In late June of 2013 Rea, a 12th round draft pick of the Padres in 2011 out of Indiana State had a 0-5 record, a 6.07 ERA for the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm and a plane ticket back to the Low-A Fort Wayne TinCaps.
Things were not going as planned.
“I started to have trouble commanding my fastball which led to confidence issues,” Rea said on his problems with the Storm in 2013.
“When I got to Fort Wayne, I switched some stuff up with my mechanics, which helped my confidence, and went back to what I should have been doing all along; getting ahead and throwing strikes. If it wasn't going to work out for me, it wasn't going to be because I wasn't going to do what got me here in the first place.”
And things did begin to work out.
He returned to Lake Elsinore in 2014 and posted an 11-9 record with a 3.88 ERA and turned the corner on his career. The key was believing in his ability and using both sides of the plate.
The big right-hander has always been the quintessential two-seam fastball/slider pitcher with the ability to consistently hit the outside corner of the plate. His problem was a reluctance to come inside, thus allowing batters to lean over the plate, which led to more walks.
“I spoke with him much more about the mental aspects of the game than his mechanics,” said Bronswell Patrick, his pitching coach at the time with the Storm.
“I always told him, and this is especially true against right-handed batters, that you have to establish the inside so you can get to the outside corner. By throwing to both sides of the plate he has become so much better.”
Last season is when it all came together for Rea. In Double-A San Antonio he posted a 1.08 ERA in 75 innings. He earned an invitation the Major League Futures Game, something that would have been unimaginable a year and half ago, and an August call-up to the big club.
For the 6’5”, 225 pound Rea, the physical ability has always been there. The key, as Patrick expanded upon, was his growth in the mental aspect of the game; or as former Padres’ Director of Player Development Randy Smith said last year, “believing he was as good as all of us always thought he was.”
“Confidence,” said Rea at the end of last year on what he believed was the key to a successful season. “I began to understand what type of pitcher I am and knowing that I could get guys out, so a lot of things came together for me.
"The key is to keep on building on what you are doing right.”
In his six starts with the Padres late last year, Rea showed enough to put him in a position to make the starting rotation for 2016, catching the eye of Padres’ pitching coach Darren Balsley.
And in pitching’s version of the chicken-and-egg argument, Balsley attributes Rea’s success to his ability to pitch outside, not inside.
“I think, and not to disagree [with Bronswell], that you can’t pitch inside until you can pitch away well. You have to have the hitter’s eyes out there, so you can come in.”
“He was doing that last year when I saw him in minor league camp, and he continued to build on it.”
Regardless of which side you come down on, both coaches have preached the necessity of being able to use the whole plate instead of half of it.
“The biggest thing is establishing the fastball, proving that you can hit the corner,” Rea said this spring. “When you catch them leaning, that is when you go in.”
As spring training progressed, Balsley continued to be impressed with Rea’s overall development.
“He’s got a good four pitches,” said Balsley. He has a cutter, a good curve ball - which we haven’t seen yet - to throw one in Arizona you really have to have a good one. His changeup is much improved from last year. He didn’t have the feel for one last year, this year he does.”
“And his fastball command is very good. That is why we called him up. He needs to still work on it, but it is very good.”
As opposed to previous springs where he was fighting to make different teams, this year has been a little different.
“The biggest thing is just staying healthy and fresh,” said Rea. “I’ve been working with Balsley on tempo and a little on my wind-up.”
“As for what I throw, the biggest thing this spring is just finding a change-up that actually works for me. Last year I threw a splitter that was rarely good, and in San Diego it wasn’t. I’m now throwing a type of combination of a splitter-change and am feeling much more comfortable with it.”
As for the rest of spring training Rea did comment on one noticeable difference from the minors.
“It’s still pretty much the same, although I don’t have to be the ball boy in games that I’m not pitching,” laughed Rea.