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40 in 40: Isaiah Campbell takes the road less traveled

Once a surefire starter, Campbell looks to make his mark in the bullpen instead

Seattle Mariners Summer Workouts Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Forget the acronym TINSTAPP—There Is No Such Thing As a Pitching Prospect—at your own peril. While the Mariners, in recent years, have had a high degree of success in drafting and developing pitching prospects, especially starters, the tongue-in-cheek acronym reminds us that, as rocky the trip is to blossoming from minor- to major-leaguer, a pitching prospect’s journey to the bigs is more like the 99-bend road.

The Mariners took Isaiah Campbell with their supplemental draft choice in 2019, making him for all intents and purposes a second-rounder. As Campbell led his Arkansas Razorbacks on a playoff run deep into the College World Series, the staff ace looked for all the world like a surefire starting pitcher at the next level with his big, durable starter’s body and a deep arsenal of pitches.

But as they say, man plans, and the baseball gods laugh. Campbell’s heavy workload at Arkansas kept him from pitching at all in his draft year, and in 2020, COVID-19 wiped out what would have been his first professional, competitive season, seeing him instead hucking pitches to his teammates at the alternate site in Tacoma while studying to finish up his Criminal Justice degree at night. 2021 saw yet another late start to the minor-league season due to COVID-19, and when Campbell did finally get back on the mound, he went all of 19.1 innings for High-A Everett before being shut down with bone chips in his pitching elbow.

So Campbell entered 2022 already in his age-24 season—at a time when George Kirby, six months younger, was already poised to make his major-league debut—without having pitched above High-A. After making four starts to open the season at Everett, Campbell went back on the Injured List at the end of April, missing the month of May. He returned in June as a full-blown closer and proceeded to allow one (1) run over the rest of his time in Everett, racking up 20 strikeouts in 15 innings over as many appearances and collecting 10 saves. He limited free passes, as well: After walking nine batters over his first three starts at Everett, Campbell proceeded to walk three more batters the entire rest of the season.

With such a display of dominance, in August the Mariners promoted Campbell back to his old stomping grounds in Arkansas, where he was given a hero’s welcome by the Razorbacks faithful. Double-A proved a tougher challenge; after giving up just one run during his time as Everett’s closer, Campbell surrendered five earned runs in August, including a stretch of four consecutive appearances where he gave up a run. However, his strikeout stuff traveled with him to Arkansas, as he struck out 43% of batters faced, proving his stuff plays against the more advanced hitters of Double-A.

What’s helping Campbell have success at the higher levels is his combination of a deadly breaking ball and some extra oomph on his heater. After hanging out at 93-94 and topping out at 95 in March of 2022, Campbell is now up to the mid-90s and can rush it up at 96-97.

He’s also got a nasty slider, a pitch he’s retooled with a different grip, that he can get righties to swing over:

But is really deadly when he’s backfooting it to lefties:

The Mariners gave Campbell a break and didn’t tap him for the Arizona Fall League this past off-season, but they did see enough in his 2022 to add him to the 40-man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Now that he’s on the 40, expect the team to be aggressive in promoting him, although it’s likely he’ll start out back at his old stomping grounds in Arkansas, where he only pitched 13 innings last season, rather than be sent directly into the blast furnace that is the PCL. However, Arkansas fans should get a move on to go see their hometown kid while they can, because that might be their last chance before needing to undertake a lengthier drive to Arlington, St. Louis, or Kansas City to catch Campbell in a major-league bullpen.