August 16, 2016
Meet the Guy Who Struck Out 25 in Nine Innings, Sort Of
Last week, we were temporarily obsessed with hidden 21+-K games, including Ken Giles' then-active stretch with 23 Ks in nine consecutive innings and Edwin Diaz' all-time record stretch, this year, with 24 Ks in nine consecutive innings. "Somebody Is About To Strike Out 25 Batters In Nine Innings," I headlined one of the pieces.
Life moves pretty fast sometimes, and within a couple days James Smyth called my attention to the Danville Braves, where a pitcher named Jacob Webb had done this:
This is, of course, not the majors, and if we lower the bar far enough we'll eventually get to one of those high school outings where some unknown pitcher strikes out everybody in a perfect game, or to Ron Necciai. But still: still.
Alas, Webb's feat isn't actually the feat, or at least it isn't by our standards here. His nine innings were interrupted by two outings with the Braves' Sally League affiliate in Rome, during which he struck out three batters in 1 2/3. Which is good! But keeps him from topping 23 Ks in any nine-inning stretch, as measured by actual moons risen and suns set.
But that's not the end of our interest in Webb! Since he rejoined Danville, he has seven innings with 20 strikeouts. (And two hits, and two walks, and a fly out to the center fielder.) That means 25 is still there for Webb to go after in the next week or so; it means, heck, that 26 is still there for him if he strikes out the next two sides.
I called Jacob Webb Tuesday to see how he's doing it, and to jinx him.
Webb, who turned 23 yesterday, is a fun story. He was a high school outfielder in Southern California who then went to Tabor College in Kansas, a tiny Christian liberal arts school. (It had 594 students in a recent fall semester, according to Wikipedia, which also names four notable alumni: A former Congressman, a women's volleyball coach, an Atlanta Falcon from the 1970s, and an "archivist and important archival theorist.") Webb played third base his freshman year, but "honestly, I couldn't hit," he says, so before his sophomore year he converted to the mound.
He had a low-90s fastball and, even better, a college pitching coach whose dad was an area scout for the Atlanta Braves. So that guy saw him a lot, popped him in the 18th round of the 2014 draft—the first pitcher ever taken out of Tabor—and suddenly Webb's a professional baseball player.
The Braves assigned him to their complex team that summer and he did well, then went home, rested over the winter, threw a bunch of bullpens at home, flew out to Florida, showed up for the first day of spring training, stretched, started playing catch—and, on a casual 70-foot warm-up toss, he felt his elbow pop. He knew immediately. He had Tommy John surgery in April 2015.
"I didn't have any doubt, or any ideas that I was going to walk away," he says now. "I'd way rather come back from it and at least given it another chance--I couldn't just walk away that easily. Maybe if it happened again, if it happens another time."
The rehab "is not something I'd wish upon anybody. The mental side of it, of not being able to play games and compete, was probably the hardest part. When you're not playing for 15, 16 months, it takes a lot out of you." He spent a lot of that time watching his low-minors teammates pitching and thinking about his own strengths and weaknesses. In particular, he says, he thought about "my tempo and my mentality. I can get frustrated sometimes on the mound when I know I'm not doing the right thing, or when I'm not using my strengths."
He got back on a mound in January and pitched in extended spring until the short-season leagues began, and he knew immediately that his arm had recovered fully. His shoulder and the rest of his upper body is stronger because of the work he put in while rehabbing. But it's not like he's throwing 104 mph; while he threw in the low-90s as a college starter, he's at 92-94 as a reliever, occasionally touching higher. He has a slurvy breaking ball and a changeup, but he's also not the kind of pitcher who throws sliders or splitters half the time. His plan is simple: Attack the zone with fastballs early, get ahead in the count, and when he gets deep into the count surprise batters with high heat. "I’m not an extremely hard thrower, but I feel like my arm is sneaky and quick so it’s hard to pick up. Sometimes they know fastball's coming and they still don't hit it. Not to sound cocky, but, you know."
UPDATE!!!: On Tuesday night, he struck out two batters in a scoreless inning. That puts him at 22 in his last eight innings with Danville, and keeps 25 within reach in his next outing. He struck out the last batter he faced in Rome, so he's at 23 in his last 8 1/3 regardless of level, so just two more to go.