Astros' Duo Finds Success In Second Chance
The career paths of second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. and righthander Mike Foltynewicz have been linked since the Astros selected the pair with two of the first 19 picks in the 2010 draft.
Both were plucked out of high school and paid well to sign: DeShields (No. 8 overall) received a then-franchise record $2.12 million signing
bonus, while Foltynewicz (No. 19) received $1.3 million, the
second-highest bonus ever for an Astros pitching draftee.
The Astros assigned both players to the low Class A South Atlantic League to begin their first professional season in 2011 and DeShields and Foltynewicz each struggled for the Lexington Legends. A year ago, DeShields retreated to his home in Georgia and Foltynewicz to his Illinois home to recuperate from the rigors of everyday baseball and spend time with family over the all-star break.
What a difference a year makes.
Foltynewicz was named as the Southern Division's Sally League all-star game starting pitcher on the strength of his 2.13 ERA and league-leading nine wins, while DeShields was named the league's starting second baseman after getting on base at an above-average clip and stealing a league-high 47 bases in the first half of the season.
Baseball is a game of adjustments, something both players have learned quickly. For Foltynewicz, it was the number of innings he threw during his professional debut, in which he went 5-11, 4.97 and struck out 5.9 and walked 3.4 hitters per nine innings in 2011. The righthander threw just 72 innings as a senior at Minooka (Ill.) Community High, but his workload jumped to 134 innings last season.
"Pitching 27 starts took a big toll on me; I was dead," Foltynewicz said. "It was really tough coming out of high school and trying to compete and getting knocked around a little bit."
Foltynewicz, 20, had to adjust to a new pitching repertoire as the Astros eliminated his slider and two-seam fastball, pitches that were key elements of his arsenal in high school. Although Foltynewicz did not perform as he expected, 2011 was a key developmental season because it laid the groundwork for making the adjustments necessary to excel in 2012.
"I knew what to expect and I trained the way I knew I had to for 142 games," Foltynewicz said. "I had to learn the hard way that you can't blow the fastball by everybody, so in the offseason I focused on fastball command, my changeup, and the organization wanted me to sharpen up the curveball."
As a high school senior pitching with a high-school level workload, Foltynewicz sat 91-93 mph with his fastball. In 2011, Foltynewicz's velocity fell to 88-92 as he wore down from pitching every fifth day. This season, on the strength of an improved workout routine, the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder's velocity has increased to 92-94 mph. Despite this improvement, Foltynewicz's biggest strides have come from his secondary pitches.
"The changeup has been night and day for me, it has been my second-best pitch behind the fastball," Foltynewicz said. "It has really been working for me this year."
A scout who saw Foltynewicz in June said that his changeup has developed into a plus pitch, earning a 60 grade presently, with the opportunity to further improve the pitch.
Foltynewicz has improved his strikeout rate by more than a hitter per inning. He is also working deeper into games, averaging over six innings per start.
"He is a winning number three on a championship-level team with his improved stuff," an AL scout said. "He has command of three above-average pitches."
In the Sally League all-star game, Foltynewicz showcased his power repertoire by sitting 93-94 mph with his fastball. He struck out four over two innings, including Alen Hanson and Nick Delmonico, and did not allow a walk or hit.
"He and Jose Fernandez were far and away the best pitchers of the night and it wasn't even close," the scout said.
Like Foltynewicz, the 19-year-old DeShields had a slow transition to pro ball. He hit .222/.307/.324 in 2011 as the sixth youngest player in Sally League. Given his skill set, DeShields was moved to a new spot in the order and asked to fill an unfamiliar role.
"I had hit three or four hole my whole life and then you come to pro ball and I hit leadoff, so I had to just adjust to taking the first pitch for a strike to lead off the game, and I had never done that before."
DeShields had spent most of his career playing center field because of his plus-plus speed, but the Astros thought he displayed the athleticism to handle a new position.
"It was really tough last year when they moved me to second base, I had to learn a new position while playing every day," DeShields said.
Speed has always been DeShields' strongest tool. But like Foltynewicz, the grind of a full season took a toll. Scouts thought DeShields lost some of his acceleration and top-end speed as last season wore on. DeShields knew this was an area he could improve though more extensive offseason training.
"I worked on being more explosive on the bases and my jumps and some of the other finer nuances of the game," DeShields said.
A now speedier DeShields is running more often and more efficiently once he gets on-base. DeShields stole 30 bases in 2011, but has surpassed that number by stealing 46 bases in 2012. He has safely swiped bases on 87 percent of attempts this year, as opposed to 73 percent in 2011. DeShields has been able to use his legs to put pressure on the oppositions' running game more often by improving his hitting approach and reaching base more as he is hitting .265/.369/.362. His on-base-plus-slugging last year was 21 percent below the Sally League's batting line last season, but this year DeShields has been 21 percent better than the Sally League average.
The son of a former big leaguer by the same name, DeShields is settling in at the keystone. He had one of the highest errors totals of second baseman in his inaugural campaign at the position. This season he is only eighth in errors with 13 and is getting to many more batted balls because of his excellent speed and quickness.
Deshields played the entire all-star game to cap off a strong first half that showed substantial improvements to many key elements of his game. If he and Foltynewicz continue to show improvement and sustain their performances, the duo might not remain in the Sally League for too much longer.
"I hope we move up the ladder and make many more all-star teams down the road," Foltynewicz said.