The combination of power and command has been striking. In 34 innings split between high-A Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire, Nate Pearson has punched out 52 batters and issued just six walks. His ERA sits comfortably at 1.32. Blessed with a blistering fastball and a carve-‘em-up slider, he’s the top pitching prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
The 22-year-old right-hander doesn’t possess a long professional resume. Selected 28th overall in the 2017 draft out of Central Florida Community College, Pearson got his feet wet with 20 innings of rookie ball, then began last year on the injured list with an intercostal strain. Upon returning in early May, he was promptly nailed by a come-backer and missed the remainder of the regular season with a fractured ulna.
Pearson recovered in time to make six appearances in the Fall League, an assignment Jeff Ware, Toronto’s minor-league pitching coordinator, called “a big test given that he’d really only pitched in short-season ball.” In terms of reestablishing his high-ceiling credentials, he passed with flying colors.
Standing a sturdy six-foot-six, Pearson looks the part of a power pitcher, and that’s exactly what he is. Asked for a self-scouting report, he led with that exact definition.
“I’m a power pitcher,” Pearson told me following the first of his four starts for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “I’m very fastball-dominant. My four-seamer has life to it — it’s always been my best pitch — and my slider is my second-best pitch. I also have a changeup and a curveball. My changeup has had a lot of depth this year, while my curveball is more of a pitch that I’ll use for a first-pitch strike.”
Pearson worked on his slider and his curveball at Driveline this past January. It was his first visit to the Seattle-area facility — he’d already been doing a Driveline arm-care program — and according to Ware, the fast-rising hurler has the ideal mindset to thrive in that type of environment.
“He can touch 100 mph, and his slider sits in the upper-80s with depth,” said Ware. “He can overpower hitters. We all know that. So our message to Nate is to learn how to command, how pitch sequence, how to tunnel pitches. And he’s probably one of the better guys in the organization when it comes to understanding that stuff. He understands his analytics — where they need to be — and he’s very self-driven.”
A high-octane heater up in the zone is the youngster’s bread and butter.
“Analytics-wise — looking at it on Rapsodo or Trackman — that’s where my fastball plays best,” affirmed Pearson, who has been clocked as high as 102 mph this season. “The spin rate is anywhere from 2,400 to 2,600 [rpm], but what makes it elite is the vertical [movement]. When it’s up in the zone it looks like it’s rising.”
Pearson is doing some fast rising himself. The Jays are being careful with his workload — Pearson has yet to go more than five innings this year — but he nonetheless commands attention every time he takes the mound. It’s only a matter of time before he goes north to Toronto.
I was at PNC Park earlier this season when Josh Bell hit a 474-foot home run against the Cincinnati Reds. After the game, I asked him about the bat he uses to do damage against opposing pitchers.
“I’ve always been more or less a Marucci or Victus guy, although I used a Louisville Slugger for awhile,” the Pirates first baseman told me. “Size-wise, I bounce around depending on how my body feels. Every season I take a 35 into camp, and it kind of fluctuates from there. This one is the biggest model I’ve used.”
Bell isn’t superstitious about his bats. Asked if he’ll be chagrinned if the piece of lumber he’d just used to propel a baseball into the Allegheny River breaks, he shook his head in the negative.
“Hitting is just timing,” he told me. “Especially when you’re in a good place. I don’t think the bat has anything to do with it. It’s knowing when you start your load, how it feels when you’re coiling up, when you’re releasing that snap.”
That snap has produced an 1.121 OPS and 16 bombs this season. Pretty much whatever Josh Bell is swinging these days is doing damage.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
In mid-March, this column led with Chuck Cottier’s account of his professional debut, which came in the bygone Georgia-Florida League, back in 1954. All these years later, the 83-year-old baseball-lifer is a special assistant to the general manager with the Washington Nationals. In between, he played with some all-time greats as an infielder with the Milwaukee Braves. His memories of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews are magical.
“Eddie’s a Hall of Famer,” Cottier told me this spring. “Along with being a great hitter, he made himself into a Gold Glove third baseman through hard work. He was also one of the strongest guys I ever played with or against. He probably could have played professional football as a running back. And a great teammate. A great, great teammate.”
Frank Robinson found out the hard way just how strong Mathews was. Cottier told of how Robinson — not exactly a shrinking violet himself — once slid spikes-up into Mathews, and the muscular third baseman told him he’d better not do that again. Robinson responded with an expletive, at which point Mathews laid him out, cold. In Cottier’s telling, Robinson saw stars.
Cottier saw Aaron in his young prime. He’s glad that he didn’t see the iconic slugger playing the same position he did when they were teammates.
“Henry started out as a second baseman,” said Cottier. “The reason they converted him to the outfield was that when he was in A ball, he would get a ground ball, and as the first baseman was going to the bag to take the throw, Henry would get nervous and throw the ball before he could turn around. They had to find him a position, so they put him in the outfield. Had Henry stayed a second baseman… let’s just say I never would played second base for the Braves.”
A few weeks ago I ran concurrent Twitter polls, asking “Who is the best right-handed hitter in the post-Hank-Aaron era?” Albert Pujols won bracket No. 1, easily topping Miguel Cabrera, Frank Thomas, and Edgar Martinez. Mike Trout won bracket No. 2 by an even wider margin, besting Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Jeff Bagwell. I then put the top four finishers in a third poll, with Trout coming out on top, and Pujols finishing second.
A follow-up poll seemed in order. I then asked, “Who is the best right-handed hitter since 1950?” The options were Trout, Pujols, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays. I expected this one to be especially close. It wasn’t. Trout received 42% of the votes, the same number as Aaron (23%) and Mays (19%) combined. Pujols brought up the rear.
Among right-handed hitters, Aaron has the most career hits, home runs, RBIs, and Offensive WAR in MLB history. Mays edges Aaron in OBP, SLG, wOBA, and wRC+. Is Trout a better hitter than both iconic Hall of Famers? Whether he is or, it’s safe to say that we’re getting to watch something special.
Freddie Velázquez, a backup catcher for the Seattle Pilots in 1969, and the Atlanta Braves in 1973, died earlier this week at age 81. Nicknamed “Poor Devil” by Pilots pitcher Gary Bell, Velázquez was the second Dominican-born backstop in MLB history. Ozzie Virgil, who was primarily a third baseman, played 35 games behind the dish between 1960-1966.
Priscilla Oppenheimer, who spent nearly two decades as the San Diego Padres’ Director of Minor League Operations, has been added to the Women in Baseball panel at this year’s SABR Convention. Oppenheimer was the first woman to hold that position in a baseball front office.
Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne is going to be a visiting professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Chris Welsh has been the TV analyst for the Cincinnati Reds since 1993. He didn’t get the job in a typical fashion. As a matter of fact, had he hung up the phone for a second time, he probably wouldn’t have gotten it at all.
A pitcher for four teams from 1981-1986, Welsh was broadcasting college baseball games for the University of South Florida at the time. That was primarily a sideline gig. Along with former Pittsburgh Pirates Milt May and Jim Morrison, and a few other associates, he was running a non-baseball-related business in Bradenton, Florida. The first of what would be three phone calls got the ball rolling.
“My dad called me one day and said he read in the Cincinnati Enquirer that the Reds were looking for broadcasters,” recalled Welsh. “It was about a week before spring training. I called the folks at Sports Channel Florida, where I’d been doing the college games, and asked, ‘Hey, who should I call in Cincinnati that would know anything about this job?’ They gave me Bill Spiegel’s name.”
Welsh called Spiegel, told him who he was, and offered to send a resume. Spiegel told him that they don’t use resumes; he needed a tape. Easier said than done. As the former big-league southpaw put it, “This was back in the day when VCRs were the size of suitcases. I didn’t have a tape.”
Fortunately for his career, he was able to put one together using clips from his work doing games for the University of South Florida. As a teaser, he included the call of him hitting his only career home run, which came with the Reds in 1986. He sent it in as directed.
A week went by, and nothing. By then, spring training had started and the Reds’ first TV game was approaching. Then the phone rang.
“I picked up and heard, ‘Hey, this is Bill Spiegel. The job is yours if you want it,’” related Welsh. “I didn’t believe it. I said, ‘You’re joking me.’ I thought it was one of my friends pulling a prank, so I hung up. A few seconds later, the phone rang again. Spiegel said, ‘If you want the job, don’t hang up.’ That’s how I ended up being hired.”
Ian Dawkins, a 23-year-old outfielder in the Chicago White Sox system, is slashing .342/.403/.465, in 207 plate appearances, for the low-A Kannapolis Intimidators. A 27th-round pick last year out of Cal State Sacramento, Dawkins has swiped 15 bases in 18 attempts.
Jarren Duran, a 22-year-old outfielder in the Boston Red Sox system, is slashing .415/.477/.5557, in 199 plate appearances, for the high-A Salem Red Sox. A seventh-round pick last year out of Cal State Long Beach, Duran has swiped 17 bases in 22 attempts.
Drew Rom, a 19-year-old left-hander in the Baltimore Orioles system, is 3-0 with a 1.45 ERA in 37-and-a-third innings for the low-A Delmarva Shorebirds. Drafted in the fourth round last year out of a Fort Thomas, Kentucky high school, came into this year ranked 29th on our Orioles Top Prospects list.
Henry Henry, a 20-year-old right-hander in the San Diego Padres system, is 5-0 with a 2.36 ERA in 26-and-two-thirds innings for the low-A Fort Wayne Tin Caps. Henry is a native of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.
Adam Oller, a 24-year-old right-hander, has allowed just two runs, and fanned 45 batters in 27 innings, for the Windy City Thunderbird in the independent Frontier League. The Northwestern State University product spent the 2016-2018 seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.
A few days ago I went into my local watering hole, and a friend said to me, “Hey, I just stole this old magazine from a barbershop and thought you might like it.” I graciously accepted the gift. Dog-eared but easily readable, it was the February 1952 issue of Sport Life. Ben Hogan, Gordie Howie, and Sal Maglie were among those adorning the cover.
One story in particular caught my attention:.“Hot Prospect: The Diamond May Have a New Dizzy Dean.” The phenom, who debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals a few months later, was Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell.
Included in the article was the story of how the left-hander from rural Alabama was approached by Cardinals scout Bill “Buddy” Lewis.
“We got us up this ball team at Vinegar Bend,” Mizell explains. “We were just a bunch of old country boys. Used to play teams from other towns. And we just beat the tar out of ‘em. Sure, I was in the swimmin’ hole and naked when Mr. Lewis came to talk to me about signing. That’s the only way to swim, aint’t it? I just got out of the water, put on my dungarees, and threw a few to my brother. I was barefooted.”
“I signed him after three pitches,” laughs Lewis. “I asked him if he wasn’t afraid he’d hurt his feet, but he said no.”
One of baseball’s funnest debates is whether a pitcher has “struck out the side” if he faced more than three batters in said inning. My stance is that he hasn’t, and the editors at Merriam-Webster would seemingly agree. Here is the dictionary’s definition of “side,” as pertains to baseball:
The players on a baseball team batting in an inning.
There is obviously a big difference between “batting in an inning” and “making outs in an inning.” Thus, a pitcher isn’t striking out the side if batters reach base; he is simply striking out some of the side.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
The Cubs and Cardinals are on tap to play a series in London, England next season. Rick Morrissey of The Chicago Sun-Times considers that a waste of a good rivalry.
Russ Chambliss is more than a hitting coach in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He has a master’s degree in film and screenwriting, records electronic music, and has written two novels. Rob Rains wrote about him at STLSportsPage.
San Francisco Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi recently referred to WAR “a nice, valuable back of the envelope calculation.” Dalton Johnson provided the context at NBC Sports.
Ross Ohlendorf has a 2,000-acre ranch outside of Austin, Texas. Jayson Stark talked to the former big-league right-hander about “five-tool-cattle” in his always-entertaining Useless Info column at The Athletic.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Miami Marlins had played 69 consecutive opponents without sweeping a series prior to doing so against the New York Mets, from May 17-19 (per Marlins broadcaster Glenn Geffner). Following an off-day on the 20th, they then swept a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers.
This past Thursday, every member of the Colorado Rockies starting lineup was originally signed by, and made his MLB debut with, the Rockies. It was a franchise first. (per Elias).
San Diego Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe has 70 career home runs and has drawn 66 career walks.
Washington Nationals outfielder Victor Robles has seven bunt hits this year. The Boston Red Sox don’t have any bunt hits this year.
Toronto Blue Jays rookie right-hander Trent Thornton has two hits in three at bats. San Francisco Giants rookie right-hander Shaun Anderson has two hits in three at bats. Both of Thornton’s hits have come against the Giants. Both of Anderson’s have come against the Blue Jays.
Buzzy Wares, an infielder for the St. Louis Browns in 1913 and 1914, died on this date in 1964. Per his SABR BioProject entry, the Vandalia, Michigan native was once involved in “one of the most bizarre transactions in the history of baseball.”
On May 25, 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Cincinnati Reds 5-4 in 19 innings. Wilson Valdez, who played the first 18 innings at second base, was the winning pitcher.
On May 27, 1955, Norm Zauchin homered three times and drove in 10 runs as the Boston Red Sox defeated the Washington Senators by a score of 16-0 at Fenway Park. A native of Royal Oak, Michigan, Zauchin slashed .233/.324/.408 with 50 home runs over parts of six big-league seasons.
Terry Francona was the third base coach for the Detroit Tigers in 1996 when they finished 56-106. Right-hander Omar Olivares led the Tabbies in wins that year, with seven. Of the 27 pitchers who saw action, only Gregg Olson finished with a winning record. He went 3-0 with a 5.02 ERA.
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.