The Mariners made progress in 2019. The change wasn’t always perceptible in the big leagues, where the team finished last in the American League West and missed the playoffs for the 18th straight season, but there were flashes toward the end of the year of the good things that were happening down on the farm. Take righthander Reggie McClain as an example. Seattle’s 13th-rounder out of Missouri in 2016 got hit around at high Class A Modesto for the first two full seasons of his career and returned there to begin 2019, albeit in the bullpen.
Something was different this time, and he suddenly found success. He made just six appearances at Modesto before moving to Double-A Arkansas, where he continued mowing down the competition. In 31.2 innings between the levels, McClain struck out 38 and walked just four hitters.
McClain’s success continued at Triple-A Tacoma, which led to his first big league callup on Aug. 2. The first five pitches out of his hand that day came in at 94, 93, 94, 96 and 94 mph. And while that velocity might be standard-issue in the big leagues these days, it represented a stark change for a pitcher whose fastball typically sat in the 87-91 mph range in college and throughout his first few pro seasons.
So where did that extra velocity come from? It might have started in the 2018 offseason during a program designed to help Mariners pitching prospects make gains. The program, informally called “Gas Camp,” lived up to its name with McClain, who increased his average fastball velocity roughly six miles per hour from 2018 to 2019.
“It changes everything for a pitcher. It changes the mentality. It changes what he’s willing to throw in what counts, and it changes how he attacks the strike zone,” Mariners farm director Andy McKay said, explaining Gas Camp. “All of those things were happening really right in front of us.”
It would be unfair to expect everyone to add six miles of velocity to a fastball and then shoot up three levels in a season, but McClain’s season was far from the only success story among Mariners pitching prospects.
Seven of the 38 prospects who struck out more than 150 hitters in 2019 were part of Seattle’s system. Those seven ranged from the top prospects (Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert) to the intriguing (Devin Sweet, Ljay Newsome) to potential late bloomers (Steven Moyers, Nabil Crismatt, Ian McKinney).
The Mariners’ Double-A Arkansas affiliate had a 4.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio that led all full-season minor league clubs. The rotation there at times included Gilbert, Newsome, Crismatt and Justus Sheffield, one of the key prizes the Mariners acquired from the Yankees for James Paxton.
High Class A Modesto pitchers recorded 1,479 strikeouts, the second-highest total in the minors.
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