Taylor Widener was one of the bigger post-draft stories for the Yankees down on the farm last year when he struck out 59 batters in his first 38.1 innings and opposing batters hit just .138 against him, all while he ascended to low-A Charleston in his debut season.
Most of that success, however, came out of the bullpen last year and he began transitioning to the starting role late last season and into the offseason. That transition continued through his first ever Spring Training camp with the Yankees this year.
"In Spring Training I needed more consistency with all my pitches," Widener admitted. "The main thing I was working on was my changeup. I really just wanted to get get a good feel for things since it was my first camp."
"Widener really focused on working on his changeup in camp and going more innings, and learning to start," Tampa pitching coach Tim Norton added.
It isn't as if the concept of starting games was completely new to Widener. He did start 14 games during his three-year college career but the bulk of his appearances did come out of the bullpen and that trend continued last year in Staten Island and Charleston.
Moving to the starting role this year, however, he has had to learn how to build up his arm strength and stamina, preserve some of his power and energy for later in games, and incorporate more changeups into his pitching repertoire. The entire thing has been a process to date.
"To watch him in Spring Training go a couple of innings, then build up to three, now five, it's been really impressive," Tampa manager Jay Bell stated.
The build-up has been slow and steady, not just innings-wise but even velocity-wise. Known for his mid-90s heat coming out of the bullpen last season, Widener is trying to find that correct balance of velocity and stamina in a starting role now. Sitting mostly in the 90-95 mph range as a starter so far this season, and building up closer the latter in recent starts, the results thus far haven't been quite as dominating as a year ago.
"I've been pitching alright," Widener said prior to Thursday's 2-0 loss in Clearwater. "I haven't had the results that I intended but I was able to string together a few [good starts]. I'm starting to get the life back on my fastball. I'm working to get a few more swings and misses."
Going just 1-4 with a 4.13 ERA through his first seven starts, while the numbers are clearly not as impressive as last season just yet, his coaches are starting to see an upward trend that lead them to believe he may be turning the corner in his new role.
"Widner started out a little rusty but he's been playing great [lately]," Norton said. "His fastball is really good and it's working well for him. He just needs to get used to the starting routine, work on his fastball command, develop the changeup, and develop his three pitch mix."
"Widener has adapted to the starting role opposed to the relief role," Bell added. "He has been getting stronger and stronger as the season progresses. He, just like all pitchers, needs to work on commanding the baseball, specifically with his fastball, offspeed pitches, limiting the mistakes in the zone, and getting stronger on the mound. He looks great though and comfortable on the mound, and he is enjoying the competition."
Both coaches caution anyone looking to judge Widener based on the first few weeks of the season though and even Widener needs to give himself a bit of a break as he transitions to his new role.
"I definitely need more consistency in all my pitches to stay down in the zone," Widener admitted. "I'm just looking to keep my team in the game so we can win."
Still, progress continues to be made, both in the stats column and inside the numbers, progress that isn't lost on his coaches. As Widener continues to build his way up to the six and seven innings mark as the season continues to move on, many believe that the old dominant Widener of 2016 will show up eventually once he's found his comfort zone in the starting role.
"His fastball has been looking better," Norton said. "He is starting to spin the ball better than I thought [too]. He has a good three-pitch mix. He has to attack guys and go on the hunt. He's an aggressive guy [at his core]."