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40 in 40: Rob Whalen

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I’m officially starting the Rob Whalen Fan Club. Who’s with me?

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest with you: I had no idea who Rob Whalen was until the Mariners traded for him.

I can’t imagine I’m alone among Mariners fans in that regard. With all of five big-league appearances under his belt, and as a 12th-round pick who had never pitched above A+ ball heading into 2016, Whalen was far from a household name.

Now, however? He’s become famous (in this small, small circle of devoted Mariners fans on Twitter) for his incredibly important role in the quiz below.

After filling out the quiz, there it was, staring me in the face: Rob Whalen, pitcher, Seattle Mariners.

“You're relentlessly positive and believe in being kind, but that doesn't mean you don't still have a great sense of humor. People might look past you but you're ready to prove all the doubters wrong.”

Up until that point, all I knew about him was that right after we traded for him, he took a trip to Lids and bought himself a nice Mariners hat.

(Solid choice on the teal, by the way.)

Though his Twitter account is incredibly likable and endearing, it’s probably not why the Mariners traded for him. After all, the M’s seemed to be okay acquiring Steve Clevenger a year ago, and his Twitter presence is...uh...not great, Bob.

So, with that in mind, here’s what you need to know about Rob Whalen.

Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, Whalen and his family moved south to Florida to help him follow his baseball dreams, and the big righty (6’2”, 220 lbs. according to Baseball-Reference) was drafted in the 12th round by the New York Mets, Whalen’s favorite team growing up. Enjoy this video of him in high school, replete with chain link fences in front of the camera and an amazing soundtrack.

In two-and-a-half years in the Mets’ minor league system, Whalen dominated opposing hitters, posting a sub-2 ERA in each of his first two years while striking out nearly a batter an inning in 24 starts.

Things got a bit more challenging in 2015, however. For starters, Whalen advanced to A+ ball, where the competition level is much more challenging. Combine that with a midseason trade from the Mets to Atlanta, as well as some injuries that cut his season short, and Whalen failed to reach the 100 innings mark for the third time in as many years.

But 2016 was a big improvement for Whalen. After making 21 starts in the minors across AA and AAA, striking out 112 guys in 120 innings, Whalen heard the words that every player dreams of and was called up to the big leagues in August.

Unsurprisingly, those starts didn’t go exactly as planned, as the 22-year-old finished with a 6.57 ERA in five appearances, thanks to some control issues coupled with four homers allowed. But simply making it to the MLB club is an achievement in and of itself, and it shouldn’t take away from his fairly meteoric rise last year.

Part of that 2016 improvement came from finally being healthy. From an April 2016 interview with Scout.com:

“I was hurt for two years. I had pretty serious knee injuries going into my last two seasons and I pitched through it. I came out of my third start in the first inning because I couldn’t even walk...I had no feelings in my knees, there was excruciating pain...The tendon in the middle of my knee started to die. I had necrotic tendons in my knee...So they had to cut out the middle of both my patellar tendons and reattach the tendons to my knees. I didn’t even know if I would be ready for the first day of spring training...

It was very serious, almost like having an ACL surgery - and I had it on both of my knees at the same time. It was a hard rehab, but I’m just happy I’m out here and playing.”

Whalen’s four-pitch mix includes a sinker that touches the low-90s, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup. Befitting a guy who throws a lot of sinkers, he said in an interview last year he tries to generate ground balls, though in his brief ML stint a year ago he finished with a GB% rate almost three percentage points lower than the league average.

As this video shows, Whalen generates a lot of movement on his pitches - you can see his sinker fool hitters multiple times, sure, but his change and curve are also doing some major damage here. It’s a sight to behold.

What does 2017 hold for Rob Whalen? In all likelihood, he’ll be starting the year in Tacoma, developing and biding his time. He doesn’t even turn 23 for 12 more days (man, it’s weird profiling a player that’s younger than I am...), and even if he doesn’t make it as a starter - which is entirely possible given his command issues - he could absolutely make an impact for the M’s as a reliever, whether this year or next.

But either way, I’m rooting for this guy. He’s fought through injuries, a trade away from his favorite team (and now a second trade in as many years), and low expectations. He’s battled his way to the big leagues. And, apparently, I have his personality (thanks again, Kate).

So, Rob, if you’re reading this: I can’t wait to see you pitch at Safeco. And this time, you won’t have to buy your own Mariners hat.