Even without his best stuff, Dillon Overton has been plenty good since making his professional debut on the mound last season. In 57.1 innings as a pro, Overton has a 2.04 ERA and a 69:10 K:BB. In his first taste of full-season affiliated baseball, Overton has a 2.21 ERA and a 16:6 K:BB in 20.1 innings pitching in the offense-friendly California League.
Overton’s road to the High-A Stockton Ports has been anything but traditional. The left-hander was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft by the Oakland A’s, but it wasn’t until a full year later that he threw his first professional pitch. During that year between the draft and his debut, Overton went through the painful process of undergoing Tommy John surgery and rehabbing his prized left elbow.
Most of Overton’s first 15 months post-draft were spent in Arizona at the A’s minor league facility. It was a long time on the sidelines for a pitcher known for his feisty, competitive spirit.
“The rehab process is extremely long and it is a grind on your body,” Overton said before the Stockton Ports took on the San Jose Giants last Friday. “For someone who has to go through Tommy John surgery rehab, it makes you extremely mentally tough because it is such a grind and so long.”
All of the work that Overton put into his rehab got him back on the mound with the Arizona Rookie League A’s on June 23rd of last year. He threw three innings in that game against the Arizona Rookie League Giants, striking out four. From there, Overton would make six more appearances in the AZL before finally getting his “release papers” from Arizona. The A’s promoted him to short-season Vermont for the final month of the season. In total, Overton threw 37 innings for the A’s two short-season clubs, posting a 53:3 K:BB and a 1.95 ERA.
It was a huge boost for Overton mentally to make it out of Arizona last season.
“It was amazing,” Overton said of his promotion to Vermont. “I spent so long in Arizona – I think it was a year and maybe two or three months – and, to be honest, it kind of sucked. [laughs] It was hot. It gave me that college feel again when I got to Vermont and got to pitch in front of a crowd. That was what I was waiting for. It was awesome.”
Pitching in the Big 12 for the University of Oklahoma, Overton starred for his home state Sooners in three years at the school. He had a 2.90 ERA and a 264:80 K:BB in 289 NCAA innings. Going into his junior year, Overton was a pre-season pick to go in the top-10 by many draft pundits as a left-hander with plus command, an excellent change-up and an effective fastball that ranged between 89-92.
Although Overton put up good numbers during his junior year at Oklahoma, he missed time due to injury and there were whispers throughout the final few months of the season that he was pitching hurt. Overton slipped out of the first round and the A’s jumped at the opportunity to select him with their second overall pick in 2013 despite those injury concerns.
Although Overton never had a diagnosis of a torn elbow ligament while in college, he admits that he suspected something was wrong for much of the second half of his junior season.
“About halfway through my junior year of college, I kind of knew in the back of my head that I might need it,” Overton said. “But it’s one of those things where you don’t want it to be true. I think they knew when they drafted me that I might have to have surgery, so I was fortunate that they still wanted me.
“As soon as I got drafted, I flew out to Oakland and met with the team doctor and had an MRI there with the dye in my elbow. They told me that I needed it. It was a surprise, but it wasn’t because I kind of figured I did. It was just one of those things that suck.”
Although having to have the surgery was a disappointment for Overton, he takes some solace in the fact that the surgery came before he had advanced too far into his development as a professional.
“I was just happy that I was able to get the surgery early in my career and not get three-to-five years down-the-road and then have to come back to Arizona and start all over,” Overton said. “That was the good thing.”
Some pitchers struggle with their command during their first year back on the mound after Tommy John surgery. Overton has had no such struggles, posting an excellent walk rate since returning. He has, however, yet to regain his pre-surgery velocity, and his fastball has sat more in the 84-86 MPH range than the 89-92 MPH range he was accustomed to. Pitching without his best fastball has made Overton hone in more on his secondary offerings and spotting his pitches.
“When you don’t have the velocity you did before, it really makes you focus on hitting your spots when you need to,” Overton said. “Obviously you have to hit your spots every pitch, but it also helps you rely on your off-speed pitches and your change-up. Mainly your change-up because when you don’t have your velocity, the more you throw your change-up, the faster your velocity looks. That’s my best pitch. It has helped out a lot.”
Earlier this season, A’s starter Jarrod Parker spent some time with the Ports, making two rehab starts. Parker is a two-time Tommy John survivor. Overton says he didn’t ask Parker much about his experience with the surgery, but he did have one question for the A’s right-hander: ‘when did he get his velocity back?’
“He told me he pretty much got it back his first start,” Overton said. “I have heard about guys doing the same thing, and I was like ‘welp, where’s mine?’ [laughs] But everybody is different. I’m sure it will come back when the time is right.”
Overton recently hit a milestone in his comeback when he threw five full innings in a start in Bakersfield. He allowed just one run on six hits in that April 29th outing. He had yet to throw more than four innings in any professional start before that game against the Blaze.
Overton says he was well aware that he was entering “uncharted” territory when he reached the fifth inning in that game.
“That was the first time I have gone five innings in probably two years – since halfway through my junior year of college,” Overton said. “I knew after the fourth inning after I walked out there for the fifth, I thought ‘well, I have to get over this little hump’ because I hadn’t gotten over it yet. It was good. It felt a lot better than maybe people thought it would. It was great.”
Overton followed up that milestone by pitching into the fifth inning in his next start, as well. The A’s are keeping a close eye on his innings and his pitch count this season, but Overton isn’t trying to focus on that aspect of his season.
“For me, I’m taking each start as it comes,” Overton said. “They told me in spring training that I would be on an innings-limit. I guess I am going to keep throwing until I hit that innings limit. When I hit that limit, they’ll let me know.”