Everyone who is playing in independent baseball is there for a reason.
Like the number of men who proclaim their innocence in prison, many independent league players can't understand why they are not playing in Organized Baseball.
But whether it's the pitcher whose fastball just isn't fast enough, the power-hitting cleanup hitter with a bat that's just a tick too slow to catch up to a good fastball or the catcher who can't throw well enough to stick in affiliated ball, even the best independent league players have significant warts to their game.
Then there's Jason Stevenson, the Chico Outlaws lefthander who has emerged as the best pitcher in the North American League.
In addition to his fastball, the 30-year-old lefthander's most effective pitches are a deceptive changeup and a hard-breaking curveball. His three-pitch mix is the kind of arsenal you'll see in Double-A or Triple-A, which isn't shocking when you consider that Stevenson reached Triple-A for the Montreal Expos.
"He has probably the best stuff I've seen in indy ball," said Chico manager Mike Marshall, a former big leaguer who has worked in independent baseball for five years. "He pitches consistently 88-92 with a big league changeup and plus breaking ball. He's a terrific hitter and athlete. He's the real deal. You don't see guys that have that kind of mound presence at this level."
Stevenson has easily been the league's most dominant pitcher with an 8-0 record and a league-best 1.68 ERA. But like everyone else in indy ball, he is there for a reason.
Stevenson's stuff may be good enough to pitch in affiliated ball, but his career took a five-year long detour, one that he regrets.
A Bad Decision
Back in 2005, with an assignment to Double-A or Triple-A awaiting him, Stevenson walked away from baseball. He felt like he needed to head home to deal with some family issues. Even as he was telling the Expos he was done, however, it was a decision he regretted.
"From the day I gave it up, my heart fell into pieces on the ground," Stevenson said. "I wish I had stepped back and evaluated it instead of going on emotion."
The lefthander's dream had always been to pitch in the majors, so by giving up on baseball he found himself lost. He battled depression and other demons. He does not want to get into specifics, but he does admit that he now views Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton's story as an inspiration.
Two years ago, he tried to get back into the game by going to a Chico tryout, but he didn't get signed. A year later, he tried again, this time in a tryout for Marshall. Marshall told him he wasn't ready. He didn't say that his stuff wasn't good enough, but he did say that he needed to keep working to get back on to the field.
"I wanted his life back on track before he played pro baseball again," Marshall said.
It took a third tryout this summer before Stevenson finally got another chance. Marshall deemed him ready to pitch again. Then Marshall inserted him into the rotation and discovered that he had signed the league's best pitcher.
Stevenson may not have been happy to be turned down twice, but now that he's back on the field, he understands.
"It taught me patience. I wasn't ready off the field," he said. "Honestly, it's just been a completely different work ethic. I started focusing on things I wasn't focused on before. Before, I was young, I made mistakes I won't make now."
Off the field, Stevenson needed to straighten himself out. On the field, he has fixed some things as well. Mechanically, he is more sound than he was as an Expo. He said he always had a sore arm in the past. He blames those nagging aches on a delivery that left his arm trying to catch up to his body. But during his five years away from the mound, he did a lot of mirror work to tweak his motion. Now he pitches pain free, and the adjustments also explain a lot of why he's throwing harder now than he was when he was pitching in the Expos system.
Now he hopes that even as a 30-year-old, there's still a path to get him back into affiliated ball.
"I missed an opportunity. I definitely short-changed myself in my career in baseball, but I still think there is a window," he said.
Stevenson will get a chance to find out, the Giants have purchased his contract this week and assigned him to Triple-A Fresno, where he picked up the win on Monday.