Ben Klafczynski had always been an outfielder.
It’s the position he played at Kent State for four years. It’s the position he played for the Cubs last year in the minors before he was released this spring.
John Massarelli, manager of the Frontier League’s Lake Erie club, had seen Klafczynski roam the outfield at Kent State. Because Klafczynski is an Ohio native, Massarelli was quick to check in with him once the Cubs released him. He couldn’t promise him a roster spot, but Klafczynski had enough talent to be worth a look for the Crushers outfield.
So Massarelli told Klafczynski to head to the Frontier League tryout camp, where Lake Erie would draft him. Along the way, Klafczynski mentioned he’d like to try to pitch, something he’d last done in high school.
“From scouting him at Kent, I knew he had a plus arm,” Massarelli said. “I figured he’d throw 88 (mph) or so.”
Massarelli said he was welcome to throw at the tryout camp. The manager would draft Klafczynski as a righthanded pitcher, with the idea of moving the 23-year-old back to the outfield during spring training.
Until, that is, Klafczynski took the mound at the tryout and started firing 94 mph fastballs.
Say goodbye to Ben Klafczynski, outfielder. Say hello to Ben Klafczynski, pitcher.
And say hello to a much more promising path back to affiliated ball.
“It was clear. This kid needs to pitch,” Massarelli said. “It’s a pretty smooth delivery. We didn’t see a guy out there rocking and firing. He was throwing 94 pretty effortlessly. It was clear there was potential there.”
As would be expected for a pitcher who hadn’t taken the mound in five years, Klafczynski had to work through some rough spots. He struggled to throw strikes early in the season, and he often missed high. He had to learn to pace himself instead of putting everything into every pitch, and he had to rediscover the feel for a breaking ball he hadn’t needed since high school.
Two months into the season, Klafczynski was 0-1, 4.76, though in reality he was pitching worse than his numbers indicated. He was allowing a hit and a walk per inning. The Crushers essentially shut him down for a couple of weeks, pitching him once a week while giving him a chance to work on his delivery in side sessions. It was during that side work that he became a pitcher.
“Right before the (all-star) break I had three bullpens in a row where I felt consistency in my motion. Right after the break I was able to repeat that in a game,” Klafczynski said. “After that, I was just able to always find that same rhythm and tempo.”
Since then, Klafczynski has gone 3-1, 1.27. He cut his walk rate in half while striking out a batter an inning, and he was working on a 13-inning hitless streak. He also started showing the ability to throw his curveball for strikes early in the count, giving hitters something to worry about beyond just his fastball.
With Lake Erie in a playoff race, Klafczynski has become a vital part of the Crushers’ bullpen, and if the team gets to the playoffs, he may play an even larger role.
Crushers outfielder Adrian Ortiz will have to head back to college during the playoffs. If that happens, Klafczynski could end up seeing time as a two-way player, playing some outfield while continuing to work in the bullpen.
“I would love to do both. It’s hard to hit your whole life and shut it all down,” he said. “I told them from the start, use me however you want me. I’d be ready for it. It would be fun.”
For now, Massarelli will be happy to let his find keep on pitching. And it has inspired him to keep an open mind when he sees a position player with a strong arm who seemingly gave up pitching years ago.
“Maybe it’s a trend for independent league managers,” Massarelli said. “You start finding guys like Ben, (former pitchers) drafted as position players, (because) with their arm strength they still throw low- to mid-90s. Those (types of pitchers) aren’t getting released.
“In the past I never liked convert guys, but I’ve changed my mind now.”
• It wouldn’t be a season of independent league baseball without a team running into financial troubles. The Worcester Tornadoes saw a game delayed in mid-August because a cleaning company tried to take possession of the team’s uniforms and other equipment to cover a $5,500 debt. After a few phone calls, the Can-Am League office promised to pay the outstanding balance and the game resumed after an hour-long delay.