When the Giants drafted Jason Jarvis in the 23rd round of June's draft, it looked like the team was taking a flier on a talented arm, but one surrounded by plenty of question marks.
Two months later, the Giants may have gotten a steal.
With Giants special assistant to the general manager Josh Barr in attendance in El Paso on July 29, Jarvis threw his second straight complete game for Lincoln, allowing two runs with no walks and six strikeouts. The outing lowered his ERA to 2.98, seventh-best in the American Association. But most importantly, he was still popping the gun at 95 mph in the ninth inning while mixing in a solid changeup and slider.
"You talk to some of the big league hitters in this league and they know," Saltdogs pitching coach Jim Haller said. "I was talking to Dustan Mohr and he said, 'It's filthy. He throws 95 mph with a 72 mph changeup with sink, how do you hit it?'"
San Francisco made sure that Jarvis' next start would come in a Giants uniform, as they signed him for $100,000 two days later. It's a lot of money for a 23rd-round pick, but Haller believes it was worth it.
"They know they stole him," Haller said. "I'm not sure we've seen the top end of the radar gun on this kid yet. There are a lot of things he's going to do. He's going to mature physically and mentally. He doesn't have arm problems and he's as strong as a horse."
Jarvis' path to the big leagues wasn't always this clear. He turned down the Angels' offer as a 25th-round pick in the 2006 draft, and concerns about his maturity led several teams to drop him down their draft boards this year. He had become eligible for this year's draft after withdrawing from Arizona State.
Haller had a healthy dose of skepticism when he first saw Jarvis as well, but after one bullpen session, it was clear he had a special arm. Haller and Jarvis butted heads frequently in the first couple of weeks, but Jarvis also showed that he could listen to instruction and make adjustments.
He quickly added a changeup that developed into his second-best pitch. He made some tweaks to his release point that moved him up a little more over the top. And after a solid six weeks in the bullpen—the role he filled with the Sun Devils—he was willing to move to the rotation, which ended up being the best thing that could have happened to him.
"Someone needs to tell him how to warm up as a relief pitcher," Haller said. "He's still in that learning phase. When you tell him to start getting loose, a couple of minutes later, he's throwing peas in the bullpen. The great ones understand that they finish their warmup on the mound. He doesn't have the experience to understand those things."
Jarvis was also struggling to bounce back. He would not have his best velocity and stuff for two to three days after a relief outing. Eventually Haller realized that he might be better served to pitch as a starter.
"Coming in from college, he had been a short guy there. We mistakenly put the kid in that role here," Haller said. "The kid grew into a man in those first three to four starts."
As a reliever, Jarvis was 0-3, 3.00 with a save in 16 appearances. As a starter, Jarvis was 4-3, 2.98 in seven starts. He picked up complete-game wins in each of his final two starts. Still, indy ball success is no guarantee of future big league stardom. While the stuff is there, Haller said Jarvis will have to focus on the off-the-mound aspects of the job.
"He's a knucklehead at times. He's like a puppy," the pitching coach said. "You put a little pressure on him and then back off, but you don't break their spirit.
"I think long term he'll be a big league starter. I hope they will fast track him. He needs that entertainment and that challenge. He needs to have a lot of things going on at once. Part of his problem is you have to keep the kid active. It's hard for him to focus on one thing, but he's a talented young man. If he stays on the straight and narrow, he's a kid we'll talk about when he makes his first start in the big leagues."
Not bad for a 23rd-round pick.
Mike Benacka had put up the numbers, the question was just whether anyone would give him a chance.
He's the all-time saves leader for River City of the Frontier League, he'd struck out 51 batters in 26 innings in 2008 and was holding batters to a .127 batting average. He was 3-0, 0.35, a record of dominance that ensured that when he walked into the game, the Rascals' opponents knew that the game was over.
There was only one problem. As a righthander with an 86-88 mph fastball and an outstanding changeup, scouts would see the velocity and decide to pass.
Finally, the Athletics decided to take a chance, signing Benacka in late July and assigning him to high Class A Stockton. It will be interesting to see if Benacka's fall-off-the-table changeup will have the same success against affiliated hitters, but the Frontier League's batters are sure happy to see him gone.
"It's a plus changeup," said River City manager Toby Rumfield, who worked as a pro scout in the past. "He throws two different ones. One is for strikes and the other is for the strikeout. It's kind of like a Trevor Hoffman change, but then, if he threw in the mid-90s like Trevor (used to), he'd be in the big leagues."
Benacka went undrafted out of Lindenwood (Mo.), an NAIA school. The Rascals gave him a tryout, where his changeup stood out immediately.
"He had good numbers. He has long arms and a nice smooth delivery," Rumfield said. "His arm action is a little low on the backside, but somehow he got the gift to make that changeup work for him."
Beyond the worries about his velocity, there are some other warts. He has a high leg kick and a slow delivery, which means baserunners can steal on him. The Rascals tried to speed up his delivery but found that his changeup suffered. Since his changeup led to him striking out one out of every two batters he faced, the team decided to leave him alone.
No-Hitter For Hess
Benacka had the best strikeout per inning ratio in the independent leagues at the time of his signing. But fellow Frontier Leaguer Isaac Hess was right behind him for most of the year. But while Benacka put up an invisible ERA, Hess has a much more pedestrian 4.14 ERA.
But if you dig a little deeper, there's a lot to like about Hess.
Hess is a lefty with an 88-90 mph fastball, a solid changeup and a tight 1-to-7 curveball that serves as an effective out pitch, which explains the 84 strikeouts in 63 innings. And as a 22-year-old, he's one of the younger players in the league.
He had some struggles with command early this season, especially on nights that his curveball got a little softer, but since then, he's learned how to make adjustments on the mound that have lowered his ERA from an ugly 9.34 on May 30 to its much more reasonable numbers now.
"He has good run on the ball when he locates down," Windy City pitching coach Jim Miksas said, "but he can also elevate in the zone, and then he has that breaking ball dropping from top to bottom. He works both sides of the plate."
His ERA has suffered early partly because he's a guy who'll take the ball whenever the team has needed him. He made a couple of spot starts when the team had holes in the rotation, and wore it a couple of times, including a 12-hit, six-run outing that saved the team's bullpen but ruined his ERA.
"He wants to compete. It's unselfishness on his part," Miksas said. "He's the kind of kid who just wants to pitch, whatever the role is."
But since being put into the rotation for good, he's shown what he can do. It all came together on Aug. 4 when he threw a complete game no-hitter, striking out six while walking two against the Midwest Sliders.
"I don't know if it's from settling into the rotation, but he's started to get into that grove of letting his stuff be," Miksas said. "He used to pitch from the stretch all the time. Now he's developed his windup and the ball is jumping out of his hand."
Hess was originally planning to play for Arizona State, but after a team physical showed hip problems, Hess had to have hip replacement surgery. He eventually ended up at South Mountain (Ariz.) CC. Miksas wonders if the hip injury has kept Hess from getting a chance in affiliated ball, but notes that since he joined Windy City in 2007, he's never missed an outing because of injury.
"Here's what I don't understand. If you watch him play, you'd never know that," Miksas said. "It's never been a barrier to how well he performs. That's a frustrating part from the standpoint of a coach who wants to see him move on."