PHOENIX, Ariz. — Ever since he set foot in the Brewers system, his fastball has been THE fastball, the one that consistently threatens 100 mph and so special that the front office justifiably terms it “electric,” even if it’s been known to flat-line.
Just because he could, righthander Jeremy Jeffress could continue running that heater of his all day, figuring that overmatched minor leaguers probably wouldn’t have the strength to turn it around.
However, in an encouraging sign that speaks to his growing maturity, Jeffress is challenging himself to evolve from thrower to full-fledged pitcher, with plans to scrap at times the ole No. 1 and instead dust off a two-seamer that he employed occasionally last season.
In essence, the likely star attraction of Double-A Huntsville’s staff hopes the adjustment connects promise to payoff.
“I’m probably going to work on that as my out-pitch this year,” Jeffress was saying in spring training. “I started throwing it last year at Brevard County and then at Huntsville. I think it’s pretty good. If you throw it right, it has a tendency to run. I’m just going to let it do its own thing.”
Clearly, should the pitch become a valuable weapon, it would greatly shape Jeffress’ career, allowing the Brewers to develop him within the framework of a rotation instead of forcing the starter-thin organization to settle for a less desirable alternative.
But Jeffress will only become a must-have starter—and continue to wear the prospect tag—if he truly can shed an image as an off-the-field knucklehead.
Signed for a $1.55 million bonus as a first-round pick in 2006, Jeffress has climbed quickly from South Boston, Va.’s prep ranks but stumbled along the way, too.
A positive test for marijuana near the end of 2007 cost him 50 games in 2008, requiring the Brewers to speed him to Huntsville in the second half in order to qualify Jeffress for the Arizona Fall League.
The ordeal apparently served as a wakeup call, and the Brewers’ decision to promote John Curtis to Huntsville pitching coach also wasn’t lost either on Jeffress, who says the duo worked well together in 2007 at low Class A West Virginia.
“I’ve been doing what I have to do on and off the field,” Jeffress said. “I feel like I’ve become more mature. And hopefully the coaches see that, that I made a change.”
And then, putting the onus back on his own shoulders, Jeffress offered this: “I feel like I need to get it going. I can do something this year.”
Said Curtis, “He’s close now. I think by the end of the year we want to see major league caliber pitching. He’s a gifted kid with a great arm.”
When scouts talk about a million dollar arm, they might as well be referring to Jeffress’.
He’s been a hard thrower for years and in high school was the athlete who doubled as a starting pitcher and then center fielder.
“I’ve been throwing hard pretty much all my life,” Jeffress said. “I hit 98 when I was 17. I would just rock and fire.”
Curtis saw it in their days at West Virginia, saying, “He’s one of those special arms that comes along only so often.”
And from Dick Groch, the Brewers’ assistant GM and director of pro scouting comes this: “He has a lot of electricity in the fastball.”
There’s that word—electricity, which baseball people tend not to throw around too often.
It’s easy to imagine, then, what the Brewers would love for that kind of arm to become: a major league starter, especially in the wake of C.C. Sabathia’s departure to the Yankees, Ben Sheets not re-signing and a current starting five of Jeff Suppan, Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Dave Bush.
In Jeffress, they’d have a 6-foot-1, 195-pound pitcher that may not have tremendous downward plane but more than enough velocity on the four-seamer as well as a quality 11-to-5 curveball that could disrupt timing. A changeup is still a work in progress.
So bring on the two-seamer.
“Oh, I’m very excited,” Jeffress said. “If you throw the ball hard, it’s going to have some movement anyway. It just great to add to my repertoire, and I’m excited with how it’s been coming since last year.
“There’s not much I have to do with it. Just throw it for strikes. It is a hard pitch to throw. You’ve got to command it well. But I’m just excited with how nice it’s coming along.”
Jeffress said he added the pitch last summer while at high class A Brevard County, where he was 4-6, 4.08 with 102 strikeouts and 41 walks in 79 1/3 innings.
It was there where he began to build a reputation as a potential starter. In 14 of his starts, he worked at least six innings six times. That included three seven-inning outings.
But he was also hot and cold. Jeffress had three 10-strikeout games but did so in working five, 4 1/3 and five innings at Brevard County, and was up and down in four starts at Huntsville (2-1, 5.02).
By the Arizona Fall League, he was gassed, exhausted from trying to rack up the strikeouts.
Which explains his optimism about the two-seamer now.
“I’m trying to throw my other pitches for strikes and trying not to do too much,” Jeffress said. “People have a lot of expectations for me to throw hard, but I’m tying to execute down in the zone.”
And then he cleverly added this, “I’ll go to the juice when I need to.”
Even so, Curtis would prefer that Jeffress not assume the weight of the world is on his shoulders this season.
“I don’t want him to go into this year with any undo pressure. He’s still a tot at 21 years old,” Curtis said. “But he needs to learn to go out there and see what it’s like every fifth day and lean to pitch with less.”
Now that Jeffress is reaching the Southern League, arguably one of the minors’ toughest proving grounds, his success rate may not come in bundles immediately.
What could help ease frustrations is that the league places Jeffress close to relatives.
The Carolina Mudcats’ Five County Stadium east of Raleigh, N.C., is roughly an hour’s drive from his friends and family back in South Boston, who will benefit from an early season matchup between Huntsville and Carolina the week of April 20.
A grandmother and uncle that live in Alabama also are expected to attend a number of games.
Yet it likely will be Curtis that shapes his season, and Jeffress is excited about the reunion. So too are the Brewers.
“He helped me a lot with my fastball command a lot back then (in West Virginia),” Jeffress said. “Everybody loves him on the team. He lets you do what you have to do. That’s what I like If you have a question, he will answer it straightforward. He doesn’t play around.”
Groch senses the Huntsville staff will benefit.
“John Curtis played professional baseball and has a tremendous amount of experience,” Groch said. “He’s approach is more like a fatherly approach. He’s the type of person who would be your high school teacher. And I think that approach is very good for the pitchers who aren’t that far removed from high school.”
Both he and Curtis are convinced that Jeffress learned his lesson from the suspension and can now zero in on pitching. Jeffress, it should be noted, took a key step this past offseason when he moved to Phoenix and dedicated himself to building stamina.
“The pressure is on as you go up the ladder. Kids make mistakes but kids adjust,” Groch said. “That’s why Major League Baseball has those seminars for future stars. The two have to be in concert.”
Curtis says he has seen a change already. In this interview, for example, Jeffress spoke with calm and understanding, both of his suspension and of the need to take on the two-seamer.
“The suspension was an opportunity for him to set some priorities that needed to be in place,” Curtis said. “I’m sure some youngsters 19, 20, 21 years old have a little too much fun. And he got a wakeup call. I think it was one of those things where he said, ‘What am I going to be?'”
Apparently that is a pitcher armed with a four-seamer and two-seamer.
“When I saw him in West Virginia, he was pretty straight,” Curtis said. “In spring training (this year), he was throwing secondary pitches behind in the count. Between West Virginia and now, he came up with a hard sinking fastball that I think will give him the confidence to throw in counts he wouldn’t have before.”
Groch is eager to see that play out in the Southern League.
“We see some promise in the breaking ball and some feel for the changeup,” Groch said. “Like any young player, he’ll have some bouts where the plate moves on him. But with him, it’s just a matter of refining his tools.”
Looking ahead, Jeffress should be well challenged in the Southern League.
Huntsville plays host to Mobile (Diamondbacks) and Mississippi (Braves) in a 10-game, season-opening homestand, meaning Jeffress’s early season tests could be Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra and Braves outfielder Gorkys Hernandez.
Although Huntsville won’t play them until May 31, the Birmingham Barons are loaded with 12 of BA’s Top 30 White Sox prospects, including 2008 first-round pick Gordon Beckham and Cuban third baseman Dayan Viciedo, a 240-pound power machine.
“At the beginning of the season, I feel like I am going to do well,” Jeffress said. “And then I’m going to maintain it. I’m just going to focus on doing what I have to do.”