No Minor Feat
Mike Minor is our Summer Player of the Year
Weeks before the USA Baseball collegiate national team finished off its perfect summer, a first-inning pickoff might have been the biggest play of the whole campaign.
In the second game of pool play at Haarlem Honkbal Week in the Netherlands, Team USA was up against a Cuban national team that was the same minus one player from its 2004 Olympic gold medal team and its 2006 World Baseball Classic squad. Cuba's Glorbis Duvergel singled against USA lefthander Mike Minor to lead off the game, but Minor stopped Cuba in its tracks and gave the Americans the momentum by picking Duvergel off first.
"The thing everything hinged on this summer was Minor gets Cuba in the pool play game. Even going back to pool play, you're getting the team ready, and it goes forward from there," national team general manager Eric Campbell said. "Minor had a big pick early in the game, and we never lost the ability to keep playing. It just kind of said, 'Hey, we'll play with anybody.' Just those little things—Mike probably had a couple more bases on balls than he wanted in that game, but he had a plan, he never gave in, and he had that pick. For me, everything just seemed to turn at that point."
Team USA went on to a 1-0 win over Cuba behind 61⁄3 shutout innings from Minor. A week later, he faced Cuba again and yielded just an unearned run on four hits over six innings, leading USA to a 4-1 win and a gold medal.
But Minor saved his best for last, throwing 92⁄3 brilliant innings of four-hit, shutout ball against Japan in Team USA's final game of the summer, a 1-0 win in 12 innings to secure the gold medal at the FISU World Championships and clinch a 24-0 record on the summer. Minor struck out nine without issuing a walk in the finale, giving him 37 strikeouts and 13 walks in a team-leading 36 innings on the summer, to go along with a 3-0, 0.75 mark. But it was his performances in the biggest games, even more than his dazzling numbers, that make Minor the 2008 Baseball America Summer Player of the Year.
Keeping His Own Rhythm
For all his heroics, though, it's fitting that the defining moment of Minor's summer was that pickoff against Cuba, because his ability to control opposing running games is illustrative of the savvy that makes him so unique. Actually, "controlling" the running game is not the most appropriate turn of phrase.
"At Vanderbilt we work a lot on attacking the running game instead of just controlling it," said Minor, a rising junior for the Commodores. "The thing I do is when a quick runner gets on, I try to make them feel as uncomfortable as I can, by throwing over there with different picks, slide stepping to the plate, leg raises to the plate, long holds. A lot of pitchers get into the habit of set and go, set and go, set and go. We attack the running game by picking over numerous times, different ways, so they can't get a good jump."
Minor's unique skill at neutralizing baserunners made him an ideal starter against the kind of elite international competition Team USA faced this summer.
"Mike's pickoff move is exceptional, which really matched up well against Cuba and Japan," Team USA coach Rob Walton said. "Japan's the fastest team I've ever seen in my life. Their leadoff guy is 3.7 seconds flat down the line, 3.5 on a bunt, and their next four guys are 4 flat or better. Their team speed is just crazy, so you have to be able to control the running game, and there is nobody better in the country at that than Mike. He can get quick to the plate and still execute pitches, and that's very important. When you're varying time to the plate, you've still got to keep your own rhythm."
That's where Minor's excellent athleticism loomed large (the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder was also a basketball player at Forrest High in Chapel Hill, Tenn.). He repeats his delivery and executes pitches whether runners are on base or not. Of course, it's better just to prevent them from getting aboard at all, and Minor held opponents to a .179 average this summer thanks to an improved four-pitch mix.
Righthander Stephen Strasburg, Team USA's other ace, clearly has better stuff than Minor, making him the likely No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, and he had as good a summer as Minor, going 3-0, 1.06 with a team-high 48 strikeouts in 34 innings. He also earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team as the only amateur on the roster. However, Minor pitched the college national team's most important games, starting the gold-medal game after Strasburg beat Taiwan in the semifinal and beating the Cubans twice. Strasburg got a shot at Cuba in the Olympics, but Minor took advantage of his two chances to earn the Summer Player of the Year award.
Looking To Learn
While Strasburg works off a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, Minor always has pitched off his 89-91 mph fastball that touches 93 and has some late boring action. His go-to offspeed pitch for two years at Vandy has been a fading, sinking changeup that can be a plus pitch at times. He has also flashed a promising low-80s slider at times in his career, but he struggled to locate the pitch early this spring and began throwing it sparingly, and friends on opposing teams later told him they were able to sit on his changeup. He mixed in the slider more down the stretch and pitched better, and he finished a solid but unspectacular 7-3, 4.28 as Vandy's Friday starter.
Entering the summer, Walton and Team USA pitching coach Jerry Meyers asked Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin if they could work with Minor on developing a curveball, which he hadn't thrown since high school. He picked it up quickly, and he soon began throwing a 75-77 mph hammer with 12-to-6 action against both righties and lefties.
"He needed that one out pitch to go to," Walton said. "He probably threw six or seven curveballs against Japan and got outs on all seven. So Mike's best days are in front of him—he's got a plus curveball in the waiting and a slider to boot. It wouldn't surprise me if he's in the top three or four in the country in strikeouts next year."
Not long ago, another Vanderbilt lefthander racked up strikeouts and earned the Summer Player of the Year award while excelling for Team USA. The next spring, David Price went on to lead the nation in strikeouts, capture the Player of the Year award and become the No. 1 overall draft pick. Minor was a freshman that year pitching in Vandy's Saturday starter slot, which meant he got to sit behind the plate and chart pitches during all of Price's starts. Naturally, it was quite a learning experience for the young Minor. The biggest lesson he learned from Price?
"Basically just pounding strike after strike after strike," Minor said. "A lot of pitchers just kind of nibble at the corners or are scared of the three, four and five hitters, so they nibble with offspeed. Price just went right after them, made them swing the bat and put the ball in play. That's a big key—if they're swinging the bat, more often than not you're going to get them out. If you're pounding the strike zone one time after another, hitters will get themselves out and you'll be more successful as a pitcher.
"He also had an overall ability to stay calm no matter what happened. He's just a special guy. Watching him every Friday as a freshman was kind of overwhelming, thinking that next year maybe I'll be the guy."
Like Price, Minor pitched for Team USA after his freshman year, going 5-2, 1.64 with a 37-4 K-BB ratio in 33 innings. A year later, he was "the guy" for Vanderbilt, and also for Team USA.