Since being traded to the Mariners from the Dodgers, Chase De Jong has not enjoyed the kind of success he experienced last year, when he was crowned Texas League Pitcher of the Year. Prior to July 21, De Jong hadn’t made it past 6.1 innings in any of the 11 games he started. In those 11 games, he gave up three home runs in a game on three separate instances; twice, he gave up double-digit hits—and remember, he’s only going five or so innings in these starts. While the Mariners didn’t give up a lot to get De Jong (24-year-old Drew Jackson, who is not Chris Taylor yet, spent most of this year repeating the Advanced-A level; and big-armed but control-challenged Aneurys Zabala, whose K/9 is almost exactly matched by his BB/9), De Jong’s performance so far has been surprising to those who heard Dipoto rave about him after acquiring the 6’4” righty this offseason, calling him “a player we’ve tried to acquire multiple times” and someone he saw as “knocking on the door” of a big-league debut.
About that big-league debut: De Jong made it on April 4, when he was literally the last man standing in a depleted pen in an extra-innings game against the Astros. You remember how that turned out. De Jong would make a handful of other, similarly uninspiring appearances until mid-May, when he was optioned back to Tacoma. He had one more brief appearance in June, but other than that, it’s been all Triple-A, all PCL parks, and a lot of poor results. For De Jong, this sudden veer into ineffectiveness has been as inexplicable as it has been frustrating. “It’s been feeling a lot like work,” he acknowledged.
But lately, something seems to be clicking for De Jong. Of De Jong’s last five starts, four have been solid, and the one that wasn’t was at Colorado Springs’ Security Service Field, 6,531 feet above sea level—1000 feet higher than COORS—which has ranked first in both hits and runs allowed in Triple-A for the past three seasons. But in the majority of those starts, De Jong has limited damage, given up significantly fewer home runs, and cut down on his walks. Most importantly, he’s finally shown up as the innings-eater he was billed as, going over seven innings for the first time all season on two separate occasions. “Being able to cover seven innings is something I pride myself on and I haven’t been able to do very much this year,” acknowledges De Jong. In his interview with Mike Curto, De Jong was open about his struggles, saying, “it’s been a very frustrating year, not being able to command the ball the way that I know I’m capable of.”
How rough has this year been for De Jong, comparatively? Pretty rough:
His walks are up, his strikeouts are down, and he’s getting killed by the longball like he never has before in his career (welcome to the PCL). The good news is De Jong might be heading in the right direction. His best start of the year so far was July 28, against his old team, the Oklahoma City Dodgers. He went seven innings, allowing three runs on eight hits and striking out four while walking none and allowing no home runs. In an interview with Tacoma broadcaster Mike Curto the day after, De Jong reflected on his strong start:
“I’m really happy with how I threw the ball. Finally I was able to make pitches the way I know I’m capable of, not walking guys, and really was able to control the bottom half of the zone. I finally had the ball doing what I wanted it to do when I was trying to do it, which was very refreshing, because it’s been a very frustrating year, not being able to command the ball the way that I know I’m capable of. Last night was a huge step in the right direction.”
De Jong credits his step forward to a lot of tinkering on his end, and working closely with Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter, who he says has been working with him every day. “Lance has been great. . .He really wants me to do well, and I know it’s not just him trying to do his job to make the guys up top happy; he genuinely wants me to succeed and he wants me to figure out a repeatable delivery that I can produce quality pitches out of time and time again.” In reviewing film from De Jong’s various appearances this year, Painter noticed that while De Jong had excellent fastball command in an early outing this year, after moving back and forth between the majors and minors—a challenge for any pitcher—De Jong had started hurrying himself over the rubber, creating a disconnect where his arm wasn’t able to catch up with his motion, which in turn caused his hand to become flat against the baseball rather than be on top of it. That means flat, high fastballs with little horizontal movement and no sink, which hitters gleefully punished over the walls and into the corners of PCL ballparks. After identifying the problem three weeks ago, Painter and De Jong began working on it in earnest (Chase admits they can butt heads at times, which he attributes to the fact that both of them care so much about their craft). One key difference in that delivery is staying on his back leg longer over the rubber, driving forward and staying lower to the mound, while allowing his arm to catch up with the rest of his motion. Here’s De Jong back in June:
And here’s his delivery from the OKC start:
The slight pause before beginning his motion lets him shift his weight completely onto that back leg before driving towards the plate with his arm working in tandem with his body rather than dragging behind. Notice the deeper knee bend that helps his overall motion be more compact and therefore quicker to the plate. In the first gif, De Jong’s arm is almost an afterthought. “I’d been exerting energy beforehand,” he points out, “and there was nothing left through the delivery. But now, I gather myself, and I can finish out front, with command, being aggressive where I need to be.”
That fastball command served De Jong well the other night in Tacoma, where he didn’t have his secondary stuff working and had to rely on his fastball to maneuver around a Memphis lineup that leads all of the PCL in wins. “He ground it out,” says Painter. “And you have to do that. If you have 27 starts in the minor leagues, you’re going to have 7 starts that are really really good, and 7 games similar to this, where you’re like, ‘I don’t know what to do but I just have to find a way.’ And he went out there and he gave us six innings and he kept us in the game. Sometimes you just compete and you find a way to do it.” Painter calls De Jong’s delivery “a work in progress,” but praises the 23-year-old’s ability to be a competitor and make adjustments. He recognizes that it might be the end of the year, or possibly even next year, before De Jong feels comfortable with where he is, but the most important part is getting him to buy into the process. “This whole deal is about working towards success. But if you’re looking at the end results right now, we’re defeating the process.”
For De Jong, feeling better about his outings and like he’s finally executing pitches the way he wants to, regardless of results, is helping him buy into the process. “My first half is not something to be proud of,” he acknowledges, “but it’s something to learn from.” He’s invented an award for himself—Second Half Pitcher of the Year—and is chasing that in his mind. “I understand that’s not a real award, but that’s what I’m going for.” Also helping De Jong buy in: the fact that he knows that he fits the model of the organization, which he says brings him confidence. “All I have to do is be me. I don’t have to be anybody else. I don’t have to be this blue-chip prospect—obviously, I try to be the best I can, but I know when I rear back it’s not going to say 100 miles on the radar gun. But I know what I can do is get outs. I know that what I do can help out a team. I know that it’s really nice to be in an organization that values what I can do.” After a season of struggling, De Jong is starting to get back to a version of himself he recognizes. “The guy who pitched [the other night against OKC] is the guy who they traded for, and I know that,” he says. And, as Painter points out, now he knows he can be both that guy, and a guy who can battle on a day when he doesn’t have his best stuff. The Second Half Pitcher of the Year race is on.