Scheppers commands first call-up

ROUND ROCK, Texas – Hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scheppers has gone through a number of small adjustments since the beginning of last offseason, helping him improve his command and, as of Thursday, earn his first major league call-up. Lone Star Dugout features the 25-year-old righty.

Tanner Scheppers appeared to be on the verge of playing in the major leagues when he signed with the Texas Rangers in the summer of 2009. But it wasn't until Thursday––on June 7, 2012––that he finally received his first call to the show.

When the Rangers signed Scheppers as the 44th overall pick in the '09 MLB Draft, there were concerns about the health of his shoulder, which caused him to miss a chunk of the '08 collegiate season at Fresno State.

Scheppers' shoulder––and arm in general––has held up just fine over the last three-plus years. He's had a couple injuries––a hamstring tweak here, a lower-back nerve issue there––but nothing serious, and nothing in his arm.

Entering this season, Scheppers' issue had been his command. The right-hander officially began his pro career in 2010 at Double-A Frisco, where he allowed a run on three hits in 11 innings, striking out 19 without issuing a walk. He still appeared to be on the fast track to Arlington. But he scuffled after reaching Triple-A, posting a 5.48 earned-run average and yielding 82 hits in 69 innings.

At the time, the Rangers were toying with the idea of making the 6-foot-4 fireballing prospect a starting pitcher. He spent part of the 2010 campaign as a starter and opened last season in the Triple-A Round Rock rotation. However, after the early-season back injury in 2011, the club moved him back to the bullpen.

Scheppers was limited to 43.2 innings between Frisco and Round Rock last year. Once again, the Triple-A results weren't quite dominant. In 20.2 innings, he allowed 10 runs on 23 hits, walking 12 and striking out 20.

Although the Southern California native still flashed dominant stuff––including a 94-98 mph fastball and a plus big-breaking curveball––he was often leaving his fastball up in the strike zone while also having trouble throwing his curve for strikes.

Following the 2011 campaign, Scheppers' prospect status had certainly taken a hit. He'd failed to reach the major leagues in his first two seasons despite logging more than 120 innings at the upper levels. Looking to improve his command, the Rangers sent Scheppers to the Venezuelan Winter League last offseason to work on his mechanics.

With the Navegantes del Magallanes last October and November, Scheppers pitched infrequently as he struggled with his control through much of October. A normal minor league club, with an eye on player development, would let a prospect work through his issues in game action.

The Venezuelan Winter League, however, isn't a normal minor league club. Scheppers was pitching before crowds of 20,000-plus in the intense Magallanes/Caracas rivalry. The Navegantes wanted to win, and if you weren't pitching well, they wouldn't use you.

Round Rock pitching coach Terry Clark felt that experience served Scheppers well.

"I think the biggest thing that happened for Tanner was going to winterball and pitching in front of 30,000 people in Venezuela, which he had never done before," Clark said. "And getting the experience. Everyone knows that if you go to winterball and you don't pitch well, you're gone. You're not going to stay there. So the pressure was on him."

Clark says Scheppers' time in Venezuela gave him a sense of urgency on the mound. After one stretch during early November in which he was kept out of games for six consecutive days, the righty came back and allowed two hits in 6.2 innings over his final six outings.

"He approached the game a little bit different," he said. "He thought, ‘I've got to go out, and I have to do my job tonight, otherwise I may not be there tomorrow.' I think that was the biggest factor for him––getting out there in that environment, being a closer in Venezuela, and understanding that there's no room for error."

Coming off a promising stint in Venezuela, the 25-year-old Scheppers earned a non-roster invitation to spring training for the third time in the last three years. Although he wasn't quite considered a top contender to crack the Rangers' bullpen out of camp, he remained with the big league club all spring.

The Rangers––and pitching coach Mike Maddux in particular––wanted more time with Scheppers to continue refining the mechanics he began using in Venezuela.

"He's just trying to shorten up his arm path a little bit," Clark said. "We want to give him a chance to really get on top of the ball and drive it downhill. He has done a good job. With his mechanics––the slight change with his mechanics––he has done a good job."

Through 25 relief appearances at Triple-A Round Rock this season, the altered mechanics appear to be producing the desired results. He posted a 3.72 ERA before the call-up in 29 innings, yielding 30 hits, walking four, and striking out 27.

Scheppers is doing a much better job of commanding his fastball low in the strike zone. While his command still isn't perfect, the within-the-zone location is much-improved, and he's getting ahead in counts consistently.

At Triple-A last season, Scheppers had a 12.8 percent walk rate and threw 59.9 percent of his pitches for a strike. This year, the walk rate is down to 3.3 percent, and he's throwing strikes with 65.3 percent of his pitches.

Another factor in the improved command has been the slider. Yes––the slider. Scheppers mostly scrapped his big-breaking curveball this past winter in favor of the easier-to-command slider.

"I think in the offseason this year––in winterball––he decided to go with one instead of a curveball and a slider," the pitching coach said. "He wanted to find one that he can throw for strikes."

During spring training, the former supplemental first-round pick flashed a solid-average breaking ball that appeared to be in-between the curve and slider. It was somewhat slurvy, and it certainly wasn't a wipeout offering.

But the breaking ball began to look more like a true slider early this season in Round Rock, as he threw the pitch more often. It worked between 82-84 mph––as shown in the video below––with good results during the first month.

After about a month, though, Scheppers' slider took another leap forward. He began throwing it between 84-86 mph with long, late break that can best be described as violent. He showed an ability to locate the pitch, and it was every bit as sharp as his curveball––except easier to command.

When Scheppers' slider velocity––and sharpness––began to spike in early May, so did his fastball. The prospect had often topped out at 98 mph––touching the very occasional 99––during his first two years in the Rangers' system. But on May 2 against New Orleans, he threw his fastball between 96-100 mph with the 84-86 mph slider. He was once again flashing two 70-grade pitches, but doing so with better command.

Following that particularly impressive outing, Clark raved about the slider.

"The (slider) he threw tonight," Clark said on May 2. "I was actually talking to Greg (Maddux) about it, and––guys are all caught up in the small slider. But the bigger slider is harder to hit. It's as simple as that. And it's 86 miles per hour. Good luck. Good luck trying to hit it.

"When he keeps it down––to the lefty and righty––you really have no chance. And it doesn't go just for Triple-A hitters. It goes for big league hitters, too."

In that appearance, Scheppers fell behind the first hitter 3-1––with all fastballs––before making the adjustment, locking in, and locating his final eight pitches for quality strikes. According to Clark, it's the new mechanics––with a shorter arm action––that now make it easier for Scheppers to adjust during an inning.

"When he's up, he is able to make adjustments faster," he said. "Last year, it would take two or three hitters. And now, he was up with the first three fastballs to the first hitter, and then everything started working down in the zone. It got him a ground ball, and then the next two hitters were a piece of cake."

The 2012 season hasn't been a total walk in the park for Scheppers thus far. He's yielded a run in only six of his 25 outings this season. But he's allowed multiple runs in four of those.

Although Scheppers has been somewhat hittable at times, he's been dominant far more often than not, and he's doing it with excellent stuff and much-improved command. In his final Triple-A outing––in which he yielded a run in two innings––the right-hander threw his fastball at 95-99 mph.

If his command continues to progress as it has this season, Scheppers still has a chance––with his dominant two-pitch mix, in addition to an average changeup––to become a late-inning major league reliever. Either way, he has the stuff to have success in some role.

Tanner Scheppers vs. Iowa: 4/16/2012 (best viewed in full screen and HD).

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