Jake Stevens had been as close to perfect as a minor league pitcher could get in 2004. With the Rome Braves, Stevens went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA. He allowed only 100 hits in 135 innings pitched, 39 walks, and 140 strikeouts.
He found things a little more difficult in the Carolina League in 2005, as he was 10-9 with a 4.93 ERA, 167 hits allowed in 148 innings, 62 walks, and only 102 strikeouts.
Stevens is heading back to the Beach, for one more crack with the Pelicans before he advances to Double-A.
Here's our interview with Braves' lefty prospect Jake Stevens:
SHANKS: How was your developmental year in 2005?
STEVENS: Development-wise I think at the end year I did alright. I was up and down all year. I would have a couple of good starts and feel like I was starting to get something going and then I would get hit hard. It was up and down all year. As far as mechanics, it was a little bit mechanical, but mostly mental. You've got to take the bad with the good. A lot of times I would just be too hard on myself. Instead of pitching through stuff, I would get so aggravated that I'd just kind of go in a downward spiral. That's what I'd struggle with. I wasn‘t able to put the fire our in the games I didn‘t have my best stuff.
SHANKS: You were so dominant in 2004 in Rome. Did you believe you'd have some type of adversity? It's just hard to sail through the minor leagues without any trouble, and in 2004, you didn't have much trouble.
STEVENS: Yeah you know I think I got a little spoiled in Rome. In the beginning of the year in Myrtle Beach, I really wasn't pitching that bad, but as compared to the year before, it wasn't as good. I think that kind of messed with my head a little bit. I wanted to get out and have seven innings, no runs, instead of seven innings, two runs. Seven innings, two runs is good, but I got so spoiled in 2004 when everything was clicking in Rome, and then in Myrtle Beach I started having some rough times that I wasn't able to battle through. Before I knew it the season was over and I just struggled all the way through.
SHANKS: Last season was probably more normal of a minor league season than your 2004 season. You didn't allow much of anything in Rome.
STEVENS: Right and I think I just didn't take it that way. I was just taking it as I was struggling, and in the beginning of the year I really wasn't pitching that bad. I started looking for all sorts of stuff and I was worried about everything but getting outs. I think I worked out pretty good in Instructs and then here at spring training it was just going after the hitters more. I went back and looked at the stats a little bit from Rome and then last year and the biggest thing I noticed was I had more than twice as many walks. There's no defense against walks. Defense can't help me when I'm putting guys on for free.
SHANKS: Was there any reason for the increase in walks last year?
STEVENS: Probably a little bit of it was I was getting hit around so I was trying to be too perfect, and a lot of stuff was mechanical. I was worried about my mechanics instead of throwing strikes. I think if I just worry about throwing strikes I'll be fine.
SHANKS: You probably learned more about yourself last year than the year before, so how can you use that to turn it around as a positive going forward this season?
STEVENS: I've got to work on when I don't have my best stuff or getting hit around a little bit to do the best that I can to just keep my team in the game. You're not always going to go out there and dominate. I think that was the biggest thing I learned last year. Everybody's going to get hit around once in a while, and when I don't have my best stuff, I've got to be able to keep it to three or four runs where my team will still have a chance to win the ballgame, even though I didn't pitch my best.
SHANKS: So after you had that great year in Rome, and then have a season where you get hit around a bit as you had last year in Myrtle Beach, do you think, ‘Well what's really me - what I did in Rome or what I did in Myrtle Beach?"
STEVENS: Yeah I mean it's hard after you have a season like last year not to have some doubts creep into your mind. But the other day I was thinking that if I have the confidence to throw strikes, and if I put the stuff where I want to, that I'm going to get out. It worked out real well for me. I just think the biggest thing is to just get the confidence built back up and go after them and throw strikes.
SHANKS: And the one thing you know is that you have no doubt you can do it; you proved that in 2004.
STEVENS: Right. Even in Gulf Coast I thought I had struggled, but I had a pretty good year in the Gulf Coast League. To me I thought I had struggled. I had to figure out that a three and a half ERA is actually a good year.
SHANKS: So they're going to send you back to Myrtle.
STEVENS: Yeah I'm going to start in Myrtle and hopefully pitch well and see it goes from there.
SHANKS: Do you think that will be good for you?
STEVENS: I think with the year that I had last year, I can't expect to not go back to Myrtle. Of course, I would love to start in Double-A, and I felt I pitched well enough in Instructs and here to go there, but I didn't last year. I think that's where I belong, as much as I am disappointed in not going to AA. Myrtle Beach is probably where I belong to start.
SHANKS: Do you think in the long run it will be beneficial for you?
STEVENS: Yeah I think if I get back in there and throw strikes and go after hitters and do well, then who knows.
SHANKS: And usually when they send someone back, they do hope that by the All-Star Break they can get out of there and move on to the next level.
STEVENS: Right and they pretty much said, "Hey it's up to you. If you throw well and you're pitching good, then you'll move on." But I can't worry about that. I've just got to worry about throwing strikes and getting people out and helping Myrtle Beach win games while I'm there.
SHANKS: Are you still throwing that knuckle-curve?
STEVENS: Yeah. I struggled with that last year throwing that for strikes and I just would work with the fastball and changeup. But I've felt pretty good with it in spring training. It's gotten better. It was like no strikes the first outing, then a couple of strikes that next outing, and then the last outing was probably the best outing I've had throwing all three pitches for strikes. If I can get all three pitches going, I think I'll be fine.
SHANKS: How often do you throw that?
STEVENS: Most of the time it's like a two-strike pitch, but in spring training I've been trying to throw it for more strikes. I'm trying to throw it in counts that I would normally wouldn't throw it, like a first pitch, trying to get a curveball over for a strike - just working on stuff. If I don't throw it on 0-0, then maybe come back with it on 1-0, then maybe come back with it just if you've got a feel for it.
SHANKS: Is it more of a curve than a knuckler?
STEVENS: It's pretty much like a curveball. You just kind of put one knuckle up and the nail in the ball. It's suppose to be sharper I guess than a normal curveball. I learned it in high school a guy was practicing and was going to try out for the Yankees and he showed it to me. The year before that I was just fastball and changeup. It just kind of came a little easier for me because I didn't even throw a curveball. Somewhere along the line I lost the feel for throwing it for strikes. If I can get a feel for it and get my arm angle the same as my fastball, I think I'll get it back in there.
SHANKS: That pitch is not seen very much, so if effective, it can throw off a hitter's balance a bit.
STEVENS: Well to a hitter, it probably just looks like a normal curveball. It's not going to be much different than a regular curveball. It might be a little more loopy and start out a little higher and comes back down. But to a hitter I think it looks the same.
SHANKS: How much better are you now as a pitcher because of what you went through last year?
STEVENS: I think I got hit around pretty much all year last year. Hopefully I won't have another year like that. You've got to take something good out of a bad situation. Getting hit around, and even though I'm trying to develop mentally, I didn't always deal with it the best. If you asked DC (Bruce Dal Canton) he'd probably tell you the same thing. That's probably the biggest thing I though about over the offseason. When things start going bad, just step back and take a deep breath and try to squash that big inning. Instead of letting them get that big five or six run inning, try to hold them to fewer runs.
SHANKS: Now have you always been like that or was it more a reaction last year to the difference from Rome?
STEVENS: Anybody that knows me will tell you that I get a little intense on the mound when things aren't going good. It happened to me a couple of times when I got hit around in 04. It's something I've got to grow out of or it's going to hold me back forever I think. I've got to get over feeling bad for myself and just worry about the next hitter and don't look back. Kent Willis said it in Low-A and DC said it last year, "You can't look at what happened the batter before or three batters before; you've just got to look ahead to the next batter." I've struggled with that, but I'm hoping this year I can be a little better at that.
SHANKS: And that's just going to come with experience, right?
STEVENS: That's the biggest thing is I know that last year that was probably the biggest thing that hurt me. I think middle of the year I was actually throwing alright, even though I didn't think I was throwing well. But I'd give up like two or three in the first and I'd get so aggravated that I would go on a downward spiral and I'd give up three more the next inning. If you can just stop those big innings, and just get settled in, I think I'll do fine.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional front office philosophies. Email Bill at email@example.com.
Jake Stevens Interview
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