By now you probably know that John Holdzkom rose from independent ball last year and made it to the majors. It was one of the best stories in baseball, simply because you never see that happening. Most guys who go to independent ball are there for a reason — their careers stalled in the upper levels, they got older, and teams in pro ball decided to go with a younger player, rather than a guy who had a small chance of advancing beyond Double-A or possibly Triple-A. They were still good enough to play professional baseball, so they went to the independent side, allowing them to make a small amount of money, with a minute chance that everything would suddenly click and they’d get back into pro ball with a shot at the majors.
After John Holdzkom in 2014, that “minute chance” probably seems much bigger for every independent ball pitcher, especially for the other two pitchers the Pirates signed.
Holdzkom was the big story last year, but the Pirates went back to the well, signing two more pitchers with similar backgrounds out of the independent leagues. They signed Matt Nevarez in August, and signed Chris Peacock over the off-season. Both are hard throwers with poor control, and both were signed by Mal Fichman, the same scout that signed Holdzkom.
After Holdzkom was signed, Nevarez’s coach called Fichman to come take a look at the right-hander. Fichman watched Nevarez three times, including two days in a row. The Pirates didn’t sign him until a month after that. He was signed in mid-August, a few weeks before the Pirates promoted Holdzkom to the majors in time to qualify for the playoff roster.
Nevarez is a hard thrower, usually sitting 93-96 MPH. Like Holdzkom, the main issue has been control. The approach he has been taking since entering the system is a simple move across the pitching rubber.
“This off-season I was in winter ball for about three months, and decided to switch from the third base side to the middle of the rubber,” Nevarez said. “It’s helping my body get more in the zone, and more command on my pitches. I’m liking it. I’ve been trying it out here in my live BPs, and I’m feeling good about it.”
Nevarez had a 1.59 ERA in 34 innings with Wichita last year, along with an 11.1 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9. The Pirates gave him a look in Altoona at the end of the year, and he gave up one run on three hits in 6.2 innings, with nine strikeouts and five walks. The walks are the main concern, and we’ll see if his work over the off-season will fix that. He’s currently trying to make the roster in Altoona out of the bullpen. Along with the fastball command, Nevarez is trying to work on commanding his cutter.
“There are times when I want it to be big, but there are times when I need it to be small,” he said, explaining that he wants the pitch to be sharp and act more like a cutter and less like a slider at times.
The other player who was signed was Chris Peacock. He pitched briefly for Wichita last year, putting up a 7.50 ERA in six innings, with a 6.0 K/9 and a 4.5 BB/9. He spent most of his time in Rio Grande Valley, putting up a 2.27 ERA in 35.2 innings, with a 10.9 K/9 and a 4.8 BB/9. According to Peacock, Fichman had been trying to track him down for most of the season last year.
“I was lucky enough to have a decent season, and he finally caught up with me when I played at Wichita,” Peacock said. “So he came down to my hometown and watched me throw for two days, then put in a good word for me, and it worked out.”
Peacock sits 93-95 MPH, and touches 97. He said that he hit 98 once last year.
“It’s not an every pitch kind of thing, but hopefully we can get back there,” he said of the velocity.
Just like the other two pitchers, the big issue with this hard thrower has been his control.
“Everybody still has their kinks to work out. My biggest kink is probably the control also,” Peacock said. “It’s going to take some time to work on that and try to fine tune it.”
The Pirates have been focusing on keeping the ball down with Peacock, and teaching him better command so that he’s able to spot his pitches where he wants them. He’s focusing on staying back more in his delivery, and taking his time to deliver the pitch, rather than rushing things. Peacock will probably be competing for a spot in Bradenton’s bullpen to start the year.
Holdzkom’s story would give inspiration to any independent league player. But for two pitchers who were signed by the same scout that signed Holdzkom, in the same organization that gave Holdzkom a shot at the majors, it’s got to be even more inspiring.
“My scouting report has always been hard thrower, good stuff, but no command,” Nevarez said. “For him to be able to figure it out and get to the big leagues as fast as he did, it’s always a good sign for indy ball players in general.”
Holdzkom never played with the two right-handers, but hopes that his story can provide inspiration for other independent league players.
“Indy ball can seem like a long ways away from where you want to be,” Holdzkom said. “Hopefully someone will be inspired.”
The benefit here with each guy is that they’re hard throwing pitchers who profile as relievers if they ever figure things out. In that scenario, age doesn’t really matter for their prospect status and their potential, as long as they continue to throw hard.
“I think pitchers have an easier time of getting seen, simply because of the radar gun,” Holdzkom said. “Position players might take 15 games to watch them, to see how good they are. With a pitcher, you can kind of see what you’ve got watching them one time. So it’s definitely easier for a pitcher.”
Holdzkom also mentioned to me that he was signed four days after Fichman first saw him, which is a testament to that first impression from the radar guns. But Fichman seems to be about more than just finding off-the-radar talent through traditional means. He seems to really take an interest in the players he signed. Holdzkom called him a “hands on” scout, and Nevarez spoke highly of his interactions with Fichman.
“He believes in all of us that he signed. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have signed us,” Nevarez said. “He’s always there for us, and he keeps in touch. This is my 11th year, and I haven’t had a scout be so into the players that they signed. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Nevarez and Peacock will be interesting stories to follow after the success of Holdzkom. Odds are that their chances will still be small to make it to the majors, and Holdzkom was more the exception than the rule. That doesn’t mean you can’t wonder if the same organization that found Holdzkom and got him to the majors can do it once again with one of these two guys.