Rangers Prospect Cole Uvila Is a Driveline-Developed Spin Monster

You have to scroll pretty far down our Texas Rangers Top Prospects list to get to Cole Uvila’s name. Befitting his under-the-radar status, the righty reliever is No. 36 in a system that, according to Eric Longenhagen, has a lot of high variance players. None of them are as unusual as Uvila, who at 26 years of age has yet to pitch above A ball.

Not only does his future looms bright — Longenhagen cited “seemingly imminent big league relevance” — Uvila’s backstory is borderline bizarre. Moreover, he boasts a Driveline-developed curveball that features elite spin. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Uvila is coming off a breakout season with the High-A Down East Wood Ducks. In 64-and-two-thirds innings (including seven with Low-A Hickory), the 1,199th pick in the 2018 draft punched out 95 batters and allowed just 34 hits. That was followed by an eye-opening Arizona Fall League campaign that inspired a head-scratching question: “How on earth did this guy last until the 40th round?”

He hasn’t always been a pitcher. The Port Angeles, Washington native was primarily a shortstop in high school, and that was his initial position at Pierce College. By his own admission, he wasn’t a very good one. That led him to the mound, albeit not in a way you might expect.

“I couldn’t hit — I couldn’t catch up to [junior] college pitching — so I ended up getting a shot as a submariner pitcher,” Uvila explained. “I wasn’t dragging my knuckles, but I was low enough that my chest was completely over the rubber. Sidearm is 90 degrees and I was about 45 degrees from the dirt. Anyway, that got me off the redshirt list and onto the field, which was pretty much all I wanted. I never really imagined playing past junior college.”

Uvila was in the on-deck circle, tugging on his batting gloves during an inter-squad game, when the opportunity presented itself. Pierce College’s coach was upset with the lack of strikes being thrown by his relievers, and Uvila told him, “Hey, I can throw strikes, and I can do it sidearm.” The response was “Go get warmed up, you’re in next inning.’”

Less than a week earlier, Uvila had been playing catch with Pierce teammate Ryan Schmitten, who later pitched at the University of Washington. Schmitten had a submarine slot, and Uvila decided it would be fun to emulate him. Little did he expect the choice that followed: Retain his redshirt status and come back the next year with a chance to play shortstop, or forgo the redshirt and pitch out of the bullpen that season. He chose the latter — “I mostly just wanted to play with my friends anyway” — and ended up throwing a smattering of innings.

Then came Driveline and an end to his sidearming ways. Uvila’s first-ever visit to the Kent, Washington facility came the ensuing summer, and at Kyle Boddy’s suggestion he converted to a traditional delivery. Uvila threw over the top in his sophomore season at Pierce, and then at Georgia State University (where he blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery) and Georgia-Gwinnett College.

Uvila’s introduction to Boddy wasn’t all about baseball.

“Kyle and I both have interests in poker, and a card game called Magic: The Gathering,” explained Uvila. “A teammate’s dad rented the facility to Kyle, and one day he said to me, ‘Hey dude, you have to meet this guy; he plays Magic and likes poker, just like you. Oh, and he also runs a baseball facility.’ So I went over there — it’s about a 20-minute drive — and Kyle and I talked cards, and whatnot. Then it was like, ‘What do you actually do here?’ He said, ‘We train baseball players.'”

Uvila has trained at Driveline every year since that 2013 meet-up, and it was there that his curveball was born. This happened last summer when the righty traveled home during the Carolina League All-Star break. Working on Uncle Charlie was the reason for his visit.

“I had two decent breaking balls before surgery [in 2016] — a slider and kind of a slurve curve — but after TJ, I had no feel for either one,” said Uvila. “That was a huge knock when I was drafted. My area scout has since told me that being 24 without a breaking ball is why I slipped so far, with a lot of teams not even considering me.”

With the help of Rob Hill — then full-time at Driveline, now a pitching coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers — magic happened. As Uvila put it, “In one session, about an hour of pitch design, we came away confident with the pitch I’m throwing now.”

The confidence came to a crescendo in the final weeks of the season. Over his last 12 appearances, Uvila amassed 36 strikeouts in 19-and-two-thirds innings. He allowed just seven hits.

The curveball he crafted is simple, yet nuanced in its execution.

Cole Uvila’s curveball grip.

“It’s actually a very traditional grip,” Uvila said. “It’s back of the horseshoe, two fingers — not a spike — with an immense amount of pressure on the outside of my middle finger. The nail is almost on the seam, because I’m putting so much pressure on the outside of the ball. But I really wouldn’t say it’s the grip that makes it good; it’s more the things I’m thinking that led to the breakthrough.

Cole Uvila’s curveball grip.

“Basically, I want to throw the back of my wrist at the catcher. Any time you throw the ball, your hand is going to pronate, and I’m trying to hold supination so long that when my hand starts to unwind I’m on top, versus behind, the ball. That gives me a more 12-6, really high spin efficiency curveball, à la Trevor Bauer. I’ll obviously never be able to recreate Trevor’s, because he’s the best in the big leagues, but I’m trying to get as close to that as I can.

“The target axis we want is 6:45. We want as much negative vertical break as possible, and I average anywhere from 15 to 18. Horizontal is good, but we prefer vertical, because I have a high vertical with my fastball. The horizontal is anywhere from 10 to 13, so it’s not a true 12-6; it’s more 11-5. I typically spin around 3,100 [rpm], but I have had it higher.”

To the best of his knowledge, Uvila’s highest RPM reading has been 3,378. That came on a pitch to Jo Adell in the Arizona Fall League All-Star Game. The radar-gun reading was 78 mph, which is a tick and half higher than the 76.5 he averaged on the season. Velocity is very much on his mind.

“That’s something I’m at a crossroads with,” Uvila admitted. “Everybody tells me my curveball is great — they love it, and it projects to the big leagues — but you don’t see too many big-league relievers throwing 75-76 mph curveballs. I’ve been looking at maybe throwing it more like 80, even though that might mean a little less action. At the same time, everybody tells me I’m probably overthinking it.”

Uvila doesn’t need to guess at most of his numbers. He more or less has them memorized. The Driveline devotee told me that his four-seam fastball — a pitch he throws almost exclusively above the belt — averages 93.6 mph, 2,550 rpm, and has 21 inches of vertical, and nine inches of horizontal break. He described his changeup as “a straight change, kind of like a parachute ball,” that is effective due to its speed differential. “Pitch graders don’t love it, because I don’t kill a ton of lift or a ton of spin, but I do kill about 10 mph,” Uvila related. “If I keep it down, that’s good enough.”

The slider he’s throwing was added to his repertoire over the offseason. Not surprisingly, it was developed at Driveline. Hill and Eric Jagers recommended the pitch, explaining that he won’t always be able to command his curveball. He concurred with their reasoning.

“There are going to be days where I’m not able to land it, because it moves so much,” Uvila said. “When you’re throwing a curveball, you’re almost trying to land it in a garbage can. The arc of it, to put it in the strike zone… there’s very little room for error. A slider moves less, and that’s a pitch I was really excited about coming into this year.”

Asked if he’s concerned that his curveball and slider might start melding together, Uvila answered in an unsurprising manner.

“There’s always that risk when you throw both, but with the technology — TrackMan, Rapsodo, and Edgertronic, everywhere you go — it’s something you can always monitor,” said Uvila. “The Rangers use that stuff just like Driveline does. If I want to know what the metics were on my curveball, I’ll have them the next morning.”

And yes, he’ll make those requests often.

“Probably to a fault,” acknowledged Uvila. “I probably care about it a little too much. I guess that’s just my background. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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1 year ago

Great article