Arguably, the best position player on the Hickory Crawdads team to this point of the 2018 season is a guy who was a 30th-round pick and played in only four of the team’s first 11 games.
Notice that I didn’t say the Crawdads position player who is the best prospect, or the Crawdads position player that has the most talented physical tools on the team.
When describing infielder Ryan Dorow, Crawdads manager Matt Hagen had this assessment.
“As a guy that you put in the lineup up against the wall, his physicality doesn’t jump out at you,” said Hagen. “But he’s got more baseball player inside of him than most guys do.”
After the demotion of outfielder Miguel Aparicio, the subsequent shift of players landed Dorow at third with Tyler Ratliff moving from there to right. Dorow went 1-for-4 that night, which put his slash line at that time to .239/.308/.394, the low point of the season. A two-hit night followed. The next night, he collected four more and a on-base streak grew to 20 games that ended on June 30. The slash line at that point grew to .302/.367/.456.
After Saturday’s game (7/21/18), Dorow ranks eighth in the South Atlantic League in batting avg. (.294), 11th in on-base percentage (.362), 15th in slugging (.455) and 13th in OPS (.817). After going homerless in his debut pro season, he is tied for the team lead with 10. Dorow is also the team leader in hits, RBI and total bases, as well as batting avg. and slugging. In the field, he’s been a steady presence at second, short and third with just seven errors over 83 games.
At 22 years, 11 months old, Ryan Dorow is older than the 21.3 years league avg. for position players (baseballreference.com). As a 30th rounder from Division III Adrian (Mich.) College, he knows he’s not necessarily held in the highest regard as far as future major-league prospects go. For that matter, when he entered this season, he understood that he might not get a lot of playing time. But he’s doing what he is supposed to do: hit and play solid defense. In the minors, it’s about becoming necessary. Dorow has done that.
However, he knows as he moves up the ladder, he will have to compete and prove himself over and over again. Hagen thinks that is a situation that will bode well for Dorow.
“I think he knows that and I think he relishes that,” said Hagen. “He is in the position of an underdog. Some guys are really good in that role, when their backs are against the wall and they come out swinging. He’s probably had to prove himself at every level of baseball he’s ever played. This is no different, so if he wants to play, he has to go out and perform. That’s probably been a gift for him in the past, because some of the guys at this level, they’ve always been so good that they haven’t had to go out there and prove it every day.”
The ability to compete was certainly there for Dorow at Adrian, and especially the summer leagues, where he particularly got noticed. In the following interview done a couple of weeks ago, Dorow talked about the journey of realizing he could play pro ball, and how that drive has continued into a strong first full-season as a pro.
You’ve had quite a run here. What’s been the spark for you? You were up and down until you got to about the tenth of June and then you’ve hit a hot streak.
Dorow: I think just going in and having good at-bats is the best thing. I think being able to continue to have good at-bats for an extended period of time is kind of what takes out where the success comes from. Being able to be consistent through a long period of time sure is what we all aim to do. That’s kind of what I’ve been able to do for the past month, month-and-a-half.
When I talked with (Crawdads manager) Matt (Hagen) at the beginning of the season and was just sort of going through the list of players with Pedro and Miguel, this guy and this guy, I asked him to give me someone under the radar. Without hesitation he mentioned yourself and Justin (Jacobs). Sometimes guys will say that as sort of a window dressing, but you’ve made him look really good. What was your mind set coming into this season?
Dorow: I knew I wasn’t going to be in a starting role right away. That’s just for the position I’m in, and I’m very thankful to be in the position I’m in now. Going in, it was just to take every day and do what you can do every day. There’s no real pressure and there’s no set of expectations besides myself to go out there and play well. I just took it day by day, and whatever opportunity came upon me I was going to try my best to take advantage of it.
What did you think you brought to the field coming into the season? When you were put into the lineup, what was your expectation?
Dorow: No real expectation, just go on out there and just try to play to the best of my ability that day. Baseball is an up-and-down game and you can never go out there on a consistent basis, no matter how good you are, and be successful every day for 140 games, which is not realistic. I talked to myself and brought it upon myself to make sure that I was ready to play every game. If the opportunity presented itself to be on the field, then I’m going to be out there and take full advantage of it.
You pretty much put yourself into a starting role – a lot at shortstop and you’ll move around at second and third. How did you see that come about for you as things progressed into late-April and May, where you name is getting into the lineup every day?
Dorow: That sure does help me. Being able to play three positions does help me. That’s my role. That’s what I bring to the team, is you can put me at short, second, third and you know what you’re going to get out of me. I knew that was going to be a possibility. I had played short at school and I had played second in the AZL (Arizona Rookie League) last year, so I knew going in that was a possibility. I worked to make sure that I was good at each position and knew everything I needed to do on a daily basis to be successful at any point in time.
Is there a higher confidence level at this point of the season than there was at the start, that you were going to get the playing time needed to show what you could do?
Dorow: I had confidence. I mean, I know that I can play. That’s not really a downfall, by any means. I just think I was able to get into a groove. That’s what happens, being able to play in an every day lineup and get in a groove and get continuous at-bats. I think that was the biggest thing for me.
I knew coming in that I may not be an everyday guy and I was fine with not being an everyday guy. I enjoy being here, and if that was my role, if I was playing every day and that was my role I’m fine, and if I was playing every third day and that’s my role, I was fine. If that’s what the team needs and that’s what we need to do to be successful, then I’m willing to do anything.
It’s not a confidence level, I think. I have pretty much the same confidence level now than I had when I got in. We didn’t know what my role was going to be at the beginning. Now, it’s kind of fitting into place a little bit, and I’m just trying to go out there and play my best every day and help the team win.
Do you get the younger guys coming up to you and Justin and the other college guys and seeing you in a mentor role? You’ve been through the four years of college, where you’ve had to muck and grind and all of that. Do you see yourself more in that leadership role being in the lineup every day?
Dorow: I would like to think of it like that. I think that us four, or however many of the college guys that are here in the rotation or position players, I think we do a pretty good job of leading by example. Leading by example is probably one of the most important things when you have a young team. We had talked about it all the time, when you don’t have leaders on a young team, it’s very hard to sustain success. I think leading by example and finding the time to be a vocal leader, and sometimes finding the time to step back and take a breath and just let things roll, is kind of the way we’ve been doing it.
Yeah, I would like to think of myself as a leader on the team. If I’m not out there playing, I lead by example on the bench.
You went to Adrian (Mich.) College?
Not many Division III products come out and even get to this level. At what point did you think, I’ve got a shot at getting drafted, or at least getting an opportunity?
Dorow: When I came in, that was probably the last thing on my mind, to be honest. I kind of blossomed my freshman year and kind of grew into the baseball player that I came to be. Like you said, not many people get the opportunity to play professional baseball. Every year, there’s a very small group of people that come from a Division III level to play pro baseball. It’s a blessing to get the opportunity.
I started figuring out probably halfway through my sophomore year that it could be a possibility. I mean, I wasn’t throwing all my cookies in the let’s-get-drafted jar, by any means, but I knew that could be something in the future that was going to happen. I’m blessed enough to be here today.
Was there a moment or a series of moments in that sophomore year where you thought, “this could blossom into something”?
Dorow: Going out and playing in the summer leagues that I played in sure helped me realize that I could compete at a higher level. Being around the people that I was at Adrian College, the coaching staff and players, they all helped me. My sophomore year really was the time when they were like, “Wow, he can play at the next level. There’s something special here.” Me being the humble guy that I am, I was kicking it to the side. I was like, “Hopefully, you never know. We’ll see what happens.” So, it was the sophomore or junior year where I was like, “This could be a realization, or it could not be.” Like I said, I wasn’t putting all the cookies in the let’s-get-drafted jar, but at the same time, that was my goal: to work as hard as I could to be in this position I am now.
Where did you play in Summer League?
Dorow: Northwoods League, my junior summer, and then out in New York in the Perfect Game League my sophomore summer.
Who were some players you played against that made you think, “I can match up here”?
Dorow: (Tyler) Ratliff played in the same league I played in a year later than me. I really don’t know names that I played with off that top of my head. Ro Coleman from Vanderbilt, I played against him my junior year. I’m not really comparing myself to anybody, but I was able to see that I could compete at that level. That was the biggest thing for me. I wasn’t going out there and saying, “Wow, I’m better than this guy.” I was just going out there and setting my skills up to anybody else’s. I could play at that level.
That was the biggest thing for me, was realizing that I could play at that level and had the confidence in myself to play at that level. I think the summer leagues did a lot for me.
I remember having a lot of this same sort of conversation with Ryan Rua when he was here. For his case, at Lake Erie nobody necessarily knew him, but he got to this summer league team versus somebody from Vanderbilt or Virginia, or wherever. Did the summer leagues become an equalizer for you?
Dorow: There was definitely a lot more eyes, pro scout wise, in those leagues. There’s scouts all over the place every game. The biggest thing at Adrian was getting people to come out and watch. That was the biggest thing. I’d get a ton of emails and letters and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, I don’t think those translated into coming out and watching all that time. You’re playing in those leagues and getting out of your comfort zone and maybe traveling a little bit, or getting into a position where you don’t know if you’re going to be successful, especially coming out of a small school, kind of lets you know where you’re at. I think those were a huge, huge time in my life to help me get where I am today.
After the summer leagues, did you start getting some visits to Adrian?
Dorow: There was some people my sophomore year that came around to watch, but I wasn’t really in contact with many people. Everything started to roll when I came back for my senior year and a lot of them said, “Hey, I saw you play with the Battle Creek Bombers (Northwoods League)” So, a lot of that did stem from playing in the summer leagues. A lot of the contacts and eye-opening experiences were coming from those leagues.
Was there anybody at Adrian, or anywhere else you played – you’re competing against player B – was there somebody that you had a conversation with, a coach or somebody, that furthered your interest in playing pro ball? It’s nice to have feedback from somebody else that helps you say, I can do this?
Dorow: Absolutely. Competing wise, there’s a bunch of kids that I competed against that are awesome baseball players, even at the D-3 level. Going back and talking about school and stuff, I think the biggest part was understanding what could be. Sometimes, you sit back, and you come from a small school, and there’s a long shot and it’s never going to happen.
I think with coach Craig Rainey – he’s been there for 25 years – and he knows when he sees good talent. My dad and him actually were actually roommates at Adrian together, so he’s been a family friend for a while. He always used to come up to me and was the most positive, and he’d try to explain to me how good I was at the time. I didn’t know. I was 18, 19-years-old just kind of going through the motions my first year at school, like a lot of freshman are just trying to get their feet wet.
I think the coaching staff and the people around me really implemented in my mental side how good I could be. That’s all kudos for that.
What was the first pro moment you that said, “Ok, this is a different game, now”?
Dorow: I think going back to the AZL, the speed game was a little. It wasn’t crazy to get used to, but obviously it was a little quicker than Division III baseball. That’s just the honest opinion. Going down there, and playing, and having people that could really run, that could get to the ball fast, that could really hit, the pace of the game was quicker than I was used to.
That was the biggest thing, where I was like, “Ok, I’ve got to really focus in and get everything that I do right, so mistakes don’t happen, or just not being ready to play, or not being ready to be able to catch up to the pace of play, which I think was my biggest eye opener.
And the young talent, too, is the best. I realized how much young talent is out there compared to a lot of 20, 21, 22-year-olds that I played against. They were good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of 17, 18-year-olds that can play the game, as well.
Who was the first 17, 18-year-old that impressed you?
Dorow: I actually went around with Chris Seise. He’s really impressed me a lot. The maturity level, the baseball IQ, it was very impressive to see a kid that was just playing high school baseball 15 days ago come in and be very competitive at a professional level right away.
What are you looking forward to going up to High-A at some point?
Dorow: Just looking forward to continue to go up the ladder. I want to win, that’s the biggest thing. Winning is a big part of why I play the game. I want to continue to win at every level that I’m at. I think we’re off to a good start here in the second half, and really could make some runs and get some things to fall into place. I want to continue to build that culture throughout and bring people with me that don’t already have that onto levels to build that success as we go up.
Looking forward to competing again when you get to High-A?
Dorow: Absolutely. Always.
What’s the next step for you development wise?
Dorow: I think just being consistent. Everybody can say they can get better at something. Those things might not be at the top of your head, and you may not even know those things at that moment in time. I think the biggest thing for me is consistency. Being able to think, I’ve gotten better this year than I was last year at being consistent and coming out ready to play every day. I think that’s something I can continue to work on. Playing 140 games, you have to be consistent. You have to be able to wash things away.
You get the call to the major leagues, what does that mean for you and who do you call?
Dorow: A dream come true. First, I’ll probably call my dad and my family back home. My dad’s been there. He’s coached me since I was one-year-old until I was 17 before I went to college. That’d be an amazing call to have. And then probably my fiancée. She’s been unreal to me support wise – traveling and all the miles that she’s put on her vehicle to come watch me play. I couldn’t ask for anything more from her. Then probably my college coach, Craig Rainey at Adrian College. He was very good to me at schoo,l and very good to me to put me in a spot to be successful, and I owe everything to him for putting me into the position I’m at right now.
When Tyler Phillips was a member of the 2017 Hickory Crawdads, the outings were painful to watch. A 6.39 ERA over 25.1 innings and a .280 OBA quickly showed that Phillips was not ready for class Low-A. The five hit batters and 9 walks over that stretch showed he didn’t trust the stuff he had.
A demotion to the Texas Rangers extended spring was an awakening for the then-19-year-old from Pennsauken, N.J. Dealing with the anger over the demotion, Phillips, who was 18-0 during his high school career, was also dealing with the reality that he was experiencing failure and needed to make mental changes.
The start of the short-season Northwestern League at Spokane (Wash.) had its ups and downs, including a three-walk over a four-inning start on June 23. Since then, Phillips has made 26 pro starts. He’s walked more than one in a start just once. That came on opening night 2018 to back-to-back hitters at Greensboro.
Over his last eight starts with Spokane, the right-hander in 49 innings allowed 47 hits, 13 earned runs (2.39 ERA), one hit batter, 5 walks with 55 strikeouts.
For much of the season, Phillips has been the Crawdads most consistent starter. Following the opening-night loss to the Grasshoppers, Phillips has gone five innings in his remaining 14 starts. All 14 has seen 0 or 1 in the walk column. He has 85 strikeouts to just 10 walks over 88 innings (through July 9).
His fastball is around 91-92 mph consistently, but it’s the changeup that is often his money-maker. In a July 2 start vs. Greensboro, Phillips had, by my count, 16 missed bats out of 54 strikes, 12 of those on changeups.
However good Phillips’ control has been over the last 12 months, that has come, in many ways, through the ability to control some of the fiery emotion he battled on the mound, and to control some self-doubts, regaining his confidence.
The following interview took place the day after the Greensboro start on 7/2/18 and it starts with the outcome of that outing and then weaves through the events of his career over the past year.
First of all, last night’s start, I don’t know how you felt about it but it seemed like once you got through the first inning you seemed to find a groove. What was the key for you?
Phillips: To be honest, in that first inning I was pretty gassed. I was down there in the bullpen warming up and the humidity was getting to me and I was sweating, and I couldn’t catch my breath. And there was a little bit of miscommunication in the dugout, so I went out there earlier than I wanted to. That’s kind of the whole reason the first inning seemed a little longer than it should’ve been.
After that, me and (Yohel) Pozo – I told him the plan before the game, they’re an aggressive team and they swing a lot. You don’t really see many adjustments made, so I’m just going to keep pitching to my strengths. I said, “Hey, I’ve been watching them and we’re just going to keep them mixed up and let them get themselves out.” As hitters, they’re hitting .250 for a reason and they’re not going to hit it every time. So, I just kept it mixed up and kept making them uncomfortable. That’s why I fell into that groove there. We just stuck to our plan. I just kept making pitches and he was blocking pitches in the dirt. That was a big help from him.
A lot of changeups last night. Has that pitch come along for you over the last year?
Phillips: I mean, the changeup is a feel pitch. I guess it was two years ago I started working on it, because it was always too hard. I got it and then I started to lose it a little bit, then I got it back last year when I went back to extended after getting sent down from here. I just practiced that because that’s the last pitch a hitter is going to learn to hit, and it looks just like a fastball, if you throw it right. I just practiced it every single day.
My last three, four outings, it hasn’t really been there. So, like I said, it’s a feel pitch and every day for the past two weeks I’ve been out here every day just tweaking my grip and messing around with different things until I got it back. I was playing catch with A.J. (Alexy) and he was throwing his hard, so I just started throwing mine hard and that’s kind of how I got it to come back. You’ve just got to trust it. That’s been the big pitch for me.
Is that the hardest pitch for a starter to learn?
Phillips: I picked it up pretty quickly, but it’s different for every guy. Some guys have more feel than others. It’s just something that I put a lot of time into it. I kind of take pride in that pitch a lot. I know (Alex) Eubanks is working on one right now. Some things will click for some guys and some things won’t. I tried telling him things that I do with mine, but that might not click for him. So, you’ve just got to talk to teammates and talk to coaches, and eventually it’ll come. It’s a tough pitch to come along with.
Who have you seen either on the major league level, or even at this level, that has a changeup that you have looked to, or were impressed by?
Phillips: Probably Cole Ragans. Unfortunately, he got hurt in spring training; I would’ve loved to have had him here. He’s another guy, we’d sit there and we both have similar swing-and-miss changeups. I love watching it because it’s a fun pitch to watch come out of his hand.
I know he models his after Cole Hamels, which – I’m a Phillies fan because I’m from New Jersey, and I’m a Cole Hamels fan, too. Those are the two guys that come to mind when I think about a changeup. Obviously, there’s Pedro Payano, he’s got a good one. There’s a lot of guys, but both of the Coles, they come to mind when you talk about changeups.
You mentioned Cole Hamels, have you been able to talk to him any?
Phillips: He talked to us just about routines and stuff, like all of the pitchers. But whenever I see him, we talk about the Eagles basically. I wish I could have a little bit more time with him, just to talk about pitching and all the different aspects to it. He’s a smart guy, obviously. He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s had success. I wish I could talk to him more about it.
Is that an awe thing for you? Like, dude, this is Cole Hamels.
Phillips: This was weird how that came about. My assistant high school baseball coach, his brother’s friend sent him these selfies with Cole Hamels, so apparently, they’re friends. Cole came up to me and my heart was pounding, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is Cole Hamels.” It is a little weird, but he’s just another guy, just like us. He just has a little bit more experience.
You have a real calm presence on the mound, or at least it looks like that to me sitting up in the press box. I get the impression that you have this cool demeanor on the mound. Is that important for you as a starter? Where did you gather that?
Phillips: That’s another thing that just comes along just talking to older guys and talking to all kinds of people that have been through it.
I know in high school I was successful. I was 18-0 and I didn’t really experience failure. I went to Spokane my first year and struggled there, and there were errors and stuff. I wasn’t really liking that and I was getting fired up on the mound. Then I sat down with Rags (Corey Ragsdale) and he was like, “Hey, man, they’re not perfect and you’re not perfect. You’ve just got to trust it, man. You’re working. You can’t sit there and deny that stuff and you can’t control it. You need to work harder and get better yourself.”
That’s kind of where it started, that and all the peak-performance classes we have with Josiah (Igono), who’s our big-league, peak-performance guy now. He was just like “You don’t want to waste energy out there and it’s not going to do anything by getting upset.”
When I walk guys – I don’t like walking guy, when I walk guys, I get angry – you’ve just got to step off, regather yourself and make your pitches. I try to do that and I try to have a little fire in my eye. It’s just a big confidence thing and it’s what’s making my season better now. I go out there and I walk out there and I think I’m the best one here and no one’s better than me. It’s not true, but you’ve got to fake it until you make it. There are plenty of pitchers out there better than me, but it’s all up in the mind.
Did you grow up a lot from when you were here last year?
Phillips: A whole lot (laughing). Maturity, I feel like. A lot of guys and a lot of coaches have said that I’ve become much more mature. I guess I do see it and it’s just like, you just learn things.
My offseason throwing partner (Scott Oberg) – he’s in the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies right now. He talks to me a lot right now about philosophies and Chinese proverbs, and I’m just sitting there just taking it in. I know that he’s in the big leagues, so why not listen to him and take advantage of your resources. And the whole thing with Josiah, just listening to him.
I’m getting older and if I want to move, I’ve got to get mature. Just like Spanish players, you’ve got to learn English. They don’t have to, but it makes a big impact in the game. I feel like it makes me a better person on the field and off the field. It makes it easier to be a pitcher if you’re not worried about that other stuff.
I know you saw my tweet about your last 25 starts (Tyler Phillips walked 3 in a start with
@spokaneindians on 6/23/17. In the 25 starts since, he’s walked more than 1 batter once – back-2-back on opening night 2018. Since then: 144.2 IP 16 walks, 147 Ks), Was there a point where you began to trust your stuff? I know you went down from here last year and learned some things, but there comes a moment where you’ve got to trust what you do. For some guys there’s a moment or a conversation that gets you to trust your stuff.
Phillips: It’s just a big confidence thing. At instructs, Rags asked me, “What’s different?” I came from here and got moved down, and obviously, I’m not going to be happy. Josiah said, “You should take this week to be pissed off. I know you’re going to be angry and you’re going to be upset, but none of these younger guys here in Arizona, they don’t feel bad for you. They see it as an opportunity for them to move up and they’re going to take advantage of that, if they can.”
That kind of really hit home for me and I really starting to get worried, like “What am I doing? Yeah, I’m going to be pissed off, but I’ve got to get back there and I’ve got to keep moving up and keep getting better.” So, I went out there every single day and just worked hard. That’s really all you can do. It just clicked for me there and that’s the big thing. I went out there and started to throw better and started to pitch better and my confidence started to come back up. I realized, “Hey, this is what’s going to make me better than everyone else.” I’ve been there, and I wasn’t confident, and you saw what happened last year at the beginning of the season. That was just a big thing for me.
Was the all-star selection a big moment for you?
Phillips: Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to make it. My last outing wasn’t the best and I was looking at my stats on the milb thing and thought, “Oh man.” But it happened. That was one of my goals for the season.
I told them in my individual meeting, “Yeah, I want to make an all-star game. I want to move up halfway through the season.” Hopefully, that happens, but if it doesn’t, as long as I progress in my pitching and just keep getting better, that’s what I want. But, the All-Star Game was big for me. I was happy about that.
Good experience for you?
Phillips: Yeah, it was a really good experience. It was weird being in the clubhouse with all the other teams. Like, you’re trying to beat them as a pitcher and I’m trying to strike them out and I’m trying to get them out. Like I told you, I had that little fire in my eye and I’m thinking of staring guys down. It’s just a mental thing, but I get in the clubhouse with them and I feel like nobody liked me. Like, this is weird. But, it was definitely fun to meet some of those guys and hear some of their stories of the things they’ve done. It was all a good time.
What does your path to the major leagues look like? You probably don’t see the whole journey, but you guys are always looking at the next thing, the next step.
Phillips: I mean, I’m still young. I’m only 20-years-old right now. I’m hoping I move up every year from here on out, kind of just keep a steady track. That’s what my goal is. If anything happens before that, great, but I don’t need to rush myself, I don’t think. Because, what’s the point of going up too soon and you risk not having a good season and you just go back to square one? Hopefully that doesn’t happen to where I’ll lose some confidence. I just want to move steadily.
Who have you met from the Rangers – I know you mentioned Cole Hamels – but who you’ve met that you’ve gravitated towards?
Phillips: I mentioned Rags. I mentioned Josiah, and I try to talk to him as much as I can. It’s a little different now because he’s pretty busy with the major leaguers. That’s the main one, Josiah.
Everyone says that baseball is 90 percent mental and the other 90 percent is physical, but it’s all mental, I think. This is a grind. I like talking to teammates just to see what they have to say. I try to go towards older guys and put myself out of my comfort zone. I used to be really shy and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. You’ve just got to force yourself to do some things.
I talked to Kyle Cody last year before I got sent down. I talked to him the short time I was here to get some input from him and his thoughts. I talked to guys my age just to see what they think and compare things and see what works for people. I’m a big observer. I like to watch and not talk as much.
And there’s a time where you can let some stuff out, because you’ve experienced it. I like to experience things through other people’s experiences. That’s really what I do; I don’t really have a set person. I just try to watch people and see what they’ve got going on. There’s a lot of smart guys and I’m not going to get to talk to all of them.
You call the call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you? Who do you call?
Phillips: Both of my parents, obviously. My girlfriend, she’d definitely be pretty excited about that.
I wish I had my grandpa around to tell him that. So, I try to pitch for him every time I go out there. If you ever see me behind the mound just staring up, I pick out a cloud out there, a tree or something and just try to talk to him a little bit right before I pitch. That always settles me down. I wish I can call him, but I know he’s watching. That’s one guy, but my parents will tell everyone else and reach out. I’ve got my two best friends that I’d call.
What’s your grandpa’s name?
Phillips: Frank Phillips.
What did he mean to you?
Phillips: I was young when he passed, probably 9 or 10 years old, but he was one of my heroes. He was in wars, he was in all the wars. He has a purple heart and just had some great stories and just took care of me, whenever my dad would bring me over there. We had fun and he showed me how to pitch and play checkers and do all the things that you teach younger kids how to do. I just loved being around him and he was really a great guy. He was awesome, and I was pretty close to him. I like to try to model myself after him, I think he was a good guy. He taught my dad everything that my dad knows and my dad tries to teach me everything that my grandpa knew. I know he would’ve loved to be there. He’s never seen me pitch. That’s something I wish he could’ve done, but I know he’s up there watching.
Just under a year after the 2017 MLB draft, Texas Rangers first-round pick Bubba Thompson and undrafted free agent Justin Jacobs were teammates in Hickory, NC., each chasing a dream to become a big league player in the future.
My interest in talking with the two of them was their perception of the expectations placed upon them, as well as the expectations they have of themselves. They both expect to get there some day. Their current manager expects them to make it as well.
There are two interviews below. The first is a side-by-side discussion between the two about their memories of coming to the Rangers and what those expectations are of themselves as pro players chasing the dream.
I also got some feedback from Hickory manager Matt Hagen – himself a 12th-round draft pick – about how members of the player development staff approach players with vastly different expectations and financial investments.
This is the week of the draft. Last year you were a first-round pick. What do you remember about last year?
Thompson: It was a life-changing moment. Leading up to it, I had to work really hard. I wasn’t really a first rounder. I had to show some different tools and all that good stuff leading up to me. In my senior year, I think I showed what they were looking for and I kept it going. Once that day came, I was ready for it. I ended up getting picked 26th overall. Ever since then, I’ve been having to grind and trying to stay healthy, and I try to keep my skills up each and every day, because every day is a grind. You play every day. You get just a few off days, so I’ve really got to maintain my skills and my health each and every day.
Where were you at when they called your name?
Thompson: New York.
Did your family come with you?
Thompson: They did and we had a good old time up there and everybody treated us well. I’m here now trying to chase my dream.
What was it like to put the jersey and put the hat on?
Thompson: Like I said, it was a life-changing moment. Just the name on the back and trying to represent that each and every day, and the name on the front, also.
You were not drafted. What was draft week like for you?
Jacobs: Well, I didn’t really know for sure if I was going to get drafted, or not. I had some pretty good calls, so I figured there was a chance that I could. I had talked to a few teams that said there was a possibility that I could go late, or not, or whatever. Then, basically, the draft came up and I was sitting there waiting for my name to get called. It never got called.
Leading up to that I was coaching summer ball, so I figured that if I was done playing I would be coaching summer ball. I was actually thinking about working grounds crew for the Spokane Indians, which is our short-season team.
My coach from Gonzaga was actually good friends with the owner of the Spokane Indians and was able to get me a tryout the day before the draft. The tryout was with two of the coaches now here. Matt Hagen and Chase Lambin basically went up to Spokane and threw me some b.p. and had me take some ground balls. The next day, I didn’t get drafted and then after that I was offered a free agent deal.
Was there disappointment that your name wasn’t called?
Jacobs: A little bit disappointed, because that’s obviously what I’d been working forever since I was playing in high school and college, and what not. I was just happy that I was able to get the opportunity to come down here and play.
Did you guys go to Arizona together or did you go straight to Spokane?
Jacobs: No, we played in Arizona together last year.
You guys meet each other – the first rounder and the free agent – what was the meeting like?
Jacobs: Honestly, I thought Bubba really was a humble kid. If you didn’t know him at all, you wouldn’t know if he was a first-round pick or a 40th-round pick or a free agent. He kind of just holds himself to the same level as everyone else.
Would you agree with that coming in and meeting some of the other guys? You come in from all over the country, what was meeting some of the other guys like?
Thompson: It was good, man. J.J. came and worked hard, and it, like, came naturally to him. He loved playing the game. Each and every day I would see him laugh and I would see him give his all. I think he’s a very good player.
A lot of guys would say, okay, he’s a first rounder and he’s got it easy. You’ve got an easy ticket to the major leagues. That’s not necessarily so, is it?
Thompson: It’s not, because if you go out there and you barely hit and you don’t take it serious; you go on the field and you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, this game is going to catch up to you. I try to give my all, to shag, b.p., just do the little things. I try not to slack and give it 100 percent each day.
Do you have a sense that your path to the big leagues is a harder one?
Jacobs: Not necessarily. Obviously, on the way in, he’s going to have more money than I do, but I feel like, no matter what, you have to compete and prove yourself to get to the next level. If you come out and play well, no matter if you’re a first-round pick or a free agent, you’re going to have the opportunity to move up if you play well and compete every day.
Do you think there is more pressure on you because you are a first-round pick?
Thompson: That’s what I feel like. There’s a lot of pressure, like he said, kind of the money hype. So that’s why I try to grind every day and do what I’ve got to do, so I don’t have any regrets when I get older. That’s the main part.
I don’t ask this as a loaded question, but do you feel like the Rangers do enough to make it an equal situation, or is there a hierarchy at first? Bubba shows up and a second-rounder shows up, and so on. Do you sense there’s a hierarchy before you get a chance to prove yourself?
Jacobs: To be honest, no not really. I think our organization does a pretty good job of treating everyone pretty equally. I think it’s good that they don’t come and treat the first rounders like they’re famous, because then those guys might not work as hard. I think they’ve treated us all the same and held us all to a higher standard so everyone has to come out and prove themselves, no matter if you’re a first rounder or a 40th rounder, or whatever.
What do you appreciate about somebody like Bubba, who could’ve played football and is obviously very talented athletically?
Jacobs: A lot of times you think of a first rounder, you think of a kid that comes in and is cocky and doesn’t work hard, and they fall down the hill really quick because they’re full of themselves. They’ve signed for a lot of money, so sometimes they don’t think they have to work as hard as someone else. I think he does a good job of coming in every day and just treating himself like everyone else, and working just as hard, if not harder, than everyone else here, which is going to give him an edge, I think.
With the college guys coming in, do you have an appreciation of somebody that’s been grinding with four years of college?
Thompson: We did something today. I asked J.J., “Can we bunt off the machine?” because that’s something I’ve been working on. So, he didn’t say, “Aw, man.” He said, “Yeah, we can do that. Do you really want to do it?” And I said, “Yes.” So, we came in here to the cage right when we got here. He fixed the machine up for me and all that good stuff, and he was feeing me some tips. Also, the other coaches were feeding me some tips and I was just working on my bunting.
I appreciate him taking the time out from his day to come out here and feed the machine for me. I know he’s got a lot of tips, being a four-year college guy. Usually, the three-year and four-year college guys really know how to bunt. I’ve seen him bunt plenty of times, so I was trying to feed off of his mind.
He’s 22 and you’re 20. Do you look at some of the older guys that went to college and have grown up a bit, while you’re still maturing?
Thompson: I’ll ask him here and there about his approach at the plate and stuff like that, at the plate. I’m just trying to get little tips and add them to my game.
What about living life and so on? You’re now going out and having to pay bills once a month. You’re not at home anymore.
Thompson: Everybody really helps us with that kind of stuff. since we got here in May. It’s really been the first time I’ve had to pay rent, but they’re really helping us out with that.
Jacobs: He needs to be helping me out with my rent.
When I talked with Hayden Deal, when he came here with Rome (Ga.) – he and Hunter Harvey went to high school together – I asked him did he think he would have a greater appreciation to get to the major leagues than Hunter did. So, I’ll ask the same thing. Do you think you will have a greater appreciation of getting to the major leagues than a first rounder, or somebody else?
Jacobs: I don’t know, necessarily. I think both of us will obviously have a great appreciation for that because either way, making it to the major leagues is huge. The ultimate goal for a baseball player is making it there. So, I think, either way, whether he makes it, or whether I make it, or we both make it, I think we’ll both have an appreciation for that. It’ll be a satisfying road either way.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Jacobs: That would probably be the greatest day of my life. I’d probably call my parents and my girlfriend and I would be pretty happy that I made it there, but I’d want to get out there and win.
When you get the call up, what’s that phone call like for you?
Thompson: Really joyful, I feel like. There’s going to pressure off my back, but more pressure added on. As you get the call, they want you to go out there and provide and do your job. I feel like, like he was saying, we share the same amount of time at the field. So, I feel like it’s going to be the same feeling for everybody. Everybody here is on the bus ride, the long bus ride. Ain’t nobody on the plane, we’re all on the buses and working each and every day. So, whoever gets the call, that feeling is going to be epic.
I know you have a great appreciation for Bubba and all your teammates, so this question is not meant to be about them. But do you ever get a sense that somebody from another team who was a high pick isn’t giving an effort. Does that ever enter your mind to where you say, “come on, dude.”
Jacobs: I mean honestly, I have seen that with other teams, but not on our team. It just kind of bugs me because they have a great amount of talent and it’s a great opportunity for them and the situation they’re in.
It sucks to see a guy go about his business like that, because I know in his situation, if he were to work hard and do his thing every day, he’s got a good chance of making it. I mean, there’s nothing you can really do about it. If someone wants to hurt themselves and not help themselves out in that situation, there’s nothing I can tell him then.
Now, if it’s my teammates, I’m going to get on them and make sure they keep working.
You’ve got a first-round pick here in Bubba Thompson and he gets here and there’s a ton of expectations. And then you have a guy here like Justin, who wasn’t drafted. I guess that, maybe, he feels that every game he gets he gets is borrowed time, although he’s played well, and he’s worked himself into the equation to get playing time. As a manager and as coaches, what are the expectations when you have two guys coming in as widely varied expectations of ability and pedigree?
Hagen: I think, first and foremost, the expectations they have for themselves are exactly the same. They both expect to come out and get the most out of there abilities and they both have the same level of expectations of themselves to play in the big leagues. If they didn’t, then they shouldn’t be here. Of course, that’s probably geared more towards J.J.
Obviously, when a kid is a first round pick, an organization makes a financial investment in that kid, he’s going to have some bigger expectations placed on him from within the organization. But that doesn’t mean that we have less expectations from J.J., in the sense that we expect him to be a big leaguer one day, too.
I think it can be a blessing and a curse to be a kid that is a first-round pick because the expectations are so high for you, that when you come to the ballpark every day people expect you to do first-rounder type of things. So, it’s part of my job and the rest of the coaching staff to get both of these guys to realize and live up to their level of abilities, whatever their ceiling may be individually. We want to get the most out of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a free-agent pick or a first-round pick or everybody who’s in between that. They’re all the same to us.
Justin gave Bubba a lot of praise for being a kid that didn’t appear to be full of himself or cocky, where you get the stereotypical guy that comes in and has the money and now he doesn’t pull his weight. That’s probably rarely the case, but Bubba does appear to have handled himself well as far as getting in here and doing what he’s supposed to do.
Hagen: Yeah, and you’ve got to give credit to the people that raised Bubba. You give credit to his family and you give credit to the scouting department for doing the research on Bubba to find out, not only the kind of player he is, but what kind of person he is, because he can be cancerous to come in with that high-and-mighty type of attitude. It’s not a good way to endear yourself to your teammates. Whereas, Bubba, he’s been the exact opposite. He’s come and he’s one of the guys. He works his tail off and he’s a very humble person by nature, which makes him coachable and likeable and easy to work for.
How hard is it – and you went through this in your case where you didn’t sign or were not a high pick like Ryan Dorow or Sal Mendez – to bide your time to get your playing time and get your opportunity? The opportunity is always there, but they have to bide their time.
Hagen: Somebody explained it to me this way the best. The reality of it is everybody has a window to make it to the big leagues. Depending when you signed and what you signed for, your window might be bigger than somebody else. But they still have a window. If your window is small because you signed at an older age, or you didn’t get as much of a signing bonus, you still have a window and it’s your responsibility to capitalize on that window. And you can make your window bigger by playing well, and you can make your window smaller by not performing well.
So, we try to stress that to those kids, that you’re here because somebody in our scouting department, or otherwise, believe that you have the ability to be a major league baseball player one day. So, do the most of your window, and if you perform, you window is only going to get bigger.
Justin mentioned that you and Chase tries him out at Spokane. What did you guys see in him to say, “hey, we need to sign this guy and give him an opportunity.”
Hagen: First of all, he had good bat control and he has a good feel for his body. When he takes batting practice, he can hit the ball where it’s pitched. It’s a mature approach. It’s not a kid who’s trying to hit the ball as hard as he can on every swing. You give him something away, he’ll hit the ball the other way. If you make a mistake in, he’ll pull it for a base hit. Then the ability to make routine plays. If you hit him 20 ground balls in a row, he catches all 20.
It’s not the flashiest thing. He’s not going out there looking like a guy that runs a 4.4 40 as he goes to cover ground balls. If he gets to it, he catches it and is accurate with his throws. We say sometimes in the minor leagues that a guy is more of an athlete than a baseball player, and sometimes we have guys who are more a baseball player than an athlete. J.J., I think, falls into the realm of there’s a whole lot of baseball player in J.J. I mean, obviously, as a huge compliment. You’re always looking for guys that have a whole lot of baseball player in them, because they’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you in a lot of ways.
In writing the feature for the Hickory Daily Record, I had a bit of a writer’s block. I found the subject of this interview, Sam Huff, to be a multi-faceted person and there were so many directions in which I could’ve steered the article.
For the HDR writeup, I chose to go the route of the guy that had his baseball fire sparked at the age of five. As I mentioned in the article, there is a fire there that burns in the baseball soul. This kid wants to win and he wants to win however necessary.
I interviewed Huff a day after a game against Rome during which he and pitcher Jean Casanova put together a clinic on how to change the plan of attack against a lineup when the original plan didn’t work.
The night before, I had talked to the two of them about the game. A minor blip on Huff’s night was getting the golden sombrero (4 strikeouts in a game at the plate, for those that don’t know). When I asked him about that, while he wasn’t happy about the strikeouts, in the grand scheme of the game itself, he didn’t care. His team won. He had a part of that win because of the work as a catcher and that’s all that mattered to him. He repeated the mantra over and over, “I just want to win.” I left without the expletive that was a part of one of those statements.
So, inside of a measured speaker, that fire is there and the more it smolders.
There were other areas we touched on in this interview: his development, his leadership, and his curiosity for learning. I think readers will see that curiosity when reading through the interview and how he seeks to soak up information.
Both Huff and catching coordinator mentioned the influence of former Crawdads catcher Jose Trevino on Huff. So, I tracked down Trevino to get his perspective on Huff and what stands out to him.
Said Trevino about Huff:
“He’s different. Swings different. Throws different. He’s a special kid.
“He doesn’t know how dangerous he is yet though and I think being in his first full season, he will start to figure it out. He’s like that baby snake that doesn’t know how poisonous it is, yet. But sooner or later he will know when to strike and how much he needs to take down someone.
“He always wants to learn and he’s always picking my brain about everything! I like being around the kid because he still needs that person to check him back into place at times. It looks funny, a 5’8” dude telling a 6’8” dude something that will help him.
“But yes, a very special kid with a lot of talent. I don’t really compare him to a player in the big leagues right now cause I don’t think you can. Sam Huff is Sam Huff. He’s going to keep getting better and he’s always going to want to learn. Great ballplayer and a better person!”
However, Huff is not just a student for the sake of being a student. He wants to lead. He wants to lead his team. He wants to lead his pitchers. Huff doesn’t appear to be a person to lead in such a way that gives the feeling he that wants the world to revolve around him; he wants to figure out how to make his teammates better—so they can win.
Here is the interview with Sam Huff:
First of all, your three-headed monster at catcher, I guess, is now down to two with you and Pozo. How did the three of you work together where you’re not getting total playing time behind the plate but you’re having to figure that out?
Huff: At the start it was kind of different because we’d play like Melvin, me, Pozo, Melvin, me, Pozo and we kind of had to work off of that. It was kind of hard to get into a rhythm and a groove. Then we’d finally start to get the hang of it and we were like, “Okay, this is our day.”
The day before that we’d get focused on watching and studying. Then the day of, we’d talk to each other. Melvin would say, “Hey, this team is good at hitting fastballs” or “This team likes to hit offspeeds and the fastball away” or “They’re a fast team, so then like to bunt or run.” We just had to almost give each other reports to keep us in the game and to help our pitchers.
Because, our goal is to help our pitchers. Us three together, we knew we all had to come together and help each other, because overall, we want to be good and we like to see each other do good because we’re winning. What I said last night, we like to win and have us three catchers calling good games and our pitchers in the strike zone and keeping them in good rhythm. It helps a lot to talk to each other.
Was it hard to get the pitchers into any kind of consistency, though, when you have three different voices coming at them?
Huff: Yeah, because pitchers will want to throw to a different guy, or to one or the other, but we just had to work with it. We had to learn our pitchers by talking, then catching the bullpens, catching the sides and getting an idea of what they like to do. So, every day I didn’t catch, and it was my off day, I would go to the bullpen and catch all the relievers. That’s the biggest part is every night, you’ve got a new guy coming in. You’ve haven’t caught them in two weeks and you don’t remember the ball movements. My biggest thing is I can remember my pitchers.
I live with four: Tyler Phillips, Joe Barlow, Josh Advocate and Noah (Bremer) – he’s coming back from the rehab. I talk to them. I always work with them. I know them like the back of my hand. I love them and it’s just good to talk to pitchers because then they tell you what pitchers think like from a perspective of what they want to do, how they want to do it. What’s their strengths and what’s their weaknesses. How they rank their pitches. That comes into play because you’ve got to know, if he doesn’t have his fastball, what’s his second best and go off that. You can’t just say, “Okay, we’re going to go to his third best,” and that’s not his strength. You got to work to the strengths of the pitcher and understand them.
There’s so much that goes into catching, not just handling the pitching staff, obviously the defense, then you’ve got to come out and bring a stick to the plate and hit. Then, there’s so many intangibles. What’s the biggest thing you are working on right now, at this level?
Huff: The biggest thing is being consistent behind the plate, catching, calling the game, maintaining a good pitching staff and how I want to approach hitters. Last night was a really good thing for me as a catcher to learn. If a plan doesn’t work, we can work off of it where we can modify it a little bit. We don’t have to flip the script and get a whole new plan. We just build off of it. It was really cool to understand that. Here’s a team that’s a fastball hitting team. They don’t like curveballs, so, okay, we’ll pitch backwards now. As a catcher, when I see that, it’s going to be easier to call because you understand, because I’m right here and the hitter’s standing right there. So, it’s easier for me, but it has to come from the pitcher, too.
Learning that as a player and hitting and just being consistent. I’m just working on some stuff. Overall, I don’t try to focus too much about hitting, because the biggest thing for me is to become the best catcher and I want to be the best.
What made you decide you wanted to be a catcher in the first place? You guys take a beating and there’s so much going into what you do at the position.
Huff: I didn’t catch my whole life. I played short when I was little, third, first, the outfield and pitched. I didn’t pitch in high school. I played first base my freshman year.
I watched a guy named Tommy Joseph and Matt Wieters and Joe Mauer. I liked the way they did their catching. I just kind of said, I want to be a catcher. I went to a guy in Arizona – he was Tommy Joseph’s catching coach. Tommy was in the (Arizona) fall league at the time with the Giants, so he’d come and watch and hang out. It kind of got me triggered there. I was in my sophomore year. In my junior and senior year, I caught.
It’s been different. I didn’t think I was ever going to be a catcher when I was younger. I thought I was going to be a third baseman or a first baseman, or the outfield type. It stuck with me. I liked the way it is, that you’re in every pitch. You’re not just standing there, but you’re doing something to help the team win.
What is the thing you think you bring to the position? You were playing other positions and now you’re fresh behind the plate. What did you bring to the position that you thought would make it work?
Huff: I thought I received well. I caught the ball. I threw the ball good and I could throw guys out. Blocking, I had to work at it and I’m still working at it, but it’s becoming one of my strengths. I just felt like I could catch and throw really well. I felt like I could bring energy as a player and being able to control my team and help my teammates out, because I want other guys to be good.
To be able to see a catcher, even though he’s down, but he’s still up and going, that’s a leader. I’m just trying to fill the role, because it’s something I want to be, but it’s something I’ve got to work at. Every day I’m working and I’m talking to guys that I feel like are leaders to me and they tell me how they do it and I try to copy that.
Who are the leaders to you?
Huff: I feel like Clay Middleton. He’s a really good guy to look after. Tyree Thompson, Tyler Phillips, I could go on. I feel like everybody, in some aspect of the way, is a leader to me. They show me things that I can do different, and they tell me things that I can do different, and I show them things that I’ve improved on that they could do different. So, it’s really cool. As a team, I try and incorporate everybody as a leader. It doesn’t matter how you lead, if you’re just a quiet guy or if you like to talk a lot. If you’re a leader, you’re a leader.
You mentioned some guys that got you interested in catching like Mauer and Tommy Joseph. At this stage of you career, who are you looking at as someone you’d like to model your game after?
Huff: I’d like to model my game after Mike Piazza. He wasn’t the best catcher, but he could hit. He’s a Hall-of-Famer, so you can’t say that he’s not that bad of a catcher. But, I really like to model my game after him, because watching video, he had the mentality of, he’s going to beat you. He doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t give, you know what, about you.
He plays hard. He wasn’t given the opportunity, he had to work for it. I like watching him as a player, because he had the flow. He had the mentality to just go out there and play to show everyone that he was better than they thought he would be.
(Rangers catching coordinator) Chris (Briones) will come in and say, “it’s time to fill my guys up.” What does a guy like Chris bring to you when he comes on a visit?
Huff: We talk about what I can do different and what I’m doing good at. What things he’s seen that I’ve improved on, or I need to improve on. Lately, we’ve just talked about being consistent behind the plate and getting wins, being consistent with the blocking, the throwing, the receiving, calling. I love Chris and love when he comes here and we talk.
We always bring up Trevino because we’re in the same agency and we always talk. I always talk to Jose, so I ask him little things and he just tells me what’s the deal and how to do it. It’s really awesome to have a guy like that talk to me. It’s really cool.
What are you looking at as the next step of development for you?
Huff: Just getting better every day at everything. I feel like I can get better at everything. There’s always something I want to improve on. I feel like once I start to get the hang of hitting, then everything will come together. Overall, I want to get better at everything. I’m always anxious to learn. Briones, he knows that and I’m always talking to him about stuff. So, it’s always cool to have him here and pick his brain a little more.
You get a call that says you’re going to the major leagues? Who’s the first person you call?
Huff: My parents. My dad first. He’s been there since the start, so he would get the first call. Then my grandma and grandpa, and then my whole family members and my coaches and friends.
Who is the biggest factor in your career that is not a family member?
Huff: As crazy as it sounds, my dad’s best friend, Marty Maier, a pitching coach at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. We talk all the time and he’s been playing for a while.
He was kind of the first guy I talked to in baseball when I was a five-year-old kid. He’s a pretty funny guy, but he told me, “This game ain’t easy, but you can do a lot if you just apply yourself. Play every game like it’s your last. Never, ever take anything for granted.” I took that to heart and I really love this game and I like to play.
I thank myself every day and I thank my parents. I thank everybody that’s helped me along this journey. Even though I’m in the ups and downs, I still remember what would I rather be doing: going to school or playing baseball for a living? When you tell yourself that, you really take it to heart. I’m playing a game that’s a kid’s game and I’m having fun with it. So, I try not to take anything for granted. For him doing that and telling me that at a young age, that was really cool and I thank him for that every day.
At 6-4, 180 lbs., Alex Speas isn’t the biggest physical specimen among the current pitching staff on the Hickory Crawdads, but at this point, he has the biggest fastball among them all. In my mind’s eye, he reminds me of Carl Edwards Jr., from the 2013 squad – a tall, lean stature that is a little more filled out than C.J. was then – that gives no hint of the heat that is to come from the right arm. Speas actually brings more heat than did Edwards at Low-A. When he gasses up the fastball, I mean really gasses up, he is touching 96-98 mph with an easy delivery.
The native of Powder Spring, Ga. is the Texas Rangers No. 23 prospect according to MLB.com. The fastball is a big reason why. The reports lists a curveball, but it appears the breaking ball is more of a slider that has a good bite to it. Further beading the brief scouting report about Speas, one sees a cautionary tale – control. Since joining the Rangers after the team picked him in the second round of the 2013 June draft out of McEachern High School, Speas has struck out 81 batters in 56 innings, but walked 45. He began with the Rangers as a starting pitchers but moved to the bullpen midway through the 2017 season at short-season Spokane.
In watching him here at Hickory, there are times he dominates opponents. Then there are other times that his pitches and home plate are incompatible.
In an April 16 outing vs. Lexington (Ky.), Speas had his pitches working in a ninth-inning outing. He struck out four in the ninth inning – one reached on a breaking ball that badly fooled the hitter on a strikeout as well as his catcher on what turned out to be wild pitch – as he threw 14 of 18 pitches for strikes. Two days later, though he didn’t walk anyone, he allowed three hits as the Legends hitters waited for strikes, of which there were just 16 of them in 29 pitches.
Another example of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature that can be Speas was an outing vs. Delmarva (Md.) on April 27. Struggling with a landing spot on the mound, the control floundered as he walked two in the eighth. After an adjustment in his position on the rubber, Speas returned to pitch a 1-2-3 ninth and struck out one.
My interest in talking with Speas was to ask from his perspective what is the fine line of between the Alex Speas that gets hitters out and the one that walks them. With an infectious personality and a smile that would make a dentist jealous, Speas was honest in his assessment of his development and where he hopes that will take him in 2018.
First of all, I want to ask you overall view of how you are doing so far?
Speas: I feel like it has started off pretty well for me. This is the first year as a full bullpen guy. I got moved into the bullpen role at the end of last season. I feel like it’s started off pretty well. I’ll have my two or three good outings and then I’ll have one, maybe two rough outings. I feel like consistency wise that I’m starting to get the feel for coming out of the bullpen and getting used to having to throw the back end of games after throwing in the front end of games. At first, it was a little rough to start off with and I’d say after my first two I got out of the way I had least two or three good ones and then I’d have one bad one. At the end of the day, I’d say right now I’m getting used to it and starting to get the consistency process of it and day by day pounding innings and getting more innings in the bullpen, so that when it comes down to it, I feel like this will be the role for me.
Did you have to adjust to the whole process? You had a routine being a starter and doing this one day and doing this another day. Now it’ll be a couple of days in between outings?
Speas: Yeah, it’s a big adjustment. The biggest adjustment for me was going from throwing every five or six days to now throwing maybe every other day, or back to back days. I’d say at first it was tough, but I’m getting used to the process. I felt good enough in spring training to throw basically every other day, even if I threw two innings or if I threw one inning that day. I’d say the biggest part was just making the adjustment of days of rest – how to take care of my body in between outings and get ready for the next day.
What is the biggest adjustment you made in taking care of yourself?
Speas: I think the biggest adjustment was finding a way of how I can relieve soreness or tightness on that day, to get over it. I think it played a big part to me now being able to know that, hey, this next day, I know what I need to do with my body after I threw a day. The day after that, I know that I’m going to feel a lot better. I’d say preparing my body. Now I have plenty of days where I’m not sore at all. Where there are days I might be tight, but even if I’m tight that day, I’m still able to throw.
98? Where did you find all of that?
Speas: I’d honestly say it’s just a blessing.
I’m looking at you and there’s not much leg there. Where are you finding that?
Speas: I’m not a big body and there’s a lot of guys taller than me, as well, and guys that are more filled out. I’d just say growing up being a three-sport athlete and just having the athletic ability, being blessed to just go out there and have a strong arm. It came to me naturally and I can’t say more.
Each year, I just focus on preparation with my arm and preparation with my body. It doesn’t show that I’m a heavy, strong guy, but I’m a really strong guy because in the offseason I take care of my body. I’m one of those guys that’s in the gym four to five days a week. I’m one of those guys that, when I’m here, I’m always asking to get an extra day in the gym, just because I feel that all that right there prepares me, like I said, to get rid of the tightness and get rid of the soreness. When I have those days that I threw 96 or 98 the first day, I still feel like I can come back the next day and still have it.
It looks like you are working on your secondaries quite a bit. What’s the focus, right now, as far as your secondaries?
Speas: I guess the biggest thing to focus was, if I’m ahead on my fastball, I throw my slider as a wipeout slider, or I can throw my slider in there for a strike. The biggest was being able to throw my slider when I’m behind in the count, to have trust in it. If it’s a day that I don’t have my fastball, I can trust in my slider.
The biggest thing is I think this year, mostly I throw more 3-2 sliders for strikeout pitches and more 2-2 sliders for strikeout pitches than having my fastball working the count. Because hitters now, as I continue to move up, as they know me as a plus-plus fastball guy, they’re sitting dead red for my fastball and they’re waiting for me to throw my fastball. There’s not much that they have to do except put the barrel of the bat on the ball and put it in play.
The biggest think was gaining trust in my slider. Gaining trust in my slider has helped me along to have more strikeouts and to be able to throw it in plus counts – throw it as a 1-0 count, a 3-2 count, to get more strikeouts and to get more strike calls.
Are you working on a changeup much?
Speas: I do. It’s a development thing for me. I’ll throw it every once in a while. There are days where I can say that my changeup is better than my slider. But there are days when I say that my changeup is my worst pitch, my third best pitch. It’s one of those things right now where we preach that we can get away at the Low-A and High-A level with a fastball and a slider, maybe a little bit at AA, but that’s one thing that I’m still developing each day. Every time I go out and play catch, every day I’ll throw a slider Every day I throw a bullpen I’m going to dominate that changeup because when the time comes, it’s going to be a time that I’ll need it.
What is the fine line for you where you will hit the spots where you want and you’ll have a good outing or inning and then struggle the next outing or inning?
Speas: The fine line is just the mental process. I was blessed with all the physical aspects of the game, to be able to throw hard and to be able to throw strikes when needed. But I think the biggest thing is me understanding the mental part of the game and being able to come out there and dominate the game, even when we are losing 7-1 like last night, even when we are tied 1-1, or when I have to come out and close the game. Because there are times when I’m going to come in in the fourth or fifth inning because I need to throw and we don’t have anymore relievers.
I think the biggest thing for me right now is the mental side because. Like I said, there will be days when I’ll have three good outings in a row. There will be days where I’ll just have two bad back-to-back outings. The raw talent and the raw ability I’m still figuring out and finding a fine line between it, but the mental side of the game, in my head, that’s where I’m trying to focus on the most.
When you throw an inning, what’s a perfect outing for you right now?
Speas: Nobody wants to go out there and give up runs. But a good day for me is if I go out there and I don’t feel like I’m giving into a hitter, and I feel like I’m attacking the zone at 100 percent each time. And I feel like a good outing for me – if I walk a guy, I walk a guy – but if I get out of the inning with zero runs and I’m still like I’m still in the 60 percent strike range, I feel like that’s a good day for me.
What are you goals for the rest of the year?
Speas: Just keep dominating. One of the big things for me, last year I wanted to cut my walks down. So, one of those things is that I’m getting to the point where I’m cutting the walks down and just find a more consistent basis. Maybe have four good outings and one bad outing and then get right back to the next four good outings. Just find the fine line between the mental game and finding the strong points where I can consistently have a good day.
Do you want to be a starter or reliever long term?
Speas: Long term, I think one of my biggest things was, just because of how hard I threw and in high school I came in and threw everything off the back end, I always wanted to be a reliever. But, I feel like that there is one day, if there is a time where I do end up gaining my changeup and I gain trust in all three of my pitches and I can throw it for strikes, then I’ll end up being a starter again.
When Tyler Phillips last pitched for Hickory, it was at home against Greensboro on May 14. The pitching line for that game: 3.2 innings, 4 H, 5 R (2 ER), 3 hit batters, 1 BB, 3 Ks and a wild pitch. Of the 40 pitches he threw, 25 went for strikes.
Fast forward to the South Atlantic League opener on Thursday, against Greensboro on the road. The pitching line: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R (all earned), 2 BB, 4 K, 68 pitches, 45 strikes.
While the pitching lines are similar, where Phillips is in comparison to the 2017 season is far different.
“I think last year was a big learning year for him,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes in an interview earlier this week. “He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature.”
The Rangers 16th-round pick in 2015 seemed almost out-of-place with the Crawdads and there seemed to be a timid approach to hitters by the then 19-year-old hurler. In 25.1 innings, he struck out just 15, but walked nine, hit five more and the SAL hit .280 against him.
There was none of that at Thursday night’s opener as he attacked hitters from the start.
In comparing the two circumstances from last year to this, Phillips feels more of a sense of belonging on the Crawdads roster this season.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different than last year,” said Phillips. “I came in and wasn’t really expecting to be here in Hickory. This year, I came in here and I was the opening-day starter, so it was pretty cool.”
After his re-assignment from Hickory, Phillips put the struggles behind him and put together a strong short-season at Spokane. With the Indians, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 73 innings with 78 strikeouts to just 11 walks.
The changes since leaving Hickory last May, Phillips said, were twofold.
Going to Surprise, Ariz., Phillips looked to re-center himself mechanically. Listed at 6-5, 200 pounds, he worked to find control of a fastball that ranged from 92-94 mph on Thursday. With the aid of Rangers pitching coaches at the team’s extended spring training complex, Phillips found some answers on video.
“What I did find out was at the beginning at Hickory,” Phillips said. “I got away from my routine and I changed a bunch of things with my mechanics. I got around the ball, around the side of it. So, I did fix my fastball; I got more on top of the ball and I was able to bring it down. My changeup has always been there. The curveball has always been a work in progress; I changed my grip up a little bit. So, I’m always trying to improve something.”
Mechanics and repertoire aside, there was perhaps an underlying issue at hand: believing he pitch.
“When I went back to Spokane, honestly, it was a big mindset thing,” said Phillips. “Just going out and being more confident with every pitch that I had, knowing that I could get guys out, knowing that I was good. I definitely found out that baseball is just a game and you’ve got to make it fun.”
With tools and a new outlook, Phillips took to the mound on Thursday and went after hitters. Of the 68 pitches he threw, 18 missed bats, including all three pitches during a second-inning plate appearance by Eric Gutierrez, and on two of the three pitches thrown to Isael Soto, who was caught looking in the third.
Phillips said that as his mechanics improved, the increase in swings-and-misses increased.
“It kind of just started when I got to Spokane,” he said. “A lot of those are the changeup. I kind of developed that, keeping the same arm speed as my fastball. The fastball, this year, it’s harder because I got into my lower half better, so that’s another thing I’m fiddling around with.”
So, while the numbers between the final start with Hickory the first are the similar, Phillips left Thursday’s start feeling more assured of where he is as a pitcher.
“The results, obviously, were not what I wanted them to be,” Phillips said. “But I feel like I accomplished the things I wanted to work on.”
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.