Matt Harvey will be as confident as ever when he returns from Tommy John surgery. Not only does he expect to be fully healthy, he’ll be back to where he feels most comfortable. The young New York Mets ace said as much when I spoke to him in January.
The first time I talked to Harvey, he wasn’t yet in his comfort zone. It was April 2012 and he was pitching for Triple-A Buffalo. His big-league debut was still three months away.
At the time, Harvey was chomping at the bit. Questions remained about his readiness, but they weren’t being raised by the right-hander. Harvey told me, “I’d like to think I’m right there. It’s never my decision, but I’m always going to be ready, both mentally and physically.” He went on to say he wouldn’t be intimidated.
Clearly he wasn’t. Harvey logged a 2.73 ERA and fanned over a batter per inning after being called up in July. It wasn’t a fluke. Last year he established himself as a horse in the Mets rotation and started for the National League in the All-Star Game. From a performance standpoint, he has been better in the big leagues than he was in the minor leagues.
The 24-year-old isn’t unique in that respect — many players have put up stronger numbers after leaving the farm — but his mindset might be. Asked about his transition, Harvey suggested it may actually be easier to pitch against the best competition in the world.
“Pitching in the major leagues was always on my mind,” Harvey admitted in January. “Viewing whether I was ready or not… for me it was a mental thing of maybe having my head in a different place [in Triple-A]. When I got called up, my mentality was ‘now I can be the best.’ It just freed a lot of … I don’t know if it was tension, worry, or what it was. But once I got to the big leagues, I felt I could finally perform. Instead of pitching to get somewhere, I was finally able to just pitch to get guys out. I only had one focus.”
I asked Harvey if he altered his pitch usage, or saw an up tick in his stuff, after the 2012 call-up.
“Nothing really changed,“ responded the rehabbing righty. “I had the luxury of having veteran guys behind the plate and could just kind of jump on their backs, but it’s not like I started throwing my slider a devastating amount more, or anything like that. I didn’t start throwing my fastball less or more, or a lot more inside than outside. I was simply able to put all of my focus on executing. My mind was free, because I was only concentrating on one thing, which was getting hitters out. I was in the big leagues, so I was able to relax and do my job.”
Rick Waits was admittedly not relaxed when he took the mound for the Cleveland Indians on September 27, 1975. The rookie left-hander was pitching in front of a national TV audience against a team in a tight pennant race. He threw one of the more memorable games of his career.
Waits — currently the pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners– remembers it this way:
“The first time I ever pitched at Fenway Park was in a series at the end of the 1975 season. It was the Game of the Week, with Joe Garagiola [doing play by play]. I remember it was raining, so we didn’t take batting practice or anything like that. I was nervous.
“I’d been called up around the end of July, and they had great hitters like Fisk, Lynn and Evans. Of all the guys in that lineup, the one who homered off me that day was Deron Johnson. He hit a two-run shot in the middle of the game.
“They needed one win to get into the playoffs, so it was a big day. I pitched a complete game and won 5-2. Boog Powell was at first base for us and drove in a couple of runs. Of course, the Red Sox were going to the postseason and we were going home. I was playing for Cleveland.
“They clinched later that night when [the Orioles] lost, but they could have done it that afternoon. The place was loud. Garagiola was going crazy. I got interviewed in front of the dugout after the game. When you’re a young kid, new to the big leagues, you’re going ‘Wow.’ Like I said, I was nervous, but it was an amazing experience. It was pretty neat.”
Oliver Drake may or may not make it to the big leagues. If he does, he’ll be a great story. In many ways, he already is.
A right-handed pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Drake lasted until the 43rd round of the 2008 draft. He had shoulder surgery two years ago and at age 26 has yet to pitch above Double-A. If he wasn’t playing professional baseball, he would likely be an officer in the military. Growing up, he wasn’t even sure baseball was his best sport.
“I was a pretty good hockey player,” explained Drake, who hails from Massachusetts. “I was a forward and in the best school league in New England. When I turn on the TV, I see a bunch of guys I used to play against, like Max Pacioretty of the Canadians, Jonathan Quick, the goalie for the Kings — guys who are in the NHL now.”
Drake wasn’t NHL material, and coming out of prep school it didn’t look like he’d be MLB material either. He enrolled in the Naval Academy, where he majored in quantitative economics. He also established himself on the baseball team and began catching the eye of scouts. They’d have watched him more carefully had they known his status.
“Teams hadn’t realized I was 21 and draft eligible,” said Drake. “At the Naval Academy, West Point, and the Air Force Academy, anyone can leave, for any reason, before the start of their junior year. Most teams had only seen me once or twice with the intention of actually scouting me.”
The Orioles were among them, and took Drake late in the draft. After watching him pitch well in the Cal Ripken summer league, they inked him to a contract. That was mere weeks before Drake would have needed to sign full-commitment papers with the Naval Academy. It wasn’t an easy decision for the player currently rated the No. 24 prospect in the Baltimore system by Baseball America.
“There were times that summer where I thought I was going to stay,” said Drake. “[But] a captain there sat me down. He looked at me and said, ‘Oliver, you can always come back to a career in the military if baseball doesn’t work out, but you can’t do it the other way around. If you want to pursue baseball, this is your chance.’”
Seven years later and fully healthy, the former Midshipman has a chance to one day pitch in Baltimore. Working out of the bullpen in Double-A Bowie last season, he had a 1.74 ERA and punched out 11 batters every nine innings. Drake features a fastball that touches 94 mph and a quality splitter.
Jordan Danks has a good arm, but unlike his brother — and White Sox teammate, John — he isn’t a pitcher. Jordan is an outfielder with good tools but a spotty track record in 129 big league games. In 254 plate appearances, he has a .229/.303/.344 slash line.
Could he have success as a pitcher? I asked him that question late in the 2013 season. Apples fall from the same trees, so perhaps Jordan and John have similar enough skill sets to potentially switch roles? According to Jordan, the answer is no.
“He always jokes that he got a left arm and I got everything else,” said Jordan Danks. “I have a pretty decent arm, but the last time I pitched was probably in Little League. I honestly would never see myself as a pitcher. With him, you could tell from an early age he was born to do it.”
That doesn’t mean the younger sibling — Jordan is 27, John is 28 — wouldn’t grab the bull by the horns if he were handed a baseball and sent to the rubber. An opportunity to best his brother, or anyone who stood in the way, is something he’d never turn down.
“Our competitiveness is exactly the same,” said Jordan. “That’s the way our dad raised us. We had this 10-foot by 10-foot square concrete slab in the back yard at the house, with a basketball goal, and there were plenty of elbows thrown ou there. We’re both wired that way. Whether it’s a baseball game or in the clubhouse playing cards, we’re wired to win at all costs.’
Even so, the outfielder has no aspirations of joining his brother in the White Sox rotation. He’s uber-competitive, but he’s also a realist.
“If I was thrown out there on the mound, my head tells me yeah, I’d be able to compete,” said Jordan. “But realistically, coming out and competing at the highest level is probably something else. Unlike my brother, I’m a position guy.”
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