“It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you’re putting in the effort.”
The Road Less Traveled Can Be The Fast Lane
Spencer Mahoney played four years of college ball for Valparaiso as a shortstop. He tore a meniscus weeks before a pro tryout, went undrafted, had surgery, rehabbed, and played Indy ball for the Gary RailCats in 2015.
Which makes this transaction report all the more surprising.
Independent ball is an opportunity to keep playing. The dream, of course, is a path like John Holdzkom, who parlayed Indy Ball success into a Pirates’ relief spot pitching in the 2014 Wild Card game. Every year, a lucky few are plucked out of Indy ball and end up playing at the major league level.
And hitter to pitcher transitions are not unheard of.
Hitters who haven’t pitched since high school getting signed without throwing a bullpen, though…
“After the season was over, I went back to school and talked to the coaches. One of the assistants had heard of Driveline – they’d bought the throwing program for the school for the year – and he said, ‘I know you’ve got a strong arm, have you thought about pitching?’
That thought hadn’t really crossed my mind before. It wasn’t something I was really looking to do at the time. But the time was right to try it out. I talked it over with family, and with the guys at Driveline, and they asked me a couple questions, if I was ready to come out and get to work, and I said ‘absolutely.’ I wanted to get to affiliated ball.”
The move to pitcher wasn’t one Mahoney had ever seriously contemplated:
“I don’t know that I would have gone out of my way without a suggested voice saying ‘pitching might be your best bet.’ I like playing every day; I had four years to prove what I could do as a position player. But you have 18, 19-year-olds getting drafted every year, and they’ll continue to be drafted – at 22, I’m not the youngest guy in that situation anymore, so I had to make a decision.
If there was an actual opportunity for me somewhere… I was able to decide that pitching was the best and shortest way to get to affiliated ball.”
For many ballplayers like Spencer, it’s all about the dream of playing professional baseball.
Developing Major League Tools
To get noticed and have a shot at the next level, (no matter what the next level is) tools matter. You can’t be successful without good skills. But you can’t even get in the game if you don’t have the tools to play.
Spencer hadn’t pitched in a game since high school, and in the end, that counted for absolutely nothing for the Yankees. At the highest levels, player development is more focused on getting the guy who throws 98 to throw a cutter and not teaching the guy who throws a cutter wherever he wants to throw 98.
No one is born knowing how to throw 100 mph. The ability to throw hard doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it requires hard work, athleticism, training, knowledge, discipline – things that can be learned, or improved, or both.
Skills can be taught, but to write off tools as a binary state that one either has, or doesn’t have, is missing a large part of the possibilities for players.
Tools can be trained. Tools can be honed.
The transition from hitting to pitching: throw first, then pitch
For Spencer, step one was to show he had the ability to compete professionally.
“Originally it wasn’t a huge mindset change. I was ready to go in and get my work done every day, just like when I was position player. Just, throwing instead of hitting off a tee. But I realized after a couple days that you can’t throw as much as you can hit off a tee. So everything had to be managed a little bit differently. You have to manage intensity, manage how many throws you can make a day. I had to get my arm to a point where I could throw with 100% intensity on a semi-regular basis, and that was something I’d never had to do before.”
Spencer’s training focused almost exclusively on arm strength and arm speed. He had to start at the beginning and time was limited.
Throwing off a mound and learning “how to pitch” would have killed some of his very valuable training time. To get a look in the 4-month window he had, he had to learn how to throw hard.
A good velocity program doesn’t mean throwing hard all the time–it means internalizing recovery and listening to your arm.
“That transition was made easier by the guys I was working with. Mike, Cody, Kyle, all those guys really helped me get my mindset into what I needed to do. The program helped, too – the fact that they take a lot of time to make sure your arm is actually warmed up before you throw. The fact that they have a cooldown process. The whole program helped me at least feel and stay healthy for the last 5-6 weeks that I’ve been there. And because you feel healthy, you’re able to bring up that intensity every day.
And that’s the biggest thing – you’re looking to just throw hard. That’s the whole goal of the program – you’re looking to throw as hard as you possibly can and increase your velocity. That mindset was drilled into me the first couple days I was there – it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you’re putting in the effort and you’re trying to throw a baseball as hard as you possibly can, there are going to be some improvements.”
Expectations – show up, see what happens
With no benchmark of pitching experience in the past, Spencer’s expectations were grounded in comparison – he wanted to know if it was even possible for him to succeed.
Training is a way to discover the scope of his own ability.
“It’s been a short amount of time. Realistically, my expectations going into this were – one, I wanted to see where my arm strength was compared to some of the other pitchers I’ve been up against, and the guys that they’ve seen. I know Driveline has seen a lot of good arms come through their system each and every year. I wanted a comparison, to see if there was an actual possibility of me getting picked up by an affiliated team as a pitcher. Two, I wanted to improve my arm strength to a point where I could get actually picked up. And three, I wanted the opportunity to show one team that they wouldn’t be sorry taking a chance on me. As a big guy with a little bit of arm strength and speed, to show them that they could mold me into something that would be useful for their organization. The fact that the Yankees were able to do that for me in five weeks in unbelievable. It’s not something I ever expected. It’s been incredible.”
The results spoke for themselves. Spencer threw pull-downs in the low 90s, then the velocity crept up, topping out at 102.6. After six weeks, Spencer was consistently sitting 99-101 mph on pull-downs. And just as he was starting to see real gains, the stars aligned for a tryout, and he was able to throw for scouts.
“At that point I was just trying to throw the ball at a speed that wasn’t out of this world, but where I had enough control where I wasn’t going to fire it at the top of the net and have everybody get up and leave at the same time.”
Scouting a pitcher based purely off of running throws presents challenges.
“Ok, he is 99-101 on a crow hop. Where is he off a mound?”
“It was a lot of fun. Some nerves involved, but a pretty cool experience overall. It’s not something I anticipated. You’ve got five or six scouts coming in to see you pretty much run up to a net and throw it as hard as you can. It’s a unique experience.
I was happy that Driveline gave me that opportunity, they let everybody come in. But they weren’t planning on seeing me actually pitching off a mound. Ultimately, it was me throwing as hard as I can, and the scouts making assumptions and breaking it down and guessing what I could be. It was kind of exhilarating.”
While November/December is too early for a player like Spencer to be doing lots of mound work, as a part of the scouting process, Spencer did throw some flat grounds.
However – Spencer hasn’t thrown a flat ground since he was in high school! Which made it all the more impressive that he was able to get up there and throw fastballs for strikes at 90 to 92 mph in flats on carpet to a target.
“The same day, Cody came up to me about an hour before hand and told me to get mentally prepared for some flat-ground work. For me, mental preparation for that point – just because I hadn’t done much, if any flat ground work before – was to make sure I was doing everything at the same speed. Going through and being relaxed. Again, I had no expectations for this. I’m sure the guys that were there had no expectations. Everyone knew I hadn’t pitched since high school. I’m trying to go through and re-learn the mindset. When Mike told me I’d be doing the flat-ground work, it was about fifteen minutes before it actually happened. I was able to get in 15 or so practice throws at a target, and that was helpful.”
With no actual work on “pitching” or “command”, he was able to throw strikes in a flat ground with minimal preparation. Why?
For one, natural ability, Spencer is a good athlete. But the perception that training for velocity at Driveline means all your other skills atrophy is false.
In fact, you can train command without “target practice”, because the process of learning how to throw balls with lots of different weights helps you learn how to throw a ball of a specific weight.
“I’m going to be doing the same stuff, working at Driveline, doing everything I can to get my arm strength as high as it can be. Honestly, now the real work begins.
Now, it’s time to start competing against everyone else that’s in that organization. I have to find a way – probably multiple ways – to gain an edge, in pitching or arm strength. I have to make sure that I’m as prepared as I can be going into Spring Training. Knowing what pitches I have – it’s going to be very basic for me. Knowing my abilities, how hard I can throw each pitch.”
That’s the philosophy that undergirds the whole thing. The entire minor league season that Spencer’s going to play this year is going to be throwing off a mound. As a professional baseball player, he’ll get thousands, tens of thousands of mound reps over his career.
At the beginning, it doesn’t get him to where he needs to be developmentally in order for somebody to take a look at him. Ability first, then skill.
“I think learning the game as a hitter has helped me out quite a bit with understanding how the game is played, with what hitters are looking for in certain situations. At the same time, I’m going to be surrounded by pitchers and pitching coaches, and I’ll be able to bounce questions off them, and getting prepared to face hitters. My biggest thing at this point is, how am I going to react against live hitters? I haven’t done that since high school. How am I going to react to the ball coming off the bat?”
All of these questions matter now because he has his shot.
The right mindset
With a unique background, Spencer’s mindset provides a look into a few key mental factors. One that’s been proven to us, time and time again, is the value of training in the right environment.
“I think I’m learning how to be more competitive and how to get better every day, because there are people that I’m around who are doing the same thing. It’s a collective mindset. You get five or six people around you who are focused on the same goal, then everything’s going to grow off that.”
“For me, the metric was velocity. Ultimately, if I threw hard enough, I would give myself an opportunity to be seen and be picked up. That’s the only metric I was worried about.”
Spencer’s development opened our eyes to how we’re going to do business in the future. Athletes that have different backgrounds – we’re going to open up their eyes about non-traditional ways to get to affiliate ball.
There are people out there who have never considered pitching – shortstops, javelin throwers, guys with naturally good arms that could be trained as pitchers. They’re out there, they have what major league teams are looking for, and we can get them to a place where they can show it.
To get to the next level, tools matter. For pitchers, velocity is the tool that speaks the loudest. Just look at Spencer Mahoney.
If you believe adding velocity could be critical to your development and career, we have tested, proven programs for athletes of all ages. Want to learn more about how we can help with your career? Get in touch.