When a team selects a player in the 23rd round of the amateur draft, it rarely expects much. Sure, organizations hope to find a hidden gem or two in the later rounds, but the players taken on the second day of the draft are usually a mixed bunch consisting of long-term projects, organization fillers, and players who figure to be tough, if not impossible, signs. However, the Royals have been surprisingly successful of late with their 23rd round picks.
In 2004, the Royals snagged Oscar (O.D.) Gonzalez out of Broward Community College, and Gonzalez has thus far proven to be a solid player with an interesting combination of raw power and speed. They did even better in 2005, when they selected Canadian Matt Kniginyzky, who was the Burlington Bees' ace in the 2006 season's first half before being shut down with a shoulder injury in August. And in 2006, the Royals seem to have grabbed another excellent sleeper when they took pitcher Aaron Hartsock out of California Baptist University (CBU) with their 23rd round pick.
Hartsock, who grew up in Imperial Valley, California, just outside of San Diego, spent the first two years of his collegiate career at San Diego Mesa and Imperial Valley Community College, where he earned an All-Pacific Coast Conference Honorable Mention in 2004. He transferred to CBU to play for coach Gary Adcock's Lancers in 2005, and he arrived with a fastball that topped out at 88 mph and a 78 mph curveball that he struggled to control. Hartsock primarily pitched out of the bullpen during his junior season, and he finished the year with a respectable 3.82 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 61.1 innings pitched.
Hartsock was determined to improve upon his 2005 numbers, and on several occasions during the summer break after his junior season, he made the seven-hour round trip between Imperial Valley and the CBU campus in Riverside to throw bullpens and simulated games.
"He wanted to get better that badly," said Coach Adcock, who raved about Hartsock's work ethic when contacted by RC. "Aaron is a tireless worker who is goal driven."
"I was very fortunate to play under a coach like him, " said Hartsock when RC contacted him this fall. "When I left CBU, I felt like I was ready for the next level because of the experience and knowledge Coach Adcock was able to give not only me but my teammates as well."
And get better he did. Hartsock came back for his senior campaign and dominated, posting a 10-3 record and a 3.40 ERA. In 98.0 IP for the Lancers in 2006, Hartsock struck out a Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) best 110 batters while walking only 28, and he held opponents to a .247 BA. The Lancers, who finished the season with a program-best 43-9 record, were among the nation's best teams in the NAIA, and Hartsock was their ace. For his outstanding season, Hartsock was named the GSAC and NAIA Region II Pitcher of the Year.
"The program at CBU is great," said Hartsock. "Gary Adcock knows the game well and taught us how to be mentally strong in all situations."
Indeed, Hartsock's stuff got much better under Adcock's tutelage. He featured a mid-80s fastball and a curve that he had trouble keeping off the ground when he came to CBU, but by the time he left the program, Hartsock had two pitches that graded well professionally.
"[Aaron's] fastball became 89-91 with some sink, and his 78 mph curveball, which he bounced a bunch, became a 80-84 mph power downer curveball," said Adcock. "He easily became the best pitcher on our club and in our league."
Most impressively, Hartsock made tremendous strides with his curveball. He had difficulty commanding the pitch when he came to CBU, but it developed into his primary out pitch during his senior season at CBU.
"My best pitch by far is my curveball," said Hartsock. "I feel like I can throw it anytime in the count no matter what the situation is."
"It's my opinion that his curveball is a Major League pitch. It is a curveball that could allow him to become a great situational reliever for the Royals."
The Royals took notice of Hartsock's progress, and area scout John Ramey checked in with him midway through the 2006 season. That was Hartsock's only contact with the organization prior to the draft, but when the 6'-3" righty was selected, he signed quickly and headed to Idaho Falls.
Once with Idaho Falls, Hartsock quickly became one of the Chukars' best relievers. Hartsock compiled a 2.91 ERA with a league-leading six wins in 46.1 IP, and he held opponents to a .202 BA while striking out 43 batters and walking just 13.
Hartsock was particularly good against lefties, whom he held to a cumulative line of .184/.250/.265. Of course, success against lefties was nothing new for Hartsock, who also experienced success against them in college.
"I've always generally been pretty good against lefties," said Hartsock. "I just let my two-seamer run on the out and get them to roll over most of the time."
Hartsock did perceive a big difference between college and the pros.
"There was a big jump in just the size of the guys, and the plate discipline they had," said Hartsock. "You really couldn't get away with too many mistakes in the Pioneer League. You had to be on your game most of the time."
Indeed, Hartsock had little trouble being "on his game." Had he not allowed six earned runs in his season's lone disastrous appearance (in which he allowed six earned runs in 0.1 IP on August 1), Hartsock's ERA would have stood at 1.76. As it was, Hartsock was still the Chukars' most reliable reliever, and Baseball America labeled his debut as one of the best among the Royals' 2006 draftees.
Hartsock primarily throws three pitches. His fastball now runs from 88-93, and he throws his power curveball at 78-82. Hartsock also throws a developing change anywhere from 76-80, and he identified that pitch as the one that needs the most improvement as he moves forward.
"My change-up needs the most work," said Hartsock. "Throughout college, I mainly threw my fastball and curveball, but during my last year with CBU I found a comfortable change-up grip, and it's starting to come around."
A starter during his senior season in college, Hartsock piched out of the bullpen in Idaho Falls, and it doesn't look like the Royals are planning to move him anytime soon. Hartsock claims that he has no preference, but he identifies an interesting mix of pitchers as those to whom he looks up the most.
"Greg Maddux is just amazing to me," said Hartsock. "His ability to change speeds and throw the ball wherever he wants has always been something I've wanted to follow. In addition, Trevor Hoffman has an amazing change-up and his ability to compete is what I want to be able to do later in my career."
Hartsock should open next season in Burlington's bullpen, and it will be fun to track his progress. His curve is among the best in the system, and his 2006 debut won many fans, RC included.
So how high might this 23rd round pick climb? Will he ever see the fountains of Kauffman Stadium without having to pay for a ticket? His college coach doesn't seem to have much doubt.
"I have been fortunate to coach several young men who were high draft picks and pitched in the Major Leagues," said Adcock, "and it is my opinion that Aaron could be the first from CBU to pitch in the Major Leagues."
Given what we've heard about Hartsock, we wouldn't be surprised to see him pitch in Kauffman Stadium someday. Hartsock was particularly impressive when we saw him in Idaho Falls in August, and we're looking forward to watching him in the coming years.
To view RC's complete Aaron Hartsock gallery and discuss this story, click here.
Aaron Hartsock: Proving the skeptics wrong
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