Nate Pearson’s Pitching Coach on Grunting, Routines, and Hard Changeups
Fluctuation of prospect value during the offseason is a mental exercise. Given the lack of activity to substantiate one’s changing opinion, hype can often be attributed to reputable names in the industry praising players, or the release of top prospect lists into the wild. Nate Pearson’s name has generated helium in the recent months, but instead of dismissing a storyline and citing our historically slow offseason for the surfacing of this hype, I wanted to understand the origin of praise surrounding our budding prospect.
Jim Czajkowski, the Vancouver Canadians pitching coach helped put into perspective how bullish the Blue Jays organization is on their first-round pick from 2017’s draft. Pearson carries a 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame onto the mound, his arm balancing out the offensive firepower Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bring to a system loaded with top-end talent.
“[Nate] is better at his age than any of those guys were…. If I were to rank those guys, Sanchez probably had the best pure arm action and a good curveball, a good sinking fastball too, but Nate has all four [pitches].”
Pearson transferred from Florida International University (FIU) to Central Florida Junior College for the 2017 season for personal development reasons, and the gamble paid off as he posted 118 strikeouts in 81 innings with only 23 walks. Even with his stellar stats, one could assume Pearson may have been passed on last June due to his size.
“It’s a chunky 240 [pounds]. And in high school he was up to 300… he’s thinned down some… It was definitely his workout regiment; it was phenomenal.”
As his time at FIU was largely in a relief role, it was inevitable that discussion arose between Czajkowski and myself regarding how to condition the 6-foot-6 righty to shoulder a progressively larger workload. The focus was more on optimization – the sequencing of Pearson’s innings and coinciding off days – than sheer control of inning quantity.
“He probably pitched once a week [in college], and then he’d have six days to recover… we got him down to one less [recovery] day in Vancouver, and then wherever he goes next year, he’s going to be on a five-man rotation, so he’ll really need to adjust his regiment and take care of his arm care.”
Preparation for the next level is front of mind for Czajkowski and the Blue Jays. Focusing on routine and laying the groundwork to ease Pearson’s adaptation to higher levels lead to necessary and subtle tweaking.
“When we talked to him about his routine, we actually thought he might be overdoing it right after the game with his arm care. We wanted him to tone it down a little bit.”
This restructuring of Pearson’s off-day regiment and arm care was not suggested to his detriment. It became a vital step to eventual ease him into Lansing or Dunedin’s standard, five-man rotation, dealing with less off days in the process.
While any arm possesses inherent risk of injury, Czajkowski admitted that himself and management are more optimistic with Pearson’s arm health knowing the primary generator of velocity comes from his lower half.
Adding audible intimidation to Pearson’s presence on the mound is a less statistical reason hitters struggled mightily against his offerings.
“There is not a lot of herky-jerky in [Pearson’s] motion, there are times where he pitches and he’ll grunt. And when he does that, he throws 100 [mph]. There are times early in counts where he grunts because he’s trying to make a statement, and he’ll overthrow a couple pitches… he was almost trying to strike guys out early in counts; trying to not let them touch the ball, that’s when he would lose a little bit of command and come out of his delivery a little bit.”
Pearson’s delivery is unique. His 6-foot-6 frame barrels downhill towards a hitter, as the harmony of his kinetic chain capitalizes on the energy stored in his lower half. A strong front leg allows him to stabilize after the energy released from his torso’s aggressive tilt forward finishes his motion. Exceptional is an understatement when describing the extension he achieves; the eye is tricked for seconds as one forgets the amount of mass supporting the big righty.
(Gif from YouTube, video credit to Niall O’Donohoe)
“If you watch him play long toss you know where he gets his power; his power is from his legs.” Czajkowski was quick to confirm what is visually consistent.
Pearson’s work ethic and natural ability, continually touted by Czajkowski in our talk, remain one reason why concerns over inconsistency fell to a simmer from the boil that eclipsed his potential pre-draft. An unusual detriment associated with this level of velocity is how advanced it can be for the pitcher’s level.
“At the lower levels they can’t catch up to his 100[-mph fastball]… The higher Nate goes, to Double-A and Triple-A, his changeup will be able to play because those guys will be able to catch up to his 100.”
Velocity differential between a pitcher’s fastball and changeup remains one of the key factors to predicting the value of the feel-dominant pitch and whether it behaves like a sinker, generating ground balls, or a true changeup, generating whiffs. While Czajkowski rated each of Pearson’s four pitches – fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball – above average, he was quick to disclose his high expectations for a pitch that was hit around for Pearson in his 19 innings with Vancouver.
Pearson’s arm speed is another reason why I’m bullish on his changeup. His body’s aggressive motion towards the plate can deceive hitters from an aesthetic standpoint. Add that to the fade he’ll be able to generate as he evelates his feel for a pitch and his mastery will quickly exceed the talents of his seniors.
But Pearson’s calling card is a two-plane slider; an unfair pitch when backed up with his command. He seamlessly changes the eye level against hitters, leaving most Class A Short Season hitters to guess if they stand a chance of hitting either pitch. The offering below is at this hitter’s belt, which gives a better idea of the pitch’s depth, rather than the late, “fall off the table” break noticeable when he buries the pitch at a hitter’s knees.
(GIF via YouTube, video credit to Blue Jays Prospects)
Is there a point where overuse of such an advanced pitch could hurt a young arm?
“If we think he is overusing his slider, just for strikeouts, we’ll talk about the percentage he throws his pitches. [Nate] gets a breakdown… and I think he did a very nice job this year in utilizing everything.”
Czajkowski reiterated the themes of our talk, bringing up a final thought that adds to his appreciation for the righty.
“He has four major league quality pitches, he has size, but the one thing he doesn’t have yet is stamina. He hasn’t built up the innings to be a starter at the major league level. Roberto Osuna pitched a couple years in the minor leagues as a starter and then became a reliever. So Nate Pearson as a closer at the major league level, I can see that too. Because of his regiment; the way that he throws, and the way that he bounces back tells me that he can handle a relief role, too.”
If the Blue Jays window of contention opens quicker than some anticipate, Pearson’s services may be needed at the major league level sooner than later. With Czajkowski’s suggestion that Pearson could reach Double-A New Hampshire by season’s end if the stars align, opportunity for Pearson to make an impact in 2019 isn’t off the table. His adaptation to higher levels and a five-man rotation are what I consider the largest factors dictating his future role.
Czajkowski’s final words to me on the record epitomize what we’re all thinking about Pearson.
“The sky is the limit for him.”
Special thanks to Jim Czajkowski for allowing me to steal some of his vacation time to chat Canadians baseball and Pearson. I wish the Blue Jays organization, and each pitcher he grooms, the best in the coming season.
Photo via C’s Plus baseball website, courtesy of Niall O’Donohoe, seen here.