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2003 Independent League Player of the Year
Jason Shelley rides split-finger to indy honor
By J.J. Cooper
There were so many times when Jason Shelley almost called it quits, times when he thought his dream of being a major leaguer was done.
But it wasn't until he resigned himself to it that his career really took off.
In Shelley's first two years in independent ball, he spent plenty of time wondering if he'd make it back to affiliated ball. He heard plenty of promises and had plenty of people tell him he was going to be signed by a big league club, only to find himself disappointed.
So as he spent another offseason working as a baseball instructor, he decided to stop worrying about attracting attention from big league clubs. For once, he was going to pitch for the joy of pitching, and to take Rockford to a Frontier League title.
"Once Rockford started this year, I was happy," Shelley said. "It was my last year in the league and I know all the guys. I just wanted to win and make the playoffs. When I started doing well people kept saying, 'Oh, you might get picked up.' I told them: 'I don't want to hear it. I don't care.' "
Things didn't turn out quite as Shelley had planned. The RiverHawks finished three games behind Gateway for the Frontier League's Western Division title. And Shelley helped lead the Brewers' Double-A Huntsville team to the Southern League finals.
But before leaving Rockford in late July, he did enough to be named Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year.
Shelley went 7-1, 0.85 for the RiverHawks to win the Frontier League ERA title. He broke the league's season ERA record and had the second-best ERA in indy ball since 1995, topped only by B.J. Littlefield's 0.84 ERA in the Southeastern League this season. With 82 strikeouts in 74 innings, he was on pace to break his own Frontier League strikeout record before he signed with the Brewers.
"When I was pitching (in Rockford), I didn't think about how well I was doing," Shelley said. "The more I look back on it, it was unbelievable. I wasn't giving up any runs. But at the time, it was no big deal. I was just doing my job."
Shelley's success comes in large part from his split-finger fastball. His velocity has never been overwhelming--he throws an 88-91 mph fastball with a 78-80 mph split and a curve--but ever since he added the split-finger to his arsenal in 2002, he's piled up plenty of strikeouts.
He went 9-5, 3.53 with Rockford last season, striking out 156 in 119 innings with seven double-digit strikeout games in 18 starts. When the season was over, he figured he'd be able to latch on with an affiliated club. But after getting married early in the offseason, no contract offers ever came. When the opportunity didn't come up, he came close to giving up on his dream.
"Luckily, my wife understood and wanted me to play," Shelley said. "I told her, 'If you don't want me to play. I won't play.' But it changed my attitude when she wanted me to play."
Shelley's second season in Rockford was better than the first. While he was still fanning plenty of batters, he also improved his control while allowing fewer hits. While two other members of the RiverHawks staff, Justin Olson and Justin Dowdy, were sold to big league clubs by the all-star break, Shelley kept putting together stellar starts in Rockford.
"I was banking on staying there and winning," he said.
As he was getting ready to head to the ballpark make a start against Kenosha on July 18, Shelley got a call from RiverHawks managing partner Dave Ciarrachi, telling him to hurry to the ballpark. The Brewers wanted to sign him and send him to Double-A to start three days later.
As he headed for the airport, Shelley had one big worry. "It came down to the fact of what would they do to my split," Shelley said. "Will they swing and miss? If they swing at my split, I knew I'd do pretty well. If they are taking it, then I'd struggle."
He didn't have to worry for long. Shelley struck out 10 in a seven-inning shutout of West Tenn in his first start. Double-A batters didn't have much more success than indy ball hitters at picking up the split, as he went 3-2, 2.63 for Huntsville with 53 strikeouts in 55 innings. While he didn't get to lead Rockford to a title, he picked up a win in the Southern League championship series.
Scouts who saw Shelley pitch in the Southern League say he has potential as a big league reliever thanks to his split. As he considers pitching in winter ball and making an impression in spring training, Shelley is able to once again think about making the majors. The dream he stopped worrying about is finally becoming a reality.
"When I look back at the year, it's funny how fast things can change," he said.
2003 Independent League All-Star Team