as serious as I am now, which is one of my bigger downfalls. I was a little overweight last year. The big key focus for this year was if I could come in spring training at a healthy weight – a good weight – physically strong. I feel like I did and I think that most everybody thinks that I did that as well. Now, the focus for me is being able to maintain that and show them that I can do that.
Having thrown so few innings, in the last year, so you think that has helped you to stay strong, at least in the first half, with the idea that you’re going to add some innings to that total this year?
Swanson Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I don’t know off the top of my head how many innings I threw last year, but I think I’m close to double the innings I’ve thrown my entire professional career. A big part of that is me staying healthy and me getting in the shape that I needed to be in to come in this year as a starter and bring able to maintain that throughout the rest of the year. Staying healthy is going to be huge for me. It’s going to be a challenge and that’s my main goal this year.
Was there a moment in the training that you flipped the switch, or did somebody say something to you, or was there a combination that said to you that this has to be different?
Swanson: Obviously, this is only my second full year. Me being a college guy, I’m 22 years old and in Low-A, which is fine with me. But, I just kind of sat down and thought to myself, “How long are they going to keep me around if I’m not doing what I need to be doing?” I think that’s kind of the point in the offseason was when I started to really flip that switch.
I came into spring training and I felt great and still feel great. I still have lot more room for improvement on all those aspects of everything – physical shape, mentally strong – and all that comes down to what I do on the field and off the field. So yeah, I think there definitely was a point where I decided to flip the switch on my own, along with other people telling me that it’s time.
What’s been the difference as far as your stuff goes. I remember you had a good fastball last year and a change – but we didn’t see you enough to get a grasp. What are some different things you’ve done as far as your stuff goes?
Swanson: I had a decent fastball last year and it’s definitely improved this year. The changeup has been a big one for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve been constantly working on, changing grips – and I’ll probably continue to do that until I find a grip that I feel comfortable throwing. That’s something that’s definitely improved from my first start here until my last start. I’m working on slider grips a little bit. Now, I’m working on a little bit of a curveball that hopefully the next start I’ll be throwing it in some games. I feel comfortable throwing it in my bullpens.
How does someone pitching at Iowa Western get noticed by pro scouts?
Swanson: Going from my first Juco (Wabash Valley CC , IL) to Iowa Western, that was my biggest thing. I needed to go somewhere where I’m going to get recognized, where I can go on and continue my college career and possibly have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It just seemed like they go back to the (NJCAA) World Series every year in Grand Junction (CO).
My head coach Marc Rardin was phenomenal. He taught me so much stuff and improved my game on the mound and off the field. That’s kind of his motto; he teaches us to become men before baseball players – to prepare us for life after. Going there, he helped me with that. It’s a winning program, so they’re going to get scouts around there and I just happened to go there. He gave me all the tools I needed and I put them together and had a successful season and got noticed by the right people.
When you were drafted by the Rangers, was the expectation that you would start or they would throw you from the bullpen?
Swanson: When I went to Spokane, I was a little bit on an innings limit because in my freshman year in college I threw only 17 innings, and then I threw close to 90 innings in my sophomore year. So, they wanted me out of the pen in Spokane. But in the future, the plan was to become a starter. I think that was the direction I was headed last year when I first got here, but then obviously injuries put that on hold a little bit.
I want to go back to your college coach and you saying that he treated you like men. What was a big life lesson you got out of that experience with your coach at Iowa Western?
Swanson: When I went there, it was a big program with team. You focus on the guys around you. He’s big in the classroom. If you’re not doing your stuff in the classroom, then I’m not going to say you didn’t deserve to play, but you’ve got to earn it.
The reason I said that, that he wants us to become men first and prepare us for life after baseball, because that’s something he always told us. What I do here, whether it’d be on the baseball field or off the baseball field with classrooms, study halls and stuff like that, my first goal is to help my ballplayers to become men and prepare them for life after baseball. At some point it’s going to end. You can go online and I can guarantee you that you can find that quote in a few different articles. I heard it all the time when I was there and even in articles that I read now, I still read it.
What are the goals for the rest of the year?
Swanson: I had a few goals coming in. Obviously, staying healthy is my main goal. Reaching my inning limit is another one. At some point, one of my goals is to get out of here. Obviously, that’s out of my hands. I just need to do what I’m doing here. I need to keep up what I’m doing. If they decide that I need to move somewhere, then obviously that’s decision. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get to the point to where they have no choice but to move me up. Notching a playoff spot while we’re here.
You get a call to the major leagues, what does that look like for you? What do you think your reaction will be?
Swanson: It’s kind of a dream come true. That’s something you dream about since you were a little kid, getting a call. I think the coolest thing for me, once I realize what is happening, will be making that call to all my family and letting them know that I’m going up.
I don’t know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about how I would react or anything. I think that’d be definitely the coolest part is to be able to call my mom and dad and friends, brother and sister-in-law and telling them that.
You guys put up with some much crap. What’s the biggest part of the crap that you might look back on and say, “That was worth it”?
Swanson: There’s a lot of little things that, I wouldn’t say that it’s crap, they might just get boring. You get that same routine every day and stuff seems like it’s tough. You come to the field every day at the same time. Obviously, that’s your time you get your work done, but sometimes you wake up and you might not want to come in, but you know you have to and you know that your ultimate going that you’re trying to get to, going in that day is going to help you get there.
You’ve got instructionals at the end of the year. The regular season is over with and it’s another month that you’ve got to add on, that can be a little frustrating at times. I’ve been twice, once because of injuries last year. I had to get some more innings in. It’s tough doing that, but at the same time, you know it’s worth it. The things that you do there is going to prepare you for the next year and get you better. You’re constantly learning, no matter where you are, so that’s the way that I look at it. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how bad it sucks, you’re going to learn something – whether it’s something really small, or something that may impact your game for the rest of your life. It’s all worth it.
Very few professional baseball players get the chance to play near their childhood home. Even fewer minor leaguers get to do so. Former Hickory Crawdads left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs got to do just that and he made the most of it in working a promotion this week to high-A High Desert.
Springs is a native of Belmont, N.C. – about a 45 minute drive from Hickory – and was a part of the 2011 state 3A championship team at South Point High.
He was named the state 3A player of the year in 2011 and set the Gaston County record for strikeouts and is tied for wins in the county’s baseball history.
Springs went on to a stellar four-year career at Appalachian State – also about 45 minutes from Hickory – where he posted top-10 career marks in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched for the Mountaineers.
He got his first chance to come home – Springs is the first App State product to pitch for Hickory – late last summer when the Texas Rangers 30th round pick in 2015 was promoted to the Crawdads for the final week of the regular season. He struck out six over 3.1 innings and then punctuated his season with a key moment in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs.
With Hickory facing elimination in game two of the Northern Division series, the West Virginia Power rallied to tie the score at 3-3 in the top of the fifth and had the go-ahead run on first. Springs was brought in to face SAL all-star rightfielder Michael Suchy. The lefty needed only one pitch to get Suchy to pop up to second and end the inning. The Power did not score again over the final 13 innings of the series.
This season, Springs was a foundational piece of the Crawdads bullpen prior to his promotion. Springs currently has three pitches – low-90s fastball, a looping curve ball, and a change that Springs uses as his go-to pitch. He is also working on adding a slider to the mix. In 18 outings, Springs struck out 40, walked eight, and posted a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings. The SAL batted .106 against him – the stingiest mark among relievers in the league – which earned him a spot in the SAL all-star game in Lexington, Ky. Springs struck out the only batter he faced to close out the sixth inning.
Below is the interview I did with Springs late last week, just after his addition – strangely, for me, a late addition – to the Northern Division all-star roster.
Obviously you were a late addition to the all-star game. I thought you should’ve been picked originally, but let me get your reaction to your selection to the all-star game.
Springs: Obviously, it’s humbling to be a part of something like that. It’s obviously really good. Like you said, I wasn’t picked in the beginning, but whatever. It is what it is. But I’m really happy to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in Kentucky and getting to compete and enjoying it.
What are you looking forward to the most?
Springs: Just being able to pitch against the best hitters in the league and competing to see how you match up, to be honest. Obviously we’re out here to compete and you’d like to see how you match up with the best.
Was there disappointment when you weren’t picked the first time?
Springs: No. It is what it is. I know it’s sometimes tough for relievers to make it. So, I wasn’t really expecting to or not expecting to.
How cool was it to pitch here after coming out of App (Appalachian State)?
Springs: I was excited when they posted the rosters out of spring training. I kind of had my fingers crossed to be in Hickory, not only because that’s moving up for me and getting one step closer, but just being close to home and being on the East Coast where my family can actually get to come and see me play. They weren’t able to come out to Spokane and see me. I’m right up the road from where I went to school for four years. It’s really nice. I feel like I’m playing at home and I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely an advantage, because I live right down the road and I get to see the mom and dad every once in a while and friends and stuff like that. It’s really nice.
Do you travel down to Gaston County?
Springs: Yeah, I travel there most off-days to visit family and stuff. It’s nice to see them and they come to a good it of games.
You got here last year for the last couple of weeks and the championship run. That was a nice bit of a reward for you.
Springs: It was a great experience, for sure. That team was very good. Obviously, they clinched the first half and it was exciting to be a part of a special thing that they had there at the end. Talent wise and the chemistry within the team, it was really special to be a part of it. They really accepted me with open arms. I contributed the little bit I could whenever they asked me to me to do whatever.
You got a key out in that playoff run.
Springs: I think against West Virginia – we had great starters. Obviously, they pretty much carried the team pretty much the whole year. I came in and threw one pitch to bridge the gap. We had great eighth-inning guys and we had a great closer. If the starters for some reason couldn’t get to the eighth inning, we just kind of bridged the gap. Like I said, our bullpen was stacked with Dillon (Tate) and Lulu (Luis Ortiz) back there and then Scott Williams. If we’d get to the eighth inning, we’re winning the game pretty much.
What was your goal entering this year and how has that progressed for you?
Springs: Just being as consistent as possible. That’s something I tried to do last year at Spokane and carry it over to this year. They talk about staying on the kiddie coaster and being consistent, so when you have good outings and bad outings, they’re not too far apart. Just being consistent and doing whatever role they need me to do – being in the bullpen, or if they need me to be a lefty specialist, or a late-inning guy. Whatever they need me to do, just taking it and running with it and being the best at it.
Did you start at App?
Springs: Yeah, I started my whole career in high school and four years at App. When I got to the Rangers, they said you’re going to be in the bullpen, which is no big deal. It’s kind of an advantage for me because, at most, bullpen guys are two-pitch guys. But being a starter, throwing three and working on a slider now; here’s all three pitchers for a couple of innings and you don’t have to see me twice. It’s kind of nice, to be honest.
The one out-pitch for you has been that curveball. Has that been an advantage for you at the start?
Springs: My changeup really is the one that is an equalizer for me to right-handed hitters. I’m almost more comfortable at times with right handers in the box – I know that’s weird being left handed – but for me, my changeup is what gets me back on course. If I’m missing with fastballs, or whatever it may be, for some reason, when I go to it, it kind of settles everything back down. That’s what I go to. My breaking ball has gotten more consistent and I throw it and bury it 0-0, or whatever I need to do. It’s probably a changeup that has really been my equalizer.
I throw a curveball, but the change is the out pitch that I need right now. It’s not really my out pitch; it’s to get the weak contact, the popups. It really helps my fastball. I don’t throw like some of these guys, 98, or anything like that. I have to change speeds and keep hitters guessing.
Is that slider going to be the key for you moving up?
Springs: I think so. If I can really develop that and learn that, that’ll really hopefully take my game to left-handed hitters to be able to hopefully succeed at getting them out. Obviously, if you’re a left hander and you can’t get left handers out, you’ve got problems. I’ve been working on it a couple of weeks and hopefully if I can nail that down, I’ve got a shot of progressing a little bit more, a little quicker.
Do you have hopes of moving up this year, or are you fine being close to home?
Springs: Whatever they want me to do. If they want me to stay here or if they want me move up, obviously that’s the goal. It’s another step closer to the ultimate goal of making it. If they want me to move, I’ll be more than happy to pack my stuff up whenever they ask.
Is there hope for you that you get a change to start, or are you comfortable coming out of the bullpen?
Springs: Obviously, I started my whole career. That’s kind of where my heart is, whatever you want to call it. But like I said, I just want to keep pitching. If I get to start, that would be icing on the cake. But just getting to pitch, for me, is the biggest thing. I don’t care if we’re up by ten, down by ten, or tied in the ninth, as long as I get to pitch, I’m pretty content with that.
Between you and (Joe) Palumbo – although y’all have run into a bit of a rough patch lately – along with (John ) Werner, it’s been a nice back of the bullpen the first half of the season.
Springs: I feel like as a team, our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Hitting is going to go in slumps. That’s just how it is. I mean, they’re going to struggle. We feel like as a staff, we have to carry them. We have to keep them in the games, no matter if they’re putting up ten runs or they’re putting up two. For the most part, we did that. We’ve struggled the last few weeks and kind of shot ourselves in the foot trying to win the first half.
Werner’s been nice. It’s another consistent guy who comes in and you know what you’re going to get. Palumbo has been pretty good all year. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the pen that can really finish off games. Our starting staff is really good, and like I said, they’re been really carrying it pretty good.
You get a call to the major leagues, what is your reaction going to be?
Springs: Oh man, I don’t even know. Obviously, you dream of it since you were a little kid. I don’t know what my response will be. You try not to think about it too much during the season, but it’s hard not to wonder when you’re sitting there – even in the offseason – what would it be like. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. I’d probably call my parents and just thank God for the opportunity. It’d be so surreal for a guy to really get a grasp on it until you maybe step onto the field. Fingers crossed, we’ll see.
Who’s the first non-family person you’ll call?
Springs: Probably the girlfriend. Obviously, mom and dad, my grandpa and my brothers. There have been a couple of people that have really helped me along the way with the pitching aspect. Devon Lowery, he made it to the big leagues out of Belmont (South Point High), where I’m from. He’s helped me so much along my way. I’ve had so much help. I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with people that know a lot about the game and helped me tweak things that I needed to get where I am. There’d be a lot of thanks going out to so many different people.
What’s the one thing that that you’ve gone through that you’ll look back on and say that was worth it?
Springs: Just the sacrifices, like the offseason. What you have to go through to get your body in shape and the arm in shape and all the sacrifices over the years. You can’t go and do normal things like normal people do. All the hard work that you put it would be worth it to reach that ultimate goal. It’d be like, “I’m glad I did everything that I did to get where I am.”
The journey of Pedro Payano to what he hopes will be a major league career has been an odd one since an overweight six-year-old first rambled around the baseball diamond. But with the belief he has in himself, and the prodding of a now late-grandfather, Payano has begun to get into the crosshairs of baseball publications, who are beginning to focus on him becoming a major league pitching prospect.
Payano came to Hickory in August 2015 seemingly out of nowhere. He spent three full seasons in the Dominican Summer League and had started a fourth before suddenly a three-level jump to Hickory with a stop in Arizona on the way. It was a promotion that the Crawdads certainly benefited from as they prepared for the run to the South Atlantic League championship.
The Crawdads had already clinched a playoff berth, but as the team entered August and faced as many as eight extra games, the minimizing of innings for the team’s starters had begun. Luis Ortiz was gradually shifted to the bullpen. Dillon Tate was a one-inning starter after already completing a full college season, as well as dealing with some arm soreness. Brett Martin’ outings were curtailed as he finished a first full season. Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez were on a piggyback arrangement. Then here came Payano.
In his first start at Delmarva (Md.) on August 3, he spun a five-hit shutout over six innings and struck out five, needing 87 pitches to do so. He returned six days later and on the back-end of a tandem start with Brett Martin, Payano allowed one hit, three walks, and struck out three over four innings to defeat Lakewood (N.J.)
It was eight days later before he returned to the mound and he gave up his first run. But despite giving up eight hits and hitting two batters over five innings, the damage was just the one run in a win over Hagerstown (Md.).
He then gave up just one run in each over his next three starts, the final one a nine-strikeout performance against Rome (Ga.) over 5.2 innings.
Payano then saved his best for last. In game one of the SAL championship series, he tossed a six-hitter over six innings and struck out eight to defeat Asheville and give the Crawdads a 1-0 series lead.
In an article I did for the Hickory Daily Record after that game, Corey Ragsdale, the Crawdads manager last season, said of Payano, “To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about him when he got here. He’s exceeded my expectations and has been a real pickup.”
Payano throws a fastball in the 92-93 mph range and supplements that with a curve and change. What has set him apart during his stint here in Hickory has been his ability to throw any pitch in any count, along with the smarts to know how to do it.
“I think that Pedro is (a) guy that has a very good I.Q,” said Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations. “He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats.”
With all the ability, it took a while for Payano to get to Hickory and he freely admits to having a “short mind”, as he termed it. One Rangers rover said frankly that Payano had to “grow up.”
There was a start earlier in this season where an observer could see that Payano could be pushed to lose control on the mound. After the Crawdads were pounded in two straight games at home by Greenville (S.C.), they returned for a 10:30 a.m. game. The earlier start prompted both teams to play sloppily in the early going, and after the Crawdads held a 2-0 lead, it threatened to get away from them in the third. Unable to get a consistent arm slot, Payano battled control issues, as well as the umpire’s strike zone. A stolen base and a dropped fly ball in right by Jose Almonte led to two unearned runs. Payano was clearly unhappy on the mound as he’d walk around the mound and go to the rosin bag frequently before slamming it down. Yet, he gathered himself and eventually got through five innings with only the two unearned runs allowed.
Payano followed up that outing with a one-hit shutout of Greensboro.
“He does a pretty good job of staying within himself,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes. “He doesn’t let things that he can’t control to get in his mind.”
Part of the letting go for Payano has been the past. He didn’t want to get into events that occurred, which kept him in the DSL for a fourth season. He is fully focused on what he needs to do now and where he wants to go later. On that journey, Payano brings along a love of a late-grandfather who pushed him to become a pro ball pitcher.
Below is some excerpts of the interview I did with Payano.
What’s your first memory of baseball?
Payano: I was six years old, yeah and I dunno, I was fat, but I loved baseball.
You were fat?
Payano: Yeah, that was my first memory of baseball and I hit a long hit and I just make it to second because I was very slow.
So how big were you at six years old, how fat?
Payano: SO fat, I dunno, SO fat.
So you had the long hit, the double and what’s that memory sort of get you started to wanting to play more and more?
Payano: I don’t know, because I was born with baseball. When I was a little kid I have a lot of pictures with a bat and with a ball, you know. I love baseball.
When did you start getting serious about playing baseball?
Payano: I was like 13 years old and somebody tell me that you have a lot of passion for the game and you (should) keep going and keep playing. And then somebody tell me you going to go to academy and then I started to take it seriously.
Were you hitting then, or doing more pitching?
Payano: I was a hitter and then when I was like 14-years-old, somebody tell me, “Come, you’re going to pitch,” and I kept pitching.
What position did you play when you were a hitter?
Payano: I was left field.
When did you stop being fat like me?
Payano: I was skinny when I was 12.
Did you work with somebody or just grow out of the baby fat.
Payano: When I was grown, I was skinny.
You said you went to academy – obviously you played baseball, but was that like a high school or just all baseball?
Payano: In the Dominican Republic academy is like, you live there, and you have a cage, a gym, and you have a field like 30 minutes away, but you live there. I was there Monday through Friday and then went home for the weekend.
What is your memory for when it was getting serious and you might go play sign with a pro team?
Payano: When I was 14 I didn’t throw hard, but I had a good curve ball and good change-up, somebody tell me I’m going to be a good pitcher and you know I just keep going.
So when people are telling you at 14 that you have the chance to go pro, did you ever think that you’d get to that point when you were taking those pictures when you were a little kid?
How weird is that for you at that point?
Is that a dream for a lot of kids growing up in the DR to play pro baseball? Yes, a lot.
What do you think set you apart from other kids – not everybody gets the chance to play pro baseball. What set you apart?
Payano: You just have to be positive. If you just think positive things, it’s going to come for you. Just keep going and work hard, that’s the key.
Who was somebody who helped you get that positive attitude?
Payano: It was my grandfather –Ephraim Payano
What did he help you with as far as that positive attitude?
Payano: He died like 5 years ago. He always tell me, I want to see you playing baseball. I want to see you with a pro team and I keep that in my mind.
What do you think he would say about you now, if he were alive what would he say about you now playing baseball?
Payano: He’d be very proud of me.
There are a lot of times that the Rangers send somebody here at 19. You came along a little later. What was maybe in the development that took you a little longer to get here?
Payano: When I was in the Dominican Republic, I had a “short mind”. I was doing a lot of stupid things and that’s why I was kept there for 3-4 years. But I grew up, then they say, “Hey Payano is ready to go to the US.”
What were some of the things that kept you back?
Payano: I don’t remember
Did you put those things behind you?
Payano: Yes, I forgot that
Was it on field, off field or both?
What maybe helped you grow up?
Payano: I grow up, maybe because I don’t like being in the Dominican. Nobody knows you there. So when we start to move, step by step, it is here in the U.S. So I say, I need to get to the U.S., so I have to make that approach in my mind.
You came here last year and nobody knew who you were. Who’s Pedro Payano? You pitched so well at the end of last year and now top prospect. You start reading that Payano is this, Payano is that How fast is this all moving for you?
Payano: I don’t think that it’s moving very fast, but I’m working for that. I was waiting and working and doing a good job.
What clicked for you on the mound? What clicked for you when you came here, what took you to the next level on the mound?
Payano: I just tell myself that I’m going to do the same. I’m going to do the same that I was doing in Arizona, throwing the ball for strikes and having a good tempo and just that.
What are your goals for this year?
Payano: To move up, championship, I just want to move to the next level
What do think you have to do to move to Frisco or the High Desert?
Payano: Just keep going
What are coaches having you work on to get to the next level of better hitters and such?
Payano: I just have to throw all my pitches for strikes and I’m going to move real fast. As you know, I have a good curve ball and changeup and my fast ball is pretty good. So if I have these pitches for strikes, I’ll have a good year.
Later on, when you get a call saying “Pedro, you’re going to the big leagues”, what is your first reaction going to be do you think?
Payano: I don’t know, say, “Thanks God” and then say, “Thanks grandpa, this is for you.” Then I’ll call my family
Do you think when you take the mound for the first time in the major leagues, you’ll think of your grandpa?
Payano: Yeah, sure – every time I go to the mound I think of my grandpa.
What do you do?
Payano: This is going for you
Do you think he’s smiling?
Payano: Yeah, for sure.