Nate Pearson Shows Off Nasty Arsenal In First Fall Start
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—The 2018 season was supposed to be a coming-out party for Nate Pearson, whose triple-digit fastball at the JC of Central Florida convinced the Blue Jays to take him with the 28th overall pick in the previous year’s draft and sign him to a bonus of just less than $2.5 million.
Pearson dominated in the short-season Northwest League, then showed Toronto officials enough in spring training to convince them to skip him over low Class A Lansing and instead have him start his first full season in the Florida State League.
Then, everything went wrong.
Back tightness after his final start in the spring—a dazzling effort against Pirates’ minor leaguers—delayed his full-season debut until May 7, when he got back on the mound against Bradenton.
Then, it got worse.
A line drive back to the mound broke Pearson’s right elbow, ending his season after just 1.2 innings. It was a devastating setback for a pitcher who already had a screw inserted into his elbow during his high school career but appeared ready to blossom into one of the game’s best prospects.
"I had a good feeling (it was broken), since I couldn’t extend my arm,” Pearson said. "I couldn’t really turn it over or anything, so I knew it wasn’t good.”
Instead, he had to sit and wait while the injury healed. He didn’t get back on the mound until the instructional league, where a few smooth starts convinced the Blue Jays’ brass that he was fully healthy and ready to go make up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League.
"I was so anxious,” Pearson said afterward. "I love this game, and to be able to get back out here and compete and be healthy, it’s awesome. I can’t describe the feeling. … I didn’t really have a season, so it was just preparing for the Fall League. I was built up just in time for the Fall League, and I was a late add to the roster, so I’m pumped to be out here.”
Pearson took his first turn in the rotation for Surprise on Saturday and showed hints of the premium stuff he’d displayed in his first taste of pro ball. His fastball sat in the upper 90s and touched 100 mph five times in 3.1 shutout innings versus Glendale. He backed the pitch up with a low-90s changeup, an upper-80s slider and an upper-70s curveball that showed powerful downer break at times.
In one particularly dizzying sequence, Pearson started Indians prospect Connor Marabell with two consecutive curveballs before blowing him away with an elevated fastball at 100 mph for his first strikeout of the game.
Entering the year, Pearson’s curveball ranked as his fourth-best pitch. On Saturday, however, he said he had extreme confidence in his hook.
"It was just coming out good,” he said. "Even in the 'pen, I was able to get that good action that I want and I was throwing it for strikes. The goal is to throw every offspeed (pitch) for strikes, but in reality you’re not going to be able to do that every single time. So today it was mainly fastball-curveball. I threw a couple of good changeups in there too, so I just tried to mix it up and keep them on their toes.”
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The nasty arsenal is a great start, but there are plenty of things Pearson needs to work on before he can consistently dominate lineups on a regular basis. Just like any other pitcher getting his feet wet in pro ball, he needs to work to improve the command of his fastball.
Part of that is simply inexperience with pro ball. Another factor is Pearson’s size. He stands at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, and bigger pitchers sometimes have problems syncing up their limbs in their delivery for long stretches of time.
"Sometimes, when the game speeds up, you can kind of get out of whack,” he said. "But I just to have less moving parts. I’m not going hands over head or anything like that, I’m just trying to keep it simple in my windup so I can get my timing down, really.”
Scouts who saw Pearson’s first start also noted that he needs to add a little finesse to his game. He throws everything with maximum effort, which leaves little room for command but also lets hitters mostly gear up for pitches in the same velocity band. The curveball is the exception, but all three of his other pitches are thrown very hard.
Still, a triple-digit fastball and three offspeed pitches that have the potential to miss bats are great beginnings to what could be an excellent career. Even if it takes a little longer than expected to kick off.