Matt Hicks has been Eric Nadel’s partner in the Texas Rangers radio booth since 2012. Prior to that, the Maryland native called games for the Frederick Keys (1989-1994), the El Paso Diablos (1995-2004), and the Corpus Christi Hooks (2005-2011). One month into his professional baseball broadcasting career, he learned an important lesson, courtesy of an incredulous Fat Jack.
“That first year in Frederick, we played in a Babe Ruth League park because the stadium was still being built,” Hicks told me recently. “Center field was 355 feet from home plate. As you can imagine, the stands were rudimentary; we had metal bleachers, we had a small roof. Anyway, it was April, freezing cold, and we were playing a doubleheader. There was hardly anybody there for the night portion — 100 people, if that.”
In the aftermath of a clumsy call of a boneheaded play, a voice punctured the chilly, nighttime air. Clear as a bell, it was directed at the rookie broadcaster.
“We had a runner on second base, and one of our guys laid down a bunt,” explained Hicks. “The play was made — the batter was thrown out — and when I looked up, I was expecting to see a runner at third base. He was still at second. I didn’t know what to say. When I got to that part of calling the play — the guy’s name was Scott Meadows — I said, ‘Meadows is still at second base; he didn’t go to third because…’ Then I paused and said something lame. I said, ’He didn’t have any choice.’
Cue up the choice words.
“A fan sitting underneath a crowd mic that was dangling from the broadcast booth was listening to the game on his radio,” recalled Hicks. “About two seconds after I made the call, he yelled, ‘What do you mean he didn’t have any choice?’ You could hear it clearly on the broadcast. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s right.’ Right then, I realized that you can’t make up stuff to cover for a player’s mistake. From that point on, I’ve tried to be as honest as I can. You can’t fool the listener who knows the game.”
The listener who yelled out in Frederick, Maryland 30 years ago was a gentleman named Jack Boehner. Affectionately known as “Fat Jack,” he went on to work for the team Hicks cut his broadcasting teeth with. More importantly, he helped teach him how to tell it like it is.
Emilio Pagan doesn’t throw many curveballs. The Tampa Bay Rays reliever has gone to it 4.8% of the time this year. Delivered with a spiked grip, it’s essentially served as a show-pitch to augment his fastball-slider combination.
Developing a viable third offering — his changeup is cloaked in dust in the back of a closet — was a primary goal this past offseason. Pagan worked on it five days a week with three fellow hurlers: Angels right-hander Luke Bard, Cody Stull, a left-hander in the Oakland A’s system, and Will Stillman, who pitched in the Padres system from 2016-2018. Cody Thacker, who’d caught at Gardner-Webb University, was on the receiving end of their throws.
The foursome’s pitch-development sessions might be described as low-tech high-tech. Asked if they employed an Edgertronic, Pagan smiled and said, “No. We used our iPhones and would just go as slo-mo with them as we could.”
“It wasn’t too crazy,” added the 28-year-old righty. “The eye test kind of tells you if it’s doing what you want it to do. One of us would be on the mound, one of us would be on this side, one on other side, and one behind. We’d watch, and it might be, ’Hey, that looked different there; it was good.’ Little things like that we could use to help each other develop pitches. It was a good atmosphere.”
Pagan told me that Bard focused primarily on spin efficiency, adding that his friend’s spin rate is “through the roof.” That came as no surprise. I’d written about Bard’s high-spin heater last year, and this spring we’d touched on the subject in Angels camp.
“Spin is great — it gives you more movement potential— but using your spin is equally important,” Bard told me.” You need to maximize it. Whether it’s to fight gravity, or to get depth or horizontal run, the more efficient it is, the more it’s going to jump in that direction. Your ball is either wobbling, or if it’s going in the direction your axis is.”
Bard has lacked consistency this season: he has a 4.22 ERA in 21-and-a-third big-league innings. Pagan has been brilliant. In 22 appearances out of the Tampa Bay Bullpen, he boasts a 1.42 ERA and has 34 strikeouts, to go with just five walks, in 25-and-a-third innings. He also has three saves
And let’s not forget about Stull. The 27-year-old Belmont Abbey College product has a 2.45 ERA in 18 relief appearances between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Las Vegas.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Jon Gray used technology in his quest to rediscover his slider. This past January, te Colorado Rockies righty spent time at Driveline, throwing bullpens in front of pitching gurus Sam Briend and Eric Jagers. His visit to the Seattle-area facility was one of near necessity.
“The last few years my slider had kind of gotten away from what it was,” Gray explained. “It started becoming a little bit like a cutter, and I couldn’t get the movement back. At Driveline, we used a slo-motion camera — the Rapsodo — and worked on pitch design, We went into detail on what it needs to do, and what makes it do what it does. It needed to have gyroscopic spin, and spin forward out of my hand.”
That hadn’t been the case. Gray told me he’d been throwing his slider so much like a fastball that it was “literally backspinning and staying up.” In order to bring back the depth that had gone missing, he “needed to put the training wheels back on.” For all intents and purposes, he had to relearn a true slider.
Sticking with pitchers and their pitches, Tanner Roark throws both two- and four-seam fastballs. That hasn’t always been the case. Three-plus years into a professional career that began in 2008, he was strictly fours. As he explained to me earlier this season, that wasn’t getting it done.
”I was getting hit around, all over the place,” said Roark, who was then in the Washington Nationals organization, having come over from the Texas Rangers a year earlier in the Christian Guzman deal. “I needed something different, so I started throwing a two-seamer. I threw it religiously. Every fastball. This was back in 2011. I was getting results, so I kept on throwing it.”
Shortly after reaching the big leagues with the Nationals, in August 2013, the now-32-year-old right-hander realized that all-twos wasn’t going to get it done either. Not at the highest level.
“Fast forward [from 2011], and every Major league team knew I had a two-seamer,” said Roark. “They knew if my fastball started inside to a lefty, it was going to come back toward the middle. So I started incorporating a four-seamer again. By mixing that in and out, they have to make a decision. That’s where I’m at these days.”
Team-wise, Roark is currently a Cincinnati Red. Featuring a balanced mix of twos (31%) and fours (22.3%) within his five-pitch repertoire, he has a 3.63 ERA, and 3.45 FIP, in 14 starts.
Locke St. John, a 26-year-old left-hander in the Texas Rangers system, has a 1.65 ERA in 24 relief appearances between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Nashville. The University of South Alabama product has 46 strikeouts in 32-and-two-thirds innings.
Shane McClanahan, a 22-year-old left-hander in the Tampa Bay Rays system, has a 3.09 ERA in 12 appearances between low-A Bowling Green and high-A Charlotte. The 31st-overall pick in last year’s draft has 74 strikeouts in 52 innings.
Ulrich Bojarski, a 20-year-old outfielder in the Detroit Tigers system, has the third-highest batting average (.323) and fourth-highest OPS (.884) in the low-A Midwest League. A right-handed-hitting native of South Africa, Bojarski has a team-leading 10 home runs with the West Michigan Whitecaps.
Jabari Blash has 17 home runs and a 1.030 OPS in 222 plate appearances with NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles. The 29-year-old native of the U.S. Virgin Islands previously played with the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Shawon Dunston, Jr. is batting .317 in 25 games with the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League. An 11th-round pick by the Cubs in 2011, the 26-year-old outfielder last played affiliated ball two years ago.
Zac Shepherd merited a mention in our December 2016 Detroit Tigers Top Prospects list. As Eric Longenhagen wrote, the then 21-year-old third baseman had “serious issues with swing and miss,” but was ”worth monitoring because of the potential power output.”
The former proved to be too formidable for the latter to manifest itself. Having failed to adequately improve his bat-to-ball skills, the Sydney, Australia native was told three weeks ago that he is no longer a position player. Despite having not taken the mound since age “14 or 15” — save for one inning in a blowout last summer — he is now a pitcher.
“I started the year in [high-A] Lakeland, and got off to a pretty slow start,” said Shepherd, who is currently with short-season Connecticut. “They said they needed to start giving other guys opportunities, so how would I feel about giving pitching a go? I figured I might as well take the opportunity and run with it, and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, that would be cool.”
Shepherd admits to some initial confusion and shock when he received the news. At the same time, he knew that this would have been his fourth season in Lakeland, and that his slash line over 501 professional games was a paltry .216/.319/.355. He’d fanned 636 times in 1,665 at bats. The time had clearly come to cut bait with the bat and try something else.
To this point in time, Shepherd has thrown three innings in extended spring training games, and another in Connecticut’s opener on Friday. His fastball is north of 90 mph, and according to a Connecticut Tigers staff member I spoke to, he has a high spin rate. Moreover, he’s getting an opportunity to save his career. Shepherd will now either sink or swim with his right arm.
Among the plethora of good tidbits in Tyler Kepner’s K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches is the age difference between Hoyt Wilhelm and his catcher when the Hall of Fame knuckleballer saved the NL West division clincher for the Atlanta Braves in 1969. Wilhelm was 47 years old. Rookie backstop Bob Didier was 20 years old.
The winning pitcher in that game was another Hall-of-Fame knuckleballer, 30-year-old Phil Niekro. As Kepner also pointed out, one of Niekro’s closest friends growing up in Lansing, Ohio was NBA Hall of Famer John Havlicek.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The Chicago Sun-Times, Gordon Wittenmyer wrote about how Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has Venezuela — a country in the throes of economic decline and social unrest — in both his heart and his dreams.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Chicago Cubs have stolen 16 bases in 30 attempts. The Arizona Diamondbacks have stolen 36 bases in 42 attempts.
The Seattle Mariners have had two batters walked intentionally this season. That is the fewest of any team.
Houston Astros pitchers have yet to issue an intentional walk this season. They are the only team not to have done so.
Frank Lucchesi, who died earlier this month at age 92, managed 715 MLB games in stints with the Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers, and Chicago Cubs. He managed 3,041 minor league games, beginning in 1951. Among the teams Lucchesi led were the Thomasville Tomcats, Pine Bluff Judges, and Pocatello Bannocks.
On June 15, 1925, the Philadelphia A’s rallied for 13 runs in the eighth inning to defeat the Cleveland Indians by a score of 17-15. Hall of Famer Al Simmons capped the scoring with a three-run homer, his second hit of the frame.
On June 17, 1923, Skipper Friday made his big-debut with the Washington Senators and threw an 11-inning complete game against the White Sox. Friday’s catcher on that Sunday afternoon was Muddy Ruel. His mound opponents were Dixie Leverett and Sloppy Thurston.
Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson started six games in the outfield, five of them in center. Johnson logged 547 hits, including 24 home runs, over the course of his career.
Lip Pike, an infielder/outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, hit an NL-best four home runs in 1877. Per his SABR BioProject entry, Pike was “the first great Jewish baseball player.” His younger brother, Israel Pike, played his only professional game that season with the National League’s Hartfords of Brooklyn.
Sleeper Sullivan, a catcher for four teams from 1881-1884, was nicknamed “Old Iron Hands.”
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.