Hard-Throwing Jay Sborz Rewards Tigers' Patience
has grown a lot since the Tigers selected the righthander in the second round of the 2003 draft.
Actually, he hasn't grown much physically since that draft, redistributing 210 pounds around a 6-foot-4 frame to grow stronger and more physically fit.
But Sborz, 25, admits now that he had a lot of growing up to do following a prep career that saw him pitch for Team USA in the 2001 Youth Championships. He also earned a share of MVP honors in the inaugural Aflac All-America Game in 2003.
"It took me a while to grow up," Sborz said. "I was 18 years old, and I was drafted in the second round. Life was pretty good.
"Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was having surgery, because I didn't know if I would ever play again. It made me start thinking about what I needed to do to be able to play and make it last."
Fresh out of Langley High in McLean, Va., Sborz spent his first two pro seasons in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. In 2004, he finished second with 62 strikeouts but also led the GCL with nine home runs and 44 walks allowed. He then struggled in the low Class A Midwest League in 2005, posting a 7.90 ERA in 21 relief appearances.
"He was kind of inconsistent back then," said A.J. Sager, his pitching coach at West Michigan then and with Toledo now. "But you could see he had the stuff—and a pitcher's frame. There just wasn't a lot of consistency there."
Lost Development Time
"For a pitcher, it takes a certain amount of innings to develop," Sager said. "If you can stay healthy, maybe you can get those innings in two years. In Jay's case, the injuries have kept him from racking up the innings and gaining the experience, and that has gotten in the way of his development."
Ah yes, injuries. In 2006, Sborz pitched in just three games for West Michigan before right shoulder tendinitis derailed that season and the next. He appeared in 13 games in those two seasons combined, totaling 25 innings.
"The surgery was one thing, because there wasn't much I could have done to keep that from happening," he said. "But with pulled muscles and stuff like that, that was me not taking care of myself. I was basically being lazy."
Sborz made 40 appearances for high Class A Lakeland in 2008, registering seven saves, and then pitched his way to Triple-A last season after 15 outings for Double-A Erie.
But the injury bug bit Sborz again. His 2009 season ended because of an oblique strain after just two appearances for the Mud Hens. But one of those appearances seemed to change his status in the organization.
Sborz first pitched for Toledo in a June 30, 2009, game against Indianapolis. He struck out two Indians in a pair of scoreless, hitless innings.
"I remember I was nervous," Sborz said. "I know it was a good outing. I threw mainly fastballs, although I struck the last guy out on a 3-2 breaking ball—looking.
"Triple-A was a step up, and I knew I was heading somewhere."
Toledo manager Larry Parrish said that effort was enough to convince him to report to the Tigers that Sborz should be considered one of the organization's better prospects. Detroit added him to its 40-man roster following the season.
"He was running it up at 94-95 (mph) with a plus breaking ball," Parrish said of that Indy outing.
Sager agreed, adding, "I had heard Jay had matured, and he had gained some consistency. What little we saw of him last year showed that was the case."
Late-Inning Relief Profile
These days Sborz throws a plus fastball that sits at 94-95 mph, along with a breaking ball that Sager calls "at least major league average."
"If he gets behind in the count, he can still get back in the count just because of his stuff," Sager said. "His stuff is good enough that he can pitch in the major leagues.
"He needs to show that he'll be able to answer the bell and throw strikes consistently. If he can do that, things are going to end up the way he wants them to end up."
Through early May, Sborz had been more than consistent—he had been impressive. In his first 11 appearances, Sborz allowed only one run on six hits and five walks, while fanning 11 in 10 innings. He converted all eight of his save opportunities to tie for the International League lead—though he had taken one loss when he allowed a walk-off homer to Norfolk's Josh Bell.
But Sborz wasn't completely satisfied.
"I haven't walked that many people, but I've had a lot of 3-2 counts, which isn't good," he said. "My breaking ball isn't exactly where I need it to be. There's always room for improvement. I'm still working on a changeup, and I know I need to get that pitch down. But I'm always working on command—if I throw strikes, I know I can get outs."
Continued good health also will be important.
"It won't be just his numbers (in Toledo that determine his future)," Parrish said. "Will he be able to go up and handle the rigors of how they will pitch him at the big league level?
"His future is kind of untapped. He has enough stuff to be a closer in the majors, or at least an eighth-inning set-up guy."
As far as the Tigers are concerned, the best news is that Sborz is healthy and has shown signs of becoming the pitcher they expected him to be when they drafted him in 2003.
"Last year made me think about (the things I was missing)," Sborz said. "I may have had a shot to be up in the big leagues last year if I could have played. But injuries killed absolutely everything I had going for me.
"I really want (to make the big leagues) this year. I want it for myself, I want it for my family. I think I'm finally growing up and heading in the right direction."