It's no secret that the Texas Rangers haven't had much success with second round draft picks over the last decade.
The club hasn't seen a second round selection reach the majors since utility man Jason Bourgeois, who was taken in the 2000 MLB Draft. And Bourgeois didn't reach the majors until 2008––four years after he'd last played in the Texas organization.
As third baseman Matt West entered spring training in early-March, he seemed just a step away from adding to the statistic. Not only had he posted a cumulative .229/.331/.363 slash line in two full seasons at Single-A Hickory, but he also suddenly found himself surrounded by promising third-base prospects Christian Villanueva (Hickory) and Mike Olt (Myrtle Beach).
The presence of the new prospects left West without a place to work as an everyday player. Early in camp, he began getting action at the corner infield and outfield positions. He was being prepared to work as a four-corners utility player and likely bench bat.
Then, late in spring training, Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais approached West with an intriguing idea.
"With about a week left in spring training, Scott Servais said that I was going to throw a bullpen the next day," West said. "So I came out, threw a bullpen, and they liked what they saw. So I became a pitcher."
As a shortstop at Houston's Bellaire High School, West never did much pitching. He would often come in and work as a one-inning closer, though little attention was paid to mechanics, and he never worked on the side as a hurler.
But in West's first bullpen session with the Rangers, he showed a strong, lightning-quick arm and ran his fastball up to 94 mph.
After playing parts of four professional seasons as a third baseman, West had failed to progress above the low Single-A level. He was more than happy to accept the challenge of moving to the mound.
"I loved it," he said of the switch. "I love pitching. It definitely feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders just because I'm in control. I'm a control freak. And playing as a position player, nothing is really in your hands. I get to dictate when the game goes when I'm on the mound."
The 22-year-old has now been on the mound for just over one month, and he looks like a natural. In West's first extended spring training outing, his fastball touched 97 mph. And in the fourth, it reached as high as 99 mph twice in one inning.
West's most recent appearance came against the San Diego Padres' extended club. He worked one inning, giving up one run on three hits while striking out two. His pitching chart from the inning––in which he threw 20 of his 28 pitches for strikes––can be found at this link.
The numbers aren't all that important for the time being. Although it's worth pointing out that of the three hits West allowed, one was a bloop single and one was a soft grounder off his foot. He was throwing strikes––quality strikes, more often than not––with above-average stuff.
Against the Padres, West threw his fastball anywhere between 94-98 mph, sitting mostly in the 95-97 mph range. His heater had a little late life, and he showed impressive command by working low in the zone for most of the inning.
West says that fastball command has been his main focus when he works in games.
"Primarily I've been working on trying to locate my fastball," he said. "I feel like I have pretty much control of that. But each outing that I go out, I try to throw in another pitch."
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound righty's second pitch is a slider, which worked anywhere between 83-88 mph––mostly at 84-85 mph. The pitch had sharp break and plenty of tilt, looking like a future plus offering and relatively refined given his overall lack of experience. West threw eight of his nine sliders for strikes, getting two swinging strikes and two weakly struck balls in play. He hung one at 84 mph that was hit for a single to left field.
While West's breaking ball has the action and velocity of a slider, he says it isn't exactly a slider. In fact, it's a pitch with a unique grip––a grip that West made-up himself as a little leaguer.
"I throw a curveball––I call it the ‘unhittapitch," he said with a smile. "I don't really know what it is. It's more like a slider that I throw––it's weird, how I throw it. I've been throwing it since I was 12. I just fooled around with it when I was younger, and I just kept throwing it. I just put my hand on the ball and figured something out."
Regardless of how unorthodox West's breaking ball grip may be, he appears to have little trouble commanding the offering. At least, he didn't have any issues in his most recent game. West believes he's having success with the pitch because he never completely stopped toying with it.
"Warming up, as a position player, everyone fools around with offspeed stuff," the prospect said. "Just because position players want to be pitchers and pitchers want to be position players. So yeah, I've always had a feel for it."
If there's one issue with West's slider right now, it's that he has a tendency to drop his arm slot at times. But mechanical inconsistency is something that's to be expected for a hurler with so little experience on the mound. West is a good athlete, and he should be able to repeat his mechanics as he continues to get a feel for the mound.
West's slider velocity fluctuated between 83-88 mph in the outing, and that's also something that he believes is due to inconsistent mechanics. He says that, as he locks down mechanically, there should be less variance.
"It doesn't matter what pitch––it's just staying more on my legs," he said of his mechanical work. "Sometimes I'll just be too quick and it'll be all arm. That's when the velocity fluctuates. I'm trying to be consistent to where my pitches are all within three or four miles per out rather than having that couple pitches that just drop."
While West is still quite a ways from the major leagues, his move to the mound has certainly reinvigorated his career. If West continues to throw strikes with mid-to-upper 90s heat and a potential plus slider––and remains healthy––he has a chance to fly through the system and break out as one of the organization's top relief prospects.
But it's also important to remember that West has appeared in only five games as a professional pitcher––and none above extended spring training. For now, he'll be happy if he shows improvement in his next outing.
"Every time I go out there, I feel better," he said. "I feel more comfortable and I like it. I just want to continue doing what I'm doing. You can always throw more strikes, hit better spots, and throw better pitches in better counts. Just everything. There's always room to improve."
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West finds early success on mound
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