The journey of Pedro Payano to what he hopes will be a major league career has been an odd one since an overweight six-year-old first rambled around the baseball diamond. But with the belief he has in himself, and the prodding of a now late-grandfather, Payano has begun to get into the crosshairs of baseball publications, who are beginning to focus on him becoming a major league pitching prospect.
Payano came to Hickory in August 2015 seemingly out of nowhere. He spent three full seasons in the Dominican Summer League and had started a fourth before suddenly a three-level jump to Hickory with a stop in Arizona on the way. It was a promotion that the Crawdads certainly benefited from as they prepared for the run to the South Atlantic League championship.
The Crawdads had already clinched a playoff berth, but as the team entered August and faced as many as eight extra games, the minimizing of innings for the team’s starters had begun. Luis Ortiz was gradually shifted to the bullpen. Dillon Tate was a one-inning starter after already completing a full college season, as well as dealing with some arm soreness. Brett Martin’ outings were curtailed as he finished a first full season. Ariel Jurado and Yohander Mendez were on a piggyback arrangement. Then here came Payano.
In his first start at Delmarva (Md.) on August 3, he spun a five-hit shutout over six innings and struck out five, needing 87 pitches to do so. He returned six days later and on the back-end of a tandem start with Brett Martin, Payano allowed one hit, three walks, and struck out three over four innings to defeat Lakewood (N.J.)
It was eight days later before he returned to the mound and he gave up his first run. But despite giving up eight hits and hitting two batters over five innings, the damage was just the one run in a win over Hagerstown (Md.).
He then gave up just one run in each over his next three starts, the final one a nine-strikeout performance against Rome (Ga.) over 5.2 innings.
Payano then saved his best for last. In game one of the SAL championship series, he tossed a six-hitter over six innings and struck out eight to defeat Asheville and give the Crawdads a 1-0 series lead.
In an article I did for the Hickory Daily Record after that game, Corey Ragsdale, the Crawdads manager last season, said of Payano, “To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about him when he got here. He’s exceeded my expectations and has been a real pickup.”
Payano throws a fastball in the 92-93 mph range and supplements that with a curve and change. What has set him apart during his stint here in Hickory has been his ability to throw any pitch in any count, along with the smarts to know how to do it.
“I think that Pedro is (a) guy that has a very good I.Q,” said Texas Rangers senior director of minor league operations. “He’s very good in terms of being able to read what the other hitters are trying to do. He’s able to attack them based on what the hitters are trying to read; so, he’s able to read bats.”
With all the ability, it took a while for Payano to get to Hickory and he freely admits to having a “short mind”, as he termed it. One Rangers rover said frankly that Payano had to “grow up.”
There was a start earlier in this season where an observer could see that Payano could be pushed to lose control on the mound. After the Crawdads were pounded in two straight games at home by Greenville (S.C.), they returned for a 10:30 a.m. game. The earlier start prompted both teams to play sloppily in the early going, and after the Crawdads held a 2-0 lead, it threatened to get away from them in the third. Unable to get a consistent arm slot, Payano battled control issues, as well as the umpire’s strike zone. A stolen base and a dropped fly ball in right by Jose Almonte led to two unearned runs. Payano was clearly unhappy on the mound as he’d walk around the mound and go to the rosin bag frequently before slamming it down. Yet, he gathered himself and eventually got through five innings with only the two unearned runs allowed.
Payano followed up that outing with a one-hit shutout of Greensboro.
“He does a pretty good job of staying within himself,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes. “He doesn’t let things that he can’t control to get in his mind.”
Part of the letting go for Payano has been the past. He didn’t want to get into events that occurred, which kept him in the DSL for a fourth season. He is fully focused on what he needs to do now and where he wants to go later. On that journey, Payano brings along a love of a late-grandfather who pushed him to become a pro ball pitcher.
Below is some excerpts of the interview I did with Payano.
What’s your first memory of baseball?
Payano: I was six years old, yeah and I dunno, I was fat, but I loved baseball.
You were fat?
Payano: Yeah, that was my first memory of baseball and I hit a long hit and I just make it to second because I was very slow.
So how big were you at six years old, how fat?
Payano: SO fat, I dunno, SO fat.
So you had the long hit, the double and what’s that memory sort of get you started to wanting to play more and more?
Payano: I don’t know, because I was born with baseball. When I was a little kid I have a lot of pictures with a bat and with a ball, you know. I love baseball.
When did you start getting serious about playing baseball?
Payano: I was like 13 years old and somebody tell me that you have a lot of passion for the game and you (should) keep going and keep playing. And then somebody tell me you going to go to academy and then I started to take it seriously.
Were you hitting then, or doing more pitching?
Payano: I was a hitter and then when I was like 14-years-old, somebody tell me, “Come, you’re going to pitch,” and I kept pitching.
What position did you play when you were a hitter?
Payano: I was left field.
When did you stop being fat like me?
Payano: I was skinny when I was 12.
Did you work with somebody or just grow out of the baby fat.
Payano: When I was grown, I was skinny.
You said you went to academy – obviously you played baseball, but was that like a high school or just all baseball?
Payano: In the Dominican Republic academy is like, you live there, and you have a cage, a gym, and you have a field like 30 minutes away, but you live there. I was there Monday through Friday and then went home for the weekend.
What is your memory for when it was getting serious and you might go play sign with a pro team?
Payano: When I was 14 I didn’t throw hard, but I had a good curve ball and good change-up, somebody tell me I’m going to be a good pitcher and you know I just keep going.
So when people are telling you at 14 that you have the chance to go pro, did you ever think that you’d get to that point when you were taking those pictures when you were a little kid?
How weird is that for you at that point?
Is that a dream for a lot of kids growing up in the DR to play pro baseball? Yes, a lot.
What do you think set you apart from other kids – not everybody gets the chance to play pro baseball. What set you apart?
Payano: You just have to be positive. If you just think positive things, it’s going to come for you. Just keep going and work hard, that’s the key.
Who was somebody who helped you get that positive attitude?
Payano: It was my grandfather –Ephraim Payano
What did he help you with as far as that positive attitude?
Payano: He died like 5 years ago. He always tell me, I want to see you playing baseball. I want to see you with a pro team and I keep that in my mind.
What do you think he would say about you now, if he were alive what would he say about you now playing baseball?
Payano: He’d be very proud of me.
There are a lot of times that the Rangers send somebody here at 19. You came along a little later. What was maybe in the development that took you a little longer to get here?
Payano: When I was in the Dominican Republic, I had a “short mind”. I was doing a lot of stupid things and that’s why I was kept there for 3-4 years. But I grew up, then they say, “Hey Payano is ready to go to the US.”
What were some of the things that kept you back?
Payano: I don’t remember
Did you put those things behind you?
Payano: Yes, I forgot that
Was it on field, off field or both?
What maybe helped you grow up?
Payano: I grow up, maybe because I don’t like being in the Dominican. Nobody knows you there. So when we start to move, step by step, it is here in the U.S. So I say, I need to get to the U.S., so I have to make that approach in my mind.
You came here last year and nobody knew who you were. Who’s Pedro Payano? You pitched so well at the end of last year and now top prospect. You start reading that Payano is this, Payano is that How fast is this all moving for you?
Payano: I don’t think that it’s moving very fast, but I’m working for that. I was waiting and working and doing a good job.
What clicked for you on the mound? What clicked for you when you came here, what took you to the next level on the mound?
Payano: I just tell myself that I’m going to do the same. I’m going to do the same that I was doing in Arizona, throwing the ball for strikes and having a good tempo and just that.
What are your goals for this year?
Payano: To move up, championship, I just want to move to the next level
What do think you have to do to move to Frisco or the High Desert?
Payano: Just keep going
What are coaches having you work on to get to the next level of better hitters and such?
Payano: I just have to throw all my pitches for strikes and I’m going to move real fast. As you know, I have a good curve ball and changeup and my fast ball is pretty good. So if I have these pitches for strikes, I’ll have a good year.
Later on, when you get a call saying “Pedro, you’re going to the big leagues”, what is your first reaction going to be do you think?
Payano: I don’t know, say, “Thanks God” and then say, “Thanks grandpa, this is for you.” Then I’ll call my family
Do you think when you take the mound for the first time in the major leagues, you’ll think of your grandpa?
Payano: Yeah, sure – every time I go to the mound I think of my grandpa.
What do you do?
Payano: This is going for you
Do you think he’s smiling?
Payano: Yeah, for sure.