Scheppers preparing for starting role

After spending most of his debut season in the bullpen, right-hander Tanner Scheppers is expected to begin the 2011 campaign as a starting pitcher. Lone Star Dugout caught up with the 23-year-old to reflect on this past season.

Tanner Scheppers gained a reputation as one of baseball's elite pitching prospects before he'd thrown an official pitch in professional baseball.

Flashing his upper-90s fastball and plus curveball, the right-hander logged 11 innings in the Arizona Fall League shortly after signing with Texas for $1.25 million in '09. He also appeared in four games––and 5.1 innings––with the Rangers in big league camp this past spring.

After showing his polish against upper-level competition, Scheppers began his 2010 regular season at Double-A Frisco. The right-hander tore through the Texas League, yielding one run in 11 innings and fanning 19 without issuing a walk.

Scheppers earned a quick promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he pitched for the remainder of the '10 season. While dominant at times, the hurler had his share of ups-and-downs and finished with a 5.48 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 69 innings at Triple-A.

Whether Scheppers will be a starter or a reliever in the future remains in doubt. He began the season as a reliever but transitioned into a starting role in mid-June before returning to the bullpen after six starts. As Scheppers mentions in the following interview, he has been told to prepare for the 2011 campaign as a starting pitcher.

Even when the Fresno State product scuffled late last season, he maintained his 95-98 mph velocity, even touching 99 at times. But his biggest issue was location, as he often lived too far up in the zone with his fastball.

Scheppers possesses an excellent sharp-breaking 79-82 mph curveball that projects to become a legitimate wipeout pitch at the next level. Like his fastball, Scheppers sometimes ran into trouble with his curveball command when he struggled to keep it in the strike zone.

The 23-year-old also spent much of the year working on a changeup. Scheppers says he has found some comfort in a new split-change grip––a pitch that he throws in the upper-80s. He also mixes in a hard slider on occasion.

When the 6-foot-4 prospect didn't sign with the Pirates after the '08 draft, he took most of the following year off and logged just 19 frames for the independent St. Paul Saints. Perhaps not surprisingly, Scheppers appeared to tire a bit down the stretch in his first full season.

Scheppers entered his outing on August 14 with a 3.88 ERA in Triple-A. He then surrendered 18 runs on 24 hits over 11 innings in his last seven regular-season outings.

Despite the late-season struggles, Scheppers has two elite pitches and remains among the top prospects in the Texas organization.

Lone Star Dugout caught up with the California native to reflect on his first season in professional baseball.

Jason Cole: When you look back on your first professional season, what are your thoughts?

Tanner Scheppers: Looking back on it, I think I learned a lot. I went through a full year. I had never done that––that many games before. It just felt really good to get that experience and see how your body feels through a full season.

Cole: You ended up with exactly 80 innings. I know the Rangers had kind of a set plan on how your first season would unfold. Was 80 innings the initial goal?

Scheppers: I ended up pitching a little bit more in instructional league just to get my innings count up a little bit more. But we ended up reaching our goal with the innings that I needed to throw.

Cole: In what areas did you feel your game improved the most this past season?

Scheppers: I'd say dealing with bad outings and just dealing with that part of the game. I learned about being able to try and come back mentally––just the mental grind of a full year. With that under my belt, I feel like I learned that I can do it. I know how to prepare myself for next year.

Cole: Did you ever tweak anything in terms of mechanics or the pitches you throw this past season?

Scheppers: During the season, I worked on a number of pitches. I was just looking to see what was comfortable with me. Going into Spring Training, I have the mindset of what I need to work on and what I need to do to take the next step.

Cole: The changeup was one of those pitches you were working on, especially once you went into the starting role. In the end, how'd you feel the changeup progressed?

Scheppers: I think that was probably the biggest progression on any pitch––my changeup. I'm feeling really comfortable with the grip that I plan on sticking with for awhile. Now it's just being able to get consistency out of it. I think being able to get it into an actual routine now is going to make it a plus pitch.

Cole: I remember talking to you after your start in New Orleans about the split-changeup grip you had just implemented. Is that the one you are still using?

Scheppers: Yeah, I'm still using it.

Cole: How was it when you went back to the bullpen and had shorter outings once again? Were you still trying to incorporate it?

Scheppers: It really wasn't incorporated as much as it should have been.

Cole: You also have a hard slider that you mix in occasionally. How often, in general terms, were you using the slider this season?

Scheppers: Toward the end of the season, when I started to finally get my break back a little bit, I was throwing it a little bit more. I think I relied on it a little too much and lost faith in the fastball. It's just different stuff like that that I learned throughout the year.

Cole: Obviously you had plenty of success for most of this season, but you also had a string of rough outings late in the year. What do you think led to the sudden struggles?

Scheppers: I just think it was about preparing myself for a full season––getting my body in shape and sticking with the workouts and everything. You get to a point in the season where you just kind of hit a wall mentally and physically. It was my first time around and I didn't really realize how long the season was. Now that I know, I can prepare myself mentally and physically.

Cole: Tell me about some of the things you're doing differently––if anything––this offseason, as you look forward to next year.

Scheppers: Flexibility conditioning-wise. I also want to come to Spring Training up in weight. I want to come as a bigger, more athletic version of myself. And, of course, I want to keep the ball down and gain some consistency with my fastball.

Cole: After going between starting and relieving in your first season, have you had a talk with the Rangers about what your role will be next year?

Scheppers: Yeah, they've told me to prepare as a starting pitcher, so that's where I'll go with my mindset. I'll go try to compete for some kind of position somewhere.

Cole: Do you know whether the Rangers will have you on any sort of innings limit next season?

Scheppers: I don't really know exactly what kind of plan they have there. But that's not my job––my job is just to come in ready to go and ready to pitch, so that's what I'm going to do.

Cole: You got to experience plenty of unique things in your debut pro season, and one of those things was watching some of your Double- and Triple-A teammates play in the World Series. What was that like?

Scheppers: It was great. They got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I was happy that they were able to do that. Hopefully being in this great organization, and the movement that the organization is making––hopefully it's part of the future and hopefully I'll be there soon enough so I can experience it myself. But I'm so happy for the other guys and they deserved every part of it.

Cole: Given the fact that you also had to watch it from home, does it add some personal motivation?

Scheppers: It's definitely motivation. Triple-A is not the stop that you want to be at. There's always a next step, and that's the goal. But it was great to watch those guys do it.

Cole: You also got to play in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in what's basically your hometown in Orange County. What was that experience like?

Scheppers: It was good. Halfway through the season, I got to come home because it's right down the freeway. I got to see a lot of my family that I haven't seen in awhile. For that, it was just really good. It gave me a nice little break.

Cole: Were there any nerves associated with going out there on national TV, in a big league stadium, and in front of all your friends and family?

Scheppers: No, it's just another day. The game didn't mean anything, so it was really just kind of a fun atmosphere.

Cole: You mentioned that you went to Fall Instructional League after the season to get some innings in. How long were you there for?

Scheppers: I was there for the full length of instructs.

Cole: Do you remember about how many games you pitched in and how many innings you got there?

Scheppers: I think it was six games and a little over 10 innings.

Cole: Where were some of your primary focuses in development at instructs?

Scheppers: Just smoothing out my delivery, keeping my front side closed, and just being more consistent with my delivery.

Cole: How happy were you with the results, not only on the field but also mechanically?

Scheppers: It was good. Luckily I got to work with Mark Connor, who we lost to Baltimore. But I got to work with him a lot, plus Danny Clark and all the great pitching guys in the organization. I got to talk with them for a long time and really just focus on some mechanical stuff that I needed to improve.

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