SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Dillon Tate certainly didn’t anticipate the wild ride his career has taken since the Rangers drafted the UC Santa Barbara righthander fourth overall in 2015. A circuitous journey now finds the 22-year-old California native in the Arizona Fall League with the Scottsdale Scorpions, assigned to Major League Baseball’s premier development league by his new organization, the Yankees.
Undrafted out of high school and having pitched sparingly as a freshman, Tate burst on the college scene as the Gauchos’ closer in his second year on the UCSB campus, followed by a summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Tate moved into the rotation in his junior season, with his 8-5, 2.26 campaign, athleticism and burgeoning stuff putting him in the running to be the first overall pick in 2015. His fastball velocity, at times touching 100 mph, consistently sat 92-96 mph even with the conversion to the rotation, and he complemented the heater with a plus hard slider.
Tate didn’t see much action in 2015 after signing with the Rangers for $4.2 million, pitching in two games with short-season Spokane and four games for low Class A Hickory. He was especially dynamic pitching out of the Hickory bullpen during the playoffs, with the fastball up to 97. Coming back in 2016, Tate showed the same mid-90s velocity in minor league spring training games before heading back to the South Atlantic League to start the regular season.
But somewhere along the line Tate’s premium velocity went missing. His season started well with a couple of good outings against Kannapolis before a hamstring injury sidelined him for three weeks. His velocity fluctuated when he returned, with reports having him only into the high-80s at times, and the secondary pitches were also not as sharp. In 17 games with Hickory, Tate recorded a 5.12 ERA and opponents batted .311 against him.
While the hamstring injury had some effect on him, as did the continued adjustment to the starting role at the pro level, Tate attributes his struggles in Hickory to his pitching mechanics.
“Just some mechanical adjustments that needed to be made,” Tate said, “actually a really small one. Over time, the more I tried to fix it, I just wasn’t doing what was natural for me. I think that probably tied into it.”
But Tate’s baseball life changed significantly at the Aug. 1 trade deadline when he was one of three minor league pitchers dealt to the Yankees for veteran big league outfielder Carlos Beltran. Tate certainly didn’t expect to be traded so soon after being picked near the top of the previous year’s draft, but he didn’t brood on it for long.
“It felt a little strange at first,” Tate said, “but after a while it settled in and it didn’t take me too much time to get adjusted to being a Yankee. As soon as I got to (low Class A) Charleston, a lot of the guys were extremely good to me and they welcomed me in with open arms . . . They helped make my transition a lot easier.”
The Yankees went the conservative route with Tate in the final month of the season, using him exclusively out of the bullpen in seven games in multi-inning stints. Overall for the season, Tate posted underwhelming numbers for such a high pick out of college in low Class A: 4-3, 4.70 with 33 walks and 70 strikeouts in 82.1 innings, allowing 99 hits.
His regular season struggles and eventual trade made Tate one of the more intriguing players to follow coming into the AFL season, and there are plenty of positive signs after the season’s first week.
Most importantly, the fastball velocity is back, touching 97 in his first AFL appearance and sitting 93-95 mph in his second game. He’s been victimized by the long ball in both games, giving up a homer to Glendale catcher Carson Kelly (Cardinals) on Opening Day and hanging a changeup for a three-run bomb by Glendale second baseman Willie Calhoun (Dodgers) in his second time out, but balls have been flying out of AFL parks quite regularly so far this season.
One evaluator at the second outing commented that Tate’s fastball looked sharp and the ball came out of his hand easy, but that the heater is still a bit too straight.
Tate’s primary goal for his AFL experience is to get more innings under his belt against better hitters, with Scottsdale pitching coach Steve Schrenk adding, “He’s got to work on some things as far as commanding the strike zone and using his off-speed pitches for strikes.”
One of the more important lessons Tate is already picking up is to diversify his repertoire a little more consistently.
“I’ve been throwing fastball, slider and changeup,” Tate said. “The one thing I’ve noticed is that just in terms of how I’m going to get my outs, I realized I need to use all my pitches to get my outs and make it a little bit easier to keep batters honest. That’s all part of the learning process for me.”
Having had success in the past as both a starter and reliever, Tate’s future role still remains to be seen—and that’s fine with him.
“I will be good at whatever I want to be good at,” Tate said. “Regardless of what anybody says, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t have a preference. Pitching is pitching.”
Perhaps if he someday makes it on the big stage in New York City, Tate will be famous for more than just his pitching prowess. Former TV legend Jerry Seinfeld is arguably the most important celebrity in sneaker culture. Tate admits to being a sneaker fanatic, but with a collection of between 15 and 20 pairs he doesn’t consider himself a shoe hoarder—at least not yet. But if he becomes a star in the Big Apple, perhaps that “sneaker king” crown will be passed on to Tate.
• The Red Sox organization provided two of the primary “must-see” players to the Arizona Fall League this year in infielder Yoan Moncada (Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year) and righthander Michael Kopech. The pair of Surprise Saguaros didn’t disappoint in the season’s opening week. The switch-hitting Moncada, a native of Cuba, homered on Opening Day while finishing the week with a .429/.467/.714 slash line. But there’s still plenty of swing-and-miss to Moncada’s approach at the plate as he fanned four times in 15 plate appearances. Kopech, at 20 one of the younger players in the league, pitched three scoreless, hitless innings in his AFL debut on Saturday, striking out five of the ten batters he faced while not issuing a walk. Kopech’s fastball ranged from 96-100 mph and he flashed a plus slider in the mid- to high-80s.
• An unusually large crowd by AFL standards showed up at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday for the home debut of Mets outfielder Tim Tebow, with an announced attendance of 1,790. Tebow reached base twice in the game, once on a walk in his first at-bat and later on a fielder’s choice. Another large crowd of 1,338 showed up for the Scorpions’ home game on Friday despite Tebow being away from the league due to his conflicting commitment with the SEC Network.