There are some people that know how to teach. Hickory Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes appears to be one of them.
When one looks at the pitchers he has mentored over the past three seasons, it’s an impressive list. The last two Nolan Ryan Award winners, given to the Texas Rangers minor league pitcher of the year, both came from the Hickory squad – Kyle Cody in 2017 and Tyler Phillips last year. The minor league reliever of the year in 2018 also pitched at Hickory – Demarcus Evans.
A look at the current Texas Rangers top-30 prospects on mlb.com is a gallery of pitchers that have come through Hickory, or are here now: Hans Crouse (No. 1), Cole Winn (2), Joe Palumbo (7), Jonathan Hernandez (8), Tyler Phillips (13), C.D. Pelham (15), A.J. Alexy (20), Evans (24), Cody (28) and Ronny Henriquez (30).
Jeffrey Springs and Erik Swanson were also here with Jaimes in 2016, seasons during which both made the South Atlantic League all-star team. They, along with Pelham, have ascended to the majors.
Many of the names on the list above had their share of struggles. Some, like Phillips and Evans, went through demotions before coming back and figuring out what they were doing. Others, such as Pelham and Hernandez and Alexy, had to bull through tough times at Hickory, but eventually caught on to what they needed to do.
They common factor among them all is a calm-demeanored pitching coach in Jose Jaimes. In talking with him, now for four seasons, here is a coach that is positive about every pitcher under his care and expects them to succeed.
I had a chance to talk with Jaimes a couple of weeks ago about coaching and what adjustments he has made in that field. He also gives insights about those who worked through their struggles and those who were stubborn and had to learn the hard way that adjustments were needed.
Here is that interview.
This is your fourth year here?
Jaimes: The fourth year, you’re right.
Does this feel like home now?
Jaimes: Yeah, it kind of feels like home, actually. When we got back this year in early April, I told my wife that it kind of felt like we never left. It felt like we were gone for two weeks and then we came back. I like it here.
Obviously, the Rangers keep sending you back here, but you have a say in this. What brings you back here year after year?
Jaimes: Well, those decisions are more to the Rangers, but when they tell me I have to go back I don’t mind it at all, because I like the city. It’s a safe city and my wife loves it. So, it makes everything a little easier. I have only good stuff to say about Hickory.
This is your fourth year here. What do you know now that you had to learn since your first year back in 2016?
Jaimes: Well, 2016 was my first full-season as a coach. So, I kind of had to adjust to the workload of the players. Coming from extended (spring training) and Spokane (Wash.), they didn’t play that many games. In Arizona, they get an off day a week, so it’s a lot easier to manage the workload of the players. Coming here, it’s a little more difficult because you play 18 games in a row and you’ve got to travel. You got to do a bunch of stuff that you don’t do in short season. So, being able to manage that with the players was probably my biggest challenge my first year.
And then, it’s getting to know the league and to know the teams that we face. I feel like every year has been a little easier. But, it’s always a challenge, because you’re always getting new players and a new staff. So, you kind of have to adjust to them also.
Does this feel like a good niche for you to get these young guys in their first full season? Is that something you see yourself doing longer term?
Jaimes: Yeah. I like it here and I like working with the young players, definitely. I think it’s a really important year for these guys and I feel like I can help to get on track on what to expect in a full season and all that. I feel like it’s a good fit for me.
How difficult is it to take a group of 13 -14 guys, especially this year where so many of them are new to you, to learn their stuff and what they like to do, and then take some of what is not working for them, and fix what they can do better?
Jaimes: Everything starts for me in spring training. I try to spend as much time as I can with the guys that I know are going to come with me. So, I try to get to know them and what they like to do on the field, and get to know their routines, know what works for them.
That’s how it starts, and then once I get here, probably that first week, I start to put my plan together for them from when I got to know them in Arizona. Then, as the year goes, they start getting to know themselves a little more, so they start to put stuff together that will work for them.
Most of the time it comes from them. Sometimes I’ll give a suggestion, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones making the decision. That isn’t working for me, or other stuff they’re doing in their routines, thing like that.
Do you ever get guys that are stubborn and they have to figure that stuff out?
Jaimes: (Laughing) Yeah. That’s part of it. You’ll always get that guy that wants to do their own things. Sometimes you’ve just got to let it go until they can’t handle that. Then, they realize that they need to listen a little more.
How difficult is it to stand back when you see something that you know is not going to work, and they’re getting pounded, and you see the teammates’ reactions that something is not working?
Jaimes: I think that comes with experience. I think, maybe, my first couple of years as a coach, I always tried to jump in right away. But then, with experience, you kind of get to learn to be a little more patient and let the game take care of that. Sometimes, you need to let them come to you.
You always want them to tell you what they didn’t do right, or if they need to change. Sometimes, it gets a little overwhelming to them. I think the best thing, sometimes, is to let them come to you and ask for advice.
In your four years, you’ve had Kyle Cody, Edgar Arredondo, Joe Palumbo to name a few. Who is the guy that struggled some early, but you saw the light switch on, that gave you the most pleasure to see that?
Jaimes: There’s a couple, but definitely Joe Palumbo was one of them. I had him in 2014 and 2015. We always saw the potential that he had, but early in his career he didn’t challenge himself and he didn’t put in the effort in practice. Once he started changing that mentality and you started seeing the difference. The velo went up. The command got better. He became more of a true pitcher. It was probably one of the more exciting stories I’ve had in my career.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons, the first month to six weeks were tough. You and I would talk, and I know those were tough times. Part of that was what the Rangers were wanting to see the guys in commanding the fastball. How difficult was that to go through as a coach? You knew what the outcome was going to be, but still guys are getting beat up and they’re not happy.
Jaimes: That’s what we teach the players, is that we have to stay with the process. It was a plan that we put together for them. Yeah, it was tough to see it, but we always tried to stay positive, because at some point, that plan was going to pay off. And it did.
It was tough but watching the guys those first five or six weeks start to command their fastball better and getting to know that they can pitch with their fastball. It was cool to see. It was tough, but sometimes you have to stay with the process.
Who is the most talented pitcher you’ve had?
Jaimes: Oooo, that’s a tough one. We’ve had a few of them. Demarcus Evans.
Demarcus, for me, is one of the most talented pitchers because, obviously the size. He’s a big guy. He has a plus-fastball at 94-95, but when you look deeper at what kind of fastball he has, you look at the spin rate and the type of vertical movement that he has, that’s what makes his fastball so special. That’s why he has so many swing-and-misses on fastballs at the middle of the plate.
Kyle Cody was another one. Big fastball with some sinker action, then with the slider that he has. Those two pitches play very well.
Crouse, obviously. He’s a big talent and throws pitches for strikes. I love the way that he competes. To me, that’s special. He’s not afraid. He likes a good challenge. So, you pull the talent and then you add the type of person and athlete that he is, and the mentality he has, that makes him even better.
So, what’s the feeling like when you see guy like C.D. (Pelham) get a call up? Now, you start seeing the guys get the brass ring, what does that mean to you?
Jaimes: When I think about C.D. – you remember those first couple of months in 2017, he struggled. Then, he started putting it together halfway through the year. When I saw him when he got called up last year, it kind of almost made me cry, because I know how hard he worked and I know how much patience he had with the process. Sometimes, he tried stuff and it didn’t work, but he gave his best effort.
When you see guys like that make it to the big leagues, it makes you feel good for them, because you know how hard they work. He’s a special kid and a great guy, a good teammate and he was always good with the coaches.
What’s your path to the big leagues, or do you see a path? Do you like this part of the process in the teaching and developing?
Jaimes: Yes, I love teaching. I would like to see myself at some point, in a few years, getting into the big leagues. That’s the ultimate goal, for sure. But, as long as I have a job and doing what I like, I’ll be okay.
What made you want to do it in the first place?
Jaimes: My last year, when I played, I was the oldest Latin kid on the team. We had a lot of Latin players, so I kind of took them under my wing. So I started guiding them to what they were going to face when they went to Spokane. So, that’s when I started liking the teaching part. They were listening to what I was saying, so that’s when coaching started to become more intriguing to me. I knew my playing career was probably going to be pretty short, so I thought, ‘you know what, if I get to stay in baseball and I can coach, I’ll be fine.’
When Hickory Crawdads pitcher Tim Brennan made his last start a week ago, he faced the South Atlantic League’s best offense in the Asheville Tourists. Entering that three-games series against Hickory, the Tourists had the top mark in the SAL in all three slash statistical categories (batting avg., on-base pct., and slugging), and were second in home runs. Asheville also had the reigning SAL hitter of the week in Willie MacIver.
Making just his second pro start, it didn’t appear that Brennan, the Texas Rangers’ seventh-round pick last June out of St. Joseph’s, would be a good matchup against the powerful Tourists lineup. And it certainly wasn’t – for the Tourists.
Brennan retired the first 12 hitters and held the Tourists hitless through five on the way to a 2-0 win last Monday.
Entering the start, the right-hander said the plan was to use the aggressive nature of the Tourists lineup against them.
“I like when teams swing early,” said Brennan, who gave up one walk, one hit and struck out three for the win. “I want to get ahead, and I’m just going to try and miss barrels. I think I had 16 out of 20 batters with four pitches or less last night, which is exactly what I’m looking for to go deep into games.”
Compared to much of the Crawdads staff, Brennan, 22, doesn’t have the eye-popping velocity that catches the eye. The right-hander’s sinking fastball zips around 87-89 mph, which is relatively pedestrian to several other Crawdads pitchers that hit the gun regularly from 95-99. Brennan, who throws a slider and changeup as his secondaries, is comfortable with who he is.
“I know what I have and I know how it plays,” said the native of Philadelphia. “I’ve studied guys that throw similarly. I’ve watched a lot of Kyle Hendricks with the Cubs…I’ve had the same stuff since college and obviously my stuff has gotten a little better and I’ve tinkered with things. But, I’ve thrown the same way for the last four or five years and I’m comfortable with it. Now, I’m just trying to master it.”
After his selection last June, with a cold, college season at St. Joseph’s behind him and a touch of shoulder inflammation, Brennan sat out the summer before throwing some at instructionals last fall. He finally got his first official action in a start at Greensboro on April 9, when he allowed a run on three hits, with one walk and two strikeouts.
Along with getting his shoulder ready for this season, he prepared for his season and that first start by getting some advice from other pro pitchers. The advice he got mirrored that of the trust he has in his stuff – to be who he is.
“The biggest advice I got was to have fun and be yourself,” said Brennan. “If you try to do too much and be somebody you’re not, then you’re not going to be as effective. Go with what you’ve got and go out there and own it. That’s what I try to do.”
Along with understanding what he has and using it to his advantage, Brennan thinks his style of pitching is advantage in the bigger picture of a game, when the high-velocity arms of the bullpen enter.
“The chances are the guys in our bullpen are going to be completely different,” Brennan explained. “There’s going to be different arm slots and 95-plus. Our bullpen has been absolutely electric this year. The goal is to get through the lineup three times, be winning the game and then turn it over to them, and then, we’re probably going to win.”
Looking at the rest of this season, Brennan, who says he manipulates his slider at times to give it the appearance of a curveball, wants to develop a fastball that stays up in the zone.
“With throwing all sinkers in college,” said Brennan. “I didn’t try and go up at all. Now, it’s just go up to get them off my fastball down and my offspeed. I’m getting more and more comfortable with it and I think that’ll be a big weapon for me down the road.”
At Greensboro on April 10, Hans Crouse showed the stuff that makes fans Texas Rangers drool and dream of what might be at the new Arlington ballpark in a few years. Put together an upper 90s fastball along with a frisbee of a slider that darts away from right-handed hitters, and Crouse has a weaponry that frustrates hitters at the plate. He did just that with 9 strikeouts over five innings of one-hit ball.
That’s what Hickory was expecting to see last August when the right-hander came up from short-season Spokane. However, Crouse struggled with command at times and South Atlantic League hitters popped him at a .273 batting average.
When I asked pitching coach Jose Jaimes about how Crouse adjusted to the more advanced league, Jaimes responded, “Maybe (it was) surprising to him. I think, maybe, he wasn’t expecting that, especially happening multiple times.”
Back for a full season with Hickory, Crouse is determined to get back into the same groove that made him a Northwest League All-Star last summer and had him tabbed as a short-season all-star by Baseball America.
I had a chance to sit down with Crouse for a short interview prior to a team workout last week. We talked about his month with Hickory in 2018 and what he’s working on for 2019. He also talked about some of quirks that makes Crouse an unique pitcher to watch.
You got a little taste of this level last year. I just had a chance to talk with (Jose) Jaimes (Crawdads pitching coach) and he mentioned that you might have been surprised at the level. What was the end of last year like for you? You had some success here, but it wasn’t Spokane anymore.
The competition was no different from Spokane. It was just more of, I just came here and I tried to over impress when I just needed to do exactly what I did in Spokane and stay true to how I know how to pitch. I still had success here, but it just never felt the same as how comfortable I felt in Spokane. It probably was just a combination of things – coming in, trying to impress a new group of guys, gel with a new group of guys with only a month left. So, everything just felt very quick.
Describe how you felt you were over impressing. What did that mean for you?
I was trying to overthrow certain pitches, especially my slider. My slider has always been my bread-and-butter pitch, offspeed 0-2 wise. I just probably tried to overthrow it, just yanked on it a little bit and just wasn’t landing for strikes as much as I needed it to.
Was it that you felt guys were watching you? Was part of that, perhaps, the guys were in a playoff run at that point? Were you trying to overcompensate to be a part of that?
No, I was just trying to pitch as best as I could. I probably tried a little too hard off the get go. Like I said, I just needed to pitch like I did in Spokane and it would’ve been more than just fine.
What will you change for this year, or will you change anything for this year?
No, I mean, I feel really comfortable where I’m at. I developed my changeup a lot better this year and I’m going to use that a lot more this year. Then, just stick with how I know how to pitch – using my fastball, pitching up with it, pitching in with it like I like to throw it. And then, just landing that slider like I know how to.
How old are you?
You get the ball for opening night. How wild is that when you were in high school two years ago?
It’s definitely a dream come true, for sure. It’s something that I have to thank God for, number one, and also my family back home for putting me in this situation. It’s cool to see hard work paying off, at the same time. That day, if the coaching staff has that kind of trying of trust in me, it’s going to be a special night.
From pitching in high school to this point, what’s the biggest growth you’ve had to this point?
I’d probably just say on the mental side of the pitching game. In high school – I still am very animated out on the mound – but in high school it was even more drastic in terms of talking back to umps and shouting stuff you can’t get away with in pro ball. It’s more finding the right gear when to hit that notch and when to be aggressive.
I’m always aggressive on the mound but balancing out the different sides. There’s a time to be aggressive, and that’s when I’m on the mound, and then there’s a time to lay back and chill.
One of things I’ve noticed is that you have a lot of different quirks in winding up. How did that come about?
I watched a lot of video on Johnny Cueto. That’s where I got the shimmy from. Other than that, all that other stuff, I didn’t watch any video. I just wanted to give hitters a different look and I’m comfortable throwing strikes in any position my body is put in. So, if I can give hitters multiple looks and get them thinking even more, I’m going to use that to my advantage.
That’s not something you see a lot at this level, as everybody is still trying to figure out who they are. Is that something the Rangers have encouraged you to do?
Yeah, they’ve embraced all my deliveries from day one and my style of pitching, which is what I really loved about being with Texas. They’ve really shown their commitment to develop me as a pitcher, but also letting me keep all my different deliveries and stuff I like to do out on the mound.
DeMarcus Evans, 25th round pick of the Texas Rangers, has found the proverbial magic bean on the mound. The native of Petal, Mississippi – a suburb on Hatttiesburg in the southeastern part of the state – struggled as a starter with Hickory in 2017 and wasn’t trusted with key game situations out of the bullpen in the early part of this year. In 15 outing in the first half, he pitched with lead in only three of them, and even those were games mostly in hand. Just once did he see a game that had a hold or save situation in the balance.
In the second half, Evans been as untouchable as anyone in the South Atlantic League. He has nine saves since the SAL all-star break – five in August – with a 0.66 ERA. Of the 100 hitters he’s faced in the second half, 56 have struck out. Just 18 have reached base. He went from non-descript “guy” to a player that should start showing up on some of the Rangers top-30 prospect lists over the winter.
I talked with Evans in July, but then the “day job” sidetracked me doing anything with this until now. Since the time of the interview, Evans was named the Rangers reliever of the month award in July. Barring a rough rinal 9 days of the month, he’s the odds-on favorite to win it again.
What’s different? The velocity on his fastball went from 91-92 to 95-96 at its beak. The curveball hits the strike zone with frequency and is nearly unhittable at this level. But for Evans, he admits that gaining trust in his own ability has been the biggest hurdle.
In the interview below, Evans talks through his struggles from 2017 and how he conquered some of the mechanical issues, as well as the mental ones.
Demarcus, well first of all, what switch did you find?
Evans: I just been learning to pitch in the bullpen. I have been starting the last 2 years, so I’ve been picking up stuff in the bullpen. I’ve been learning from (Tyler) Ferguson and (Josh) Advocate and all them. I been talking to them. They’ve been helping me out along the way from the first half to the second half.
In the second half, I still remember I was on the mound and skip (Crawdads manager Matt Hagen) came out there and was like “We’re going to need you the second half to come in situations like this to get out of it.”
I pitched against Kannapolis and I think Louis Robert hit a double off the wall and he got to third, and it was like one out. He came out there and talked to me and told me I need you second half. So, then I just start talking to Ferg and he been helping me out on my curve ball and I’ve been trusting myself a lot lately.
The curveball. Is that a new pitch for you? I don’t remember you throwing that.
Evans: No, I’ve been throwing that ever since. They think it’s a slider but its just hard. Because, I try to throw it as hard as I can like a fastball. It breaks like a curveball and sometimes it goes like a slider. Ferguson told me it’s like a breaking ball. It could go like a slider or a curveball.
Do you throw a slider much?
Do you throw much of a change?
Evans: I threw one or two. I used to, but I didn’t have confidence in it, so I just banged it. So, I’ve just been throwing fast ball.
So, you’re pretty much a fastball and a curveball?
Evans: Yes, I have it, but I just haven’t used it. None of the teams have been on my fastball so I’ve been throwing my fastball and curveball.
So, I’m going to be honest with you. I see you come out – you’re at 91 – 92 – you’re a big guy and I’m thinking “He’s gotta throw harder” then all of a sudden 95 – 96. What have you found? What switch on that have you found?
Evans: I’ve been working out a lot harder and running a lot harder and I’ve been using my legs more. I used to just use my arm, but I’ve been staying back on my legs and driving and my velo’s been going up a lot.
Let me go back to the conversation Matt had with you. Was that after they found out (Alex) Speas wasn’t going to come back?
Evans: No, he was here. It was just my first year in the bullpen and so they’ve had been putting me in situations where it was easier for me to come in to get used to it. But then he said, “The training wheels are off and it’s going to be your situation the second half to make a push for the playoffs.”
I actually learned a lot from Speas, too, since he was in the bullpen.
What did you learn from Speas?
Evans: He’s quick, too. He’s just been trusting his stuff and just throwing and not thinking as much. I was just loving that.
I remember both you and Tyler (Phillips) were here last year and you both struggled. You came here when you were 20 and you were – don’t take this the wrong way – but you were still a baby. How much growing up did you do last year?
Evans: I had to do a lot. When I got sent down, I was going to throw out of the bullpen, but they said they still wanted me to start. This year, they said wanted me to go to the bullpen, and I was like, “Oh well.”
I figured out a little stuff at Spokane when I went back. That team was a lot better atmosphere for me with them, and we clicked a lot better. So, I learned stuff from people like Tyler (Phillips). Me and Tyler have been together since we were drafted. I guess I felt more comfortable. Here, I was stressing and trying to be perfect every time I went out.
What was the biggest thing you learned?
Evans: Honestly, everybody tells me, “DeMarcus, when you throw your fastball, nobody can hit it” and all this stuff. I just didn’t trust myself, as much. But now, I’m like, I can do it and I been learning to better myself by having more confidence and trusting my ability more.
Is the game much more mental than you thought it would be when you got into it?
Evans: It was. It’s a lot more mental, but I’m starting to block all of that out and focusing on a tunnel vision. It’s been working ever since.
You said you went back to Spokane and things began to click. What were some things that clicked for you?
Evans: Mechanic wise, staying behind the ball more. Getting out in front and let it come off the fingers.
Who are some guys, maybe more specific, and some of the things they said that helped you?
Evans: Joey Seaver – he’s not with us anymore, he’s with the Pirates. He had me do these drills every day where he’d set these cones behind me and they let me stay straight. He held my belt inside and it made me stay back on my back leg. I worked with (Crawdads pitching coach Jose) Jaimes a lot in spring training on up/down so I can keep my ear over my back shoulder and get out in front with it and use my legs more.
What is the biggest thing mentally that you figured out? I know you mentioned that you’d block things out, but that can be easier said than done. Some guys can do it a couple of times and things creep back in again.
Evans: Sometimes last year, when I was with Matt, I’d do bad walking a lot of guys. I’d get into the dugout and I’d get mad at myself and do stuff. Now, I’m just like, there’s nothing I can do about it except work harder. So now, if I do something bad, I’ll just flush it out, work harder and do better next time.
So, what do you do next time when have a bad outing? You’ve rolled lately, but it’s coming where something is going to happen.
Evans: I’ll just focus on what I need to work on. Like, I had a couple of breaking balls yesterday that I left up, so today I worked on breaking balls and tried to get out front with it. I’m keeping the same mind focus. If they’re going to hit me, they’re going to hit my best stuff, so I just let everything go. Because, I’ll usually hold something back and try to make perfect pitches sometimes. Now, I’m just like, “All right, throw everything. Don’t use max effort, but try to let the ball eat and see if they’re going to hit it or not.”
Petal, Mississippi. You’re 6-4, 240 now?
Why didn’t you play football?
Evans: I did, but
I gotta ask because you’re in the heart of SEC country.
Evans: I had a couple of offers for football, but my main focus is baseball.
Where did you get offers for football?
Evans: I had offers from two JUCOs. I had one from Pearl River and Jones County Community College, which was right down the street from me.
So, why did you decide baseball?
Evans: I thought it would be the best fit for me.
Evans: I think my heart was more with baseball than football because I was always around it since I was little.
What influenced you?
Evans: When I was growing up around two years old, my mom coached at this boys and girls club. So, it was around that time that I started to play baseball. Me and Ti’Quan (Forbes) grew up playing together. I was playing from the time I was two all the way to 16, 17 years old.
I really thought I wasn’t going to play baseball, because I got hurt in my ninth-grade year. It was something in my growth plate. Out of nowhere – I had to sit out three months – I was throwing like 88. I was like, “what in the world happened?” That was about it.
When did you get a sense that you might get to play professionally?
Evans: Actually, my 11th grade going into my 12th grade year. We had this thing where all the best players in the state of Mississippi played in a tournament. I tried out for it and I got home and this man called me. I was like, “Who is this?” It was a man from the Miami Marlins scout team. He said, “Do you want to come play for – you get a free month to come play for Perfect Game.” I had never heard of Perfect Game.
I pitched two innings and the Miami scouts were like, “Wow, that’s nice.” They said my fastball was kind of live. A lot of people were swinging and missing and stuff. So, I went down there, and I was pitching and everybody was swinging and striking out. I struck four batters out and I was like, “Wow, these guys have never heard of me.” I just kept going on and on and on. I had a lot of strikeouts. It was that way the whole summer and that’s when people started contacting me, calling my house, coming to my games.
Did you have offers to play baseball in college?
Evans: I had USM (Southern Mississippi), Tulane, every JUCO in the southern part – San Jacinto, Chipola. I had Alabama State, Jackson State.
Anything thoughts about playing and not signing?
Evans: I did sign. I dual committed. I was going to go to Hinds Community College, where Chad Bradford was the pitching coach. I was like, if I go anywhere to pitch, I’ll probably go there because he pitched in professional baseball and he’d probably give me a lot of good aspects of the game.
All of the sudden, I got drafted by Texas. I wasn’t going to go because they drafted me the third day. I was like, “No, I’m going to go to school.”
Why did you decide to come out?
Evans: I had a long talk with my agent. He was like, “If you want to play professional baseball, then go. It’s a better percentage if you go out of high school than out of college.” A lot of kids go into college and get hurt and stuff like that. So, my agent said, “If you want to go, then just go and you don’t have to worry about nothing. Just keep going and you don’t have to pay me until you get to the big leagues.”
Who’s been the biggest influence for you?
Evans: I’m very close, player wise, with C.D. (Pelham). I talk a lot with Keone Kela. Coaching wise, Jono Arnold, he’s the pitching coach at Spokane now.
Tell me about Keone Kela. He’s now a closer and eating it up.
Evans: We started hanging out last year. It was me, Ti’Quan and C.D. We all hang out with him and he’d always take us out to eat and stuff. He’d talk to us about the game and how we should play it. I’ve learned a lot from him.
He’d tell us, “You’ve got to go out there and change your mind focus. Don’t dwell on it, if you go out there and do bad. Just be ready to go next time, when they call your name.” I’d talk to him about how the bullpen works, because I’d never been in it. How to recover, because everybody’s different.
I don’t mean this in a bad way, but he has an attitude, doesn’t he? I don’t mean it in a negative, but it’s what you’ve got to have in the bullpen, I guess.
Evans: He’s a competitor.
Does that rub off on you?
Evans: Emotion wise, I don’t try to show as much. I get fired up, but I don’t try to show it.
You get a call to the major leagues, what does that mean to you and who’s the first person you call?
Evans: Ohhhh. That would mean a lot; that’s what I’m working for. The first person I’ll call will probably be my mom.
She was your first coach.
Evans: My mom coached me in everything from soccer, basketball, football, everything. She coached me from the sideline.
Was she an athlete?
Evans: She played basketball at JUCO. (Pearl River CC).
What did she teach you as an athlete?
Evans: I used to have a lot of anger problems. She always told me, “You’ve got to go out there and give it all you’ve got because a lot of kids don’t get the chance to do it.” That’s just stuck with me ever since.
Did she have to get on you?
Evans: Yes, a lot.
More than other kids?
What was the biggest thing she’d get on you about?
Evans: I used to get mad if I’d strikeout, or if I’d walk a lot of people, I’d get mad all the time and throw stuff.
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.”