Chandler Hawkins (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

St. Louis Cardinals left-handed relievers Ross Vance and Chandler Hawkins have taken different paths in reaching Double-A quickly.

St. Louis Cardinals left-handed relievers Ross Vance and Chandler Hawkins have taken different paths in reaching Double-A quickly.

Ross Vance and Chandler Hawkins have a number of things in common.

First of all, both reached Double-A in their first full seasons of professional baseball.

Both are lefty relievers with underwhelming stuff.

And last but not least, they are two of the most unheralded prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

Yet none of that takes away from the fact the pair are quietly on a meteoric rise through the ranks up the Cardinals system.

“(Being an unknown guy and moving fast) tells me they will give any guy a shot,” Vance said. “As long as they see something that might be projectable or be able to play at the next level, they will move you, and it makes you feel good because I thought I was going to be the low-man on the totem pole.”

Hawkins agrees.

“It is a blessing and exciting (to be an unknown guy and moving fast),” Hawkins said. “I’m glad they threw me in the fire and let me go compete at that high of a level in my first full season. Just getting my feet wet last year has helped me a lot already this year.”

The only thing that distinguishes these two from being carbon copies of each other in terms of their developmental pace in professional ball is their amateur backgrounds.


Rocket Ross

Vance, a West Virginia product, was first identified by the Cardinals scouting department in the Cape Cod summer league, where they were able to supplement live looks of the 25-year old with several games of captured video during the spring before the draft.

That said, Vance went undrafted, but the Cardinals targeted him as an “after the draft candidate,” seeing him as a fit with the organization thanks to his handedness.

“During the spring, our scouts saw tremendous feel combined with the ability to throw all pitches from all angles,” Cardinals scouting director Randy Flores said. “We felt he could be an asset as a left-handed reliever in the organization.”

Vance quickly signed a week after the draft and made his professional debut a week later with the (short-season) Johnson City Cardinals, a team he helped to their fourth Appalachian League title in seven years.

“I felt like I had a great coaching staff and a group of guys to introduce myself to professional baseball,” he said of his draft year. “It kind of worked out that I happen to have a pretty good season and got my feet wet in the game.”

The 6-foot-0, 180-pounder, whose unorthodox high leg-kick and side-arming motion creates deception coupled with guile on the mound, allowed him to dominate that caliber of hitters to the tune of a 2.48 ERA over 14 games (three starts for 40 innings) with a 54-to-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 2016.

To open 2017, Vance jumped all the way to High-A Palm Beach, throwing 10 2/3 innings of three-run ball while converting one of two save opportunities before being promoted to Springfield just a few weeks later and then returned to Palm Beach on Tuesday.

“At the start of the year, I was like it would be cool to finish my year in Double-A,” he added. “Then kind of work my way up. Figured I would have to have some really good outings and prolonged continued success. Palm Beach was higher than I expected to start out while I was in spring training. It’s all happened pretty quick.

“I’m super excited and ready to show everybody what I can do.”

Vance made his Texas League debut a day later on April 21 against the Arkansas Travelers, pitching a scoreless frame and formed a sharp impression with his new skipper.

“He’s gonna fool ‘em,” Springfield manager Johnny Rodriguez said. “They think it’s going to come out hard. It doesn’t. He’s got a lot of herky-jerky, a lot of deception in his delivery. Nothing comes straight. A lot of body parts moving. He’s a specialist. Get in there an inning with a bunch of lefties one time around an inning or two.

“He’s a specialist who can get a lefty out and induce soft contact,” the manager said.

Vance has been described as a pitcher on a scouting report which says he doesn’t have anything to get you out with and yet he keeps getting you out.

“Basically, if the ball can do it, I want to throw it,” he said. “If hitters are looking for one pitch, I’m trying to throw another one no matter what the count is. If a hitter is on first, I’m trying to get a groundball to get a double-play to move the inning quickly.”

So far, so good for Vance in his ascent up the pipeline as he is just the second 2016 signing to reach Double-A in his first full season, following Dakota Hudson.

“Successful pitching is about deceiving the batter,” Flores said, who can attest. “And thus far Ross is succeeding at deceiving batters – albeit differently than the typical power-armed reliever.”


Fast-paced Hawkins

While Vance has an unusual path to signing with the Cardinals, Hawkins joined the organization with a more traditional background.

Hawkins pitched four seasons with Arkansas State University and was discovered by the Cardinals Midwest area scout Dirk Kinney, who first saw him as a junior with the Red Wolves.

Impressed by his ability on the mound, Kinney put him on his follow list that spring after being able to see him twice pitching at Kansas State.

After two straight Sun Belt Conference All-Tournament Team appearances his junior and senior campaigns with Arkansas State, Hawkins was selected by the Cardinals in the 33rd round of the 2015 draft.

“(I saw a guy that) had arm speed,” Kinney said. “Quality feel for a slider and changeup. He had solid deception as he hid the ball well on the backside (of his delivery). The makeup side of things, he passed the test as teammates all were high on him.”

Out of the draft, Hawkins was assigned to (short-season) Johnson City, where he compiled a 4-0 record with minuscule 1.84 ERA over 29 1/3 innings, finishing his draft year at High-A Palm Beach and pitching 2 1/3 innings in one outing with the Beach Birds.

Hawkins opened his first full season at Low-A Peoria before being promoted to Palm Beach once again by May 2016. The Memphis, TN native’s first full professional season of quick movement was capped towards the end of the summer with a July 20 promotion to Double-A Springfield.

Of the 18 pitchers taken by the Cardinals in 2015, Hawkins was the first to reach Springfield last season.

“It was a great year,” the lefty said, who posted an overall ERA of 4.06 through 42 games (62 innings). “It was a big learning experience. That’s one thing I took away from it. I learned a lot and moved a lot faster than I expected to, too. At the end of the year reflecting back after the season was over, spending time talking with pitching coaches and instructors, I went into the offseason with a lot to work on.

“The biggest thing I took away from is that it was a big learning experience.”

Hawkins returned to Springfield to start the 2017 season where he has given up five earned runs over his first 9 2/3 innings (4.66 ERA).

“He is a lefty that has good enough stuff to pitch over the plate,” Springfield pitching coach Jason Simontacchi said. “I believe sometimes he thinks he has to be perfect with his pitches and maybe he has to throw a certain mile per hour. It goes back to when you come out of your shell and try to be a pitcher that you are not; you are not going to get the results that you want.

“It’s the maturation process of him just getting experience under his belt and realizing his stuff does play here. He needs to realize that and tone it down a bit and get the ball over the plate more,” the coach said.

Hawkins, who has a higher arm slot than the prototypical lefty specialist, sees himself as more than just a left-handed situational reliever.

“(I’m trying) to focus on getting lefties out, at the same time focusing on righties,” he said. “I’m going to face them my whole career, but really hammer down on those lefties and throw them my best stuff every time.”

The 24-year old employs a four-seam and two-seam fastball which sits in the high-80s range and can touch 90-91 mph. Hawkins also has a changeup and slider to round out his arsenal. His best pitch is his slider, a go-to-pitch offering to throw in any count and the change is more to righties to offer a different look.

“Fastball is the most important pitch,” Hawkins said. “Everything plays off the fastball. I like to throw my two-seam fastball if I really need a ground ball, but if I get behind or need to fill up the zone early, I usually go with my four-seam, especially into righties.”

No matter which level he has been, Hawkins attributes his success to trusting his ability and attacking hitters with that four-pitch mix.

“The thing that keeps coming back is just to trust my stuff in the zone,” he told the media last August. “It plays, I guess, or else I wouldn’t be here. I just keep pounding the zone, especially when you get to a new place, it is like you almost want to try to change something or do something special, but you really don’t have to.”


Lefty goals

Vance was the new hurler with the Springbirds, having made his debut with the club in two April outings before being sent back to Palm Beach.

He felt some nerves in his Double-A introduction.

“Little bit,” Vance said of his April 21 debut. “They go away quick. It wasn’t too dire of a situation to go into, but really all I was able to think about was making sure to get out of there without letting in any of those runs.”

Vance, who has also suffered early-season command issues, looks to iron those out to stick at the higher levels.

“Really (the improvements I can make) is just getting back in the zone,” he said. “I feel like I have been more wild recently than I was last year and in spring training. So, I am working on getting my fastball command back and commanding all my other pitches so that I can keep hitters off balance.”

Meanwhile, his goal is as precise as it is imprecise.

“See how well I can do,” Vance concluded with a chuckle.

One area of Hawkins’ game on which he is looking to improve is “better consistent fastball command.” So far, he has issued six walks and only garnered three punchouts in five games, so his side-work this season will continue to focus here.

“It’s not really where I want it,” Hawkins said. “I feel like it’s coming along, though. Fastball command and really being able to command my slider. Just throw it in any count whenever I want to. Those two things will be huge for me being able to move up.”

There is plenty of work to be done for Hawkins, but his main goal is to stay focused on his strengths.

“My main goal is to stay within myself and allow myself to work,” he said. “I feel like I have gotten at times where I overthrow and try to be a pitcher I’m not. I’m a guy that is not going to light up the radar gun, so I have to pitch with what I have and really make pitches.

“I think that is my biggest goal because that is really one thing I can control is to just stay within myself.”


Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.

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