Remembering 2014: A Championship Pitch
The off-season is upon us, but we have plenty of content to keep you occupied here at BlogToBlogChamps. Each Monday, we’ll publish a feature from the 2014 York Revolutionary Times, the official game day magazine of the York Revolution, for you to re-enjoy, or read for the first time in case you missed it at the ballpark. This week, we re-visit Manager Mark Mason’s impressive run of recruiting top pitchers, who eventually found themselves in a Major League uniform shortly after their time in York.
By Paul Braverman
As a coach or manager, taking credit when a player does well is a slippery slope. So don’t expect York Revolution Manager Mark Mason to make too big a deal when you bring up the fact six pitchers he’s worked with in York have reached the big leagues since the mid-point of the 2012 season.
“As a pitching coach or manager, I’ve had guys have great outings, and reporters come in and ask me if I’ll take any credit for that. I’ll say ‘well, did you see me throw any pitches?’ On the same token if my pitcher can’t get out of the second inning, I’m not taking responsibility for that either,” laughs Mason. “The credit goes to them, because they were the ones actually doing it.”
“They” are LHP Justin Hampson (Mets ’12), RHP Shawn Hill (Blue Jays ’12), LHP Scott Rice (Mets ’13), LHP Ian Thomas (Braves ’14), RHP Julio DePaula (Orioles ’14) and LHP Ryan Feierabend (Rangers ’14). The six hurlers that played for Mason as either Revolution pitching coach or manager since 2010 and reached the Majors, all within at least two years removed from playing in York. In the case of Hill and DePaula, they achieved the very difficult Atlantic League to Major League roster journey within the same season.
Three pitchers off the 2012 team (Hill, Thomas & Feierabend) have reached the Majors, a Revolution first, in addition to the franchise-best of having three alums reach the big leagues in the same season in 2014. Needless to say, six players from one Atlantic League organization reaching the Majors in roughly two seasons, and four since the beginning of last season alone is a huge accomplishment. While Mason might downplay his role, his pride in the growing list of accomplished Revolution alumni is apparent.
“I think this is what this league is about. This league is about winning games and moving guys on back to Major League organizations. Those are the two biggest goals here, so for those guys to make it for the first time, or make it back makes me happy, it makes me proud,” Mason said.
This season, the Revolution’s youngest player is 24. The oldest is 40. So it’s quite obvious different players are at different points in their careers once they arrive in York. These pitchers were no exception.
In the case of Hampson, Feierabend and DePaula, each completed an impressive Major League comeback, each more remarkable than the former. When a player isn’t seen in the Majors for a span of two to three years, regardless of whether that player is having minor league success or not, the chances of seeing him in the big leagues again are usually slim. However, Hampson (York ’10), went four years between MLB roster spots with the Padres in 2008 and his call-up to the Mets in June of 2012. Ryan Feierabend was also undeterred after making his MLB debut at age 20 in 2006 for the Mariners, last pitching for them in 2008, and battled all the way back after six years between Major League stints when the Rangers called him up on July 13. And most impressive was Julio DePaula (York ’13-’14). After pitching for the Twins in 2007, the Orioles called him up on July 7, completing a seven-year MLB comeback at age 31. It was a long journey both in years and miles for DePaula, who was pitching in South Korea in 2010. (Veteran players opting for foreign leagues rarely make it to the Majors.)
Working with players talented enough to have already pitched in the big leagues upon joining the Revolution presented a special kind of challenge for Mason.
“It’s not so much that we develop the talent, we tweak the talent they already had. Sometimes it’s mental, sometimes it’s physical and sometimes it’s both. What we have to do with those players is find out and get back to what made them successful in the first place,” says Mason.
While players making it back to the bigs are a huge part of the Atlantic League story, the league has also given Scott Rice and Ian Thomas a life-changing chance they wouldn’t have received elsewhere. Both are distinguished as the only former Revs at this point to make their Major League debut; Rice for the Mets on opening day last season, and Ian Thomas on opening day this season. While helping a major league talent claw back to the top may be special, it’s a different kind of special to watch one of your former players realize his childhood dream, pitching on opening day in the bigs. Rice (York ’11), who had trudged through 14 minor league seasons and a painful elbow injury to finally make it as a 31-year-old rookie (the oldest rookie in MLB last season), has been doing the same thing in the Majors he did in York. With Mason as pitching coach at the time, he and then-Manager Andy Etchebarren could see that Rice was healthy and very close to finally breaking through after all those years.
“Rice has a tremendous sinker, phenomenal,” Mason said. “He used to wear guys’ ankles out, and he still does it in the big leagues. Just hammering their ankles, foul tips off the feet, staying down in the zone and throwing low strikes.”
It was a different story with Thomas, who in reaching the big leagues at 26, was “on time” in doing so, but had to take a unique route after being undrafted out of Virginia Commonwealth University. The Revolution was the final stop for Thomas before his contract was purchased by the Braves and he made short work of their minor league ladder. Thomas then whiffed Bryce Harper for his first Major League strikeout in Washington. For a late-blooming, overlooked player like that, there would be virtually no avenue for him to reach the big leagues if not for the Atlantic League and leagues like it. And that’s the role the Atlantic League plays in making Major League Baseball a little bit better each day.
“I think it’s a little more special, because they had never been there before and got the opportunity after they had been with us,” said Mason about Rice and Thomas. “A lot of it is need and if you fit in with an organization at a certain time, a right-place-right-time thing.”
Rice and Thomas were both in the right place at the right time for a Revolution milestone on April 20, when the pair became the first former Revs to compete against one another in a MLB game. Each pitched the seventh inning at Citi Field in New York.
Shawn Hill’s story was especially fun; he had already logged significant MLB time with the Expos/Nationals, Padres and Blue Jays between 2004 and 2010 and showed up to York mid-way through 2012 after sitting out all of 2011 with a litany of injuries. After tossing 27.2 scoreless innings to establish a somewhat unreachable franchise record, Toronto quickly re-signed him. By September of 2012, he was back in the big leagues and became the first former Rev to earn a winning decision in a Major League game, when he beat Andy Pettitte and the Yankees on September 29 in Toronto.
“Shawn was battling back from actually having a rib taken out, and a bunch of other stuff,” remembered Mason. He doesn’t blow you away with velocity, but he really moves it around well. His warmup before a game, I used to love it. He’d throw two sinkers, two cutters, two changeups and say ‘hey, let’s go.’
While the grass is pretty green at Santander Stadium, you’d figure that sending players to even greener pastures would put a drain on York’s competitiveness, but the two championships and four playoff berths in Mason’s tenure say otherwise. While at times there may be short-term pain when a player suddenly leaves the team for a new opportunity, in the long run other players see that track record and York’s impressive alumni list, which only continues to attract quality players to keep the winning times going.
“When you have a situation where you have a good facility, a good front office, good fans and you’re winning games, it makes it a lot easier to have it both ways. We are serious about getting guys signed, but we also make it a lot of fun for them while they’re here,” says Mason.
“We are the premier minor league, which is why we attract quality of veteran player that we do.”