Mitch Nay is one of the top prospects in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. A supplemental first-round pick in 2012, the 20-year-old third baseman combines raw power and an advanced approach. His grandfather deserves a lot of the credit.
Nay grew up learning the game from Lou Klimchock. A journeyman infielder who spent parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues, Klimchock played for five teams and counts multiple Hall of Famers among his former teammates. He’s passed along much of what he knows to his grandson.
“He’s been a big influence on me,” said Nay, who is playing with the low-A Lansing Lugnuts. “He’s helped with instructional stuff, like hitting and throwing. He’s pretty much been my teacher since a young age.
“My grandpa is also the president of the Arizona Major League alumni, so I’ve been able to hang out with a lot of big names – historical figures in baseball – like Brooks Robinson and Bob Feller. I’ve been around the game my whole life, which makes being in pro ball almost second-nature.”
Nay is already older than his grandfather was when he debuted with the Kansas City Athletics at the end of the 1958 season.
“He played his first game at age 18,” explained Nay. “Last year when Jurickson Profar came up and hit a lead-off home run they were talking about the youngest guys ever to do that. My grandpa was on the list.”
Can he imagine what it would be like to play in the big leagues at such a young age?
“There’s so much I need to learn before that time comes,” admitted Nay. “It would definitely be a challenge, but my grandpa has talked to me about what it’s like. He’s told me to visualize it, to think of myself in some of these guys’ shoes. He says stuff like, ‘Imagine yourself getting on a plane in the middle of the night, going to a new city and waking up there to play a game.’”
Surprisingly, Klimchock practiced visualization in the 1960s. Less surprising is that his grandson does so now.
“When he played, he used to be on deck visualizing himself hitting a line drive over the shortstop’s head,” said Nay. “He says your mind doesn’t know the difference from what your body does. I do that sometimes too. If I’m facing a sinkerballer, I’ll visualize him getting it up and me hitting it in the gap.”
Nay describes his hitting approach as looking for a pitch that’s middle to middle-away, focusing on the right-center field gap, and having a good two-strike approach. You can probably guess where that comes from.
“My grandfather’s approach was pretty simple,” said Nay. “It was basically to stay up the middle and have a good two-strike approach. Growing up, he’d always talk to me about the importance of not giving away at bats. Don’t strike out; put the ball in play. I’ve come to realize you can sometimes hit the ball farther with two strikes, because your approach is better. You can still have power with two strikes.”
Klimchock has taught his grandson more than approach. He’s taught him about the past.
“He’s talked about facing pitchers like Don Drysdale,” said Nay “He’s told me about guys he played with, like Roger Maris and Hank Aaron. I’ve learned a lot about baseball history from him. He even played for a few teams that don’t exist anymore.”
Here is a description of the home run Klimchock hit as an 18-year-old, excerpted with permission from the SABR BioProject. It was written by Chuck Johnson.
“When he stepped to the plate as the leadoff hitter for the Kansas City Athletics on the final day of the 1958 season, 18-year-old second baseman Lou Klimchock was looking for his first major-league hit, not to make modern major-league history. Playing in just his second major-league game, Klimchock achieved both. On the mound that day for the homestanding Chicago White Sox was 19-year-old Stover McIlwain. A tall, lanky right-hander, McIlwain was also making his second major-league appearance, and, as fate would have it, his last. Klimchock picked out a McIlwain offering he liked and drove the pitch into the Comiskey Park right-field stands for his first major-league hit and home run. It was the first time in modern major-league history that a teenager had homered off a teenager.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the Baseball Biography Project, it is an invaluable and rapidly-growing resource. The Society for American Baseball Research [SABR] champions the game’s rich history, and the BioProject committee, headed by Mark Armour, is an ambitious part of those efforts. A primary goal is to publish a full-life biography of every major league player in history. Klimchock’s is one of 2,770 that have been completed as of this date.
According to Armour, it took close to six years to reach 1,000 bios, and another 3.5 years to get to 2,000. At its current pace the third 1,000 will take just over two years. The committee is currently producing 400-450 biographies annually, which is roughly twice the rate that new major league players are debuting. If you’re interested in becoming involved, please contact email@example.com.
Harry Chiti is still awaiting his biography. It needs to be written. A catcher for four teams from 1950-1962, Chiti broke into the big leagues with the Cubs as a 17-year-old bonus baby. His biggest claim to fame is that he was the first player ever traded for himself.
His son, Dom Chiti, was a minor league pitcher for six seasons before becoming a coach, scout and special assistant. He now serves as the Orioles bullpen coach. I asked Dom about his late father.
“My father was a huge influence on my baseball life,” said Dom. “I was probably more advanced mentally because of him. I learned to change speeds at an earlier age than most guys. He would talk about the game inside the game, like the cat-and-mouse that happens between pitchers and hitters.
“He’d relate stories about players and how to pitch to them. Ted Williams was one. He said Ted Williams used to walk to home plate and say ‘If you can throw three balls on the outside corner you can have my strikeout, but don’t miss.’ He also told me how he’d be going to catch a ball – it was right there – and Ted would take it right out of his glove. His bat speed was that ridiculous.”
In April 1962, the fledgling New York Mets acquired Chiti from the Indians. Two months later he was sent back to Cleveland.
“When he got traded for himself it was actually a cash deal,” said Dom. “I don’t know how many people know this, but the money went to pay for the Chief Wahoo that went up in right field at the old ballpark. That’s what the money was used for. My dad wasn’t so much traded for himself as he was traded for a sign.”
Many players excelled in multiple sports before settling on baseball. Orioles outfielder David Lough played two in college and could have played a third. His primary youth sport is the one he gave up first.
“I loved soccer,” said Lough, who came of age in Akron, Ohio. “I played my whole life. It was my No. 1 go-to sport in high school, and I received a lot of D-I offers, but I kind of grew out of it. I never grew out of baseball. I’ve loved being on the diamond from the time I was a little kid playing tee ball. I knew in college it was what I wanted to keep playing.”
Football replaced soccer as Lough’s second sport, despite him having played it only one year in high school.
“My senior year, I grew a real liking for football,” said the speedy 5-foot-10, 175-pound fly-chaser. “I ended up going to college to play both football and baseball. I went to Mercyhurst, a Division-II school in Erie PA, and was a receiver and kick returner. We were in the [Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference] when I played, with schools like Grand Valley State. It was good quality football.
“I started putting it together my junior year — I had a couple of touchdowns – but my first few years of college football were a real growing period. In high school, I’d go to the huddle and our quarterback would tell me what to run. I didn’t know the plays. I would go from football practice to soccer practice, and would have soccer games on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On Friday I’d have a football game. I was a busy guy and missed a ton of practice time, mostly because of soccer.”
Tommy Hunter excelled in a less-traditional sport. The Indianapolis native was a two-time judo champion.
“I was young when I did judo, only 10-12 years old,” said Hunter “I didn’t have any special moves, or anything like that, but I was pretty good. I won the Junior Olympics in judo. It’s basically a national tournament, so while it’s not something you’d call prestigious, it was pretty big for me.”
The Orioles closer is 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. I asked how big he was as a preteen judo champion.
“I wasn’t big when I was 12,” said Hunter. “I wasn’t big until I was a sophomore in high school. I was a normal kid. I wasn’t abnormal.”
My response was, “Unlike now?”
“You think I’m abnormal?” answered the affable-but-large hurler. “Wow. That’s pretty [bleeped] up. But that’s alright. You’re entitled to your opinion. I think I’m pretty [bleeping] normal.”
His home state of Indiana is a hoops hotbed. What about basketball?
“I played in high school, but I wasn’t very good,” said Hunter, who wryly added “I was a white kid and played the token minutes. I kept the GPA up for the team.”
Matt Bowman will elevate the GPA on most teams he plays for. The New York Mets pitching prospect majored in economics at Princeton University. Pro ball hasn’t been a steep learning curve for the 2012 draft pick. Last year he went 10-4 with a 3.05 ERA between low-A Savannah and high-A St. Lucie. This season he’s allowed just one run in 12 innings at Double-A Binghamton.
Bowman has a future in a big league front office when his playing days are over. The 22-year-old right-hander’s senior thesis had general manager written all over it.
“It looked into how much a win is worth in free agency,” said Bowman. “I looked into projected wins and what a team thinks they’re paying for a win as opposed to what they end up paying for a win. Why is there a discrepancy between the two? I looked at players and evaluated them basically as stocks paying off dividends in the form of WAR. What is their variance season to season, and based on that, what value do they hold?”
I asked him if any other players in the Mets’ organization speak the same saber-economic language.
“Jeff Reynolds, who is in St. Lucie right now, graduated from Harvard,” said Bowman. “I spoke to him a little bit about it. There are certainly players who like to play GM and will talk about who’d they’d want to acquire in free agency, but I think the numbers aspect might make me a little unique.”
Bowman’s approach to his own stats is more mainstream.
“When it comes to my personal experience, I’m the complete opposite,” admitted Bowman. “As a starter, I think the most important stat is innings pitched. It’s the old-school opinion that starting pitchers should be workhorses and eat up a lot of innings. I’m aware if certain other stats are good or bad, like my strikeouts-to-walks ratio, but I mostly try to avoid them. Getting caught up in stats can lead to complacency, or getting a little too involved if things are going poorly.”
Bowman had eye-popping numbers in this last start. Pitching against New Hampshire, he allowed four hits over seven scoreless innings with one walk and 11 strikeouts. Preparation played a big role in his overpowering outing.
“I got to scout them in the stands a few days before,” explained Bowman. “I talked to Kevin Plawecki, my catcher, and we came up with a game plan. I basically told him what I wanted to do with each hitter and asked him to remember it. Once I’m on the mound, I don’t like thinking about that. Whatever he put down, I threw. My fastball and slider were working and I sprinkled in my other pitches as well.”
The Princeton product keeps notes on batters he faces, but not on himself.
“I feel that breaking down your personal performance too much can be detrimental,” opined Bowman. “There’s a feel to pitching and the simplest numbers are the most important. How deep did you go into the game and did you put up a zero? If you’re trying to do more than that, I think you’re trying to be a pitcher you’re not.”