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Diamond In The Ruff

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One man’s journey from Saltdog to Mariner

Back in late November, when the blockbuster Taijuan Walker-Mitch Haniger (and also Jean Segura) trade was a mere sparkle in Jerry Dipoto’s eye, the Mariners General Manager inked a 26-year-old right-hander who posted the following numbers in 2016:

No, of course those stats were not in the majors. If they were, I wouldn’t just now be writing about the move in mid-March. The previous stat line was posted in the Independent League American Association, and the producer of said stats was former Dodgers farmhand and Lincoln Saltdog Lindsey Caughel. After pitching just three innings in 2015 before being shut down to undergo surgery on his labrum, the Stetson University product rebounded to win the American Association’s Pitcher of the Year Award in 2016.

I recently had a chance to chat with the 2012 23rd round pick, having a very open conversation about his experience with the Dodgers organization, indy league baseball, and how he ended up in the Seattle Mariners organization. Upon asking him about any significant difference between his time in the minor leagues and independent leagues, he mentioned that he--like a lot of people--kind of looked down on independent league baseball, and instinctively thought the talent level was inferior to organized professional baseball, and was very surprised to at the talent level he experienced throughout his one year stint with the ‘Dogs. Caughel went on to mention that he told himself he would never play indy ball, but felt he would have really been upset with himself if he didn’t continue playing after his 2015 release by the Dodgers following his shoulder surgery. As disappointed as he was at the time, Caughel’s unexpected detour to a league he never hoped to find himself in ended up providing him the opportunity for deeper self-reflection, which just may have helped fast-track his rise to the big leagues:

From a mental standpoint, I definitely had a different approach in indy ball than I ever did in organized minor league baseball, and it will be interesting to see if I can carry that approach over to organized baseball. I was a lot more relaxed. I consider myself to be a deep thinker in baseball and almost everything, so I would kinda build up the moment to be more than it was when I was playing organized baseball. And then in indy ball, I had just this really cool attitude about it. I was just like, “you know what Lindsey, I’m going to be okay if baseball is over with. I’m going to be okay.”

Caughel--who demonstrated an impressive control of the strike zone and ability to miss bats--topped out at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in the Dodgers organization back in 2014. He is a self-proclaimed “command guy”, who “pitches more than he throws.” He toes the rubber with an arsenal consisting of a two-seam fastball that sits 91-92mph, a slow curveball that drops in at 70mph, a slider that he dubs his strikeout pitch to both lefties and righties (83-84mph), and a changeup that he considers his fourth pitch and admits needs some work.

I asked the right-handed hurler whether he pays much mind to sabermetrics, and rumor has it his response is the reason this photo exists. Here’s what he had to say:

When I was released by the Dodgers, they were really working the sabermetrics angle, and I kinda tried to bring up, “ya know, I miss bats and I don’t walk people.” That’s kinda been the stat that I’ve really pushed myself towards. I know people look at opponents’ batting average or whatever, but my stat that I have really tried to put at the forefront is walks per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio. If you stick around baseball circles long enough, people like to pay lip service to the saying “it’s not about how hard you throw, it’s about how well you pitch,’’ but...I’ve found that kind of a lot of people are lying when they say that.

It’s a dying breed, but... you see pitchers like Hendricks and all those guys that are having a lot of success in the big leagues that are really just 90mph guys, so I don’t know if it’s going to make a comeback, the art of pitching, because for the last seven years, it’s really just been the art of throwing. I’ve always tried to maintain that mentality [of pitching not throwing] because I’ve always just known that’s not in the cards for me. I’m never going to be the guy that sits 94 mph. I guess guys are finding out ways to do that with Driveline and weighted ball programs and stuff like that, but every time I’ve tinkered with that, I’ve always lost some control. It’s something I believe in—people say it a lot and don’t mean it—but it’s something I really believe in. It’s something I really put at the front of my pitching, is throwing strikes. You hear it all the time and it’s cliche and it’s said all the time, but it’s really a lost art, throwing strikes.

I went on to ask if the fact that Seattle is placing an importance on pounding the zone and limiting walks played a role in his decision to sign with the Mariners:

One hundred percent. I had the opportunity to sign with a couple of organizations, but I’m 26. I have my degree. I’m not trying to play minor league baseball for that much longer...that’s not what I’m trying to do with my life. And I knew I wanted to sign somewhere where I knew what I could do was really valued, and that was apparent from the very first time I talked to the Mariners. I had talked to a couple of other organizations, and they were all like “ We like you. We’re going to see what some other guys say first and then we’ll give you an offer.” With the Mariners, I was the other guy. It was like, “Hey, we’ve had our eye on you for a long time. We value what you bring to the table, and this is why we value it. Because we are changing out entire philosophy when it comes to pitching, and you are one of the guys that was first on the list of going out and getting to fit that mold and philosophy of what we’re trying to bring to our organization.” As soon as they spoke that language, I was all ears. I was like, “Okay, this is what I’m trying to do.” I wanted to make sure I was going to go to somebody where their philosophy was in line with what I was trying to do, and I felt that right away with the Mariners.

Caughel credits his pitching philosophy in part to his pitching coach during his time at Stetson University, Chris Roberts. He called him the best coach he’s ever had, and mentioned that Roberts--who also worked with Caughel’s rotation-mate Jacob DeGrom--focused less on fundamentals and more on the mental aspect of pitching and throwing strikes, something Lindsey loved.

I’m pleasantly surprised at the quality of those indy league uniforms.

Caughel has been called up as a reserve on a couple of separate occasions this spring, but is yet to appear in a Cactus League game for the Mariners. He’s most likely destined for Double-A Arkansas to begin the season, but a strong performance in the early going that shows that his 2016 season was legit could help him climb the ladder relatively quickly as he aims to make the transition from minor league ball to independent league ball, and eventually all the way to the big leagues—just as former Mariner fan favorite Tom Wilhelmsen did before him.

A special thanks to Lindsey Caughel for taking the time to chat with me. You can find him on Twitter at @LindseyCaughel.