The phone rings. It’s four-thirty in the morning on Day Three of the 2017 MLB draft. Relief pitcher Sam Delaplane is asleep at his parent’s house in San Jose. His grandparents are arriving later and his girlfriend, back in Michigan, is waiting to Facetime before any news breaks. Sam rolls over and stares at his phone. If it were any other day, he might not have answered.
A scout, not for the Mariners, is on the other line and asking Sam, rapid fire, what he’d be willing to sign for: would he take this, what about this.
“It’s four thirty in the morning,” Sam tells him. “I just woke up.”
“I told you to be ready for a call.” The scout is annoyed, he’d called the day before and intimated that his team, on the east coast, would be drafting him. Players on Day Three, the final day, are expected to be grateful for any call, at any time. Especially college seniors like Sam with few options available. In fact, Sam had already interviewed for a job in San Francisco and had a second interview scheduled after the draft—just in case.
“OK, yeah” Sam is groggy but waking quickly. “But it’s four thirty in the morning.”
They hang up with no promises made, no guarantees. It’s just as well that the scout’s team did not sign Sam. The Mariners did. They did so at noon, with the 693rd overall pick. Sam had been awake for nearly eight hours on the longest day of his life. His family and girlfriend waited with him, all of them listening intently for the ringing of a cell phone. When it finally rang?
“Crazy,” says Sam, shaking his head and then resting it against the chipping paint of the clubhouse wall. We are standing outside, the sun still high in Modesto but with spring winds keeping the heat down. “It’s going to sound cliche, but I can’t really describe the feeling. All the work, all the time, the sacrifice my parents put in, waking up at 5am to drive me to games before work...” He motions behind him with large arms, permanently tanned from a lifetime of playing ball in California. “My host family actually lives right next to the field my parents would drive me to as a kid.”
Sam may have been drafted near the bottom, but he’s not an ordinary 20+ round draft pick. Sam does one thing spectacularly well: the strikeout.
Sam leads all of minor league baseball in K%, striking out nearly half of the batters he faces. To put this into context, Sam’s current K% would slot second in the majors only to Josh Hader. While he’s given up more runs than last year, his xFIP is a minuscule 1.63, good for second in the minor leagues. Sam is elite at limiting contact. It’s what has allowed him to stay in professional ball when so many other late round picks are forced to move on to their backup plans. In turn, the Mariners are trying to develop him even further. The changes they’ve made in coaching personnel have already had an impact throughout the organization and on Sam specifically.
“Especially with Max Weiner, the new pitching coordinator, we’re getting more analytical. We have these Player Plan Meetings showing us where our strengths are.” Sam notes that there’s a big difference between a club showing you a heatmap of a batter’s tendencies and having an individualized plan designed specifically for your abilities. It’s the individualized approach that’s paying off. “[The Mariners] are trying to be the trendsetters, not fall behind. I don’t know if I’m allowed to leak any secrets…” he hesitates. My pen hand is shaking, hoping for a scoop. Then he shrugs and laughs. “Actually I don’t know if I have any secrets, but it’s awesome the stuff they’re doing right now. We have some geniuses in the front office.”
Sam speaks fast, through an easy smile; the words tumble out when he finds something he’s passionate about. He mentions the Nut’s new pitching coach Rob Marcello, a JUCO pitching twitter hire. “Rob is very, very, very good at what he does,” Sam says seriously and mentions tunneling as a new focus Rob has introduced. “Online people put out these gifs,” Sam pauses and asks me, the closest nerd, if he pronounced it right. I nod, nerdily. “It’s not the easiest thing to do as a pitcher but it makes a lot of sense to have a pitch look the same three quarters of the way to the plate. We’re all working on it.”
I press him on his arsenal and the pitches that he’s trying to tunnel. I mention his best pitch, a a sharp breaking bender that scouts can’t seem to agree how to classify.
“To me, it’s a curveball,” he says adamantly. Then chuckles. “I, well, OK it might not be a curveball. But to me, in my brain—it’s a curveball. It’s a curveball grip, I just throw it hard. If I think slider it’s not gonna be good.” He thinks for a moment. “My best days are when I have my fastball command and I can work off of that.”
That curveball, reportedly spinning at 2700+ rpm, which would rank around the 80th percentile in the majors, has been a big focus for the organization.
“The analytics showed that [the curve] was more effective when I threw it in the zone instead of trying to get guys to chase. In A ball I got away with it… Here, if you don’t get it in the zone and get ahead, hitters will make you pay.” Sam mentions more than once that getting ahead of hitters has been an organizational imperative. “I didn’t take it seriously before. But they show us the numbers about what guys are doing 1-2 versus 2-1—it’s real. You have to get them in disadvantaged counts if you want to survive. It’s been a major focus.”
I went back and watched film of Sam’s outings to see this philosophy combined with his arsenal in action. When Sam is on, his outings look a lot like this at bat from May 7th:
This is what Sam looks like when he has his command locked in: get ahead 0-1 with the fastball and then throw high-spin breaking balls at the bottom of the zone when the hitter is at a disadvantage (the fact that the 0-2 curve was over the plate speaks to the work he put in this offseason). It’s a deadly combination.
When I ask him about his success and how it impacts his future, his promotions, his career, Sam shuts me down. “I don’t think about that,” he says as a person reminding someone there is off-limits territory. “It’s none of my business, really. I don’t want to know. If you don’t live where your feet are, you’re not going to be able to focus on the task at hand.”
I nod. While he’s hesitant to discuss his own future, he does, however, like to think about the future of the game.
“The game is evolving.” He straightens up. “Launch angle and strikeouts. All of us in the bullpen talk about it. We’re going through a different era of baseball. We’re living it right now. We went through the steroid era and now we’re in the new analytic era.”
In this changed game, pitchers like Sam live on the edge between swinging strikeout and 400-ft home runs. It’s good that Sam is used to living in the inbetween, between curve and slider, between an early morning call and no call at all, between a life on a dusty Modesto field and one in an office across the bridge.
“We’re watching the game change while we’re going through it,” Sam says carefully. He nods to himself. I watch his eyes flit out towards the bullpen behind me, where he’ll be spending tonight’s game, waiting to be called in. He rubs the back of his close-cropped hair and grins to himself. “It’s a pretty cool time to be playing baseball.”