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40 in 40: Thyago Vieira

One of the newest additions to the 40-man has a smile as big as his fastball

Braaaaaazil (bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom bom)

Listen to enough minor league games, and things will start to jump out at you. You might not be able to watch the games in person—in dusty towns across America like Clinton, in Jackson (not that Jackson), in Bakersfield (RIP Blaze)—but if you just dial it in over the radio every day, patterns will begin to emerge. Tyler O’Neill crushes home runs and gets on base seemingly every time he’s up to bat; you notice. Dan Altavilla toes the rubber in the bottom of the ninth, unshakeable in whatever situation; you notice. This is the fun of following the minor leagues: being there, even virtually, when a guy’s star begins to take off.

I don’t remember exactly when Thyago Vieira came across my radar. It was sometime in July, after he had assumed the closer role in Bakersfield. Dan Besbris, the Blaze announcer, had been talking about this big Brazilian kid, and at first I mixed him up with Gohara—after all, how many A-level Brazilian pitching prospects can one team have? I looked for him on Instagram, and I looked for him on Twitter, and failing that (“Vieira” is an annoyingly common last name, and Thyago is a surprisingly common Brazilian first name), I googled and found this picture of him:

And they say there’s no such thing as love at first sight.

The reason Vieira was so delighted? He had just recorded the final out against Panama to save a 3-2 game and secure a win for Team Brasil, advancing them to the WBC. This was a really, really big deal, like such a big deal Brazilians made motivational videos about it:

That was back in 2012, when Vieira was 19, having been drafted by the Mariners as a 17-year-old out of his hometown of Sao Paulo. His success for Team Brasil hadn’t been mirrored in the Mariners’ organization, however, where he’d been converted into a starting pitcher. He had trouble staying healthy, and when he was healthy, the results were middling, despite a fastball that could touch triple digits. The organization abandoned the attempt to make him a starter in 2014, and Vieira went back to the bullpen in Clinton, spinning his wheels in Iowa for two years. When Jerry Dipoto took over, he admitted the organization had thought about moving on from Vieira; instead, they promoted him to Bakersfield and the hitter-friendly California League. Bakersfield’s new pitching coach Ethan Katz had pledged to make a product out of the 23-year-old fireballer.

Sometimes, all it takes to unlock a talent is that missing piece, a bit of instruction that provides a direction for raw talent to flow. Katz was able to help the tall righty streamline his mechanics into something repeatable and controllable; more importantly, he impressed on Vieira the importance of being able to show batters more than one pitch, even as a reliever. From Ryan Divish’s excellent article on Vieira from this December:

“We really had to harp on him that he needed a second pitch,” Katz said. “Even when you are blessed with a big arm, hitters can and will time everything. But if you give them that second pitch, they are going to be very overwhelmed. So we went to work every day on his mechanics and that slider to get it to where he can be consistent with it and comfortable with it.”

For his part, Vieira calls Katz the best pitching coach he’s ever had. After Spring Training last year, he stayed back to work longer with Katz, before moving on to Bakersfield, where he blossomed in the closer role, alternating his devastating fastball with his newly found slider. In the highest level of competition he’d faced, he pressed his K/9 into double digits while dropping his BB/9 to the lowest level he’d seen since rookie ball and putting up an FIP just under 3. By late July, in my kitchen in Seattle, when Dan Besbris would announce Vieira was standing on the mound, I’d put down the dish I was washing and turn up the volume. That’s what talent does: it captures and commands, even from hundreds of miles away.

The hard-throwing Vieira caught many people’s attention in the uber-competitive Arizona Fall League this year; that will happen when you average triple digits with a 7.00 K/BB rate. Even more impressive, though, is Vieira’s newly developed slider, offering batters a dizzying velocity range between the 100s and the high 70s:

Vieira’s powerful lower half helps him drive the ball to the plate with authority, while his six-foot-two, 210-plus physique intimidates from the top of the mound. It’s hard to find video of Vieira from before this year—or at all, really—but watching the film of him from the WBC vs the AFL, you can see he has a much higher knee lift now from what’s on display there, and even as he’s touching triple digits, his motion looks effortless and smooth as he finishes. We may just be discovering him now, but Thyago Vieira is pitching like who he was always meant to be. He just needed a little nudge in the right direction.