From College Walk-On to 2018 Draft Pick, Joe Jacques Had a Tough Road to Pro Ball

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected three left-handed pitchers in the 2018 draft. Zach Spears was taken in the eighth round and was in the starting rotation for Morgantown. Cam Alldred was picked in the 24th round and ended up playing in the New York-Penn League All-Star game, before moving up to West Virginia to finish the season. They were both college juniors, who received six-figure bonuses.

Then you have 33rd round pick Joe Jacques, a fifth year senior out of Manhattan College, who signed for a low four-figure bonus. He almost made it to pro ball two years quicker like the other two southpaws, but he had a lot of hurdles thrown in his path between high school and June 6, 2018 when he heard his name called by the Pirates.

The first thing to know about Jacques is that his last name is often mispronounced. It’s pronounced “Jakes”. While researching this article, I watched his three inning outing with Morgantown on August 28th and they were going with “Jocks”, which was an understandable mistake because he had just joined the team and was thrown right into action. I only knew the correct pronunciation because I heard it called on day three of the draft and we write up profiles for each draft pick. I tried to search out “Joe Jakes” before I saw his name on the MLB draft tracker.

Jacques was a three-sport athlete at Red Bank Regional High School in New Jersey. He grew up in Shrewsbury, NJ, and at one point we lived just a few miles apart from each other. He was constantly playing sports in high school. Besides his four seasons on the baseball team, he also served as a wide receiver for three years on the football squad and three years as the shooting guard for the basketball team.

Scouts love to see those types of players coming out of high school because it shows that they have a lot of athleticism, but it also means that they are likely raw as baseball players. That’s especially true for a player from New Jersey, which is one of the “cold weather” states. That means a much shorter baseball season than kids who come out of states like Florida and California, so there is a belief that the cold weather state players have a lot more untapped potential, but it also means that they are behind other players going into the draft. When you throw in that Jacques spent time playing three years of both basketball and football, you can see the potential for upside on the baseball diamond.

Besides pitching, Jacques was also a first baseman in high school, allowing him to get into the lineup when he wasn’t dominating hitters. His best spot was clearly on the mound though and there was no doubt that if he had a future in baseball, it was as a pitcher. He posted a 1.50 ERA in his senior year at Red Bank Regional and won the National Scholar Athlete award. Despite the accomplishments and athleticism, Jacques had to pay his way to college. He ended up going to Manhattan College, mainly because a friend was going there, although it also allowed him a chance to continue to play baseball.

As a walk-on athlete, you immediately have to compete with others in the same situation, trying to win one of those last spots on the team not taken up by scholarship athletes. Jacques embraced the challenge and hit the ground running, instantly making a great impression with the coaching staff. Not only did he earn a spot on the team as a freshman, he spent half of the season in the starting rotation. Jacques finished with 4.29 ERA in 65 innings in 2014, making eight starts and 11 relief appearances.

Despite solid overall results as a freshman, Jacques made a major change going into his sophomore year and it was one that immediately paid off. He dropped down his arm angle and became a sidearm pitcher.

“I never threw too hard and I kind of just dropped myself down there after my freshman year because I still had the same velocity,” Jacques said about the change in his delivery. “I felt comfortable from the side and even felt like I had more control. It was a pretty quick adjustment for me.”

That resulted in him posting a team best 3.13 ERA in 46 innings, as he once again split his time between starting and relieving. For some perspective, the next best ERA on his team was 4.81, and the team had an overall 5.57 ERA. Jacques saw his walk rate drop from 4.71 to 3.13 per nine innings. His strikeouts showed a major increase as well, going from 5.40 per nine innings as a freshman, to 8.22 in 2015. So what happened next seems inexplicable.

“In  my junior year, we had a couple coaching changes, and they wanted to see me raise my slot back to where it was,” Jacques said. “It was going well in the fall but come spring time it was tough for me to be consistent with the arm slot they wanted, which lead to a tough first half of the season.”

If you follow the draft, then you know that the junior season results are extremely important. Jacques was coming off of an impressive sophomore year, when he was clearly the best pitcher on his team. A similar junior season would have likely landed him a draft spot, but a change in his delivery led to some poor results. His overall numbers show a 4.30 ERA in 75 innings, with a slight drop in his strikeout rate and a slight increase in the walks. There are more behind those numbers though.

Jacques decided to return to pitching sidearm late in the season and things turned around immediately. In his last seven appearances, he allowed a total of three earned runs in 34.1 innings. That was after giving up 33 earned runs in his first 40.1 innings. When you actually see the split on paper, it’s shocking that the change in delivery lasted so long.

Going into his senior season in 2017, Jacques was now on the radar for scouts. He had two teams following him closely early in the year, but a back injury put a halt to his progress. He lucked out in a way because if he pitched one more game, his baseball career would have ended on the sidelines.

“I pitched the first half of my senior season and in the last possible game I could have pitched in, to still be eligible for a medical redshirt, I had to be taken out after pitching to the first batter in the game,” Jacques said. “I was granted a medical redshirt luckily, and was able to get myself ready for the next fall.”

He ended up as a draft pick, but Jacques had some more bad luck during his fifth season at Manhattan.

“In my third start against UNC Asheville I slipped on a pitch and caught my fall with my pitching arm and strained my lat, Jacques said. “It caused me to miss a pretty good chunk of the season, which was a season I really could not miss.”

He was throwing 4.1 shutout innings at the time of that injury. Jacques was out from March 9th until April 14th. When he returned, he was on a limited pitch count and there wasn’t much time left in the season. That ended up not being a problem because all he had to do was get back on the mound and prove that he was healthy. Jacques pitched well in his return, but he had already made his impression on the Pirates and many other scouts in the first game of the season.

On February 16, 2018, scouts from every team flocked to Stetson to see Logan Gilbert make his first start of the season. He was considered to be first round material and he was making his season debut. Gilbert allowed five runs over five innings that day, which didn’t prevent the Seattle Mariners from selecting him in the first round four months later.

In the other dugout was a fifth year senior looking for a big break in his first start since a season-ending back injury in 2017. Those scouts, which I’m told may have numbered more than 100 that day, watched Joe Jacques strike out nine batters while allowing one earned run over five innings.

The lat injury kept Jacques out of action for five weeks, but his impressive debut on the road in front of a packed house of scouts, was more than enough to make up for the injury. One of those scouts who was impressed was Eddie Charles of the Pirates. He would soon be in contact with Jacques, and then three months later he convinced the Pirates to draft him in the 33rd round.

As a fifth year senior, there is no negotiating leverage for a draft pick, so there is no hesitation in signing if you want to play pro ball. Jacques quickly went to Pittsburgh to sign his contract and he was assigned to Bristol, where he would pitch out of the bullpen. He had two rough outings and some control issues, mixed in with solid overall results in his other 15 appearances. He blames his early bumps in pro ball on his mental approach in those games.

“I had a tough time my first half of the season,” Jacques said about Bristol. “But I figured it out and really stood out the second half. I gave too much credit to the hitters I was facing and would get into bad counts which lead to too many walks.”

Jacques noted that his later success was just better mental preparation and some strong coaching along the way.

“Going out there with the mentality that he can’t beat me just worked for me. Things like that were learned from Joey Seaver. We had one of the best coaching staffs I’ve ever been around in Bristol.”

Bristol pitching coach Joey Seaver passed away suddenly this off-season. While talking to players who got to know him during his one season with the Pirates, the praise he received as a coach and a person was overwhelming. It wasn’t just the players with Bristol this year saying great things, but anyone he met along his baseball journey. Jacques took a lot away from his short time with Seaver.

“Joey Seaver was not just a coach, he was the type of guy that could change the way you looked at the game and the world. He genuinely cared about his players unlike any other. It was a blessing to have crossed paths with him.”

After the Bristol season wrapped up, Jacques received a promotion to Morgantown for the final week of the season. He got into just one game, the aforementioned outing that I watched, but he went a season long three innings.

Two weeks after the season ended, Jacques attended rookie camp, which was going on during the Fall Instructional League at Pirate City. It was a little different for draft picks this year. Instead of playing exhibition games for three weeks, they participated in strength training and team building exercises off the field for a ten-day stretch. While it was difficult, most players enjoyed the challenges they faced during rookie camp and took a lot from the experience.

“The rookie camp at instructs was quite an experience,” Jacques said. “There were some things you dread while you’re doing it, but once it’s over you realize why it was so important. A lot lessons were learned and memories made, and I’m sure everyone is glad they went through it, even though it may have seemed like forever at the time.”

So now Jacques looks forward to the 2019 season and trying to make the roster of a full-season team. He has made some changes to his arsenal since signing, which could help him reach that goal. Jacques throws five pitches now, after using three pitches in college. As a starter-turned-reliever, it’s odd to see the amount of pitches increase, but the reasoning behind the additions explains the need.

Jacques has success against left-handed batters, as you would probably expect from a sidearm lefty. He did that by throwing a two-seam fastball, which sits high-80s, touching 91 MPH. His out pitch is a sweeping slider, which sits high-70s. That same combo wasn’t as effective versus right-handed batters. The fastball worked fine, but not the slider. He has a changeup, which was used almost exclusively against right-handed batters, but he also felt the need to add a cutter, which should help him once he gets more comfortable with the pitch.

The second added pitch is a four-seam fastball. That will give Jacques more velocity on his fastball and create a different look to the pitch. He had two fastballs in the past, though technically they were classified as the same pitch. His two-seamer had different types of movement, depending on how he threw it.

” I was throwing just two-seams this season [in Bristol] and in college and just manipulating the grips when I wanted it to move differently,” Jacques said, before describing why he added a pitch. “I never threw a four-seam until they recommended it at the mini-camp after the season because I threw one and it was harder than all the rest. So I’m interested to see what I can get it up to with a four-seam, velocity wise.”

Jacques is a smart person and he takes that to the mound. Besides the Scholar Athlete award in high school, he was a two-time All-Academic Honoree at Manhattan. His journey from being a walk-on in college to being drafted is a terrific story of hard work paying off. He had a chance to be drafted in 2016 before a questionable change to his delivery did a number to his performance on the mound. An ill-timed back injury in 2017 kept him from being drafted that season and his redshirt senior year was nearly sidetracked by a lat injury when he was just three months away from using up all of his college eligibility. Jacques persevered through it all and now he’s out to prove that he belongs in pro ball.

He gives the Pirates a pitcher with a different look as a sidearm lefty, and there really aren’t many lefty relievers in the system ahead of him. He has a five-pitch mix now, which should not only give him better velocity, but help him against right-handed hitters, so he’s more than a situational lefty. He has a solid 6’4″, 220 frame, which is great if he can improve enough to be a starter, but will also work well if he’s just airing it out during shorter outings out of the bullpen.

Jacques has his sights set on a full-season spot and plans to do all he can to get one this spring. With what he’s been through to get up to this point, it’s not difficult to imagine him being in Greensboro on Opening Day or shortly after the season starts, whenever a spot opens up due to injury, poor performance or a promotion. For now, he’s focused on being ready to achieve his next goal.

” I’m looking to make a statement the second I step foot down in Bradenton for Spring Training,” Jacques said. “I have to make the most of every opportunity put in front of me. I plan on performing well enough in Spring Training to be in full-season from the jump, but will keep the same mindset of competing every pitch no matter what level I am at. At this point, I am just really excited to get it going and ready to see the caliber I can push myself to this season.”




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