Archive for the ‘ Player Interviews ’ Category

Potential Power Ranger: An Interview with Yanio Perez

My first encounter with Yanio Perez was in Columbia, S.C. I went there in early April to interview Fireflies manager Jose Leger about ex-football player Tim Tebow, who plays at Columbia. I arrived early and had a chance to catch some of the Crawdads batting practice and I passed this well-built, I mean solidly-build, hunk of a human being. I remember saying, “Now that’s a football player”

Since the Crawdads hadn’t had a home game to that point, the players and names were still unfamiliar to me, so I made a mental note of the number: 28. When I got to the press box, I looked it up. The name: Yanio Perez.

He’s listed at 6-2, 205, but I’m guessing he’s a little heavier than that. Had circumstances been different for his life, I could imagine him as a linebacker. He has a thick neck, battleship arms and the thighs of a weightlifter.

Looking back in my mind’s eye, the Crawdads player I could best compare him to, as far as the build, is former outfielder Jordan Akins. He doesn’t have Akins speed, but as a baseball player to this point, he is further along.

Perez had a quick start to the season, then slow dropped to a .245/.365/.377 slash by April 20. At that time, the whole club had struggled, some of it due to very little field time because of an unusually rainy period. But for Perez adjustments had to make. He had become jumpy in hitters counts, swinging through fastballs that seemed off the plate.

“For him, I think it’s just his mind set as a hitter,” said Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook at the time. “He’s so good at kind of being able to hit breaking balls and offspeed pitches up the middle and the other way to where, he was seeing a lot of them and he was just giving up on fastballs and looking to drive the breaking stuff the other way and get his hits that way.”

Finally, Perez figured out how pitchers were trying to get him out and he had a homestand to remember at the end of April. Over the final eight games of the month, he went 16-for-28 with five homers, a double, four walks, eight runs scored and 15 RBI. He ended the month at .358/.453/.642. Perez was named the South Atlantic League’s hitter of the week and the Texas Rangers tabbed him as their minor league player of the month.

Yanio Perez Spike Owen - Lin

Yanio Perez shakes the hand of Crawdads manager Spike Owen during a home run trot in a game vs. Columbia (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

“What you saw in the Columbia series,” said Hook, “And kind of the ongoing thing with him as far as what he needs to improve on, and what we’re preaching is, stay on the fastball timing all the time. Because, at any point, he recognizes well enough to where he can still hit the offspeed the other way. What you saw in that series is, he was looking fastball and he was committed to it, so when they did hang a slider or offspeed, you saw him get the bathead out and pulled more baseballs in that series. When he gets extended and pulls the ball, obviously you’re going to do more damage. So, you saw big power numbers in that series.”

Perez continued to put up good numbers and was in the top-five in the SAL in all three slash categories. (.322/.392/.533). He earned a SAL all-star selection, but a well-earned promotion to high-A Down East has changed those plans.

As well as he’s played, there is a certain sadness that Perez acknowledges: he misses his family. While Perez was able to leave Cuba to come and play baseball in the states, his family is still on the island. He talks to his parents daily, but the 21-year-old hasn’t seen them in two years. He wants to succeed in order to help his family, but behind his infectious smile, the pain from separation is real.

I had a chance to speak with him late last week with the translation help of pitching coach Jose Jaimes. It’s not my best interview and I’ll admit my questions were not the most hard-hitting. We were all rushed for time and it’s hard to get too deep when over half of the 13-minute interview was spent in translation. But for the reader, I hope you get a sense about this kid.

Yanio Perez mug

Yanio Perez (Hickory Crawdads)

 

How do you feel about making the all-star team?

Perez: I feel very happy, more because this is my first year in professional baseball and playing in this league. I feel very proud of what I accomplished.

 

Are you accomplishing this year what you had hoped to?

Perez: I didn’t have as my goal to make the all-star team. My goals were, number one, try to help the team as much as I can. I would like to hit .300 for the year, which I am doing and I’m happy with what I’ve done so far.

 

You signed with the Rangers last October. Has it been a whirlwind getting to the states and then to play ball?

It has been a hurricane to adjust to everything I’ve gone through over the last year – leaving my family, coming here, going to Arizona. So, I’m still going through the process of transition.

 

What’s been the biggest adjustment personally coming to the states?

Perez: The biggest challenge for me is the language and being away from my family. I have my wife with me right now, but everybody else is away. That has been the biggest challenge, the language and the family.

 

What made you decide to leave Cuba to come to the states?

Perez: I played baseball for a while in Cuba, but I felt like coming over to the states I was going to be able to compete in a better environment and I am also able to help my family from here. That was the main reason I left Cuba.

 

Who did you grow watching Cuba?

Perez: I didn’t grow up watching a specific guy. The way that I learned how to play the game was more about thinking I’ve got to get better every single day. It’s easier in Cuba to watch Major League games, so I watched A-Rod and guys like that and names that everybody in Cuba knows. But for the most part, I was just trying to do better every single day with training and listening to coaches.

Yanio Perez - rebel uni

Crawdads 1B/ OF Yani o Perez during a game vs. Kannapolis (Tracy Proffitt)

 

Who is your favorite player?

Perez: Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout

 

What do you like about them?

Perez: About Puig, I like the way that he hits. He’s pretty aggressive with the bat. About Trout, I like the way that he plays the game. He’s very professional and I like the way that he looks on the field.

 

Have you had a chance to meet any of the players that you watched in Cuba?

Perez: I met with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gomez in spring training, I knew them from Cuba. Those where guys that were famous on the island.

 

What was it like to meet Beltre?

Perez: It was very exciting meet a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame.

 

You talk about missing your family. Do you get to talk with them very much?

Perez: Yes. I talk to them every day. It helps having a cell phone and the apps to make it easier to communicate. But still, I miss them a lot because it’s been two years since I left the country.

 

Is there a time you think your parents will get to see you play?

Perez: I don’t know. We’re working on that.

 

Is it easier now for Cubans to come here and play baseball than in the past?

Perez: It’s easier right now than in the past.

 

What’s the biggest difference playing baseball here than in Cuba?

Perez: The biggest difference is that the games here are faster. The pitchers here throw harder than most of the Cuban pitchers.

 

What do you mean about the game being faster?

Perez: The runners are way faster, but you have to more to think about and more plays you have to be aware of.

 

You hear about baseball in the Latin countries being a party atmosphere. Is it too quiet here?

Perez: I don’t need that. I actually like the people here in this country that actually come to watch the game and enjoy it. With that said, I do miss playing in front of my people, but the craziness and all that, I don’t miss that at all.

 

What is the biggest thing you are working on for the rest of the year?

Perez: I’d like to be faster and keep working on my hitting. That’s something I’m working on, to be consistent every day.

 

Is first base new to you?

Perez: I had first base two times before coming here.

 

First base, third base, outfield before coming here?

Perez: I’ve played almost every position since I was a little kid. I think it’s more valuable to be able to play a lot of positions.

 

When you get a call to go the major leagues, what do you think your reaction will be?

Perez: I’m going to be really happy, but in my mind I know I will have to work hard to stay there as long as I can. That’s my goal.

Yanio Perez - proffitt

Yanio Perez connects during a game vs. Kannapolis (Tracy Proffitt)

Rehabbed and Ready for Results: An Interview with Crawdads Pitcher Michael Matuella

Nearly every athlete will repeat the mantra, “control what you can control”. While at Duke, Michael Matuella’s right arm seemed to be in control of a future destiny.

As a sophomore for the Blue Devils in 2014, Matuella allowed just 55 baserunners and struck out 69 over 58.1 innings. Towering at 6-7 on the mound the downward angle of his 97-mph fastball along with a developing change, and an advanced feel for the curve and slider, Matuella was on the track as a possible first-overall pick in the 2015 first-year player draft. This, despite dealing with spondylolysis in the lower back.

Then, a little more than two months ahead of the June draft. the dreaded MRI confirmed a different destiny: “Tommy John” surgery.

Almost two years after his selection by the Texas Rangers in the third round – and in the process getting first-round bonus money, a reported $2 million – Matuella finally has his pro career underway. The innings are limited, the results aren’t always pretty, but Matuella is healthy and ready see his long months of rehab pay off.

I had a chance to interview Matuella a little over two weeks ago in preparation for a feature writeup. Here is that interview:

Michael Matuella - Proffitt

Michael Matuella in his first start on April 27 against Columbia (SC). (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

How did you get started in baseball?

Matuella: I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I have an older brother; he’s four years older than me. I just remember just going out in the yard and playing with him and my dad. That just grew as I started playing travel ball, at whatever age that was, through middle school.

Obviously, I played in high school and my coach, he really pushed me to be the best that I can be there. He saw the potential in me to go Division I. I had the offer to Duke and I absolutely loved it. I had another offer to Maryland, but from the first visit I had there, I loved the place and the people. Duke is really where I took off, where I had the little velocity jump and where I started to figure some things out. My command really improved and it shifted my mentality to a more aggressive one. That’s how I got here today.

 

Who was your high school coach?

Matuella: Chris Rodriguez

 

What were some things that he said or did that helped you along to where you are now?

Matuella: I remember, this was the fall of my sophomore year. I was on JV my freshman year and by the fall of my sophomore year I started doing some workouts and he told me I was just as good as his seniors on the team and I could go Division 1 wherever I wanted if I put in all of the work. I think I hadn’t really thought of it like that until that point, but then I realized like, “Wait, this could be a possibility.” That’s when I really started dedicated myself to becoming the best I could be.

 

Did you have any inkling that professional sports could be a career for you until that point?

Matuella: I would say that point came even later. I admit, I was just thinking step by step at that point. Then, once I got to Duke, probably my freshman year, that I really decided, “Alright, I want to pursue this and I want to see what I can do.” I didn’t know if it was possible yet. My sophomore year, that’s when I realized that this is going to be a thing for me if I keep putting in the work. It definitely started in high school where I was going from working hard and playing and enjoying the game, obviously competing and wanting to win, to where I said, “I can actually maybe take this a step further” and that’s what carried over again at Duke.

 

You went to Duke, which is not known as a powerhouse, but the program has turned out some players, Marcus Stroman being at the top of that list. What sort of things have happened to help turn that program around to where they are starting to produce some talent?

Matuella: I would say the coaching staff was a big one. Chris Pollard, he didn’t actually recruit me. There was an entirely new coaching staff when I get there my freshman year. I think he’s done a really good job, not only developing players physically, but also really hammering home the mental side of things. I think that’s been really huge for everyone. I really benefitted from that kind of stuff. A lot of people spend time on the physical side, but not as much on the mental side. I think that that’s a huge reason.

Once you see a couple of guys like Stroman that get drafted, and then there was my class. The class above me had three or four guys drafted, then my class had three guys. Basically, it’s been three to four guys every year the past four or five years or so. It’s good to see some more guys go into pro ball.

 

That’s (ACC) a tough league, especially that they’ve added Louisville and Notre Dame during your time.

Matuella: It’s a lot of fun playing in it though. You know every weekend there’s going to be a really good opponent and you have to really be ready and locked in. I always looked forward to those ACC weekends.

 

Does that sort of competition helps, not only the program, but the individuals to have that competition against other potential top prospects? How did that help you looking ahead to getting drafted and prepare you for the pros?

Matuella: I think a lot of the talent you see in the ACC – and you see that in other leagues as well, like the SEC and these other top programs that are turning out pro guys – you’re seeing professional level talent. I think it really prepares you, especially knowing you can do well in that setting, that prepares you for pro ball mentally, to where I was like, “I know I can get guys out like this.” Obviously, it’s a step up to pro ball, but for me, it gives me confidence to know, “Alright, I’ve been there before” and “I’ve done well against guys like that.” It gives me confidence to know that if I can pitch my game, I’ll be fine.

 

So, when you start hearing potential 1/1, what does that say in your mind during that stretch when you’re looking ahead to 2015 and you think, “My gosh, I could be first overall.”

Matuella: I really tried not to think about that at all. I tried to just focus on the work I had to do in and the preparation I had to put in for the 2015 season. Sure, you hear the rumors, but you try not to get distracted by it. You just try to focus in on and lock in on the daily routine and what you have to do to get better.

 

So, tell me about the back injury. I tried to pronounce it before I came here and still can’t get it right.

Matuella: It’s called spondylolysis. It sounds a lot worse than it is. It’s basically a lot of people have it. It’s something that I manage. I’ve been asymptomatic for two years. I don’t feel it. It’s something that once you do the rehab and once you develop a stronger core and basically develop strength all around that, you just don’t feel it.

 

Is it upper or lower back?

Matuella: Lower back. You can have it on any of the vertebrae, but I guess it’s more common to be lower.

 

Was it something that was spurred by all the pitching motions and the twists and turns?

Matuella: You just never know what contributed to it. There’s probably a number of things. Pitching, probably, contributes to it, but also weightlifting. Really a lot of stuff, the running, jumping. There’s a lot of guys, I think they estimated that probably 20 percent of athletes have that injury, but they don’t know they have it because it’s not causing any issues. So, for me, I’m at that point – and I’ve been at the point for a while now – where it’s not a big deal for me. It’s not that I’m frustrated with people – and I’m not frustrated by the question – but some people are really scared by it. I feel like a normal person and I don’t think it’s a big deal at all.

 

Then you get the “Tommy John” stuff. How long after the back injury did that start?

Matuella: I was cleared to throw in January 2015, which was basically when our spring practices started. It was March 27 in my last game when I injured it. It was only about two-and-a-half months.

 

Was it something that suddenly came up? Did you have issues before?

Matuella: It was pretty sudden. After my first start, I took the next weekend off, just because I was feeling some tightness in my forearm. We got the MRI and it showed that it was fine. So, I basically went on with a clear head. We felt that the innings might be too much, after I had gone out there for six innings.

They threw me back out there for one inning and then three innings and then four innings. I basically felt it on one pitch. I didn’t feel any popping sensation or pulling sensation. It just felt like a lot of pain in there, so I didn’t think it was UCL until we got the MRI and saw that it was. That was frustrating.

 

What was your mindset at that point, which, of course, you couldn’t be happy?

Matuella: I was honestly shocked. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me the news and he showed me the MRI. I just couldn’t believe it. It didn’t cross my mind that was going to be what it was. Obviously, after that it was pretty tough for the next couple of days to process it and then reset my focus and acknowledge that “Tommy John” was going to happen. So, I started to focus on what I had to do each day to get better and come back from that.

 

Did you have any worries that you wouldn’t recover from it?

Matuella: No, I never did. I came out fully confident. It’s interesting at how common it is now. People just do it and it’s not a big deal. A lot of people have done it and a lot of people recover from it.

 

Did you have any worries as to how that was going to be perceived in the draft and where you might go and would you have to come back to Duke another year?

Matuella: I definitely knew that there were going to be some teams turned off by that. I think for me it wasn’t worry as much as I was annoyed because I know how I worked and I know how good I can be and I know that this isn’t going to be a big deal for me in the long run.

For me, it wasn’t worry like, “Am I going to do this?” or “Am I going to be able to come back and pitch again?” It was more like, teams shouldn’t be thrown by that. I was hoping they would judge me based on what I would do going forward versus the injury.

 

You dropped to the third round. Obviously, the Rangers saw something in you and were able to sign you above what they would normally pay a third-rounder. Tell me about those conversations with the Rangers.

Matuella: The Rangers, they were probably one of the teams that contacted me the most and they were the most interested from the beginning. So, I was happy that they did a lot of research on me and I really appreciated how much research they did on my back issue and, obviously, everyone knows about “Tommy John”.

I had talked with them prior to actually getting picked by them. They had put together a plan for me moving forward about they wanted to me to do and where they wanted me to go and a timeline for certain things. I was super impressed and super happy that they were so invested and put so much time and thought into what my program would be. It was awesome and I’m really happy to be with the Rangers.

 

Who helped you through the process? “Tommy John” is common and all that, but there are still some guys who go through this and never really get it back. Who helped you mentally through that process? I met you ten minutes ago and you’ve got such a positive attitude.

Matuella: Definitely my parents are a big one. They’re always there to talk and always there to keep me positive whenever I’m feeling down, or I’m feeling upset by things.They were always at Duke, too, which was awesome. They came for every weekend series. So, I got to see a lot of them and they’re always available to talk whenever I want.

My coaches at Duke at the time were really helpful. They were very positive with me. I had a couple of teammates that had undergone “Tommy John”. One was about a year earlier and one was about six months earlier. I had talked to them about what the process was like, so that was really helpful. There’s really so many people. I talked with my coaches. They were super upset for me because you never want to see an athlete go down with that type of injury. They weren’t upset about me not being able to pitch for the team. They were upset for me as a person not being able to pitch, which I thought was really nice.

The coaches I had for three years there and even afterward, I still stayed in contact with them when I went back there to take classes this fall taking classes. They’ve were super thoughtful and just caring, really overall caring. They asked how I’m doing and wanting me to do well for me, not just for the program. Obviously, I want to do well for the program. I love representing Duke and I loved representing Duke while I was there. A ton of people, as you can gather.

 

You pitched last year at Spokane and you get the one start in and here you are again. Take me through that process. That had to be more mental than physical.

Matuella: That was a lot tough mentally than the first time around, because the first time around I was like, “Alright, I’m going to get the surgery, not a big deal.” There’s no expectations of re-injury. Then it was like, “Whoa, what just happened?” and “How did that happen again?” So, there was a lot of frustration and a lot of questions of why it happened and how did that happen again. But it doesn’t do a lot of good to ask “what if?” or going back and thinking in the past. It was really tough because I had come off an injury that I’d spent 14 months to that point rehabbing.

To go down and know that you’re done for the season again and you won’t be able to pitch again until opening day – not that I was here opening day – but it wound up being ten months. That was tough and that was definitely a lot tougher to walk in and focus on what I was doing each day. I think, looking back, I’m even stronger for it, mentally and physically, to be able to push through as tough a time like that. Not that I had to go back to square one, because I didn’t have to have surgery again, but to really get knocked on my butt again. It wasn’t fun, but I’m glad I avoided surgery.

 

Did you pitch at instructionals?

Matuella: No.

 

They basically shut you down until spring?

Matuella: Yeah, I didn’t begin my throwing until the beginning of October, so they gave me plenty of time to heal up.

 

How do you feel now?

Matuella: I feel good. Overall, I feel good.

 

Results aside, how much more do you appreciate being on the mound than you did in 2015?

Matuella: Coming back from the first injury and the surgery, I definitely appreciated every time I stepped on the mound, whether that was a bullpen or that was pitching in an extended game or at Spokane. But this time around, even more so knowing it’s been a couple of years since I’ve had a chance to go out there and compete the way I’m supposed to compete. It makes you appreciate it. You just never know with certain things and so many guys that go down with injuries and it stinks. But you just deal with it and you appreciate what you have each day.

 

Do you worry so much with results at this point as opposed to going out there and getting your work in?

Matuella: Obviously, you want to get results, too. This season is a lot about me being to get through it healthy, but I’m not going to happy unless I’m pitching well and doing what I need to do on the mound to pitch well.

 

If you get through the season with the health as opposed to the results, which are you happier with?

Matuella: Obviously, I need to be healthy and I need to be able to move forward and pitch and have a full season under my belt. But, like I said, it’s not like I’m going to be happy if I’m pitching, but doing crappy every outing. There needs to be both in order for me to be happy.

 

First outing, you got some pitches up, but got through it and then you had a couple of rough outings. What’s been the fine line for you right now to have success?

Matuella: Making sure that I’m commanding the fastball. I think you’re going to hear that out of anyone on the team that you talk to. That’s a big emphasis the Rangers have. For me, I need to make sure that I am committing to pitch down in the zone as opposed to committing to pitch in the zone. You’re going to get hurt if you stay up too much. You’ve got to mix up the eye level at some time, but I think I do a better job if I stick to a pitch down in the zone. I just need to keep working on that. I had a really good bullpen this past week, so I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow.

 

How was it pitching against Tim Tebow in your first outing?

Matuella: I really don’t pay attention to hitters that I’m facing. I’m just kind of looking at it like, there’s a left-handed hitter up there. After the first swing, you could read that he wasn’t going to time a fastball, so we just kept pounding fastballs. It was nice to see a big crowd there, I’ll say that. It’s really impressive that he brings the crowd everywhere he goes.

 

Obviously, he was a big story, but that was a big story involving you, too, a convergence of two stories.

Matuella: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. The adrenaline was high. It was a lot of fun being able to look around and soak it all in and like, I’m back in the game. I’m here with an affiliate and a sold-out game. It was just a lot of fun.

 

Are you getting an idea of how long they will let you throw, maybe 50-60 pitches?

Matuella: I’m not entirely sure. I’m sure it will be a little bit longer. I think the more important thing this year is that I take the ball every six games. You don’t want to get too crazy with the innings, given the back-to-back injures, which is why I’m not too sure when it’s going to expand. I doubt I’ll ever go 100 pitches; I’m not entirely sure of that this season. Obviously, I want to pitch as much as I can, but I understand the plan the Rangers have in place for me.

 

Are you throwing much of the breaking ball right now?

Matuella: A little bit. I’ll start incorporating it some more, but the Rangers big emphasis is on establishing fastballs and fastball command. So, I’m really trying to stick to that.

 

When you get a call to major leagues, who is the first person you call?

Matuella: My parents. That will be a great conversation to have and I look forward to that one. Definitely, my parents.

 

Who is the next non-family member?

Matuella: Does my girlfriend count? She’s been there for me and she’s been super helpful mentally to be able to block stuff out. She’s the one that helps keep me really positive in times when I’m struggling. There’s been, obviously, a lot of those over the past couple of years.

 

What’s the biggest thing mentally you’ve learned through all this?

Matuella: The biggest thing is to stay consistent. Stay pitch-to-pitch and not focus on the outing-to-outing, but each pitch. You have to be consistent with your approach on every single pitch with a routine, and with how you step on the mound. Basically, doing the same thing every time, no matter what happened the pitch before, whether you struck the dude out on a great pitch, or he just hit a bomb. You step in knowing that this pitch is the only pitch that matters.

 

Is there an inspirational poster moment or quote that has stuck in your mind?

There’s an article that came out in 2010 in Sports Illustrated that’s called, “What Makes Roy Run?” It’s about Roy Halladay and basically his story about how he was a first-round pick and he made it all the way to the big leagues in his second year. He fell flat on his face and he really struggled and got demoted all the way down to single-A.

He basically emerged as a different pitcher and a different style of pitcher and he emerged as the best pitcher of that generation for a number of years. There’s a lot of details in there about his work ethic and the consistency he had and the mental approach that he had. I actually just read it again the other day. I’ve read it, I don’t know how many times now, but every time it’s super interesting to me. He was my favorite pitcher growing up. I definitely think that article is a cool one.

 

Following the interview with Matuella, I had a chance to get Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes’s perspective on the progress of Matuella.

How do you see Matuella progressing on the mound in just throwing pitches?

Jaimes: I think so far, we don’t have any concerns results wise. It’s more about him healthy. It’s been almost 16 months basically, since he got hurt last year. He’s going through a little tough time mentally wise. Naturally, he has some concerns about his elbow and his arm, but for the most part he’s getting better. His last bullpen was pretty good, so it’s a process for him just to trust he’s fully healthy. Hopefully, the next start will be better, but we don’t have any concerns about what he can do on the field. It’s more about him staying positive and knowing that all the work he put in the last year and a half is good for him.

 

Is there any concern about him not wanting to cut it loose and let go?

Jaimes: Yeah, most of the time when guys coming off an injury, it takes them a month just to get through that. They’re afraid to feel something in there. The last bullpen, he actually said, “you know what, I’m going to let it go and whatever happens, happens.” It was a good start for him.

Transition Game: An Interview with Crawdads reliever Tyler Ferguson

Life is full of transitions and over the past several years, Hickory Crawdads reliever Tyler Ferguson has had several. Growing up in Fresno, CA – he attended West Clovis High – a chance-pitching appearance while overcoming an illness led to a spot with one of the premier college baseball programs at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN.

A “Sunday starter” with the Commodore in 2014, the opportunity to pitch out of the bullpen in key spots during the team’s run to the College World Series title has since led to a pro career in that role.

The Rangers sixth-round pick in 2015, Ferguson, now 23, struggled with control (9 walks in 4.2 innings) in the Arizona Summer League, but he returned to have a brilliant stay with short-season Spokane (WA) in 2016. Posting 46 Ks to 10 BBs over 30.1 IP, he made the Northwest League all-star team before getting a promotion to Hickory. Another transition at hand in a league with better hitters, Ferguson reverted to his control issues with 18 walks to only 10 Ks over 13.1 innings.

A fresh start in 2017 has been mostly fruitful for the right-hander. He has a 6.14 ERA to date, but all of that came in one bad outing on April 17. Otherwise, he’s been nearly flawless, going scoreless during his other four outings. More importantly for his development, Ferguson has fanned 12 and walked only three over 7.1 innings.

A power pitcher on the mound – mid-to-upper 90s fastball and slider – he’s a cerebral person in his craft on the field and his approach off the field. This is no bull-in-the-china shop, off-kilter reliever. He’s a three-time All-SEC Academic honoree and has a bright future in the game once his on-the-field days are finished.

 

Tyler Ferguson - Proffitt (2)

Tyler Ferguson in a game vs. Columbia 4/28/17 (photo courtesy Tracy Proffitt)

 

First of all, I’m curious. You grew up in Fresno, if I recall correctly. How did you wind up at Vanderbilt?

Ferguson: So, I happened to play out with the Area Code teams down in Los Angeles. I didn’t really get recruited a ton until the junior summer going into my senior year. I hadn’t visited anywhere. I actually ended up getting shingles and was sick for like the first four days and pitched on the last day. That’s when Tim Corbin, the head coach of Vanderbilt, saw me. I did pretty well and then he called me and I had a conversation with him. After that, I decided to wait as long as I could and took all my official visits. So I got to go out there and check it out and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the coaches, the school, the baseball program, which was on the rise. I hadn’t really heard of it before he actually called me, other than seeing them on TV maybe one time.

 

It’s a pretty big program, especially the last decade with a lot of guys coming out of there. David Price is the one that comes off the top of my head. Did you talk to any of those guys in making your decision?

Ferguson: No, I didn’t really talk to any of the guys that had come out of the university before I got there. For me, it was kind of, I went there to visit with my mom and I just had a really good feeling about the school and where it was headed. The pitching coach Derek Johnson was there and that was huge. The pitching coach was a huge reason for me to choose the school. Now he’s the Brewers pitching coach – it took him three years to get there. So, it was kind one of those things where you fell in love with the school, fell in love with everything about it. I had a really good feeling about it.

 

What were some of the adjustments you had to make when moving to the south from California?

I didn’t really feel like it was much of an adjustment. My sister transferred to play volleyball at Belmont, which is right down the street. So, I had my sister there, and so, it was kind of like having a family member. It wasn’t like I was just moving across the country by myself. It really nice to have her there with me.

 

Let me ask you about your College World Series experience, getting to go there a couple of times and getting a ring.

Ferguson: So, the crazy thing is, the time we didn’t go to Omaha, my freshman year, might be one of the best college teams ever. It is quietly, because we went 26-3 in the SEC, which will probably never be broken. It was just a lot of seniors. A couple of guys on the teams have played in the big leagues already. That team was unbelievable.

My sophomore year, we had another really good team. That was an unbelievable experience. I pitched on Sundays that year. We had a great team. We were up and down throughout the year and hit stride at the right time. We caught fire and were able to pull it off.

My junior year, another really good team. We played great all year, but couldn’t win one of the last two.

 

You had a couple of successes. You pitched in the Super Regional against Stanford?

Ferguson: Tyler Beede started that one. We got off to a little bit of a lead and then he kind of struggled and then I came in and threw pretty well, I think 2.2 (IP). I held us there long enough to where we could maintain that momentum and win that first game in the Super Regional, which is huge in a best two-out-of-three.

 

You had a tough outing against Texas in the College World Series, but then you get to come back and pitch a huge inning.

Ferguson: Yeah, a tough start there. Luckily, we kept that one close and we were able to beat them and then move on to Virginia. There, I pitched one inning against Virginia. I threw well and pitched a quick inning.

 

How did you make the conversion from a starter to a reliever?

Ferguson: So, I just struggled over the last couple of years with command, and so, making that adjustment’s been alright. It took a little while for me to mentally just accept that role. It’s a little bit less of a routine; you don’t always know when you’re throwing. But, I’ve come to really enjoy it over the last year.

Pitching in that situation, coming in with the bases loaded the other night, it was huge adrenaline rush. I didn’t throw a lot of pitches. I was able to get that out and save Tyler (Phillips) a couple of runs. So, that was fun.

 

Coming out of the bullpen, does that fit your personality more?

Ferguson: I don’t know if it’s a personality thing, whether it fits or doesn’t fit. I think it’s just one of those things where you adjust. That’s a tough question.

 

There are certain times a role fits a personality. Joe Filomeno, when he was here, was a guy that was gregarious, bull-in-the-china-shop sort of person. Then you’ve got somebody else more reserved and the tactician sort of thinker in putting a start together.

Ferguson: Yeah, I’d say it does fit my kind of personality. I’m all arms and legs coming at you and I’m just to throw it hard and throw past you, and throw a good slider and make you miss. So, I kind of like that. I’m just coming at you with what I’ve got here and now. So, I’m starting to really like that, because for most of my pitching career, my first four or five years, I was a starter. I was always in that role and it’s taken a little bit of an adjustment. Now, it’s not, I’m setting a guy up for later, necessarily, it’s I’m coming at you with what I’ve got and I’m going to beat you with my stuff. It’s a more important time of the game.

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Ferguson in a September 2016 game with Hickory (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

You went to Spokane last year and had a good run there and made the All-Star Game team and pitched in that. Then you came here and struggled with control. What was the switch that flipped from Spokane to here?

Ferguson: Last year, I got hurt in spring training. So I was out and then I finally got healthy right before Spokane and then I went there and had a lot of success. It couldn’t have gone better there, honestly.

I then came here and to jump to that level, I just kind of tried to do too much. I tried to overthrow. I felt like I needed to throw harder and throw better breaking balls instead of just being myself and doing what I do best. So, when I stay in control and don’t try to overdo it – I know I throw hard and I don’t need to try and throw it harder. It’s something I’m still working on and it’s always a struggle.

When you come into certain big situations, you’re trying to throw it hard and make better pitches. When you stay within yourself and you stay relaxed and make the right pitch, it’s going to go out in your favor most of the time.

 

I saw that you were All-Academic in the SEC three times.

Ferguson: Yeah, I’m a little bit of a nerd. I always did well in high school and got two really nice plaques in Omaha, because I had the highest GPA on the team. So, I got some really nice plaques for my parents to hang up, so they really like that, too.

 

What was your major in college?

Ferguson: It’s an interdisciplinary major. They don’t have a business major at Vanderbilt, so I had a basically created major that would be called Sports Management and Finance. It’s basically finance management and whatever sports classes they have there and kind of put it together. After baseball, I see myself working in baseball still on the business side or financial side.

 

Maybe an agent?

Ferguson: No, I don’t think an agent. I think I’d rather work for an organization.

 

What was the bigger thrill, getting to throw in the College World Series or getting All-SEC Academic?

Ferguson: (laughs) I’m going to take the World Series ring. It’s hard to beat that. We had 50 people within our Vanderbilt family, so only 50 people get a ring every year. I think that’s a little bit more special to me.

 

What are the goals for the remainder of the year?

Ferguson: I haven’t really set out any goals. For me, it’s getting into a routine, being into the bullpen and just being as consistent as possible out of the bullpen. I don’t want to be someone that’s up and down all year. I want to be as consistent as possible throughout the year. So, doing the same things every day and working out on the same days each week, whether I’m throwing or not throwing. Just, creating consistency throughout my day-to-day and that way, I’ll see consistency out on the field.

 

How will it mean the most to when you get a call up to the major leagues?

Ferguson: My parents. They gone through all the struggles with me. They’ve been in all those phone calls when (crap) hits the fan. Whenever I get that call, I want to be able to call them. I think they’ll feel as excited as I am.

 

What do you think your reaction will be?

Ferguson: Tears. Probably, yeah.

 

Who’s the next person you’ll call after your parents?
Ferguson:
My sister. Family first.

 

You guys do all the bus rides and do all the lifts, and so on. What is the thing you’ll look back on and say, “that was worth it”?

Ferguson: All this situation isn’t the best, it’s not the nicest, but when you harp on that, it brings you down and it makes you negative. I just enjoy what we have here. It’s nice. Then, as it gets nicer, you just kind of appreciate all the little things that you get. You get to fly on nice planes and get nicer food. You’ve just got the appreciate what’s in front of you.

Tyler Ferguson - Lin

Tyler Ferguson from 2016 (Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

The Curious Case of Dillon Tate

Hickory Crawdad pitcher Dillon Tate is experiencing what nearly every minor leaguer goes through: a slump. The number four pick overall by the Texas Rangers in the June 2015 draft has looked mortal after a quick start this season.

A hamstring injury seems to have separated the two worlds that has been Tate this season. After allowing one unearned run over his first two starts and striking out sixteen to just one walk over 10.2 innings, Tate retuned three weeks later a different pitcher with different results. Over his last 13 outings (12 starts), Tate has given up 32 earned runs over 44 innings with 34 Ks to 21 walks. The South Atlantic League hit .390 against him in May and is at a .326 clip in July.

Scouts I’ve talked to say Tate’s mechanics are a mess. The velocity that was 96-98 mph is down as low as 91-92 when he is struggling. The high, Juan Marichal-like leg kick is gone from his delivery and it’s been a process of finding a consistent, repeatable motion. There are moments we see the brilliant stuff and then the next inning it falls flat.

To his credit, Tate is not flustered. He understands there is a process to go through to get things right again and is confident it will happen.

I had a chance to talk with Tate after his last start against Lakewood on Thursday. Here is that conversation.

Dillon Tate July 1

Dillon Tate in a game July 1 vs. Kannapolis (photo courtesy of Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

I want to talk to you about the last couple of months. You started well and then had the hamstring injury and it’s been a work in progress to get back to where you were before that. Take me through your last couple of months and the process of getting back to where you were earlier this year and when you came here last year.

Tate: Recently, I’ve just been scuffling and just battling out there and working on things in between starts. I’m trying to get some angle on my fastball to try to help me out. The organization has been helping me out to do that and giving me some things. I’ve been doing it well other times, sometimes not so much. It’s one of those things that you just need to get reps at it until it becomes an actual habit for you. I’m just going to keep going out there and battling and keep working on what I need to work on.

We’ll notice, for example you started well last night. You were and 94-95 in the first and hitting spots. Then we could watch the velocity come down. Is there a fine line with what you’re working on that your successful verses not being as successful?

Tate: I think, as of late, it’s been me trying to do multiple things out on the mound, instead of focusing on one thing that I need to do. So, I think that’s probably been the root of it, for some of it, I should say – not all of it. Simplicity is probably best for me at this point in time. So, just really focusing on working on one thing out there, rather than trying to do three or four different things right now.

So give me a couple of the things you are working on. Maybe at the top of the list the main thing and then maybe a 1A, 1B, 1C sort of thing.

Tate: There’s probably not even a 1A, 1B, 1C to it. I think the headline of it all is to keep the ball down. And then, how are you going to keep the ball down, etc. How are you going to keep it down and doing the things that I need to do to keep the ball down to make it a habit. I think that’ll come within time. This is just part of the minor league process. Everybody’s got a different journey, and this, right now, is mine. I’m going to roll with it, learn from it and keep going.

We notice the leg kick isn’t quite as high as it was when you got here. Is that something the Rangers had you work on or is that something you picked up on. Mechanically, is that part of the whole picture?

Tate: They talked about it a little bit. It was one of things where it’s so extreme that it can throw me off at times with certain pitches. At the end of the day, when you’re up there on the mound, to be successful, consistency is the key. To be consistent, you’ve got to repeat the same thing over and over again. Having that leg kick to be toned down a little bit will help me be more consistent. So, I think that’s all it is.

Saw a couple of curveballs last night? Is that new?

Tate: I threw a few curve balls. It was a pitch that I’ve had; I’ve just never really thrown it. The organization wants me to bring it back, so I’m working on it again and trying to bring it back.

One of the things you were working on – it was at the top of the checklist when you and I talked at the beginning of the season – was the changeup. How do you feel that pitch is working for you?

Tate: I’ve thrown some good ones and I’ve thrown a handful of not so good ones. It’s a feel pitch and some days it’s really good when I’m out here, and other days, like yesterday, not so much. I’m really just trying to focus in on that one thing that’ll make me throw that pitch over the zone and be more consistent with it. When I find it, I’ll hit my stride.

When you get into a rough patch, does it get to the point where you try to do too much to where you try to overthrow and pitches flatten out? You mentioned that you’re trying to do three and four things at once. Is that a part of that process?

Tate: I think so. There’s just a lot of information coming and I need to do a better of sifting through the information and just getting just one piece of information at a time. Work on this and then get that down. Then I’ll a work on this, instead of trying to take it all at one time and master it all. It’s just too tough to do.

When you’re on mechanically, what has to happen for you?

Tate: I think for starters, you’re not thinking about anything, for one. I think that’s for anybody when things are going well. Then to get down to the logistics of it, I think, me not leaning back. When you see the really high leg kick and how it was last year and how it is now, I’m not leaning back as much. So that’s going to help me stay over the rubber a little bit better and I’ll be able to better control my body better. That’s just one thing. There’s others things that go in there, too: hand and when they separate, head movement, things like that.

Has then been much more of a mental process than you thought it would be at this point, even last year?

Tate: Certainly, because last year, I’d just go out there and pitch and throw and I’m not thinking about anything. But now, there’s some things that need to be addressed and I’ve got to go out there and work on them. I’m definitely thinking about those things. So, that makes it a little tough. But, I think if anything that I’ve learned anything from this year is how to turn the page when things aren’t going well. That’s what you’ve got to do at the big league level and that’s something I’m learning how to do now. So, there is are positive things that are coming out of this.

Training for a renewed career: An interview with Erik Swanson

Last Tuesday, June 21, 2016, Erik Swanson took the mound at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game, which was held at Lexington, KY. It was exactly one year to the day that Swanson made his debut with the Hickory Crawdads.

The plan was to begin his stint out of the bullpen and then work into the rotation. However, after seven relief outings, a forearm flexor strain ended his season, save for a brief rehab stint in the Arizona Summer League near the end of its season.

A lot has changed for Swanson in the course of the season, especially a renewed attention to his training. That training has paid off in velocity – his fastball sits in the 94-96 mph range and has been clocked up to 98 – and in the ability to take the ball every six games as part of the Crawdads rotation. After throwing 38 innings total over his first two pro seasons, Swanson is already at 57.2 innings following his last start at Greensboro.

In the interview below, Swanson talks about the benefits of his training, the adjustments to his repertoire, and coming to the pros from Iowa Western Community College.

 

First off all, considering where you were this time last year, you’ve got to be especially pleased with how things have gone for you.

Swanson: Yeah, I am. Last year, coming up here at the all-star break and pitching for about a month and then getting hurt and missing the rest of the year, my main focus this year was to stay healthy. Making the all-star team was another goal of mine coming in here and playing for Hickory. It was a pretty good accomplishment that I was able to do.

Erik Swanson all-star game

Erik Swanson pitching in the SAL All-Star Game at Lexington, KY (Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

What do you think has been the key to your success this year versus where you were last year? Obviously getting healthy is a big part of that, but a lot of guys are hurt one year and come back the next and don’t do what you have put together in the first half.

Swanson: Obviously, like you said, health has been the biggest key for me. Being in a little different role this year – last year I was out of the pen when I was here – this year coming in as a starter, I feel that that’s a big key for me. I think it’s what I do best. I’m able to prepare myself a lot better – getting that routine. Being on a six-man (rotation) here, I’m able to get into the six-day routine, which has been really big for me this year.

One of the things that Mike Daly (Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations) mentioned when he was here, he said one of the things that he was pleased with was that you’ve owned the strength and conditioning and the training and the arm care.  What was the turning point for you in that area?

Swanson: Obviously health was my biggest. Last year, missing as much time as I did, I knew that year was going to be a big year for me. This offseason, I got after it as much as I could. I felt like I prepared myself going into spring training and put myself into a situation to succeed. Then, being able to carry that from spring training to Hickory this year was been huge for me. Working with Dustin (Crawdads trainer Dustin Vissering) on some different arm care routines that I’ve been doing that have been working. I’m just trying to do that and continue that to stay healthy.

Did you take the training less serious before you got hurt?

Swanson: No, it’s not something that I took as serious as I am now, which is one of my bigger downfalls. I was a little overweight last year. The big key focus for this year was if I could come in spring training at a healthy weight – a good weight – physically strong.  I feel like I did and I think that most everybody thinks that I did that as well. Now, the focus for me is being able to maintain that and show them that I can do that.

Having thrown so few innings, in the last year, so you think that has helped you to stay strong, at least in the first half, with the idea that you’re going to add some innings to that total this year?

Swanson Yeah, that’s a big part of it. I don’t know off the top of my head how many innings I threw last year, but I think I’m close to double the innings I’ve thrown my entire professional career. A big part of that is me staying healthy and me getting in the shape that I needed to be in to come in this year as a starter and bring able to maintain that throughout the rest of the year. Staying healthy is going to be huge for me. It’s going to be a challenge and that’s my main goal this year.

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Erik Swanson pitching in a 2015 contest (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Was there a moment in the training that you flipped the switch, or did somebody say something to you, or was there a combination that said to you that this has to be different?

Swanson: Obviously, this is only my second full year. Me being a college guy, I’m 22 years old and in Low-A, which is fine with me. But, I just kind of sat down and thought to myself, “How long are they going to keep me around if I’m not doing what I need to be doing?” I think that’s kind of the point in the offseason was when I started to really flip that switch.

I came into spring training and I felt great and still feel great. I still have lot more room for improvement on all those aspects of everything – physical shape, mentally strong – and all that comes down to what I do on the field and off the field. So yeah, I think there definitely was a point where I decided to flip the switch on my own, along with other people telling me that it’s time.

What’s been the difference as far as your stuff goes. I remember you had a good fastball last year and a change – but we didn’t see you enough to get a grasp. What are some different things you’ve done as far as your stuff goes?

Swanson: I had a decent fastball last year and it’s definitely improved this year. The changeup has been a big one for me. It’s a pitch that I’ve been constantly working on, changing grips – and I’ll probably continue to do that until I find a grip that I feel comfortable throwing. That’s something that’s definitely improved from my first start here until my last start. I’m working on slider grips a little bit. Now, I’m working on a little bit of a curveball that hopefully the next start I’ll be throwing it in some games. I feel comfortable throwing it in my bullpens.

How does someone pitching at Iowa Western get noticed by pro scouts?

Swanson: Going from my first Juco (Wabash Valley CC , IL) to Iowa Western, that was my biggest thing. I needed to go somewhere where I’m going to get recognized, where I can go on and continue my college career and possibly have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It just seemed like they go back to the (NJCAA) World Series every year in Grand Junction (CO).

My head coach Marc Rardin was phenomenal. He taught me so much stuff and improved my game on the mound and off the field. That’s kind of his motto; he teaches us to become men before baseball players – to prepare us for life after. Going there, he helped me with that. It’s a winning program, so they’re going to get scouts around there and I just happened to go there. He gave me all the tools I needed and I put them together and had a successful season and got noticed by the right people.

When you were drafted by the Rangers, was the expectation that you would start or they would throw you from the bullpen?

Swanson: When I went to Spokane, I was a little bit on an innings limit because in my freshman year in college I threw only 17 innings, and then I threw close to 90 innings in my sophomore year. So, they wanted me out of the pen in Spokane. But in the future, the plan was to become a starter. I think that was the direction I was headed last year when I first got here, but then obviously injuries put that on hold a little bit.

I want to go back to your college coach and you saying that he treated you like men. What was a big life lesson you got out of that experience with your coach at Iowa Western?

Swanson: When I went there, it was a big program with team. You focus on the guys around you. He’s big in the classroom. If you’re not doing your stuff in the classroom, then I’m not going to say you didn’t deserve to play, but you’ve got to earn it.

The reason I said that, that he wants us to become men first and prepare us for life after baseball, because that’s something he always told us. What I do here, whether it’d be on the baseball field or off the baseball field with classrooms, study halls and stuff like that, my first goal is to help my ballplayers to become men and prepare them for life after baseball. At some point it’s going to end. You can go online and I can guarantee you that you can find that quote in a few different articles. I heard it all the time when I was there and even in articles that I read now, I still read it.

Erik Swanson pitching

Erik Swanson throwing in a 2016 Crawdads game (Hickory Crawdads)

What are the goals for the rest of the year?

Swanson: I had a few goals coming in. Obviously, staying healthy is my main goal. Reaching my inning limit is another one. At some point, one of my goals is to get out of here. Obviously, that’s out of my hands. I just need to do what I’m doing here. I need to keep up what I’m doing. If they decide that I need to move somewhere, then obviously that’s decision. I just need to keep doing what I’m doing and trying to get to the point to where they have no choice but to move me up. Notching a playoff spot while we’re here.

You get a call to the major leagues, what does that look like for you? What do you think your reaction will be?

Swanson: It’s kind of a dream come true. That’s something you dream about since you were a little kid, getting a call. I think the coolest thing for me, once I realize what is happening, will be making that call to all my family and letting them know that I’m going up.

I don’t know, that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about how I would react or anything. I think that’d be definitely the coolest part is to be able to call my mom and dad and friends, brother and sister-in-law and telling them that.

You guys put up with some much crap. What’s the biggest part of the crap that you might look back on and say, “That was worth it”?

Swanson: There’s a lot of little things that, I wouldn’t say that it’s crap, they might just get boring. You get that same routine every day and stuff seems like it’s tough. You come to the field every day at the same time. Obviously, that’s your time you get your work done, but sometimes you wake up and you might not want to come in, but you know you have to and you know that your ultimate going that you’re trying to get to, going in that day is going to help you get there.

You’ve got instructionals at the end of the year. The regular season is over with and it’s another month that you’ve got to add on, that can be a little frustrating at times. I’ve been twice, once because of injuries last year. I had to get some more innings in. It’s tough doing that, but at the same time, you know it’s worth it. The things that you do there is going to prepare you for the next year and get you better. You’re constantly learning, no matter where you are, so that’s the way that I look at it. No matter what you’re doing, no matter how bad it sucks, you’re going to learn something – whether it’s something really small, or something that may impact your game for the rest of your life. It’s all worth it.

 

Erik Swanson mug.jpg

Settled in at home: An Interview with Jeffrey Springs

Very few professional baseball players get the chance to play near their childhood home. Even fewer minor leaguers get to do so. Former Hickory Crawdads left-handed reliever Jeffrey Springs got to do just that and he made the most of it in working a promotion this week to high-A High Desert.

Springs is a native of Belmont, N.C. – about a 45 minute drive from Hickory –  and was a part of the 2011 state 3A championship team at South Point High.

He was named the state 3A player of the year in 2011 and set the Gaston County record for strikeouts and is tied for wins in the county’s baseball history.

Springs went on to a stellar four-year career at Appalachian State – also about 45 minutes from Hickory – where he posted top-10 career marks in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched for the Mountaineers.

He got his first chance to come home – Springs is the first App State product to pitch for Hickory – late last summer when the Texas Rangers 30th round pick in 2015 was promoted to the Crawdads for the final week of the regular season. He struck out six over 3.1 innings and then punctuated his season with a key moment in the first round of the South Atlantic League playoffs.

With Hickory facing elimination in game two of the Northern Division series, the West Virginia Power rallied to tie the score at 3-3 in the top of the fifth and had the go-ahead run on first. Springs was brought in to face SAL all-star rightfielder Michael Suchy. The lefty needed only one pitch to get Suchy to pop up to second and end the inning. The Power did not score again over the final 13 innings of the series.

This season, Springs was a foundational piece of the Crawdads bullpen prior to his promotion. Springs currently has three pitches – low-90s fastball, a looping curve ball, and a change that Springs uses as his go-to pitch. He is also working on adding a slider to the mix. In 18 outings, Springs struck out 40, walked eight, and posted a 1.16 ERA over 31 innings. The SAL batted .106 against him – the stingiest mark among relievers in the league – which earned him a spot in the SAL all-star game in Lexington, Ky. Springs struck out the only batter he faced to close out the sixth inning.

Below is the interview I did with Springs late last week, just after his addition – strangely, for me, a late addition – to the Northern Division all-star roster.

Jeffrey Springs all-star game

Jeffrey Springs delivers a pitch during the SAL All-Star Game at Lexington, Ky. (photo by Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

 

Obviously you were a late addition to the all-star game. I thought you should’ve been picked originally, but let me get your reaction to your selection to the all-star game.

Springs: Obviously, it’s humbling to be a part of something like that. It’s obviously really good. Like you said, I wasn’t picked in the beginning, but whatever. It is what it is. But I’m really happy to be a part of it and I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days in Kentucky and getting to compete and enjoying it.

 

What are you looking forward to the most?

Springs: Just being able to pitch against the best hitters in the league and competing to see how you match up, to be honest. Obviously we’re out here to compete and you’d like to see how you match up with the best.

Was there disappointment when you weren’t picked the first time?

Springs: No. It is what it is. I know it’s sometimes tough for relievers to make it. So, I wasn’t really expecting to or not expecting to.

How cool was it to pitch here after coming out of App (Appalachian State)?

Springs: I was excited when they posted the rosters out of spring training. I kind of had my fingers crossed to be in Hickory, not only because that’s moving up for me and getting one step closer, but just being close to home and being on the East Coast where my family can actually get to come and see me play. They weren’t able to come out to Spokane and see me. I’m right up the road from where I went to school for four years. It’s really nice. I feel like I’m playing at home and I’m very comfortable here. It’s definitely an advantage, because I live right down the road and I get to see the mom and dad every once in a while and friends and stuff like that. It’s really nice.

Do you travel down to Gaston County?

Springs: Yeah, I travel there most off-days to visit family and stuff. It’s nice to see them and they come to a good it of games.

You got here last year for the last couple of weeks and the championship run. That was a nice bit of a reward for you.

Springs: It was a great experience, for sure.  That team was very good. Obviously, they clinched the first half and it was exciting to be a part of a special thing that they had there at the end. Talent wise and the chemistry within the team, it was really special to be a part of it. They really accepted me with open arms. I contributed the little bit I could whenever they asked me to me to do whatever.

You got a key out in that playoff run.

Springs: I think against West Virginia – we had great starters. Obviously, they pretty much carried the team pretty much the whole year. I came in and threw one pitch to bridge the gap. We had great eighth-inning guys and we had a great closer. If the starters for some reason couldn’t get to the eighth inning, we just kind of bridged the gap. Like I said, our bullpen was stacked with Dillon (Tate) and Lulu (Luis Ortiz) back there and then Scott Williams. If we’d get to the eighth inning, we’re winning the game pretty much.

Jeffrey Springs vs Lexington

Jeffrey Springs in a 2016 game against Lexington (courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

What was your goal entering this year and how has that progressed for you?

Springs: Just being as consistent as possible. That’s something I tried to do last year at Spokane and carry it over to this year. They talk about staying on the kiddie coaster and being consistent, so when you have good outings and bad outings, they’re not too far apart. Just being consistent and doing whatever role they need me to do – being in the bullpen, or if they need me to be a lefty specialist, or a late-inning guy. Whatever they need me to do, just taking it and running with it and being the best at it.

Did you start at App?

Springs: Yeah, I started my whole career in high school and four years at App. When I got to the Rangers, they said you’re going to be in the bullpen, which is no big deal. It’s kind of an advantage for me because, at most, bullpen guys are two-pitch guys. But being a starter, throwing three and working on a slider now; here’s all three pitchers for a couple of innings and you don’t have to see me twice. It’s kind of nice, to be honest.

The one out-pitch for you has been that curveball. Has that been an advantage for you at the start?

Springs: My changeup really is the one that is an equalizer for me to right-handed hitters. I’m almost more comfortable at times with right handers in the box – I know that’s weird being left handed – but for me, my changeup is what gets me back on course. If I’m missing with fastballs, or whatever it may be, for some reason, when I go to it, it kind of settles everything back down. That’s what I go to. My breaking ball has gotten more consistent and I throw it and bury it 0-0, or whatever I need to do. It’s probably a changeup that has really been my equalizer.

I throw a curveball, but the change is the out pitch that I need right now. It’s not really my out pitch; it’s to get the weak contact, the popups. It really helps my fastball. I don’t throw like some of these guys, 98, or anything like that. I have to change speeds and keep hitters guessing.

Is that slider going to be the key for you moving up?

Springs: I think so. If I can really develop that and learn that, that’ll really hopefully take my game to left-handed hitters to be able to hopefully succeed at getting them out. Obviously, if you’re a left hander and you can’t get left handers out, you’ve got problems. I’ve been working on it a couple of weeks and hopefully if I can nail that down, I’ve got a shot of progressing a little bit more, a little quicker.

Do you have hopes of moving up this year, or are you fine being close to home?

Springs: Whatever they want me to do. If they want me to stay here or if they want me move up, obviously that’s the goal. It’s another step closer to the ultimate goal of making it. If they want me to move, I’ll be more than happy to pack my stuff up whenever they ask.

Is there hope for you that you get a change to start, or are you comfortable coming out of the bullpen?

Springs: Obviously, I started my whole career. That’s kind of where my heart is, whatever you want to call it. But like I said, I just want to keep pitching. If I get to start, that would be icing on the cake. But just getting to pitch, for me, is the biggest thing. I don’t care if we’re up by ten, down by ten, or tied in the ninth, as long as I get to pitch, I’m pretty content with that.

Between you and (Joe) Palumbo – although y’all have run into a bit of a rough patch lately – along with (John ) Werner, it’s been a nice back of the bullpen the first half of the season.

Springs: I feel like as a team, our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the year. Hitting is going to go in slumps. That’s just how it is. I mean, they’re going to struggle. We feel like as a staff, we have to carry them.  We have to keep them in the games, no matter if they’re putting up ten runs or they’re putting up two. For the most part, we did that. We’ve struggled the last few weeks and kind of shot ourselves in the foot trying to win the first half.

Werner’s been nice. It’s another consistent guy who comes in and you know what you’re going to get. Palumbo has been pretty good all year. We feel like we’ve got some guys in the pen that can really finish off games. Our starting staff is really good, and like I said, they’re been really carrying it pretty good.

You get a call to the major leagues, what is your reaction going to be?

Springs: Oh man, I don’t even know. Obviously, you dream of it since you were a little kid. I don’t know what my response will be. You try not to think about it too much during the season, but it’s hard not to wonder when you’re sitting there – even in the offseason – what would it be like. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you. I’d probably call my parents and just thank God for the opportunity. It’d be so surreal for a guy to really get a grasp on it until you maybe step onto the field. Fingers crossed, we’ll see.

Who’s the first non-family person you’ll call?

Springs: Probably the girlfriend. Obviously, mom and dad, my grandpa and my brothers. There have been a couple of people that have really helped me along the way with the pitching aspect. Devon Lowery, he made it to the big leagues out of Belmont (South Point High), where I’m from. He’s helped me so much along my way. I’ve had so much help. I’ve been fortunate enough to come in contact with people that know a lot about the game and helped me tweak things that I needed to get where I am. There’d be a lot of thanks going out to so many different people.

What’s the one thing that that you’ve gone through that you’ll look back on and say that was worth it?

Springs: Just the sacrifices, like the offseason.  What you have to go through to get your body in shape and the arm in shape and all the sacrifices over the years. You can’t go and do normal things like normal people do. All the hard work that you put it would be worth it to reach that ultimate goal. It’d be like, “I’m glad I did everything that I did to get where I am.”

Jeffrey Springs mug

Jeffrey Springs (Hickory Crawdads)

Taking control of the journey: An interview with Pedro Payano

The journey of Pedro Payano to what he hopes will be a major league career has been an odd one since an overweight six-year-old first rambled around the baseball diamond. But with the belief he has in himself, and the prodding of a now late-grandfather, Payano has begun to get into the crosshairs of baseball publications, who are beginning to focus on him becoming a major league pitching prospect.

Payano came to Hickory in August 2015 seemingly out of nowhere. He spent three full seasons in the Dominican Summer League and had started a fourth before suddenly a three-level jump to Hickory with a stop in Arizona on the way. It was a promotion that the Crawdads certainly benefited from as they prepared for the run to the South Atlantic League championship.

The Crawdads had already clinched a playoff berth, but as the team entered August and faced as many as eight extra games, the minimizing of innings for the team’s starters had begun. Luis Ortiz was gradually shifted to the bullpen. Dillon Tate was a one-inning starter after already completing a full college season, as well as dealing with some arm soreness. Brett Martin’ outings were curtailed as he finished a first full season. Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez were on a piggyback arrangement. Then here came Payano.

In his first start at Delmarva (Md.) on August 3, he spun a five-hit shutout over six innings and struck out five, needing 87 pitches to do so. He returned six days later and on the back-end of a tandem start with Brett Martin, Payano allowed one hit, three walks, and struck out three over four innings to defeat Lakewood (N.J.)

It was eight days later before he returned to the mound and he gave up his first run. But despite giving up eight hits and hitting two batters over five innings, the damage was just the one run in a win over Hagerstown (Md.).

He then gave up just one run in each over his next three starts, the final one a nine-strikeout performance against Rome (Ga.) over 5.2 innings.

Pedro Payano 2

Pedro Payano in this outing vs. Rome (Ga.) struck out nine over 5.2 innings (Photo by Tracy Proffitt)

Payano then saved his best for last. In game one of the SAL championship series, he tossed a six-hitter over six innings and struck out eight to defeat Asheville and give the Crawdads a 1-0 series lead.

In an article I did for the Hickory Daily Record after that game, Corey Ragsdale, the Crawdads manager last season, said of Payano, “To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about him when he got here. He’s exceeded my expectations and has been a real pickup.”

Payano throws a fastball in the 92-93 mph range and supplements that with a curve and change. What has set him apart during his stint here in Hickory has been his ability to throw any pitch in any count, along with the smarts to know how to do it.

“I think that Pedro is (a) guy that has a very good I.Q,” said Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations. “He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats.”

With all the ability, it took a while for Payano to get to Hickory and he freely admits to having a “short mind”, as he termed it. One Rangers rover said frankly that Payano had to “grow up.”

There was a start earlier in this season where an observer could see that Payano could be pushed to lose control on the mound. After the Crawdads were pounded in two straight games at home by Greenville (S.C.), they returned for a 10:30 a.m. game. The earlier start prompted both teams to play sloppily in the early going, and after the Crawdads held a 2-0 lead, it threatened to get away from them in the third. Unable to get a consistent arm slot, Payano battled control issues, as well as the umpire’s strike zone. A stolen base and a dropped fly ball in right by Jose Almonte led to two unearned runs. Payano was clearly unhappy on the mound as he’d walk around the mound and go to the rosin bag frequently before slamming it down. Yet, he gathered himself and eventually got through five innings with only the two unearned runs allowed.

Payano followed up that outing with a one-hit shutout of Greensboro.

Pedro Payano

Payano delivers a pitch during an early-season game against Kannapolis (photo by Tracy Proffitt)

“He does a pretty good job of staying within himself,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes. “He doesn’t let things that he can’t control to get in his mind.”

Part of the letting go for Payano has been the past. He didn’t want to get into events that occurred, which kept him in the DSL for a fourth season. He is fully focused on what he needs to do now and where he wants to go later. On that journey, Payano brings along a love of a late-grandfather who pushed him to become a pro ball pitcher.

Below is some excerpts of the interview I did with Payano.

 

What’s your first memory of baseball?

Payano: I was six years old, yeah and I dunno, I was fat, but I loved baseball.

You were fat?

Payano: Yeah, that was my first memory of baseball and I hit a long hit and I just make it to second because I was very slow.

So how big were you at six years old, how fat?

Payano: SO fat, I dunno, SO fat.

So you had the long hit, the double and what’s that memory sort of get you started to wanting to play more and more?

Payano: I don’t know, because I was born with baseball. When I was a little kid I have a lot of pictures with a bat and with a ball, you know. I love baseball.

When did you start getting serious about playing baseball?

Payano: I was like 13 years old and somebody tell me that you have a lot of passion for the game and you (should) keep going and keep playing. And then somebody tell me you going to go to academy and then I started to take it seriously.

Were you hitting then, or doing more pitching?

Payano: I was a hitter and then when I was like 14-years-old, somebody tell me,  “Come, you’re going to pitch,” and I kept pitching.

What position did you play when you were a hitter?

Payano: I was left field.

When did you stop being fat like me?

Payano: I was skinny when I was 12.

Did you work with somebody or just grow out of the baby fat.

Payano: When I was grown, I was skinny.

You said you went to academy – obviously you played baseball, but was that like a high school or just all baseball?

Payano: In the Dominican Republic academy is like, you live there, and you have a cage, a gym, and you have a field like 30 minutes away, but you live there. I was there Monday through Friday and then went home for the weekend.

What is your memory for when it was getting serious and you might go play sign with a pro team?

Payano: When I was 14 I didn’t throw hard, but I had a good curve ball and good change-up, somebody tell me I’m going to be a good pitcher and you know I just keep going.

So when people are telling you at 14 that you have the chance to go pro, did you ever think that you’d get to that point when you were taking those pictures when you were a little kid?

Payano: No.

How weird is that for you at that point?

Payano: Normal.

Is that a dream for a lot of kids growing up in the DR to play pro baseball? Yes, a lot.

What do you think set you apart from other kids – not everybody gets the chance to play pro baseball. What set you apart?

Payano: You just have to be positive. If you just think positive things, it’s going to come for you.  Just keep going and work hard, that’s the key.

Who was somebody who helped you get that positive attitude?

Payano: It was my grandfather –Ephraim Payano

What did he help you with as far as that positive attitude?

Payano: He died like 5 years ago. He always tell me, I want to see you playing baseball. I want to see you with a pro team and I keep that in my mind.

What do you think he would say about you now, if he were alive what would he say about you now playing baseball?

Payano: He’d be very proud of me.

There are a lot of times that the Rangers send somebody here at 19. You came along a little later. What was maybe in the development that took you a little longer to get here?

Payano: When I was in the Dominican Republic, I had a “short mind”. I was doing a lot of stupid things and that’s why I was kept there for 3-4 years. But I grew up, then they say, “Hey Payano is ready to go to the US.”

What were some of the things that kept you back?

Payano: I don’t remember

Did you put those things behind you?

Payano: Yes, I forgot that

Was it on field,  off field or both?

Payano: Both

What maybe helped you grow up?

Payano: I grow up, maybe because I don’t like being in the Dominican. Nobody knows you there. So when we start to move, step by step, it is here in the U.S. So I say, I need to get to the U.S., so I have to make that approach in my mind.

 

You came here last year and nobody knew who you were. Who’s Pedro Payano? You pitched so well at the end of last year and now top prospect. You start reading that Payano is this, Payano is that How fast is this all moving for you?

Payano: I don’t think that it’s moving very fast, but I’m working for that. I was waiting and working  and doing a good job.

What clicked for you on the mound?  What clicked for you when you came here, what took you to the next level on the mound?

Payano: I just tell myself that I’m going to do the same.  I’m going to do the same that I was doing in Arizona, throwing the ball for strikes and having a good tempo and just that.

What are your goals for this year?

Payano: To move up, championship, I just want to move to the next level

What do think you have to do to move to Frisco or the High Desert?

Payano: Just keep going

What are coaches having you work on to get to the next level of better hitters and such?

Payano: I just have to throw all my pitches for strikes and I’m going to move real fast. As you know, I have a good curve ball and changeup and my fast ball is pretty good.  So if I have these pitches for strikes, I’ll have a good year.

Later on, when you get a call saying “Pedro, you’re going to the big leagues”, what is your first reaction going to be do you think?

Payano: I don’t know, say, “Thanks God” and then say, “Thanks grandpa, this is for you.” Then I’ll call my family

Do you think when you take the mound for the first time in the major leagues, you’ll think of your grandpa?

Payano: Yeah, sure – every time I go to the mound I think of my grandpa.

What do you do?

Payano: This is going for you

Do you think he’s smiling?

Payano: Yeah, for sure.

Pedro Payano profile

Pedro Payano (courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

A new life, a new game: An Interview with Andy Ibanez

I had the chance to sit down with Andy Ibanez, as well as a translator, about a month ago in order to prepare a feature writeup for the Hickory Daily Record. Because this is very much a part-time gig for me, my schedule on completing it didn’t come together as well as I’d hoped.

Finally, my schedule was going to allow time to write it up for publication next week, but then Ibanez got promoted. Such is the life of a part-time beat writer.

At the time of the interview, Ibanez was tearing up the South Atlantic League, bashing opponents in April at a .402/.479/.659 clip. The cry at the time was to get him moving to AA Frisco; the game was too easy for him at Hickory.

Mike Day, Texas Rangers Senior Director of Minor League Operations said in a recent interview that the club did have internal discussions about an early promotion. Yet, the group decided to be patient.

“Obviously, he was outstanding there in April,” said Daly. “But it’s a five-month season here at the minor league level and it’s a grind each and every day. Andy will definitely have his time at the higher level and it’ll probably come sooner rather than later. I think for the foreseeable future, right now he’ll be right here in Hickory and really getting that first year under his belt.”

Perhaps the bat was too advanced for Class Low-A, but there were parts of Ibanez’s overall game that needed work. The most obvious was the baserunning, which saw Ibanez get picked off easily. He’d also run into easy outs and at times look confused on set plays such as a double steal. (One such play had him return to first, even as the other runner scored on a throw home.)

Several of the Rangers brass also made it clear that there was work to do at second base. Hickory Crawdads manager Steve Mintz said the eye-opener that Ibanez was making progress to that end came during a May series at Charleston S.C..

“Our infield coordinator Kenny Holmberg was in Charleston with us,” said Mintz. “He made a couple of plays and I walked up to Kenny and I said, ‘He don’t make that play in spring training.’And he said, ‘You’re right.’ His angles and reading balls off the bat and different things like that, we’re tickled to death with.”

Ibanez is looking to adjust to baseball in the U.S. and learn the terminology and get used to the style of play, the greater emphasis on structure, and the constant running that he says they don’t do in Cuba.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment Ibanez had to make was simply living on his own in the United States – to make long bus road trips and live away from home and the Rangers Arizona complex for the first time in an area in which you don’t speak the local language. It’s hard enough for a kid who does speak English to make that adjustment, but even moreso for a guy who only recently told his parents he was leaving Cuba, because he wanted to be like the former Cuban players he saw on TV.

In a country that oozes baseball, Ibanez wants to be among those players he saw on a grainy picture screen broadcast to Cuba, even as it has cost him his home life, especially his parents.

In the following interview, Ibanez speaks about his early season successes, the process of coming to the U.S., and his hope for a face-off with a specific top Major League hurler.

Andy Ibanez batting

Andy Ibanez has been among the SAL best hitters much of the season. (Photo by Tracy Proffitt)

 

First of all, let me ask you, obviously your season has started well. How do you feel about your start here with Hickory?

Ibanez: I’m really thankful for the outcome of the season. I’m really happy with that. This season is coming because of the training that I had in Miami with Texas Rangers coach Jose Fernandez, who has helped me train in order prepare to get ready for the season.

 

What have you learned in that training that has prepared you to play baseball here that maybe was different from playing in Cuba?

Ibanez The game passion for the game is pretty much the same here and there. For me, there is more equipment and more resources. There’s more organization of the time schedule for practices. That is the big difference. But, the passion for the sport is still the same.

 

You played in the World Baseball Classic with Cuba. Did you feel like that environment helped you grow up? You were very young then (18 years old). Did that make you grow up quicker with the expectations to play well in an international setting?

Ibanez: I think that being exposed to so many good people at that early age, it really made me learn from them and the experiences. I had the opportunity to talk to people and to get their advice and apply it to become better.

 

What made you decide when you were little to play baseball in Cuba?

Ibanez: I started when I was six years old. Everybody in Cuba plays baseball. Although my father did not play, everybody in Cuba is exposed to the sport. Everybody begins to play at a certain time and I started very early.

 

At what age or circumstances do you begin to figure out that maybe you could play baseball professionally?

Ibanez: I was a child that always liked sports. I played basketball, soccer and baseball. When I was 11 years old I represented my province (Isla de la Juventud, Island of Youth) and I felt that this was my passion and that this is what I would do the rest of my life. That was my turning point.

 

You played professionally with Cuba?

Ibanez: There’s a difference between what you call leagues in Cuba. You do not call them professional, you call them amateur, because you don’t really get paid to that level. I reached the highest level (Isla de la Juventud) that you can play in Cuba and I played at that level for three years.

 

What’s it like to play baseball in Cuba? We hear stories of the passion that the people have for baseball. Take me to a game where you’re playing and the fans are into the game?

Ibanez: It’s a celebration in Cuba. They have congas that people will be playing; people are dancing and cheering you up. But I don’t want to make a comparison because each place has a different life or dynamic. I want to point out that I actually appreciate that the fans here are quiet and they let you play. If you make a mistake, you still have a chance to keep pushing to do things right. In Cuba, if you happen to fail, they actually call you out and the fans yell at you and say not really nice stuff all the time. I don’t quite miss that. Here, the fans still support you and show you more respect.

 

What were the circumstances of your decision to defect from Cuba and leave home?

Ibanez: When I was in Cuba, I used to watch baseball from the big leagues in the states and I always wondered, “Why can I not take advantage of it? Why can I not give myself an opportunity?” I had seen on TV how many Cubans had done a terrific job in baseball, so I wanted to take the chance.

I did everything how it was to be done. I first talked to my parents and they said “Okay, we’ll support you.” So, I decided to move to the states with his girlfriend Yisel when he was 20 years old.

 

What were the sequence of events or the circumstances by which you were able to say, I defect? Were you here in the states, somewhere else?

Ibanez: First, I had to ask his local baseball to resign – to tell them I didn’t want to play anymore. I was also playing with the national team. So, I went to the central office and I had to ask for my resignation. When you’re with that team, you cannot get a passport. You cannot buy one. I had to wait for two months after I was approved to resign. Once I got the resignation approved, then I qualified to get a passport. Once I got the passport, then I could file for a tourist visa to travel to the Dominican Republic, not to the states.

 

So you traveled to the Dominican and then you decide not to travel home to Cuba? How does that work?

Ibanez: Once I got there, I started training. Not to play with any kind of team or league, but I just started training. My intention was to reach anybody, any scout that would be out there at the showcases where they’re trying to get the best baseball players. So I trained six months for it, because that was my goal, to be in a showcase and be picked.

Finally, last year on July 10, I signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. After I signed, I got a work visa with which I was able to come to the states through that visa and work here.

 

So we see stories in this country about getting on a boat or sneaking away, but that was not the case for you?

Ibanez: No, I did everything in the right way and I’m thankful to God that I didn’t have to go through that. It happens to a lot of people that I know that made it here, but not in my case.

Andy Ibanez homers

Andy Ibanez circles the bases after tagging one of his team-leading seven homers.. (Photo by Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

So, in doing everything the right way, you are able to go home to Cuba?

Ibanez: I can go back to Cuba and I want to, but the problem is that my visa gives me a year. According to the immigration law, as a Cuban, I have to be out of Cuba for one straight year without returning in order to qualify to become a resident of the United States. If I return to Cuba, no one is going to shut the door from me, but I would not qualify to carry on with the visa that I have. So, I have to be out of Cuba for a year so I can I petition for the residency status, and then eventually become a citizen.

 

So you hope to become a U.S. citizen?

Ibanez: I am willing to. I think it’s a great goal. Why not?

 

Are you able to talk to your parents, or call home?

Ibanez: I call them twice a week and I am able to communicate. Nowadays, actually my parents have access to email through their phone, so it’s a lot easier for them to keep that communication going.
You started well here. What did the Rangers say they wanted you work on before you promotion?

Ibanez: I’m thankful to God for the outcome of the season. I’ve not been told a particular skill that I have to work on. I’ve just been told to keep doing my best though this season so I’ll be ready when I do move.

 

Are there things in the American game that you have to learn that are different than what you might do in Cuba?

Ibanez: In Cuba, they play really good baseball, but I acknowledge that here is the best baseball in the world. I notice that here, no matter what, you’re running all the time. Whether you’re batting or fielding constantly, you run all the time, which I really enjoy. Even if you hit a fly ball, you still run the bases out.

It’s really well organized and disciplined and I appreciate that.

 

One thing that we’ve noticed is that running the bases has been an issue, whether it’s been pickoffs our getting caught stealing. What are you working on related to that?

Ibanez: Absolutely. Part of the training is to watch video and see if you can predict the move the pitcher will make during the game. Also during the game, we’re trying to see what’s going on. Even though I’m not on the field, the team is trying to see what the moves will be.

 

Who is your favorite baseball player?

Ibanez: Jose Abreu of the White Sox. I had the opportunity to play with him in the National League in Cuba and I had the opportunity to know him as a person. He was always willing to give me advice and the way he way he gives himself to the game and the training. So I’ve seen him in all those instances as a person, as a human being, and as a baseball player. I seem him as a role model to follow.

 

Do you feel challenged here in Hickory? You’re doing so well with hitting. Is it too easy here at this level?

Ibanez: No. I consider baseball as a discipline. It’s a serious business. Whenever I play, I take it seriously. I give myself to the game every time. I don’t underestimate anybody. I take it seriously. I set myself every day a goal to do better, based on what I can give. I always want to get better every day.

 

How anxious are you to get to the big leagues?

Ibanez: That’s my dream. Anybody who feels the passion of baseball, that’s where you want to go. So yeah, that’s what all the drive and persistence and the commitment to work are for me. I want to go there with Texas and I see that happening.

 

You get the call that you are going to the big leagues, whether it be with Texas or elsewhere. What do you think that will be like for you?

Ibanez: (smiling with a long exhale). I have imagined that day and I know that it’s going to be a really happy day for me. I’m working for it every day and I’m committed to it. Any baseball player has to sacrifice a lot to make it there. It’s been hard for me because I have given away my family and my parents. That weighs more because I have to miss my parents birthdays and Christmas and other holidays. Being away from all that sometimes hurts, but I’m committed to it because I want to make it happen.

I watched this movie in which you picture good stuff happening in your life and you pull them towards you by the work you do.

 

What pitcher do you want to face most?

Ibanez: Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Why?
Ibanez: Because he’s good. He’s a good player, so he’s a good challenge and he’d love to take it.

Andy Ibanez second base

Andy Ibanez (left) tags out a runner at second during a game vs. Greensboro (photo courtesy of Crystal Lin/ Hickory Crawdads)

Erik Swanson Goes Solo: Dominates Le… wait for it… gends.

Entering the season, Hickory Crawdads pitcher Erik Swanson was expected to work in a tandem arrangement with teammate Wes Swanson in the starting rotation. After a couple of turns through the rotation, that arrangement, for now, has been put on hold, due to an injury to another starting pitcher, Dillon Tate.

After a tough outing in the first start after he was spun off from tandem-mate Wes Benjamin (4.2 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 6 K), Swanson allowed three hits and struck out a career-high eight batters over seven innings – also a career high – as the Crawdads defeated the Lexington (Ky.) Legends 6-2 Friday night at L.P. Frans Stadium.

“With Tate out the past couple of starts, we kind of had to step up,” said Swanson after the game. “Wessey and I try to at least go those five or six innings to help our bullpen a little bit. Keep the pitch count down, and tonight I felt like I was attacking with the fastball, which helped me out with the pitch count a little bit and got the job done.”

The big right-hander out of Iowa Western CC was able to hold up his end of the bargain where innings were concerned, as he was able to pitch effectively to contact, or power up if need be. Of the 24 batters Swanson faced, 16 of them saw four or fewer pitches during a single plate appearance.

“Getting ahead is the biggest thing,” said Swanson, who threw first-pitch strikes to 14 hitters. “You get strike one on them, that’s a game-changer right there. It throws them off a little bit and gives you momentum to either get that second or third-pitch ground ball, or even get that strikeout within the first three or four pitches.”  Three of the eight strikeouts came on the third or fourth pitch of the at-bat.

For the most part, Swanson was able to stick with a 94-95 mph fastball (topped out at 98 mph) and changeup (89-90) combination that was more than enough to keep the Legends hitters off balance. The fastball was especially effective to right-handed hitters as consistently buried the pitch on the outside corner at the knees. The change had enough deception to miss bats. By my count it missed seven.

He brought a slider (84-86) into the mix starting in the fourth inning, if only to give the hitters another pitch selection to ponder at the plate.

Said Swanson, “I didn’t really bring out my slider until the fourth or fifth, which was when I threw it the most. Then, I think I threw it once or twice in the third inning, or maybe the second inning. I was trying to go fastball/ changeup and save that third (pitch) as long as I can.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of the outing was the final inning, during which he struck out two. After working the count full to the leadoff hitter (RH) Josh Banuelos, Swanson whizzed a 97 mph heater for a called third strike on the outside corner.

After RH hitter Ben Johnson worked a 3-1 count against him, Swanson rebounded with a 95 mph on the corner at the hands. Johnson stayed alive by fouling off a 97 at the ends, but succumbed to Swanson by flailing through a 97 mph buzzsaw away at the knees for the strikeout. Swanson then needed a final fastball away to get Xavier Fernandez tried to pull, but it went meekly to Yeyson Yrizarri for the 6-3 play.

Of the 16 pitches Swanson threw in the final inning, 11 of them were at 95 mph and above.

Swanson said, “I was feeling pretty good tonight, fastball wise. The arm felt great. Going out for that seventh inning, I knew I had to be getting close. I tried to empty the tank a little bit, but keep a little bit in there, in case I needed to go back out for the eighth if Mintz needed me to. Everything was working tonight, so it was good.”

What will be interesting to watch is how Swanson will be used over the next several months. After 38 total innings of relief work over the past two seasons combined, Swanson is already at 21 in 2016. But at 6-3, 220, he physically appears to be a guy that could handle what looks to be a much heavier total workload, giving the parent club Texas Rangers some options on how to handle that increased labor.

Tate will be back in the rotation soon – perhaps as soon as his next turn, which would be scheduled for Monday. However with Tate and Martin expected for promotions later in 2016, and the season-opening work of Crawdads No. 3 starter Jonathan Tate, as well as Pedro Payano bucking for a promotion after his one-hitter on Wednesday, there  could be room for a longer stretch of starts later in the season.  That is, until the Rangers pull back the reins on the number of innings Swanson is to throw.

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RH Erik Swanson in a game earlier this season vs. Greenviille, (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

Moving on, Moving up: An Interview with Eric Jenkins

When one normally thinks of “speed guys” there is the image of a small-statured individual the scampers around the field. Eric Jenkins is not Lewis Brinson tall, but at 6-1, 170, he’s not a runt either. In chasing down balls in the gap, Jenkins has the appearance of a cheetah – a fast and sleek cat of prey that can quickly adjust its route if needed and take down its victim. In the games I’ve seen him play last summer and so far this year, I don’t recall seeing him dive. He’s just there, and if not, the wouldn’t be caught anyway.

Jenkins is an athlete. He was played some football and soccer at West Columbus High in Cerro Gordo, N.C., and can dunk a basketball.

He’s smart and learns quickly as takes in what is around him. In my time seeing him, Jenkins will make a mistake, but rarely the same one twice. Jenkins is also a humble kid. With a foundation instilled by his father Eric, Sr.- a man who spent 12 years in the Navy – one gets the idea that young Eric will not get too full of himself as he moves up into the majors– which he will some day.

I spoke to Eric just after the team arrived from spring training. Here is the feature article in the Hickory Daily Record that came from that interview. Below are other excerpts of that interview during which he talks about his first spring training, his expectations for the season, and adjusting to a faster pace of life in Charlotte.

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Hickory Crawdads centerfielder Eric Jenkins was the Texas Rangers second round pick in 2015 out of West Columbus High in Cerro Gordo, N.C. (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt)

 

Well how was your first Spring Training?

Jenkins: It was pretty good – got a chance to play with some of the big league guys in a big league game. I’m just glad to be back in baseball play with some of my friends – I haven’t seen them in months. It’s been a pretty good Spring Training.

 

What was it like playing with the big league guys?

Jenkins: I mean I loved it – Big league guys are so nice, they treat you like their own kids and stuff. They pay you with respect and that’s what I like about them. And I learned a lot from them from asking questions about what to do and not to do in the big leagues – it was a pretty cool experience.

What did you learn most in your first, as far as what to do & not do in the big leagues?

Jenkins: Be yourself. Don’t do nothing that you’re not capable of doing. Just play to your strengths and you’ll be fine.

Who did you connect with big league wise?

Jenkins: I talked with Delino DeShields and James Jones – the centerfielders. Mostly the fast guys, cause I’m fast.

What did they teach you as far as speed and using that maybe in your game?

Jenkins: Use your speed to your advantage. They told me to practice on bunting –that’s going to play a huge role in my career as I move up in the big leagues-move up in the affiliates and just be yourself and play to your advantage.

 

Did you get to play for Banister?

Jenkins: Yes, sir

How was he to play for?

Jenkins: It was pretty cool. There was one game that I got in the seventh inning and we were down 11-9  and I came up and hit a lead-off triple.  And then Ryan Strausborger came behind me and hit another triple and then Bobby Wilson came and hit a walk-off home run that won the game. That’s probably my best moment in Spring Training.

Is this all heady stuff from this time last year where you’re in West Columbus?

Jenkins: Not really. Coming from high school, I kind of know what to expect having to make a big adjustment to the competition, because when I was younger I used to always play above myself and my competition.  So it’s kind of the way it got me now today, so it’s pretty cool.

What’s been the biggest adjustment?

Jenkins: Probably the pitch speed is the biggest adjustment and learning how to play in the outfield in different situations, where to be at with two strikes or whatever. Know your hitters.

 

But now everybody is as good as you – you’re a little bit on par now. How did you make that adjustment to now there are people who can hit as hard as you – and run as fast as you?

Jenkins: It comes from practicing  a lot and you got to practice to your strength and your weakness in the off-season, and that’s what I did. I practiced speed work – practiced the little things because that’s what gets you big in life – practicing the really small things and that’s what I did.

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Jenkins has eight steals this season through his first 16 games in 2016. (photo courtesy of Tracy Proffitt.)

Give me an example of a small thing that you had to work on in the off-season.

Jenkins: Learn how to be mentally strong in different situations – know when to go or not at different strike/ball counts – learn how to help your teammates in the outfield; move them, shift them wherever they be at – small things like that.

What is your expectation for this year?

Jenkins: I expect us to be a winning team like last year. I mean I know we gonna be young and good. The thing is, we got speed this year, like half of the lineup can steal bases and we can use that to our advantage this year.  And its gonna be pretty cool coming off of winning a championship into the season.

Did you get your ring?

Jenkins: Yes, sir.

How was it?

Jenkins: It’s cool – it’s big, fat, shiny.

It’s got your name on it?

Jenkins: Yes sir – Jenkins.

Does that make you hungry for bigger and better things?

Jenkins: Yes, sir. I want another one.

It’s going to be a different team this year where a lot more speed this year and maybe not the big boppers that you had last year in with Tendler & Trevino – talk about how that’s going to be different this year.

Jenkins: This year we don’t have any big power hitters like that. But as long as we execute lines, execute your plays we’ll be fine and play as a team.

How are you maybe more attuned to the game now even than when you were here last August and September?

Jenkins; Last year when I caught up it made me a more humble person into the game right now, made me stay calm and become a man on my own in life. That’s probably it.

You moved to Charlotte

Jenkins: Yes, sir

What was the purpose of moving to Charlotte?

Jenkins: My family wanted to be around more things like Carolina Panthers football and Charlotte Knights  – they want to see Charlotte baseball , more festivities around there.

Maybe for you to grow up a little bit, maybe?

Jenkins: Yes, sir. See what it’s like to be a city boy. I have always been a little country boy in a small town.

What have you learned so far being in the city versus being in the country?

Jenkins; I really didn’t learn anything because I only stayed there two days and then had to fly to Arizona for spring training. So I only stayed there one day, so I haven’t been home lately. I get to go home tomorrow because it’s an off-day get to be with family and the new house.

Now is your family moving out with you or did you just move here by yourself?

Jenkins: My family moved out with me

Do you still have to take out the trash at home and do the chores at home?

Jenkins: Yes, sir – have to do all that. I’ve got to clean my room, clean the bathroom. Just the same things I did as a little kid.

So it doesn’t matter that you are a second round draft – you still have to do that?

Jenkins: Yes, sir – can’t get big headed. Still respect my parents.

Now I’ve met your dad and he seems like the kind of guy that’s gonna keep you humble.

Jenkins: Yes, I think by him being in the military for 12 years he’s kind of hard on me and stuff all the time. He was 12 years in the Navy. I think that played a huge role in my life where I’m at today. That’s what I love about him – he’s always hard on me – sometimes I don’t like it, but it’ll pay off in the long run.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve learned so far as a pro?

Jenkins: I’ve learned how to be more professional on the field and off the field – represent yourself as a professional – do professional things – that’s about it.

So what does that mean, “do professional things”? So give me something that you do that’s a professional thing versus something you might do in high school.

Jenkins: Like help the elderly people out – do good things, not bad things, because growing up I never did bad things. I thank my dad for that.  Always do the right thing at home and everything will be all right and put God first.

Do you have to take care of yourself more now than when you did in high school?

Jenkins: Yes, now I’m in pro ball I’m kind of on my own now, because back when I was in high school I had my high school coach and friends, my family behind my back. But now I’m kind of on my own right now, but still have support from my family and friends

Do you have to go to bed at a decent hour?

Jenkins: Decent hour about 10:30 or 11:00.

No video games at all night now?

Jenkins: Yes, I still play video games (one of my pet peeves right there-ha,ha) I never really got a chance to watch TV in Arizona cause I’m always busy at spring training, but now I can do that.

 

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Crawdads CF Eric Jenkins (photo by Tracy Proffitt)