January 29, 2004
After being selected in the Rule 5 draft this winter and traded to the San Diego Padres, MIT graduate Jason Szuminski will have a chance to become the first person from his school to play in the major leagues. In addition to getting selected in the draft, Szuminski spent his winter working for the U.S. Air Force as an aerospace engineer, to fulfill his ROTC obligation. He hasn't taken the traditional road to the big leagues, but Szuminski showed last year that has the stuff to be a contributor in a major league bullpen. While splitting time between three levels in the Cubs organization, Szuminski posted a combined 2.78 ERA in his best season as a professional. He impressed again in the Arizona Fall League, striking out 19 in 19.1 IP. Baseball Prospectus talked with Szuminski about pitching development, rocket science, and how he keeps hitters off balance and hitting the ball on the ground.
Baseball Prospectus: Was it hard to adjust to professional baseball after coming from a D3 program at a school known for its academics?
Jason Szuminski: The jump in competition and talent and even the way the game was played couldn't have been bigger coming out of MIT. The challenge was a lot of fun though and I felt like I was able to adjust quickly.
BP: Do you think that missing out on four seasons full of the strenuous, high-leverage innings that pitchers for top colleges throw could have helped your development by keeping your arm fresh?
Szuminski: I think there were a lot of pluses and minuses playing at MIT. I definitely had to play catch-up with everybody else my age that came from top D1 programs and competition. I do think the less strenuous environment may have helped, but then again a real baseball coach probably wouldn't have let me throw 175 pitches and complete games on three days rest. However it happened, my arm strength developed a lot and gave me the opportunity to move on to the next level.
BP: Pitchers seem to often develop later than hitters. Was there a specific time when you realized that you might have the stuff to make it to the major leagues? When do you think you made your greatest strides as a pitcher?
Szuminski: I have always been way more of a realist than a dreamer. Even when I knew I was doing well my goals and vision stayed on the next step, one at a time.
This 2003 season was huge for me. Everything I had been working on clicked and I was not only able to improve my pitches, but bring my quality stuff and command every day to pitch with consistency and confidence, no matter what level I was at. It was around the second half of this season and then especially into the Arizona Fall League that I convinced myself I had the stuff and was good enough to make the majors. Pitching in the AFL was a great opportunity to prove it to everyone else, and the better I did, the harder I wanted to keep going to earn myself a shot.
BP: You were drafted by the Cubs after putting up unspectacular numbers in college. So, it's safe to say that you were drafted based on scouting reports. How much of your current opportunity with the Padres do you think was due to the great numbers you posted last year in Double-A and Triple-A, and how much was due to Padres' scouting?
Szuminski: Yeah, the original draft was definitely based on scouting reports. This time around, I think my success and stats in the upper levels of the minor leagues factored in more...or at least gave credibility to my stuff and got me noticed. The scouts always want to see quality major league pitches and command, but it's a lot easier to justify what you do by consistently getting hitters out--lots of strikeouts and groundballs never hurt either.
BP: Have your obligations to the Air Force hindered your ability to develop as a baseball player?
Szuminski: No--for a while the Air Force made it possible for me to even continue in baseball. It was training for the Olympic team in the Air Force sports program that I really made my big progress. Unfortunately, the U.S.A. failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, but my personal success and improvement led to being selected in the Rule 5 draft and this major league opportunity with the Padres. Right now, I am still on active duty and working for the Air Force, but hope to soon have things settled where I can play baseball and continue to serve the Air Force in the off-season through the active reserve.
BP: How difficult was the transition from starting to relieving?
Szuminski: For me, that transition was pretty difficult. All my life as a starter, the first inning was usually the roughest and after that I could cruise smoothly. As a reliever now, you have to be at your best right away and often enter the game in clutch situations. It was also a big adjustment to condition my arm to pitch more frequently. I do like the variety though. With the Cubs, I had the opportunity to pitch in just about every role, from starter to long relief to short relief, and feel comfortable in any of (those roles) now.
BP: Were you surprised to be selected in the Rule 5 draft?
Szuminski: Yes, a little bit surprised. I knew there was a chance and thought I had made a good showing in the Arizona Fall League, but you never know. I am excited now because the Rule 5 provides such a huge opportunity with the Padres. It has really motivated me to do everything I can to prepare for spring training.
BP: Is there a specific type of hitter that you dread facing?
Szuminski: Well, it's always fun facing the good hitters. They force me to make good pitches and really sharpen up my stuff. The hitters I really dislike are the slap guys, especially lefties. My approach is usually to throw a lot of strikes down in the zone and guys who shorten up and just go for solid contact tend to be more successful against me than the guys who just swing away. For the most part though, I would still rather pitch aggressively to my strengths than try to adjust to a particular hitter's style or weakness.
BP: You gave up only one homer in 97 innings last year. What's your secret to keeping the ball in the ballpark?
Szuminski: I finally settled into a new three-quarter arm slot last year and things really clicked. I'm able to get sharp sinking movement on my fastball and still throw my hard slider and change-up. The sinker-slider combo play off each other very well and my approach is to throw them hard and down in the zone and keep hitters on top of them. This not only helps keep the ball in the park, but out of the air as much as possible. The best indicator of my stuff working is getting groundballs.
BP: What kind of weight training do you do and what is the weight-lifting standard for pitchers?
Szuminski: Coming up through the Cubs organization we always had a fairly structured weight training and conditioning program. Ultimately the idea is to find out what is best for you. For me, I stick to pretty standard stuff. I like to do a lot of the lightweight shoulder exercises before and throughout a season to help prevent injury. It helps me feel strong through a season if I keep up full body weightlifting, but never anything real heavy, especially upper body. Even in the off-season when I lift harder and heavier, the idea is still general strength and reps, not raw power and muscle mass.
BP: You're a rocket scientist. Is there anything that you do to prepare mentally for a game that other pitchers might not? Have you ever thought about using game theory for optimal pitch selection?
Szuminski: Sadly, no. I've sat back before and tried to figure out how to break things down or try to be smarter out on the mound, but it never seems to translate.
I think I have a good approach and use my head when pitching, but none of it stems from any background I have. As much as the duel of pitching and hitting seems to be a great field example of game theory, it's really not as simple as breaking it down like that. The only way I could kind of see it is when I'm in doubt and just go with my strength and throw a sinker. My thought being, even if the hitter is looking sinker, it's still more likely to be more effective than the change-up I might fool him with. But, most pitching people will explain that by saying it's better to throw the wrong pitch with confidence than the right one without it.
BP: Do you use scouting reports as part of your preparation?
Szuminski: I like scouting reports or any info I can get on hitters I'm going to face. A lot of times our pitchers will stay in the dugout and watch the other team's hitters for a while in the first game of a series. You can get a feel for a guy from watching him, looking over old charts, stats, or even just talking with other players. I do like looking at stats a lot more than other guys. There are all sorts of little things you can pick up, especially with minor league hitters, since the range of style is so great, and there is usually a weakness or immaturity you can find. I mean, if we didn't have some kind of imperfection that needed working on, we would be in the majors.
For example, it's not uncommon to find a guy in a lineup with say, 300 ABs and only 10 walks and not a lot of Ks. You know this guy is up there hacking and you can expand the zone on him right away or start him off with a breaking ball. Or maybe a similar guy but he has a ton of Ks and you know once you get ahead you can keep throwing breaking balls in the dirt for him to chase.
On the flip side, I also see a lot of guys with a decent average, lots of walks, and very little power. They are up there to slap a single or draw a walk, so why waste pitches on them, when the worst (they're likely to) do is hit a single? By throwing strikes you still have the best chance of grounding them out on two or three pitches. These are often guys who want to run too, and the worst thing you can do is let them fight you off and draw like a seven-pitch walk, and then steal to make it a double.
BP: What is more difficult: Striking out a professional hitter, working for a U.S. Air Force satellite program, or passing an aerospace engineering class at MIT? Which are you most proud of accomplishing?
Szuminski: What hitter, and what class? I don't even know how to begin comparing those. The only thing they have in common is that they cause me pain and stress. But, the difficulty and challenge is what makes success that much sweeter. I'm not trying to dodge the question, but just not sure what I even think. The Air Force, and having the opportunity to serve my country is definitely something I am most proud to be a part of. It's just bigger than sports. My most proud accomplishment though is graduating from MIT. I'm still not sure how I managed to do it. As for baseball, I still have the feeling at times that I'm not supposed to be here. But I am here, and I want to keep playing. It's a really exciting feeling having come this far and being so close to the major leagues. Striking out hitters has come a little easier lately, so hopefully I can keep it up and make that final push to the Show.
BP: The game is on the line. How do you pitch to Barry Bonds?
Szuminski: He's no slap hitter, but I'd probably throw him fastballs for strikes. Sinkers away. Let him try and yank one. If I got ahead maybe mix in a fastball inside or wrap-around slider to tie him up. Spring training starts Feb. 20 and we play the Giants plenty during the season. I intend to find out.
Cliff Roscow is currently a pitcher for the MIT baseball team. He could try to follow the Jason Szuminski career path to the major leagues, but for now is content with being a Baseball Prospectus intern. You can reach Cliff at firstname.lastname@example.org.