The career path of Troy Johnston has been anything but a straight line. But through mental strength and the ability to better himself in multiple ways even when unable to compete on the field, Johnston came into 2021 in the best shape of his career. Two months into the season, that is clear and evident as he is the top performer in the Marlins’ minor league system and in Minor League Baseball as a whole. Befittingly, the .325/.407/.522 hitter is our June Prospect of the Month.
Johnston was born in June of 1997 in Tacoma, Washington, the same city as Jeff Conine, the father of his teammate who in those days was helping the Marlins piece together their first World Series championship run. Johnston attended Governor John Rogers High School in Puyallup where he played three sports and dabbled in another: baseball, football, wrestling and golf. Ultimately, Johnston committed to baseball and was recruited to Gonzaga as the fifth-ranked outfielder in the state of Washington per Perfect Game. Among his other high school accolades, Johnston was also a three-time league batting champion, a First Team All-State selection in 2016, an All-Area selection in three years, and he won a scholar athlete award.
After an impressive first 35 collegiate games in which he hit .323/.413/.462 making him the West Coast Conference’s 14th best hitter and second best freshman bat, Johnston hit his first bump in the road in his sophomore year in 2018. Nineteen games into the season, Johnston suffered a broken hand and missed the remainder of the year. A year later, Johnston’s hand was fully healed and he was ready to return to the field. In 2019, Johnston played like a man among boys, torching the West Coast Conference for a .330/.402/.610 slash line, numbers which ranked sixth, 16th and third on the circuit. Among countable stats, his 27 doubles led the league and were second in the country and his 46 RBIs were sixth in the WCC.
Johnston credits his ability to rebound so well after serious injury to a unique experience he had during the rehab process: coaching at a local high school.
“One of my buddies was coaching at Farris High School in Spokane for a legion ball team and he asked if I could come help him out for that summer,” Johnston said. “The biggest part of that was actually seeing a different side of the baseball game and having the coaching aspect of it. I got to coach some fantastic high school players all throughout the summer and I think that helped me realize what baseball was all about and who I really wanted to be as a baseball player coming into 2019.”
Johnston’s performance in his junior year caught the attention of Marlins area scout Scott Fairbanks.
“What stood out about Troy is he’s always had a natural feel to hit. He uses the big part of the field and the majority of his damage was to center field or left center field,” Fairbanks said. “He hit  doubles in 2019 and the thought was he could eventually turn some of those into more home runs down the road.”
Johnston and Fairbanks were in contact for much of the 2019 season and then again leading into the Draft. Their last conversation occurred just moments before the Marlins called Johnston’s name in the 17th round.
“He shot me a text probably 30 seconds before they picked me and asked me, “Hey can you play first base?” and I told him, “Hey, I’ll play shortstop if you want me to. I’ll do whatever you guys need.” Johnston said.
“That was pretty funny,” Fairbanks recalled. “I’m not sure he owned a first base glove at the time.”
After the missed 2020 season, Johnston has begun seeing time at first base during games this season. Due to not manning the position since high school, he describes the experience as a re-adjustment process. Johnston credits work he has done with Beloit head coach and former Marlins’ first baseman Mike Jacobs in helping him through the process.
“In spring training and even now, we’ve been doing a lot of early work and working on a lot of different stuff to try to make me better and just the little parts of first base.” Johnston said. “It’s a little bit like riding a bike from high school. I just have to be good around the bag and all of that but the ground balls are definitely something I’m working on and I know having Jacobs there and pretty much everything that he’s teaching me has all been around footwork, how to approach it and really what I need to do to keep me in the lineup and keep me getting better every single day.”
Johnston has tinkered with his approach and mechanics offensively as well, leading to the added pop that Fairbanks foresaw when scouting him two seasons’ previously. Johnston says the main mechanical focus for him this season has been maintaining a more closed lower half.
“I always had to work against leaking and sliding forward a little bit. That “a-ha” moment for me was when I realized how much I can kind of preset my back hip and just get into my legs a little bit more,” Johnston said. “And then just have a nice easy swing where I could just explode off of that back hip a little bit more.”
According to Johnston, his moment of clarity came very recently.
“It didn’t come in the offseason; it came more so probably at the end of spring training really,” Johnston said. “I know that first week at low A I was working on it a little bit and then I think about the second or third week of low A was that moment when I was like, “Okay, this is it.” I’m still working on it: just loading that back hip and rotating around that.”
While he’s come by more power, the 24-year-old lefty has done so without sacrificing his vision and discipline. On the year, his K rate is at a very manageable 19.2% and his walk rate is at an even 11%. Johnston likens the ability to tap into more power while still maintaining his great vision to learning the science of hitting, getting as much work in as possible, starting at a very young age, keeping it simple and having a blueprint of the athlete he wants to be.
“When I was a kid, my coach called me a cage rat. I was always in the cage, I was always hitting, always working on something, just trying to get as many reps as I could,” Johnston said. “That’s really what it’s about: as much as it’s a mechanical thing and guys are going to have certain things in their swing and whatnot, really it’s all about reps.”
“It’s a very simple game so keep it simple: swing at the strikes and take the balls,” Johnston added. “I know it may be hard for a younger guy trying to learn the game, but try to figure out who you are and what you want to do to the baseball and how you want to approach that because that’s when you’re really going to have that “a-ha” moment when you figure out who you want to be at the plate, who you want to be as a person and who you want to be in the world of baseball.”
All-in-all, Troy Johnston is an extremely selective hitter that waits for his pitches. When he gets them, he executes an effortless and well balanced swing that has gained more leverage this season. He’s continued to improve at the plate despite a missed season, a jump in level and while learning how to play first base at the professional level. A true student of the game and a feel good story, Johnston has broken out in a big way. If his success continues, he has a starter’s ceiling on any big league team. Gaining positional flexibility and with the DH on its way, that future has an increasing probability of being here in Miami with the Marlins.
Listen to our full-length interview with Troy Johnston on Swimming Upstream here and wherever you get your podcasts.
|JUNE STATS||2019 STATS|
|3 HR, 6 2B, 13 RBI||4 HR, 13 2B, 33 RBI|
|12 K/13 BB||40 K/20 BB|
Though he may not have laced up a pair of cleats until he was a teenager, Juan Carlos Millan Jr’s love for the game was born in him at an early age. As a young child, JC spent many hours watching his father, Juan Carlos Senior, prepare off the field and perform on the field in the family’s home country.
“Back in Cuba I played little baseball, but I remember watching him play in packed stadiums. It felt like the World Baseball Classic.”
When JC was eight, the Millan family emigrated to the United States, settling in South Florida. According to Junior, it was then that he started learning how to play the game. His tutor: none other than his hero, his dad.
“When we got here, I started playing more baseball and my dad started training me pretty much from scratch,” Millan said. “I wasn’t very good until everyday sessions became our thing.”
Junior’s rudimentary start would wind up being a blessing. Through many hours spent practicing together, ensuring fundamentals, creating a swing and building arm strength, the Millans strengthened their bond as father and son.
“He’s my right hand man, my brother; everything to me,” JC said. “I used to watch him, now it’s time to for him to enjoy watching me and see what he created. It’s really cool.”
When his high school age came calling, Millan devoted his services to Brito Academy in Miami, the same secondary school that berthed the likes of Manny Machado and former Marlin Gaby Sanchez. According to JC, the atmosphere created by the coaching staff at Brito (despite being hard at times) is plenty responsible for bridging the his gap between childhood hopeful and young adult prodigy.
“They opened the doors for me, giving me a place where I could develop myself as a baseball player and a human being. Everyone in the school is like a family,” JC said. “The coaching staff we had there were amazing people that helped me grow as a baseball player with their guidance on and off the field. I couldn’t be any more thankful for guys like David Fanshawe, Lazaro Fundora, JC Ruiz. Our head coach Pedro Guerra would be a pain sometimes and be hard on us, but I’m glad he was the way. That’s the reason why we won states and had no pressure on us on the field.”
From there, Millan took his talents to nearby Broward College in Coconut Creek. In a single season in the JuCo ranks, he hit .324/.406/.463, garnering the attention of scouts and eventually awarding him a free-agent contract, post-draft To Millan’s delight, the team that came calling was none other than his hometown Marlins. According to JC, being able to stay at home and maintain a close relationship with his family — especially his dad — has been advantageous for his career as well as his life.
“Playing here in Miami in front of my family and staying close was a huge help,” Millan said. Being able to stay close to my Dad has been huge because he has taught me pretty much everything I know about baseball.”
After signing, Millan attended spring training camp and was assigned to extended spring training before remaining in Jupiter as a member of the 2016 GCL squad. In his first taste of professional ball, Millan hit a modest .177/.250/.228, but his strong contact tool was already on the rise as he only struck out nine times in 79 ABs.
A season later, Millan wound up a ton of frequent flyer miles as the club attempted to gauge his level of maturation. Millan played at all four levels of the system, beginning in A Greensboro before a three day stay in AAA New Orleans. Following another two weeks back with the Grasshoppers, Millan spent 13 games in AA Jacksonville before ending the year with seven games in A+ Jupiter. According to Millan who always seeks the positive in any situation, he views his 2018 campaign as a good lesson on how to stay motivated and how to stay grinding, no matter where you are.
“I was healthy during that time; I was just moving up and down wherever the organization needed me to be,” Millan said. “I never lost sight of what I was trying to do. I always played hard and gave 100% whereever they sent me; it didn’t affect me at all. It just kept pushing me to be better each day.”
This season, Millan has not only stayed in one place for more than a few weeks, he’s spent his entire season with the Jacksonville Shrimp. According to Millan, getting the opportunity to build a relationship with his teammates and coaches and getting a feel for scouting his opposition have been the biggest catalysts for his success this season, including his big month of June. And of course, Millan has remained in constant contact with his biggest supporter and mentor, his father.
“Playing for one team for a while helps a lot since you face the same pitchers over and over, so you sort of have a feel of how they pitch to you. I just trust my preparation before the game and the game plan I have for each pitcher,” Millan said. “Also, my coaching staff and teammates have really helped me feel comfortable. Whatever I feel like I’m doing wrong, I ask the coaches and we go and work on things. Plus when I give my dad a call and he’s watching the game, he’s tells me a couple of the same things and I’m able to make the adjustments right away.”
Millan’s breakout has coincided with the changing of the guard; with the Marlins franchise coming under the control of the Jeter regime. J.C. says that is no coincidence.
“They have done a great job getting good prospects in the organization and giving guys a chance to show what they have before making any decisions,” Millan said. “Since day one, I knew these guys were going to change things around and find a way to get the best guys to make a winning team and it’s showing. Down here in the lower levels, there’s a lot more talent compared to past years and I’m sure this organization will have a lot of success in the near future.”
Approaching from a nearly straight-away righty stance, Millan uses a toe-tap trigger before slightly stepping in to an uppercut stroke that makes the most of his upper half. Where Millan has shown the most improvement this year has been his contact tool. By shifting his stance deeper into the box, Millan is reading pitches better and putting bat to ball on a much more consistent basis. The aforementioned opportunity of getting to face the same competition more than once has led to a much better average. With better plate vision and bat speed to his credit this year, Millan is profiling as a future catalytic bat off the bench. If he finishes filling out advantageously and begin integrating his lower half in his swing more, addding more launch angle and leverage (which he has flashed this past month), Millan, who also has eligibility at first base, would have a ceiling reminiscent of Josh Reddick, a .274/.322/.431 career bat.
Zac Gallen, Jordan Yamamoto, Braxton Garrett, Trevor Rogers, Edward Cabrera. These names you know and are getting to know well this season. One which you may not have heard of but should start speaking aloud in your household on a regular basis, especially after a lights-out month of May: Chris Vallimont.
Chris Ryan Vallimont, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, just celebrated his 22nd birthday on March 18th. His amateur baseball career began in 2011 at Mercyhurst Prep where he also competed in football and basketball. In 43 games played from the mound, despite having the projectable size to succeed, Vallimont’s success was fairly limited due to his suffering the same fate as many prep hurlers, especially those that play other positions: being given the baseball and simply being told to go throw it as hard as you can without being taught the craft.
“I was bigger, but I wasn’t really fine-tuned,” Vallimont said. “Coming out, I only had three D-II offers and not many D-I, because I didn’t have everything. I didn’t throw that hard, just sort of did my thing.”
However, showing poise and maturity beyond his years, Vallimont was able to use the fact that he was sparsely recruited to his advantage, successfully turning a usually-negative teenage experience into a positive one. Knowing he still had plenty of innings ahead of him, this is when Vallimont truly got to work on becoming a pitcher. As fate would have it, being under the radar became an ally for Vallimont and allowed him to find his most advantageous companion: Mercyhurst College.
“I went into college with a chip on my shoulder in knowing that I had to put in the work if I wanted to play past it,” Vallimont said. “It actually helped me out being underdeveloped and going into the program at Mercyhurst with the success that their pitching staff and the coach there created, it was the perfect fit. I fitted really well into the system and it worked out.”
According to Vallimont, his being recruited by Mercyhurst wasn’t by chance but rather by a design. That blueprint was laid out by their head coach Joe Spano, the same mind responsible for berthing Mariners reliever Dan Altavilla as well as Royals outfielder David Lough.
“The way Joe does it is he looks for people who are underdeveloped. He works with them and sees in them the potential to get to the next level,” Vallimont attested. “With Dan also being there a year before me, just knowing that it wasn’t all about going D1 in order to make it to the next level, but just if you put on the work, you can make it. That’s really what made the difference.”
Above all though, Vallimont credits the turning point of his amateur career to one moment. That occasion happened during his first season at Mercyhurst when the ball was forced away from him by a teammate. According to Vallimont, it is that bear-down mindset that is passed down from Spano and then from player to player that gives Mercyhurst a more-than-viable reputation for berthing MLB caliber hurlers.
“It was freshman year in the regionals I was supposed to start the championship game to get us to the World Series. Colin McKee ended up begging for the ball, telling coach he wanted it,” Vallimont said. “It was just that dog mentality that he got from Dan and I got from him. There are a few young guys there is now that get that mentality from myself.”
Following that aforementioned game in which McKee wound up begging the ball away from him, McKee imparted this quote upon Vallimont, one which has stuck with him ever since and is partly responsible for making Chris the pitcher he has become.
“I’ll never forget it. After that game, he told me, “if you put in the work, you can be the best pitcher this school has ever seen,”” Vallimont said. “It was at that moment where everything clicked. He had seen so many people there that had success and when he said that, it pushed me to work harder and really get serious about everything.”
With a new means of motivation, Vallimont used a building block sophomore season (60 IP, 2.69 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 88/41 K/BB) to vault into a completely dominant junior campaign in which he set Mercyhurst’s single season mark in strikeouts (147).
“My sophomore year I was up there in the country in walks per nine, I was just trying to throw hard I didn’t care where it was going,” Vallimont attested. “That offseason, I started focusing on control and staying mechanically sound. It helped my velo and my control by focusing on little things that I didn’t think about before.”
Vallimont attributes that success to building around his fastball rather than exclusively building on it, keeping his opposition guessing and, above all, the desire to pitch to 100% of his ability.
“More than anything, It was just the mentality to be the best that I knew I could be. I would always want to throw harder and everything just started to click, “My changeup came along a bit in my junior year and the curveball was a big pitch. Keeping hitters off balance was big, but overall it was just the mindset of just keep doing my thing and not giving in to anyone else, no matter who it was, was doing in the box.“
After a 21-5, 166.2 IP, 2.59 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 14.47 K/9, 3.57 K/BB tenure at Mercyhurst, the Marlins turned their heads towards Vallimont and called his name with the 147th overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.
This is where Marlins 5th-rounder Chris Vallimont was when his name was called pic.twitter.com/CIR4ORd0eh
— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) June 6, 2018
Days later, Vallimont decided to ink an entry level contract with the Marlins for $300K, forgoing his final collegiate season. According to Vallimont, that decision was attributed to the Marlins’ new ownership having the faith in him to stay true to his own training while also fitting in with what they were seeking.
“I figured it was a great opportunity; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do is play professional baseball. When they called, I couldn’t have been more happy to be with Miami,” Vallimont said. “I’m a big Driveline guy and I knew the old regime wasn’t really a big fan of it. Once they got Gary [Denbo] and everybody, they were telling me it’d be a little easier to do my thing while also staying in the lines of what they wanted as well. Having them trust me to be able to be me has been great.”
Upon his arrival in the instructional league last year, it didn’t take the Marlins long to recognize that Vallimont had many tools. One which was absent though was the ability to use the strike zone advantageously. Immediately, Marlins’ Minor League pitching coordinator Chris Michalak got to work with Vallimont on spotting his pitches. According to Vallimont, that tutelage has made a huge difference so far this season.
“Michalak really helped out with keeping me under control more. Whereas in college, I was just throwing it down the middle, now it’s more about inside/outsiding the fastball with the curveball in the dirt,” Vallimont said. “It’s not commanding he zone but just spotting stuff now. That’s what I’ve been working on and it’s working out well.”
Since learning how to get the most out if his projectable 6’5”, 220 pound frame by incorporating a downward plane to the plate, Vallimont has grown into heat reaching up to 97 MPH and resting between 93-95. Offsetting the heat is Vallimont’s best breaking pitch, his curveball which holds tight 11-6 arc and run to his corner of choice. He can also bury the pitch via its late break, making it a viable swing-and-miss pitch. Vallimont also mixes in a shapely mid-80s changeup plays up and a power slider with frisbee action in the high 80s.
Along with his already deep arsenal that holds plus velo expanse, Vallimont further messes with timing by showing hitters two completely different looks from the wind and the stretch. With the bases empty, Vallimont steps back to the first base side, executes a high leg kick when loading up his back leg and comes home deliberately. With bags occupied, the righty speeds up his motion, diminishes his leg kick and limits time between pitches.
Already an awesome mix of stuff and headiness just 25 games into his professional career, Vallimont is a guy who has barely missed a beat in a huge jump from JuCo to the affiliated ranks. Should he continue to respond to challenges during the rest of his journey through he minors, the 22-year-old who was once overlooked coming out of high school has the potential to become a more than viable 2-4 starter.
The next of Vallimont’s assignments should come in the next few days when he is promoted to A+ Jupiter.
Bubba Hollins: aesthetically, one of the best names in the Marlins system, if not in all of MiLB. That you probably know. What you may not know is that Bubba is actually David Hollins, Jr, the son of a 17.8 career WAR corner infielder. Accordingly, Bubba is the owner of a pedigree, upbringing and support system that spawned a fantastic amateur career and is beginning to birth professional success. By hitting .338/.411/.508 this past month, Bubba is our first 2019 Prospect Of The Month.
Born on December 6th, 1995, Hollins was named after his father, carrying the name David Jr. However, Hollins did not go by that name for very long before he was given an alternate everyday moniker. According to Hollins, his stout build even as a child is what led to the nickname. It’s stuck with him ever since.
“When I was a baby I was really fat and chubby with chubby cheeks. My mom said you could barely see my eyes when I was a kid. So she just started calling me Bubba, Bubs, nicknames like that,” Hollins said. “I don’t know, it just sort of stuck with me through the years. All my close friends and family have all called me Bubba and never really called me David at all. I loved it and it’s all I really knew. It’s a funny story.”
In addition to earning the title given to him by his mother early in life, Hollins also importantly benefited from growing up within the game. As the son of Dave Sr, spent many an occasion watching and and under the tutelage of a .260/.358/.420 career hitter. According to Bubba, he made the most of the days he was able to spend with his dad, under the
“He was gone a lot, but every time he was home we’d work together almost every day. When it came to college ball and pro ball, he has helped me tremendously on the mental side; just to adapt faster to the game and to slow it down. To be around him and [fellow major leaguers] at a young age, it’s been very helpful. For him to watch me now play at his level, it’s pretty cool. It’s weird, but it’s a cool feeling.”
Along with his alternate title given to him by his parents, the thing that caused Hollins to garner it — his physique — also remained with him through his amateur career.
“I was always one of the smaller players on the team. I was only about 5’11”, 180 my senior year but before that, I was even smaller,” Hollins said. “I always took that with a chip on my shoulder to go out there as the smaller guy and play with an edge. That’s how I looked at things.”
Hollins used said shoulder-chip to refuse to let his limited size and stature limit his production. After doubling in football as the starting quarterback for his alma matter’s squad, Hollins hit .310/.393/.451 in two years in junior college. He credits that tenure spent with the Titans as a huge stepping stone in his career, one which truly allowed him to ready himself for a professional career in the game.
“My freshman year was definitely a bit of a shock with how fast the game was. It helped me get acclimated to the speed of the game being around that competition in the conference,” Hollins said. “My sophomore year I felt much more comfortable and got used to playing at that speed. My head coach Ryan Beckman has been an amazing help to me. Whatever you need, that guy will always be there for you. My teammates there — we were all competing for a job at the next level. So we all made each other better. It was a great group of guys.”
In 2017, Hollins made the jump up Division I ball at St. Bonaventure in upstate New York. In a single season there, the 24-year-old Hollins hit .290/.379/.485 with eight homers and nine doubles. During that tenure, Hollins tied Bonnies’ team records by recording six hits and eight RBIs in a single game.
“Bubba is an extremely hard worker and a great teammate. He has always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps (former Major League All-Star Dave Hollins) and St. Bonaventure baseball is very happy for him,” Bonnies head coach Larry Sudbrook said at the time. “We would’ve loved to have had him back, but we certainly respect him taking a shot at the dream and we wish him the best.”
Hollins didn’t head back to St Bonaventure in favor of signing with the Marlins who inked him as a minor league free agent in August of 2017. According to Hollins, the decision to forego his senior year of college was spurred not only by more reps against better competitors but by work he did physically leading up to the draft.
“I took off playing summer ball because I wanted to get more do more with my body to prepare me for my senior season. So I was an eight out of 10 in terms of being more ready for pro ball,” Hollins said. “Mentally, I was always ready to go. But physically I was much more prepared that time around.”
— Bonnies Baseball (@BonniesBaseball) August 1, 2017
Last season, the Marlins experimented a bit with Hollins, trying to gauge his current level of expertise. During that time, Bubba saw reps at three different levels from rookie ball to A+. Although his tenure at each level was limited over his 57 game campaign was limited, Hollins says he picked up something from each stop in his travels that have aided him in his hot start this year.
“I was bouncing around so much and not in the lineup regularly, but watching from the bench, it was pretty easy to see the difference in [levels]. In high A, those guys know how to command 2-3 pitches really well, low A maybe two pitches and short A was more like wildly effective; guys that just try to throw really hard,” Hollins said. “I think it is a big jump between low A and high A. Pitchers at that higher level really know how to pitch. They’re really good up there.”
The big difference for Hollins this season has been two-fold: being more comfortable in his approach and being able to maintain the mindset to take the game as it comes to him. Via that outlook, Bubba has put together one of the best months on the Midwest League circuit, slashing .338/.411/.508. Among hitters with at least 70 ABs, Hollins’ May BA ranked second and his OBP ranked fifth in the Midwest League. Furthermore, Bubba’s 177 wRC+ ranked third. Hollins credits the hot start to being able to repeat his approach stemming from a stance which he is more cozy in as well as to his ability to take the game as it comes to him, resisting the urge to force things.
“I think the most important lesson is to take everything a day at a time. I’ve been telling myself in the offseason that this year was going to be different and to just take one at bat at a time and on the field one pitch at a time,” Hollins said. “I’ve got a batting stance I’m finally comfortable in and I’m just able to focus on the baseball. Just to try to stay on the heater and stay middle. Whatever happens from there, happens.”
Via his fantastic month of April, the 23-year-old has succeeded at a very advantageous time, one in which a rebuilding organization is looking for young players to step up and make themselves known. However, much in the same way that he has learned how to take one at-bat at a time, Hollins is staying in the moment, focusing on the day and task at hand. According to Bubba, he’s concerned with only that and not with what is in front of him. In this way, he is limiting distraction and streamlining his achievements, ones which should follow him up the MiLB ladder and beyond.
“I just come to the ballpark and take care of business every day. If you’re taking care of your business, you’re helping the ball club, wherever you are,” Hollins said. “At the end of the day, I’m not thinking about anything else. The best thing to do is to focus on yourself and helping your team out.”
From a compact and low straight-away stance, the 6’1”, 200 pound Hollins cuts down on an already small strike zone. The difference for Bubba this season has been in his aforementioned comfortability in his stance and approach. By setting up from further back in the box, Hollins has garnered the ability to let the ball to get deeper, aiding in his plate vision, swing selectiveness and consistency in getting the to drop. Couple that with his ability to cover the plate extremely well and Bubba is already painting beautifully over his hit chart canvas.
Hollins’ swing itself has always held good speed through the zone. The mostly-straight through line drive cut is built for a big average and, due to good raw upper body strength and lightning quick hands, the occasional gap and/or fence. At current, his offensive ceiling is that of a constant on-base threat capable of respectable power numbers, a la Martin Prado, a similarly sized 6’0”, 215, 289/.337/.416 career stick.
In the field, Hollins is a natural third baseman with good off-the-bat instincts and a strong right arm that makes accurate throws across the diamond. In 61 games, he’s committed just five errors. Hollins also has eligibility at first base.
Bubba’s name — although recognizable — is not one the average fan might have heard mentioned too often, especially during the current state of the rebuild. However, that all could be about to change. Rule 5 eligible next season, if his hot hitting continues, Bubba, 23, should be placed on the fast track up the minor league ladder.
This past week, the United States celebrated National Left Handers’ Day. But for Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp reliever Dylan Lee, forcing his competition to respect his southpaw arm was so two months ago.
For a month and a quarter, if the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp had to have a clean inning or two, all they had to do was call upon number 37 who, from June 22 until July 26, turned in 15 straight scoreless innings, 10 of which came in the month of July. Over that span, he allowed just five hits and recorded a 19/0 K/BB. Lee finished the seventh month of the year running that audacious scoreless stretch to 17 IP by tossing two near-spotless in his first game at the AAA level.
For taking literally no time to become a purely dominant arm at the AA level and earn the call to the highest level of the minors where his success has continued, Lee, who began the year in A+ Jupiter only to find himself a stone’s throw away from his MLB debut in four months’ time, earns our Prospect Of The Month honors for the month of July.
Lee, who just celebrated his 24th birthday on August 1, attended high school at Dinuba High located between Fresno and Visalia in California’s southeastern valley. Lee was a letterman in all three of his varsity seasons by way of an 18-8 record and 1.39 ERA, a .164 BAA and a 230/85 K/BB in 180.2 IP. This included a 69.2 IP, 9-3, 0.40 ERA, .117 BAA, 112/22 K/BB IP in his senior season in 2012 at the end of which Lee was named Dinuba’s Player Of The Year by MaxPreps.
Following high school, Lee attended junior college at the College of the Sequoias in nearby Visalia. As a 19-year-old sophomore in 2015, he had one of the best seasons in school history and earned the titles and accolades to match. By winning a school record 13 games (all of which came consecutively before he lost his first and only game) by way of a 2.34 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 3.00 K/BB in 103.2 IP, Lee was named to the All-California State Team and labeled the Central Valley Conference’s Pitcher Of The year.
After his superb sophomore season, Lee was recruited to Division I ball at powerhouse Fresno State. While his first season was very much like his first year in JuCo — an adjustment process — Lee rebounded well in his senior year. Focusing solely on relief work, Lee’s ERA shrunk over two full points (5.31 in 2015 to 3.45 in 2016), his WHIP came down almost half a baserunner (1.54 to 1.19) and his K/BB rose from 1.67 to 2.93. According to Lee, owner of a bulldog mentality, his transition to pitching exclusively out of the pen and in high leverage situations was met with a shot in the arm and led to a rise in his overall compete level.
“Coming out of the pen at Fresno State was different for me, but I liked the adrenaline and being called in for late relief during close games,” Lee said.
Eventually, the comfort in knowing when and in what type of situation his number was going to be called upon allowed Lee to solidify his game plan and made the former swing man a much more effective pitcher. Lee contributes that sense of consistency, being able to maintain the same ideology from outing to outing and time spent analyzing it to his great July run and believes it will further assist him as he fills out and moves closer to his big league debut.
“Mindset is different from starting and in relief. The situations you are in during a game will determine the pitches and locations you should use. I’ve learned your mindset should be the same throughout your outing,” Lee said. “I will continue to work on my mechanics and recognizing what the hitter is trying to do in his at bat so I can continue being effective.
The work Lee refers to has lay within his delivery. Still a very deliberate and seemingly effortless tosser at the beginning of the year, Lee has focused on putting more into his delivery without discounting his control. Formerly a guy who would rarely touch above 91, he has between 93-96 and topped out as high as 97 this season. This has created a more advantageous velo mix to his bread-and-butter FB/CH combo and an even further velo distance from his developing curveball.
According to Dylan, the rise in fastball velo can be attributed his ability to remain upright, creating a better arc to his release and creating a better downward plane to his stride towards the plate.
“I’m definitely not the biggest pitcher in the organization, but I worked on staying tall and staying over my back leg for as long as possible at Fresno State,” Lee said. “I have worked on it during my throwing program, flat grounds, and pens to be consistent during the game.”
Most of all though, this current and very spicy brand of Dylan Lee heat has been made possible by each of coaching, the organization and Lee himself removing any sort of leash. A guy who looked like he was tossing BP at times while still hitting 89-92, this new and unlimited version of Lee is a much better suitor for his bulldog mentality and huge compete level.
“It felt like I was playing catch out there,” Lee said. “I was getting frustrated that I wasn’t letting it go.”
This Dylan Lee profile is coming along well 😍 pic.twitter.com/cKDvBjB8Ow
— Ely Sussman (@RealEly) August 1, 2018
As much as incorporating his physicality in to his approach and plan of attack on the mound has allowed him to flourish of late, Dylan attributes the bulk of his accomplishments to a gargantuan intangible factor that has stuck with him throughout his pro career: confidence.
“My faith has been the biggest thing for me. Staying in the moment and appreciating everything that has put me in this situation, Lee said. “It doesn’t matter what level I am at or who is in the box; the rubber and the plate is going to be the same distance apart and that’s how I have and will continue to keep my composure.”
On top of his improved heater, Lee still hold on to the pitch that was his calling card as a draftee: his 83-85 mph changeup. Thrown with the exact same arm speed as his fastball, Lee masks the pitch well and has a good feel for the release. The pitch both sinks and fades away late from opposite side hitters, creating tons of weak ground ball outs (see his 0.82 GO/AO rate and sub-.140 BAA vs RHB in A+ and AA this year).
Lee‘s aforementioned developmental offering is a slow 76-78 MPH curve. Nothing more than a below average mix-in prior this year, Lee has focused on improving the grip and release points on it in his warmups and has used it much more frequently during in-game action. Accordingly, Lee has put much better spin rates on the ball and a higher 12-6 arc, bringing the pitch out of the dirt and into the lower half of the zone. Formerly a pitch he’d throw maybe two times over the course of an inning, the curve has become a major part of Lee’s repertoire and a pitch he can use in any situation.
“I’m throwing it the most I ever have and I’m throwing it to LHH and RHH and both early and late in the count,” Lee said. “But most importantly I’m throwing it with conviction.”
A guy who has jumped multiple levels from A+ all the way to the highest level of the minors, managing to adjust to each by maintaining his supreme level of poise and also building up his arm, Lee, a floor pitch-count limiting middle reliever and ceiling late-innings setup man/closer, should get a look in spring training next season. The lefty who is having fun every time he toes the rubber should at the very least be at the very top of the list of bullpen call-ups next season. When his moment comes, Lee, who has been sold short since graduating high school, will allow it to serve as a resounding “I told you so”. And undoubtedly, that will be fun, too.
“Mr. Irrelevant. That’s always been me,” Lee said. “But being underestimated pushes me. It’s always fun beating the big name guys.”
Adjust your radars, baseball world. Lights out lefty appearing on heading 2019.
Even for the virtually unknown, there is always Hope. For proof, look to first-year pro and graduate as well as first MLB Draftee of Hope International University, Cameron Baranek.
Born February 1995, Cameron Baranek attended Canyon High School in Orange, CA where he earned All-American Honorable Mention honors in his senior year before attending JuCo at Santa Ana. There, Baranek hit .344/.434/.534 over two years. Prior to that, he was recruited to Hope International University, a Private Christian school in nearby Fullerton for their second baseball season.
There, for the newly crowned Royals, Baranek enjoyed a standout season, one which put him in both school and district record books and led his team to their first conference title and to the top seed in the conference’s playoff. Baranek placed in the top 10 in nearly every offensive category in his conference, the Golden State Athletic Conference, including BA (.344, 8th) and OBP (.434, 3rd). At season’s end, Baranek was named an NAIA All-American Honorable Mention, the first in program history.
While being incredibly proud of what he was able to accomplish and attribute to the attention and concentrated tutelage of his coaches at HIU, Baranek hopes his exports at Hope pave the way for the program to become a baseball powerhouse.
“It’s quite an honor being able to represent HIU, and being the first draft pick from the school. The school and coaching staff were so helpful in every aspect to allow me to be the best student athlete I could be,” Baranek said. “Being a smaller Christian school with a focus on quality education and it’s a really awesome place for growth, the coaching staff and baseball program is top notch and to get a good foundation and name in its second year is huge and hopefully will draw more athletes alike with the same goals to win a championship and make it to the next level.”
Baranek parlayed his record-setting junior season at HIU into a .234/.306/.351 season in the Gulf Coast League in 2017. While those numbers may not be particularly impressive on paper, when you consider those 111 ABs were Baranek’s first above the Division II collegiate ranks and first with a wood bat, they appear very respectable. In addition, Baranek drove in 22 runs, second most on the team (in just 29 of the team’s 55 games). He also stole the third most bases on the team (6).
Regarding how he was able to adjust so quickly to the staunch rise in competition level as well as the change in bat material from metal to wood, Baranek says that despite some growing pains in the midst of his first season, it was all about remaining open to change and, in that spirit, making positive adjustments at the plate.
“After being drafted I was coming off a good collegiate year and had some success to start, along with some struggles I had to face about halfway through which was good for me to grow and learn my body and swing and how to mature as a professional player,” Baranek said. “I’ve always loved using wood bats hut they’re definitely not as forgiving as metal, so when you get hits they’re true as can be. Took the good and tried to learn how to make adjustments when things don’t come as easy in the box.”
The work Baranek put in last season in the GCL didn’t go unnoticed. This season, the Marlins skipped the 23-year-old past short season ball and straight to his first year in full season A with the Greensboro Grasshoppers. Baranek responded to the promotion by hitting .319/.402/.479 in 28 South Atlantic League games, numbers which each ranked in the top 10 on the circuit at the time. Regarding how he was able to enjoy continued success despite the massive jump from the D-II metal bat collegiate league to full season A ball after just 29 games in the short season rookie ball ranks, Baranek attributes it all to remaining open to changing as his frame did the same maintaining a positive attitude even when things aren’t going his way and in taking pride in his exports.
There are three things that helped Baranek the most in Greensboro and that will continue to serve him as he progresses: his faith, sticking to his roots and remembering a motto that is continuously imparted on him by a close friend and mentor.
“No one feels bad for you when you line out over and over so just sticking with a good approach and my trust and faith in God definitely keeps me as level headed and confident as I can be when things are going good or not as well as they could be,” Baranek said. “”It’s a marathon, not a race,” my scout always says. It is a helpful concept when it comes to any short term adversities that may go on during a season.”
In response to Baranek’s great start with the Grasshoppers this year, the Marlins gave him another promotion after just 27 games, one game shy of the 28 he spent in the GCL before his first call-up. Through his first 19 games with Jupiter, Baranek’s hot for-average hitting continued as he hit .270, thanks in part to hitting in 10 of 11 games from June 29-July 11. Though he has cooled off a bit of late, Baranek enters each game with the same mindset: remain thankful, stay humble and keep the game fun.
“I’m just loving the opportunity and confidence that our organization has shown. I’m going to do everything I can to help a team win, and will fight until the end in every way I can. It’s an honor to play professional baseball and I don’t every want to take it for granted,” Baranek said. “My parents and my faith definitely keep my drive and my heart very innocent playing this game. I have just as much or more fun as I did being a kid playing wiffle ball in the front yard, so for me to be on this stage is awesome and I only hope to keep adjusting swinging hard, and Lord willing continue to climb the ladder and grow as a player and teammate.”
Above all, perhaps the best testament to Baranek’s drive and will to succeed is the fact that his body was surgically repaired three times early in his playing career. Despite the setbacks though, Baranek’s attitude to repay the favor to do as much as, if not more, for his body than it has done for him has prevailed and allowed him to make it as a pro.
“I’ve always had a passion for fitness and staying in shape. Just like Jeter and so many great players have said about people being more talented, but no one should outwork you I keep that mindset in every facet because if I’m not doing everything I can to take care of my body, I’m not giving myself the best chance on the field,” Baranek said. “Injuries are inevitable at times but the farther I can stay away from that by being healthy and in shape the better. Can’t help a team win in the training room. Having a little extra strength to help a smaller guy like me get a few over the fence isn’t the worst thing either.”
Built 5’10”, 195, the lefty hitter makes up for his stout size by exhibiting above average bat speed and good plate coverage via the ability to get extended across the zone. His swing is mostly lateral with slight uppercut action and he stays through it well with great steady balance giving him the potential to find gaps and the occasional fence. Though he has some filling out to do against quality breaking stuff especially from same side pitching, it’s nothing pro coaching can’t rectify.
On top of his intriguing offensive prowess, Baranek carries plus defensive abilities, skills that have allowed him to flash a 90 mph+ arm with good carry and lines and great reads off the bat which have allotted him a .966 fielding percentage and 2.48 range factor across all three outfield positions, including in the massive Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium yard.
Chalk Baranek up as a lefty hitting threat that has the floor of a righty mashing platoon option who plays great defense off a MJor League bench. With improvement against same side pitching, he has the ceiling of a top of the order catalytic threat. For now, Baranek, never the one to put more pressure on himself than necessary, says he’s enjoying the process spurred by the support of his family (miles apart or not) and will welcome the role life places him in, wherever that be.
“My family is all the way back in Southern California so I missed them a lot but it’s been nice talking to my mom and going over bible studies and keeping in touch with them. Gives me a little taste of home when I’m out here,” Baranek said. “I appreciate my family and coaches always being supportive and helping me along the way. God’s always got me and I’m just going along for the ride and enjoying every step.”
Although the Marlins may be on the wrong side of the win-loss column now and for the rest of the season in in-game action this year, they are very much so on the right side of that equation when it comes to offseason moves and regarding the culture they are hoping to build in the future. One of the biggest figures that speaks to that success is right handed pitcher Pablo Lopez who after an impressive spring training with the big league club, has had an absolutely unprecedented start to his 2018 campaign at the AA level. For his most recent success this past 30 days with the Shrimp, Lopez earns our Prospect Of The Month honors for the month of May.
Lopez is a 6’3”, 200 pound righty who hails out of Cabimas, Venezuela. He’s just the fourth player in history to come from the city on the shoreline of Lake Zulia on the northwestern edge of the country. However, as Pablo explains, his hometown region is rich in baseball tradition which created a great support system during his tenure there. Mileage aside, that support has followed Lopez into his career as an American ballplayer.
“Baseball is very popular in Venezuela and especially where I’m from, so it was always really fun and exciting. I got to represent my state three times for national tournaments. Games would be very exciting and the stadiums would be packed with families of the players supporting and yelling all game long, which was really cool for when you’re 10-12 years old,” Lopez said. “I played with a lot of great players and friends of mine. It’s really special to have such great support from everyone back home. They’ve supported me through everything since the beginning of my career and my entire life and I’m forever grateful for that.“
Of the countless many that have supported Lopez throughout his baseball career through, he says one individual stands head and shoulders above the rest.
“My dad,” Lopez said. “He’s been my mentor, coach, doctor and everything I could have asked for.”
As paramount as his relationship with his family was, Lopez found himself at a crossroads after he was drafted in 2012. After competing in his native country’s affiliated Ball summer league that year, the Mariners pegged him for his North American pro debut the following season. Suddenly on his own still in his teenage years away from the confines of everything he’d ever know and still even somewhat of a stranger to his new nation’s native language, Lopez admits it was a bit of a nervous experience. But with the help of some friendly squadmates as well as some advantageous surroundings, Lopez says he was able to adapt fairly quickly.
“I signed as a 16-year-old and spent my first season back home in the Venezuelan Summer League during 2013. After the season was over, I came to the United States for the first time to participate in the Instructional League when I was 17 years old. It was a completely different experience, not just because of the language barrier (I was lucky enough to know some English back then), but getting acclimated to the culture would take longer! I created great friendships right away with the teammates I was able to meet. They were always willing to help me and the other young players,” Lopez said. “At times it was really hard though, I would get back from the baseball complex to the hotel where I was staying at and I would just hang out in my room not knowing what else to do or where to go! Luckily the hotel was near Bell Road, which had a lot of American restaurants so I was able to eat tons of American food and it was a way to get to know the different culture.”
Despite the mileage, home remained close to Lopez. He was always in regular contact with his family including his father whom Lopez mentioned earlier was able to help him in a medical capacity. That is because Lopez’s dad (as well as Lopez’s mother before her untimely death when Pablo was still just a child) was a medical internist. Pablo’s father’s expertise was beneficial to him when he was forced to miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Lopez says his dad was quintessential during that process and in giving him the advice needed to get back into playing condition.
“I injured my elbow in instructional league in 2013 and went through some rehab. After that I was throwing a bullpen and that’s when I injured it again and found out I was going to need Tommy John surgery to repair my UCL. My dad came all the way from Venezuela to Seattle to be with me the day of the surgery. He explained to me the medical process, how the surgery worked, what my body was going to go through and what to look forward to in the future and in the rehabilitation. It was going to be a long process, both mentally and physically.”
According to Lopez, even though he wasn’t able to physically throw a baseball for an entire season, the thought of doing so and strategizing on how to do so in a better capacity never left his mind. In fact, those thoughts filled his mind every day, allowed him to maintain his focus, turn a bad experience into a positive one and ultimately come back stronger than ever, maintaining his effectiveness while staying within the limits of his physical capacity.
“Having the game taken away from you is not fun. You kind of just become a spectator. But I realized there were so many ways for me to keep learning, not just about the game but also about my body. So I spent the following year of rehab getting to know my body to its fullest, learning what’s best for me, how to take care of my body and I also explored the mental aspect of the game,” Lopez said. “I would watch all the games from the stands paying close attention to details, I visualized myself in certain game situations and pictured how I would handle it. I kept trying to learn about pitching and baseball, even though I was not able to play at the time.”
Finally in 2015, Lopez toed the rubber on a state side field for the first time. Immediately, Lopez showed the same effectiveness that allotted him to hold down a 2.56 ERA and 37/11 in his first 66.2 IP in the VSL back home. Over his first 37.1 IP in the US, Lopez tossed to the tune of a 3.13 ERA in 37.1 IP via a 28/6 K/BB and 1.15 WHIP in rookie ball competition for the Arizona League Mariners.
A year later, Lopez got his first call to full season ball with the Clinton Lumberkings and at the same time transitioned back to the starting rotation. In 17 appearances (13 GS), Lopez managed a 2.13 ERA by way of a 0.91 WHIP and 56/9 K/BB. Amongst hurlers with at least 80 IP, Lopez’s WHIP was the best in the league, his ERA was third best and his 6.22 K/BB was second best.
In 2017, Lopez made the jump to A+ Modesto Nuts of the California League. In one of the most hitter friendly leagues in all of Minor League Baseball, Lopez’s ERA ballooned to 5.04 due to a massive .341 BABIP. However, his FIP stood at just 3.36. Still this did not stop the Mariners from flipping Lopez to the Marlins as what was thought to be an add on piece to a trade involving centerpiece Brayan Hernandez and fellow organizational hurlers Brandon Miller and Lukas Schiraldi. For the rest of 2017, Lopez showed his true potential holding down a 2.18 ERA and 32/7 K/BB in 45.1 IP for the Jupiter Hammerheads. Lopez says his jump in production can be attributed to his work done in the offseason concentrating on better releases and more advantageous pitch spotting.
So far this season in his call-up to the AA Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp has done more than not skip a beat — he has taken a massive step forward. It is an impression that began in spring training when Lopez tossed 4.1 scoreless IP in 3 appearances which put him in the conversation to make the Opening Day roster out of camp. Although a freak minor injury Lopez suffered on a line drive come-backer late in the spring campaign ruined that prospect and afforded him to be assigned to AA Jacksonville, Lopez, after making a slightly abbreviated season debut on April 21, was one of the best pitchers in all of Minor League Baseball in the month of May. In 34.2 May innings, Lopez limited his Southern League opposition to just three total runs for a 0.78 ERA via a 0.92 WHIP and .195 BAA. While his BAA and WHIP each placed second in the Southern League, his ERA marked the lowest monthly ERA since August 2017 when Freddy Peralta of Biloxi had a 0.40 in nearly half as many IP (22.1). It is the best May ERA for a Southern Leaguer since Blake Snell held down a 0.72 ERA in the month in the year 2015. What’s more is that Lopez was maintaining a 0.24 ERA until a 6 IP, 2 ER quality start caused his ERA to “balloon” to what it concluded at for the month.
For his success to begin the season and his Marlins tenure this past month, Lopez credits the ideology and strategic way of approaching at bats that the Marlins’ organization maintains throughout the system. He also credits his coaches and teammates who have created a positive environment for him to compete in.
“The Miami Marlins as an organization have created the philosophy of attacking the strike zone, commanding the fastball, pitching to your strengths, and know who you’re facing. That’s been working really well and not just for me but for all of our pitching staff, they all see confident on the mound and it’s really fun to watch them. We also do a lot of studying and we help each other out as pitchers, we are constantly talking and we learn from each other with each game that passes,” Lopez said. “We have a great team with great chemistry and outstanding defense, knowing that you have them behind you making great plays for you gives us great confidence. The catchers have been amazing as well, they work so hard and they’re always helping us to get better.”
Lopez’s calling card is a mid-80’s changeup that he spots at will with great depth and late fading action. He both pitches off of it and pitches into it off of a low 90’s sinker which he commands well in the lower half (proven by his 42% ground ball rate and 95% LOB%) and a mix-in curveball. Above all, by his own admission, Lopez is a weak contact artist who works through hitters quickly en route to making it deep into starts. Although the strikeout numbers have begun to pile up this year due to Lopez’s impeccable control (51/8 K/BB in AA), Lopez says he is remaining focused on sticking to his roots as a to-contact pitcher.
“I’ve always known I’m not a power pitcher with power stuff so being able to throw strikes has been my main focus since the beginning of my career. It has been very important to try and improve it because hitters just keep getting better and better as you move up through the minor leagues, they have better pitch recognition, control of the zone, they put better swings, and they make pitchers pay for their mistakes in the strike zone,” Lopez said. “I try to implement game like situations in my bullpens that allow me to work on controlling the strike zone with my pitches, simulating counts, runners on base, and sequencing.”
That said, although Lopez knows himself and his craft well has his mind set on limiting pitches per AB and contact allowed, he isn’t ruling out a bump in velo as he finishes out his tenure in the minors and begins his MLB career.
“I’m most concerned with throwing strikes, I try to limit free bases as much as I can. As a starter, I have to learn to administrate my energy throughout the baseball game, so I can’t throw as hard as I can with every single pitch,” Lopez said. “There are certain moments or situations where I will put more effort behind it, but then I go back to trying to locate and execute better instead of throwing hard. Right now I’m working and learning on how to use my whole body when I’m pitching and not just relying on my arm to create power. So maybe as I improve at that, there could be room to grow and create more velo.”
Even at present, Lopez has all the tools and then some to succeed as a starter at the MLB level and his phenomenal month of June as well as his solid start in AAA (3.27 ERA in his first two starts) prove that. Pencil this strike thrower who trades nasty whiffs for quick weak contact outs in to make his Marlins debut sometime in the second half of this season.
Prior to struggling with injuries that kept him out of action for much of 2014 and all of 2017, Austin James Dean is turning in a tour-de-force performance for the Marlins organization as he heads toward making his mark upon the professional ranks.
Dean was born on October 14, 1993 in Spring, Texas where he attended Klein Collins High School. Following in the footsteps of David Murphy and Josh Barfeild, Dean earned underclass honors in both 2010 and 2011. In his senior year, Dean hit .379 with 10 doubles, 12 homers and 44 RBI on his way to a 2nd team All American selection where he joined the likes of Oakland A’s #9 prospect James Kaprielian and St Louis Cardinals and Tate Matheny, a Red Sox prospect who was a .408/.338/.408 hitter at the A level last year and who is off to a .304/.411/.342 start in AA this season.
Following his breakout 2015 season, Dean signed with the Marlins who selected him in the fourth round, a spot which earned the 18-year-old a $379,000 paycheck. Upon putting pen to paper on his first professional contract, it started Dean down a path of stark maturation both as a player and as a man, quite the set of tasks for a newly anointed adult. Though he admits that the first year was tough as he adjusted to the shock of both living independently and the level of competition, by keeping his family as close as possible and by feeding off the advice of his elders, Dean has been able to conquer both challenges, turning a wide-eyed kid with a dream into a focused man with a plan.
“Being a high schooler in pro ball was a big wake-up call. You go from being the best player on your high school team, to going and playing with everyone who is just as good or even better then you. My first year in pro ball was definitely life changing. Being away from home, and being away from your family is tough. But ever since then it’s been a growing up thing,” Dean explains. “You learn how to take care of yourself and be an adult while your playing. I’ve definitely matured a lot since 2012 when I got drafted. On the baseball side, I’ve come across many of different coaches and players, and you tend to pick things as you go and learn different things from them. I’ve learned a lot of thing over the past 6 years, and I have think that’s helped me as a player.”
According to Dean, there have been many supporters and proponents that are responsible for getting him to where he is today. However, one person’s encouragement and advice has catalytically stood above all the rest.
“My dad. He’s always been supportive of my baseball career and he will always be my number 1 fan,” Dean said. “His biggest thing he loves telling me is, “You don’t want to be doing my job, sitting behind a desk and dealing with people all day.” I always laughed at it, but he was right. I love baseball and I am very blessed to be playing this game, continuing to chase my dreams of making it up to the big leagues.”
Dean’s path to the realization of that dream hasn’t come without some bumps in the road.
After getting his feet wet in the GCL at the end of his draft year, Dean began his pro career by hitting .268/.328/.418 for the 2013 Muckdogs, totals which included the second best SLG on the team and 15th in the New York Penn League. The numbers which were paved by his 12 doubles and seven triples which were the most in the NYPL earned Dean a look in Greensboro to end that season.
In 2014, Dean began the year in Greensboro and was tasked with the most extensive action of his young baseball career. Though Dean’s body would falter under the pressure, his drive, grind, resolve and fantastic baseball skill set remained strong. Dean began that season by hitting .288/.343/.403, earning a nod in the 2014 South Atlantic League All-Star Game.
However, just before the break, Dean hit the DL for the first time with a right hand injury he suffered during a slide. After spending more than two weeks off the field completely, things went from bad to worse for Dean during his rehab stint in extended spring training when he suffered a nasal fracture after being hit by a pitch. But none of that hindered Dean. Showing the poise of a veteran well beyond his years let alone a 20-year-old playing in his first full season, Dean returned in early July. That month, he had one of the better months by a Greensboro player in recent memory, hitting .377/.459/.500 before he went down with injury again in early August due to a groin strain. As frustrating as this may seem, Dean once again returned undeterred, swatting six more XBHs in his final 14 games and rounding out a fantastic .308/.371/.444, 33 XBH, 72/38, 128 wRC+ season. His SLG stood at 15th best as did his wRC+, his BA was 9th best and his 24.7% line drive percentage was third best in his league. Quite the breakout season from a kid nearly a year and a half younger than the league average competition grinding through the most extensive single season action of his career.
After Dean was promoted to Jupiter and the Florida State League in 2015 where he was equally as advertised as he showed a season previous when not playing in the extremely pitcher-friendly Roger Dean Stadium (.289/.337/.410 on the road versus .244/.298/.317 at home) and after Dean tore up the Arizona Fall League by hitting .323/.364/.452 against some of the top young talent in baseball that offseason, he began 2016 in AA Jacksonville marking a third straight season he’d received a promotion. That year, Dean had a solid first half hitting .261/.345/.426 with a 53/32 K/BB over his first 68 games but seemed to be pressing a bit at the plate in the second half when he hit just .212/.262/.320 with a 57/16 K/BB. Overall, Dean hit .238/.307/.375, setting him up to repeat a level for the first time in his career in 2017.
At this very untimely moment, when Dean was working on adjusting to hitting consistently at the upper levels where scouting reports and number crunching are utilized much more, Dean would once again be bitten by the injury bug. Just seven games into the season, he broke his right hand in an outfield collision with Yefri Perez. The injury would cost Dean nearly three full months.
It’s been 8 weeks since I broke my hand, and I finally got see live pitching for the first time 🙌🏻🙌🏻.
— Austin Dean (@AustinDean_3) June 2, 2017
However, Dean once again refused to succumb to the ailment. After a short stint in the GCL in which he went 7-13 in three games, Dean returned to the Jumbo Shrimp on July 3. He lived out the rest of the 2017 season by hitting .283/.325/.415, more than impressive numbers given the timing of his injury and the amount of time missed at such a disadvantageous time in his development.
So how was Dean once again able to overcome the damage to both his body and psyche during this difficult time? Despite the distance between them, Dean says the biggest impetus during the entire process was the same one that has been throughout his baseball career: his family.
“My parents last year were a big help. We’d talk every day or try to and obviously this was something new to me not being able to play,” Dean said. “They kept me motivated, and they were very supportive as well, and I probably couldn’t have done it with out them.”
This season in Jacksonville, a 100% Dean is paying homage to his support system by being the best hitter in the entire Marlins’ organization. Through his first 22 games this season facing the same level of competition that gave him fits in the second half of 2016, Dean has been on fire. In fact, Dean’s bat has been so hot it’s made history. In his first 81 ABs, Dean has hit a ludicrous .420/.466/.654 with three homers, eight doubles, a triple and 14 RBI. His slash line marks the best offensive April in the Southern League since 2005 when Matt Murton hit .437/.505/.621. To put it another way, Dean just had the league’s best offensive month of April in over a decade. By way of a ridiculous 92% contact rate, Dean hit in 16 of 22 games and reached base in 18 of 22 including 17 of 18 to begin the season. His monthly success has been met with a promotion to AAA New Orleans to begin May.
After simplifying his stance and approach in his rookie season, Dean, a 6’1”, 190 pounder, has learned how to fill some holes in his swing and come by power with ease. This month with the Shrimp, Dean has also shown much improved patience, a greater ability to take close pitches, foul off tough pitches (proven by his 0.86 BB/K) and wait for his inside pitch in order to feed off his pull-happy instincts. He’s also shown a better feel for getting his hands extended to pitches on the outer half, either taking them to his pull side via his great raw strength or in the very least, making contact, limiting his K rate. The catalyst for this has been a shortened approach and heightened bat speed. Older and wiser, Dean has learned how to settle for what is given to him. He isn’t pressing and simply allowing his raw skill to drive his game. Smooth, fluid and effortless at the plate, the numbers are coming naturally to Dean, a fantastic sign. The only thing that was consistently missing from Dean’s game in April was the ability to lean in to pitches and go the other way (24% opposite field hit percentage). But so far in AAA (small sample aside), Dean has rectified that issue and for the first time in his career, is actually favoring his opposite field (47.6% opposite field hit percentage). If Dean continues to show these same contact rates and plate coverage ability at the highest level of minor league ball, there isn’t going to be much left for him to prove below the Major League level and if the stats persist, the organization isn’t going to be able to hold him back much longer.
After all of his trials and tribulations, Dean, who holds the ceiling of a familiar friend of ours Jeff Conine (career .285/.347/.443, 17 HR 162 game average), is on the verge of his Major League call.
His parents probably already have their plane tickets.
Ben Meyer: A Golden Gopher with a golden arm and a golden future. The Minnesota alum spent the past 30 days continuing to prove himself worthy of those titles, tossing to a 1.01 ERA via a 0.79 WHIP and in so doing, earned himself another accolade: Fish On The Farm’s July Prospect Of The Month.
35.2 IP, 1.01 ERA, 0.79 WHIP
100.1 IP, 2.06 ERA, 0.94 WHIP
39/3 K/BB, 10.0 K/9, 0.75 BB/9
121/21 K/BB, 10.9 K/9, 1.88 BB/9
.188 BAA, .266 BABIP, 73.3 LOB%
.204 BAA, .298 BABIP, 76.8 LOB%
Benjamin K. Meyer was born on January 30, 1993 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In his high school days at Totino-Grace, Meyer lettered in both baseball and basketball but upon his graduation, Ben, who comes from very athletic bloodlines, followed in his father’s footsteps rather than his twin siblings and gave up the court in favor of the mound. In 2012, he became a second generation University of Minnesota pitcher proceeding his dad, Bob and by so doing, made a childhood dream reality.
“I wanted to do the same [as my dad] ever since I was younger,” Meyer said regarding toeing the rubber for the Golden Gophers.
Although he became a quality basketball player late in his amateur career, Meyer says he didn’t fully acquire the physical size for it until his high school tenure was finished which made him focus more on and gain more of a passion for baseball.
“I was a late grower, so I was better at baseball at a young age,” Meyer said. “I wasn’t done growing until my freshman year of college, so my basketball skills developed later in my high school career.”
Even though his basketball days are behind him now, Meyer credits his time on the hardwood to his ability to adjust to his body, remain well conditioned and most importantly for him, keep baseball fresh and exciting.
“I think it’s important for kids not to specialize in one sport too early to keep from burning out,” Meyer said. “Basketball helped me become a better all around athlete which correlates to success on the mound.”
Focusing solely on baseball, Meyer quickly became the anchor of the Golden Gophers’ bullpen, holding down a 2.37 ERA via a 1.08 WHIP in his first 38 collegiate innings. This all came after he dropped two subpar offerings from his arsenal and rapidly developed two brand new pitches that backed up his low 90s cut fastball more advantageously. Meyer credits his Minnesota coaches for immediately turning him in to an effective collegiate arm and for starting him down the road to becoming a professional rotational arm.
“When I got to college I switched out my splitter and curveball for a changeup and slider,” Meyer said. “I worked a lot with my college pitching coach to improve their consistency and make them look more like my fastball out of the hand to keep hitters off balance. I’ve also found a bigger need for the changeup at the pro level as hitters bat speed is quicker.”
In his sophomore year, Meyer began the transition to the rotation, playing in 15 games and starting eight, doubling up his inning count from the year previous. The increased workload showed a bit as his WHIP rose .2 points and he gave up 2 more hits per nine than the year previous but he still held his ERA under 3 (2.80), improved his BB/9 by .45 points, tossed two eight inning shutouts and one complete game shutout, proving he belonged in the rotation.
The Golden Gophers staff took notice of Meyer’s overall successful tenure as a starter and made him one full time in his junior year. Despite taking on an even bigger workload and putting by far the most stress on his arm he ever has, tossing in his conference’s third most innings (98), Meyer placed sixth in the Big 10 in ERA (2.39), 12th in WHIP (1.13) and fifth in strikeouts (67). His K total combated the only area where the high inning total showed any effect on him, his heightened but still respectable walk rate (2.57). That career high BB/9 was completely offset by his career low 7.62 H/9.
After starting the Big 10’s second most games in his junior season, Meyer once again proved his durability by tossing in 14 more in his senior year. However, that same season and his draft year, Meyer’s stats became the victim of circumstance when the Big 10 modified their official baseball in an attempt to increase offensive production. Although his great control persisted (7.29 K/9, 2.46 BB/9), the result for Meyer was a 4.31 ERA by way of a H/9 over 9 and a HR/9 over 1.00, causing his draft stock to plummet. In hindsight though, Meyer says the change was an advantageous for him in that it allowed him to hurdle over some common struggles for young professionals at an earlier age.
“My last year of college they lowered the seams on the baseball. This made it more similar to a minor league baseball, which was a good transition for me,” Meyer said. “It taught me to pitch more effectively down in the zone and forced me to mix my pitches a little more.”
Meyer admits he sweated through the draft process as he watched the rounds pass him by, hoping to not have a bad case of deja vu from the year previous when he was not selected. His relief came on the final day in round 29 of 40 when he got his call from Stan Meek and the Marlins.
“The last day of the draft was definitely the longest day of my life as well as one of the most exciting, especially after I didn’t get drafted after my junior year of college.” Meyer said. “I was just hoping for an opportunity and was very grateful when the Marlins called saying they were going to take me.”
After seven innings in the GCL and five in Greensboro, Meyer lived out the rest of 2015 in Jupiter pitching against competition a year and a half older than him. That fact along with the wear on the 22-year-old’s arm (he racked up a total of 120 innings pitched, by far a career high), led to a 1.54 WHIP via a 9.13 H/9 and 11.7 BB% but thanks to a 76% LOB%, Meyer was able to hold down a 3.18 ERA, which was very respectable when all things are considered. His overall successful cup of coffee with Jupiter that year planted a good seed within the organization as he found himself just outside of its top 20 prospects.
Meyer lived out 2016 in Greensboro where he began his transition to starting as a pro. It was a bit of a learning curve for Meyer as he went 0-8 in 10 starts with a 4.23 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He was much more effective out of the pen. Throwing in eight more innings as a reliever as opposed to a starter, he held down an ERA a full point lower (3.10), walked one less (10 vs 11) and striking out nearly twice as many (60 vs 34). However, Marlins didn’t give up on the prospect of one day seeing Meyer in their big league rotation. After beginning the year regaining his confidence tossing out of the Grasshoppers’ bullpen where he held down a 2.15 ERA and 0.95 WHIP, the Marlins brought Meyer back to A+. There, Meyer has started 10 of his 16 games appeared in and rewarded the confidence the organization has shown in his ability by producing a 2.03 ERA by way of a 0.93 WHIP, marks which rank second and first in the Florida State League among qualified players (>70 IP). Within that same group, Meyer’s 28.7 K% and 23.4 K/BB% each rank second. Even though he divulges that all of the moving around between the rotation and bullpen was a bit tedious, taxing on his body and wracking on his nerves, Meyer, ever the “big picture” guy, says the experience was a major catalyst in making him the pitcher he is today, able to pitch in any circumstance, understanding the mind of a hitter and mastering the art of pitch selection and location.
“Moving to the bullpen after college was a big transition for me because I was only in the bullpen for my freshman year of college. I had to learn how to warm up quicker, and come into the game with a different mentality,” Meyer said. “When I moved back into the rotation in 2016, the biggest adjustment for me was learning to throw on a 5 day rotation vs the college 7 day. It took some time to get my body to bounce back quicker. This year, my velocity has been up a little bit, which has helped, and my slider has been more consistent than it was last year. I have had more confidence in my slider to throw in more situations and keep hitters off balance.”
The impetus behind Meyer being allowed to experience all the things he has, learn from them and grow so quickly has been excellent health. In his entire baseball career, even though the stress on his body has doubled and sometimes even tripled, Meyer has never made a trip to the disabled list and has never been out of action for more than a few days. In addition to his overall fantastic athletic background imparted on him at birth and fully realized very early in his amateur career, Meyer attributes his good health to good fortune, staying active every day, and to the medical regimen assigned to him by the attentive Marlins’ medical staff.
“I have been very fortunate to stay healthy over the years,” Meyer said. “The Marlins have a great arm care program that I follow between starts, as well as running every day and staying on top of our strength program has helped keep my body and arm healthy.”
The fact that Meyer once succeeded as a basketball player is evident as he stares down his opposition from his towering 6’5″, 180 build. Meyer maintains his height advantage over hitters as he winds up from a straight up-and-down stance but creates deception as he planes his pitches in downhill. Viewing the strike zone from a birds eye, overhead angle, Meyer commands it wonderfully with all of his pitches, something he has done his entire career, something which he is very satisfied with and the basis of his confidence as a hurler. He plans to ride that confidence to the upper levels of the minors and beyond.
“I have always prided myself on my command of 3 pitches and ability to work ahead in the count. I would rather give up a hit than walk somebody and give them a free base,” Meyer said. “It’s definitely tougher as the competition gets better as the strike zone shrinks, and hitters get better eyes, but it comes down to trusting my stuff and preparation.”
Meyer will rarely touch any higher than 94 MPH with the fastball but his plus plus secondaries both of which he created in college and has established during his great minor league run more than make up for it. He throws all three of his pitches with the same arm speed which adds to his nearly impossible to pick up motion and mixes them beautifully which makes him nearly impossible to time or wait out. As a result, Meyer works quick tidy innings and limits pitches. Six of his 10 starts, including four in a row in July, have been quality outings. Meyer’s best pitch is his go-to slider which sits in the 82 MPH range, has hard bite and which he likes to run in on the hands of guys inducing plenty of whiffs. He will also bury it in favorable counts and due to the late break, get guys fishing. The Meyer changeup sits in the 86 MPH range. Due to its good depth and his shortened stride to the plate, it is one of the more deceptive pitches in the Marlins’ system right now. As with all of his pitches, Meyer will throw it in any count but he shows an affinity for pitching off of it. The change sets up Meyer’s “show me” fastball, a 9o-94 MPH offering which he can run to either corner and which he likes to put in the eyes of hitters in two strike counts. In most cases, a three pitch arsenal isn’t translatable to Major League rotational success but in the case of Meyer, who throws all three pitches interchangeably with similar arm speed and great control and command, he should be able to succeed with it. If not, judging by how quickly he established two brand new pitches, he has the ability to quickly re-develop and fall back on the split change and 11-6 curve that he threw as a high schooler.
A battle tested thinking man’s thrower, Meyer sets up as a 4-5 inning eating rotational option and floor bullpen anchor in that same capacity. With similar success in the upper minors which he stands to break into soon, the 24-year-old should be fast-tracked to his MLB debut, realizing not only his dream but fulfilling a family legacy. But for now, Meyer, as per usual, as staying level headed and letting the process work itself out.
“Playing in the big leagues would obviously be a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and still have a ways to go, so I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” Meyer said. “I’m just trying to stay day to day and get better each outing.”
Meyer should make the jump to AA next season.
Adjustment and perseverance. If there are two words that sum up the career of Chris Mazza, these are them. Despite having to adjust to pitching after spending most of his amateur career as a shortstop and although he had to persevere through some difficult mental and physical circumstances including ignoring his doubters and naysayers, coming back from a serious injury and being released by his first team which nearly forced him to contemplate life after baseball, Mazza did it. He overcame. Today, he is one of the best starting pitchers in the Southern League, on the verge of realizing his Major League dream. The latest of his fantastic exports this season is a month of June in which, despite some more rough luck proven by a .322 BABIP, he limited damage, stranding 83% of his runners and holding down a 1.04 ERA lowering his seasonal ERA to 2.71 sixth best in his league. Mazza’s June not only continued to prove his ability to pitch effectively but proved once again his ability to rise above. For those reasons, he is our June Prospect Of The Month.
26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 1.46 WHIP
79.2 IP, 2.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP
14/10 K/BB, 3.5 K/BB%
51/23 K/BB, 8.5 K/BB%
.277 BAA, .322 BABIP, 82.5% LOB%
250 BAA, .287 BABIP, 76% LOB%
Chris Mazza was born on October 17, 1989 in the San Francisco area as not-so-distant relative to Joe DiMaggio. He has wanted to follow in the Hall Of Famer’s footsteps ever since he could pick up a baseball.
“He was my grandmother’s cousin,” Mazza said. “I’ve wanted to play since I was 6 years old.”
Mazza attended high school at Clayton Valley High in nearby Concord where he barely reached a nonathletic 5’6″, 120 pounds and struggled statistically, hitting just .238/.322/.266 in his junior and senior years, causing him to go recruited. So Mazza took his talents to nearby Menlo Oaks College where he spruced (pun intended) up and began realizing his true potential. After making the team in tryouts his freshman year, Mazza became the college’s all time leader in home runs and triples. In his junior year, Mazza would usually start games at his normal shortstop but would be called upon to pitch in save situations. Doing so, he posted a team low 2.37 ERA, and 19 saves, another school record thus making him a prominent fixture in Menlo’s first ever Conference Title run. Following his success leading both the offense and defense that year, Mazza, for the first time ever, garnered the attention and selection of clubs at a variety of levels, including prestigious collegiate schools, independent ball and affiliated ball. One of those clubs was the Minnesota Twins who drafted Mazza as a pitcher in the 27th round of that year’s MLB Draft. Although a mixture of flattered, excited and nervous, was faced with what he describes as a very difficult decision in terms of where to and how to continue his baseball career. But with a bit of guidance and some motivation provided by his Menlo squad mates, Mazza chose to accept the Twins’ offer.
“It was a really tough decision to make because we had just won our league and made it to the conference tournament for the first time in school history. It was also tough because I had teams that looked at me to play shortstop and that’s really what I wanted to do because wasn’t 100% ready to give up playing shortstop and becoming a pitcher only,” Mazza said. “But after having a long talk with teammates, my high school coach Bob Rolsten who played in the Twins organization, and my dad, we came to the decision that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I didn’t really have anything else to prove in college ball. Also my college teammates said they would kick my butt if I came back for my senior year.”
Mazza broke into his pro career with the rookie ball GCL Twins and Elizabethtown Twins. Even though the numbers looked great over his 18 appearances in his rookie season, (30.2 IP, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 28/2 K/BB), Mazza attributes that success to throwing to a similar level of hitters as those he faced in college who were also just beginning to get acclimated to using wood bats. He divulges that despite the solid numbers, he really didn’t have a full understanding of what he was doing on the mound.
“The biggest adjustment for me was learning how to pitch. When I got to pro ball, I didn’t really know how to actually pitch,” Mazza said. “In college, I just got on the mound and threw as hard as could. And when you throw in the mid 90’s in college, you get away with a lot things.”
Here Mazza was, virtually a brand new pitcher who was simply taking the mound and putting the stress of throwing as hard as he can with every pitch on his arm with underdeveloped mechanics. Accordingly, just seven starts into his 2013 season, his arm blew out. Despite every effort to avoid surgery, Mazza eventually went under the knife. It cost him more than an entire season’s worth of playing experience.
“I went on the DL because of an issue with my ulnar nerve. The nerve was popping in and out of the groove every time I would throw cause my arm to go numb. It was like getting hit in the funny bone every time I threw,” Mazza described. “At first, we just tried resting it for about four weeks of no throwing. I was in a brace where I could bend my elbow. After that, I started up a throwing program to build my arm up. About three weeks into the throwing program, my arm started going numb again because of the nerve. About a week later, I had to fly up to Minnesota and have surgery to move my nerve. They call it an ulnar nerve transposition. So I ended up missing the rest of the season.”
Upon returning to the mound on May 26, 2014, Mazza went on to play the best ball of his career. In 25 appearances out of the Cedar Rapids’ bullpen, he held down a 2.79 ERA via some of the best control numbers in the league. Striking out 62 and walking just 11, his 25.5 K/BB% ranked 4th in the Midwest League. He also had the second lowest FIP in the league (1.93). However, much like his rookie season, a lot of Mazza’s success would come at another hefty price. Unbeknownst to Mazza, he threw the final two and a half months of that season with a broken right wrist.
“I fell up the stairs one night during a power outage and broke my scaphoid bone between my hand and wrist on my throwing arm. At first I didn’t even know it was broken. I thought I just jammed my wrist really bad because I could still move it. So I didn’t throw for five days then when I started playing it hurt a little bit but not enough for me to say that I can’t throw. Plus when I would actually pitch it didn’t hurt at all.”
Then, that offseason, things came another very unfortunate head.
“During the offseason, it was still bugging me a little bit until I was working with my dad and I went to hand him up a pile of bricks and my wrist bent back I just collapsed in pain,” Mazza said. “So this whole time from when I fell in July to me handing up my dad some bricks I couldn’t do a push-up or anything that caused my wrist to bend back because it hurt. But since it didn’t hurt to throw a baseball I didn’t think anything of it.”
A few days later, Mazza found himself back in another waiting room with the prospect of once again being absent from baseball for a lengthy period of time very real, if not a forgone conclusion. The diagnosis and treatment curtailed exactly that.
“I finally went a got my wrist looked at and got an MRI and the doctor said I had a broken scaphoid nonunion in my right hand. He told me he doesn’t know how I was even able to throw a baseball. I just said I’ve always had a high pain tolerance which in this case isn’t always a good thing,” Mazza said. “I had surgery in November of 2014 and they had to put a screw in my scaphoid bone to fuse the bones back together. So I had to be in a cast for 6 months because of course the scaphoid bone is the worst bone to break in your entire body because it only has two little veins blood supply so the healing process takes longer.”
Almost eleven months from when he was last permitted to pick up a baseball, Mazza finally did so again on July 3, 2015, beginning a rehab assignment with the GCL Twins. After five appearances there, Mazza was ready to return to Cedar Rapids, to get back on the horse. However, after just two outings back in single A, he was knocked back off said horse once again when the Twins. Being forced off the mound once again after he had just returned from a second hiatus was admittedly a tough pill for Mazza to swallow, especially after the promise he showed when he was healthy (and sometimes even when he wasn’t 100% healthy) but the close relationships he built within the organization including the one he had with his head coach helped keep Mazza afloat in a deep sea of adversity.
“When he called me in to his office I had a pretty good idea was getting released,” Mazza said. “One thing that helped was Jake Mauer who was my manager for three years in the Twins’ organization. Being with Jake for three years, we got to know each other really well and became pretty close. So hearing get choked up as he’s telling me he has to release me because they simply don’t have a spot for me kept positive that this wasn’t the end of my baseball career.”
Mauer had that same confience that he hadn’t seen the last of Chris Mazza and vowed to put in some calls to some independent league teams that he had connections with. But before those calls came to fruition, Mazza got a call of his own.
“About a week later, me and my brother are out golfing and we are on the 14th green getting ready to putt and my phone rings and when I answer it Brett West is on the other end and tells me that the Marlins want to sign me as a free agent,” Mazza recalls perfectly. “I was so excited. I was getting a second chance.”
Mazza, who was able to stay professional through two lengthy injuries, the disappointment of being cut and through one of the best and most relieving phone calls he’s ever received hung up the phone. From there, the emotion poured out of him and created a scene that must have resembled one from Happy Gilmore.
“When I got off the phone I told my brother and he started screaming,” Mazza said. “We were jumping around looking like two idiots out on the golf course.”
After Mazza signed his minor league deal on August 4, 2015 he headed to Jupiter to begin his Marlins’ career as a Hammerhead. After he finished out that season by tossing to the tune of a 3.60 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP over 15 innings and following another 15 innings worth of 1.09 ERA, 0.93 WHIP ball to begin 2016, the Marlins would present Mazza with the biggest challenge of his career: transitioning to the rotation and adjusting to life as a starting pitcher.
“As I got to about my seventh start is really when I felt the number of innings start to catch up to me and wear my body down. At the time I was just doing the same body maintenance that I did as when I was a reliever. So I just I just had to start doing more, whether it was running more, getting more physical therapy or extra work in the gym,” Mazza said. “It was tough because my body wasn’t ready for that extra work load. Unfortunately it led to inconsistency the last month and a half of the season. It was a definitely a learning curve but helped me prepare for the offseason. It gave me an idea on how much more I had to get my arm and body in shape so I can take on the innings of a starter.”
Although he was still relying on the same stuff he used as a reliever, Mazza admits it was tricky having to face hitters more than once and thus having to learn how to select pitches advantageously as he got into more deep counts. However, with some help from his battery mates, he was able to conquer that feat.
“Things really didn’t change much on my approach to attacking hitters that year. I was only a three pitch pitcher so I still went after hitters the same way,” Mazza said. “The biggest thing was not to get stuck in the pitch sequences but I had a lot of help from my catchers with that.”
As much as Mazza learned from himself and his teammates that year, the best piece of advice he got came from Hammerheads’ pitching coach Joe Coleman in spring training. It was then Coleman noticed a hitch in Mazza’s game that the Twins never did, an issue that when fixed, would allow Mazza to become a much more effective hurler and will allow him to succeed at the next level. The issue lay in the amount of effort Mazza put behind each pitch, sometimes throwing the ball as hard as he could trying to blow hitters away and the other painting corners and trying to induce weak contact. Coleman informed Mazza that whichever brand of pitcher he wanted to be, a max effort late relief type or a more methodical innings eating back end starter, was acceptable but he could no longer be both at the same time.
“Joe sat me down and asked me what kind of pitcher do I wanna be. He said after my first couple outings in spring training it looked like I was trying to be two different kind of pitchers at the same time. The first was the pitcher that want to throw the ball past guys and the being the pitcher that wants to sink the ball and get ground balls,” Mazza said. “He told me yeah, I have a plus plus sinker but when I try to throw the ball past guys, it stays straight and doesn’t sink. He said if you want to be a guy that throws past guys, that’s fine and if I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball. that’s fine too. We just need to pick the guy that you want to be so can have a plan when you are on the mound. Then told me with a sinker like mine, he felt like I would be more successful and have a better chance of getting to the big leagues. So the next day I went up to him and told him that I wanted to be a guy that sinks the ball and ever since then, my career has been going in a positive direction.”
Following his transitional year in 2016, via the assistance of Coleman and his most extensive year of uninterrupted on field experience, Mazza entered the 2016 offseason with a firm grasp on being part of the rotation as well as his own identity as a pitcher. With that knowledge, he dedicated the next six months to one thing: truly becoming a starting pitcher.
“I went in to the offseason last year telling myself that I’m going to get in shape to be a starter. I worked really hard on developing a change-up because it’s just a pitch that you need to have as starter. Even though I’m most really on my sinker and cutter I can throw my change-up a few times a game to keep hitters honest.” Mazza said. “I also need to thank my strength coach Rob and trainer Cesar who have kept me in shape and kept up with physical therapy to make sure I’m healthy and ready to go.”
Coleman’s ability to recognize and fix Mazza’s issue in trying to throw two different styles from pitch to pitch during spring training in 2015 and Mazza’s own drive and extra work put in that offseason had him well on his way to becoming an effective starter. But he still had some work to do mechanically and mentally. That’s where Jacksonville pitching coach Storm Davis’ expertise has come into play.
“I’ve been more consistent in my delivery and being able to make the adjustment when I get out of wack one or two pitches rather then it taking me two or three batters to get back to where I need to be. And that’s all because of Storm Davis,” Mazza said. “Whether it’s looking at film, fixing my arm slot, seeing how hitters are reacting to certain pictures I throw during the game or talking about pitch selection. And when we make a mistake, asking why did we make that mistake and how do we change our approach so we don’t make that mistake again and so much more. He’s really helped me mature as a pitcher.”
Through all of Mazza’s trials and tribulations whether it be going unrecruited, suffering two major injuries early in his career, being released after he finally began to enjoy some success and so many more factors that would have made a lesser man throw in the towel, Mazza is finally a near finished product this year. The exports of that finished product speak for themselves: a 3.01 ERA that ranks 12th in the Southern League, a 1.29 WHIP that ranks 17th, a 7.0% walk rate than ranks 15th and a 75% LOB% that ranks 13th. All of this has been made possible by a very balanced arsenal which includes his bread-and-butter groundball 90 MPH sinker, a 92 MPH cut fastball that he can ramp up to 94 and which he will throw interchangeably with the sink peice to keep hitters guessing, an 84-86 MPH changeup that is emerging as the secondary pitch Mazza has the best feel for despite his learning how to throw it this past winter and a slider that has lessened to a mix-in offering since his surgery but which he will still bury for strikes in pitcher’s counts.
Much like the way he has approached his baseball career, Mazza won’t shy away from any challenge. He is an in-your-face style pitcher who won’t pick at corners but instead comes right after his opposition and dares them to beat him. He can get in trouble doing so at times, giving up baserunners, proven by his 8.5 hits per 9 innings but his ability to keep the ball down almost exclusively and induce groundballs keeps runs off the board and his pitch counts in check. According to Mazza, that bulldog, win-above-all style mentality approach to pitching as well as every other aspect of his life is something that was inborne in him and has, above all else, been his biggest and best companion along the way. As long as he hasn’t let the beast run completely wild.
“I hate losing. I hate losing more than I like winning. I’ve always been that way. I don’t care if I’ve given up 10 runs, I want the ball in my hand and I’m not coming out off the game. Even though Storm has told me I gotta keep the bulldog on a leash at not let him run out of control,” Mazza said. “I’ve just always been super competitive ever since i was a little kid. It doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or tic-tac-toe; I’m going beat you. My mom gets mad at me cause I don’t let my six year old nephew win when we play video games together.
With the Marlins on the verge of a firesale and Mazza continuing to turn in quality outings, he is on the verge of realizing his Major League dream and in so doing, beating all of those individuals, teams, schools and organizations who thought he would lose. For the 27-year-old and those who have been by his side since the start no matter what, his call to the big leagues will symbolize the biggest win of his life. Without having to actually speak a word, Mazza will tell a lot of people “I told you so.”
“It’s crazy to think about sometimes. I’ve had lot of people tell me I wasn’t able to play at the the next level and the started in high school. I got told I was too small or you good but you’re not good enough to play college ball. And when I got to college it was the same thing people would say, “Go to a Division III school, you can’t play pro ball.””, Mazza said. “I just always had that chip on my shoulder to prove people wrong.”
Attention all naysayers and doubters: grab your foot and prepare to insert it into your own mouth. Chris Mazza is about to arrive.