Kohl Stewart Reflects on His First Year as a Professional

The 2014 MLB First Year Amateur Player Draft is right around the corner and hundreds of high school and college ballplayers are counting the hours before the Houston Astros go on the clock with the first pick of the draft on Thursday, June 5.

One year ago, Kohl Stewart was an 18 year-old pitcher anxiously awaiting the draft. Today, Stewart, who was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the fourth overall pick of the first round, is a couple of months in to his first full year of professional baseball.

Kohl Stewart

Kohl Stewart

Stewart sat recently and reflected on the draft a year ago and his progress as a starting pitcher this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the Twins’ Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

“I think that this time last year, we had just lost in the state finals in baseball,” recalled Stewart. “Then I was graduating from school and the draft was coming up. I was spending hours with my agent talking about what I wanted to do. There were a million different scenarios playing over in my head. I remember thinking, ‘if this happens, if this guy goes here and if this guy goes here.’”

Those “scenarios” Stewart speaks of went beyond those of most of his peers. While all of the high school ballplayers likely to be selected near the top of the draft have the option of postponing their professional careers in favor of playing college baseball, Stewart had an additional option. He had a scholarship offer from Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin to play quarterback for the Aggies.

Stewart and his agent certainly knew he’d be selected early on draft night. But that doesn’t mean he had made up his mind weeks before the draft that he’d be signing with whatever team chose him.

As draft day neared, however, things seemed to come more in to focus.

“I expected to go to A&M,” acknowledged Stewart. “A couple of days before the draft, I think, my agent I guess had kind of talked to some people and he kind of had an idea of what was going to happen and I even talked to Coach Sumlin a couple of days before it happened and he gave me his blessing. He wanted me to do what was best for me and that was another dynamic that I had to deal with, too. I kind of felt like I was letting him down. Having guys like that… he’s a really good coach for a reason. He had gone through that before. He definitely made the situation easier on me.”

Even having pretty much come to grips with the likelihood that he’d be signing a professional baseball contract rather than pursuing a major college football career didn’t make waiting any less stressful for Stewart.

“You kind of have that situation made up in your mind, but everything’s still got to happen. You’ve still got to sit there and the decision’s still got to be made,” said Stewart.

The anxiety of the wait didn’t mean Stewart and those closest to him didn’t enjoy the moment, however.

“I definitely enjoyed it. It was definitely a fun time for my family,” recalled Stewart. “I have a lot of friends that are really good baseball players that are playing in college right now. I got to experience what a lot of guys that I grew up playing ball with will probably be going through the same thing in a couple of years and to kind of share it with them was really special.

“But it was definitely really stressful. I would go to bed knowing I was going to have to make a really big choice and that was kind of hard. Every day it got closer to the draft, it was very apparent that I was going to have a very good opportunity with the Twins and I didn’t want to pass it up.”

Players do a lot of different things to relax on draft day. Some go hunting or fishing. Some play golf to take their minds off the draft and hope it passes the time more quickly.

Stewart4

Kohl Stewart

Stewart enjoys hunting and fishing in the offseason and also really enjoys golfing. But on draft day, he chose to pass the hours leading up to the draft with friends and family.

“I remember waking up. I slept in late,” Stewart recollected, smiling a bit. “I told myself I don’t want to get up and have to worry about it all day long. I wanted to sleep in as long as I could. I think that lasted until about 6:30 that morning.”

After breakfast, Stewart spent time with one of his Select Team coaches (“He was blowing it up, having a good time with it, kind of looking forward to the night”) and with an older brother. “We went to a place called Mel’s Diner. It’s a small little burger place. I went there, had a good meal with him. I remember he went and bought a bunch of champagne and put it in a cooler. Then we went back to my house and a bunch of people showed up and we turned on the TV.

“It was good. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.”

Now, a year later, coming out of Memorial Day Weekend, Stewart has a 1-2 record and a 2.93 ERA as a member of the Kernels rotation. Stewart struggled in a loss to Beloit on Monday, but had given up just three earned runs in his previous five starts combined.

Nearly two months in to his first full season of pro ball, Stewart talked about what he has found to be the toughest things to adjust to in professional baseball life.

One, the adjustment to going to the ballpark every day either to play or work out between starts, is commonly mentioned by first-year pro ballplayers.

“I think that’s kind of a cliché that everybody says, ‘you’re not used to playing every day,’ and you hear that so much, but it’s true,” said Stewart. “I think that most of us guys that haven’t played a full year are still kind of getting used to this kind of animal of 140 games in a season.

“I think definitely that’s been the hardest thing for me. And then being away from my home. There’s some days I’ve just wanted to pick up my stuff and go home. I think every kid goes through that.

“I mean, I haven’t had a freshman year of college yet, so I didn’t get to experience that kind of homesick feeling first. But I’m learning. I’m learning how to be a professional, to come every day and figure out that I’ve got a job to do.”

The other challenging adjustment is probably a bit more unique to a pitcher in Stewart’s rather unique situation as a multi-sport star in high school.

“Going in to the season, I hadn’t thrown a lot of innings,” explained Stewart. “I threw in high school seasons but football kind of kept me from (throwing after the season).

“I think I underestimated the amount of throwing that I’m going to be doing. But I think that everybody probably goes through that, even coming out of college. I think the two bullpens between every start (a byproduct of the Kernels’ six-man rotation). Ive never been used to that. Or throwing a bullpen the second day after you pitch, that was a new animal for me.

Stewart3

Kohl Stewart

“I think that going in to a couple of starts, I felt like my arm was dead. I think that my arm was learning how to adjust to that feeling and I think that now my arm is starting to build on it. I think that now my arm is getting stronger and I’m kind of building back up to that strength that I was at.

“I think that those two things were probably the toughest for me, but I think that as time goes on, I’m getting more used to it every day, so I think I’m doing alright.”

As a result of Stewart’s limited work in high school, he and the Twins clearly had a plan for Stewart to follow heading in to the season. Not only pitch count limits and innings limits, which are commonplace for teenage pitching prospects, but also plans that focus on learning his craft.

Stewart explained the plan and assessed his progress so far.

“I’ve definitely had some good starts and I’ve had some bad starts. I think going in to the season, they hammered some things in to my head that they want me to get done, such as fast-ball command. They want me to pound the zone. They want me to be efficient. They want me to pitch. They don’t want me throwing a lot of pitches. There’s a pitch count on me for a reason. They want me to be able to go as deep as I can in to games without running my pitch count up.

“One thing that they really want me to do is fast ball command. They don’t want me to get behind in counts and then have to work from behind. So, I think that focusing on that stuff with Ivan (Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga) and our catchers, I think that’s really helped me a lot.

“So I think that getting these innings in and learning to get the change-up over. I hadn’t thrown very many change-ups and my change-up now is something that I go to a lot against lefties. And really, just getting ground balls and keeping the ball out of the air. I think I lived up in the zone in high school because I could. I used to just throw the ball as hard as I could and that’s not really pitching. I’ve had to learn to command the zone and not feel like I have to overpower everybody.

“Going in to the season, I’m trying to build on every start, but I think that the approach that I have right now that Ivan and Jake (manager Jake Mauer) and I have gone over, I think that the plan we have going in to every start is pretty good. I think that I like where things are headed, but I think that I have a lot of work to do.”

College football season doesn’t start for a couple of months, but Texas A&M and every other major program recently wrapped up their spring practices. Did that give Stewart an itch to get on the practice field and throw the football around?

“I didn’t have time for it,” replied the pitcher. “I was so busy figuring out what I was doing and stuff, just trying to get better.”

Not that football is forever banished from his mind, of course.

“Whenever I watch them on TV, I always get that itch,” admitted Stewart, “but I think everybody kind of enjoys watching those things on TV. I think when I go to the games, I feel like I’m there kind of part of the team. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s there. There’s always going to be that closeness that I have with those guys that are in that class.

“But they know that I’m doing what I love and I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.”

**********

The Kernels return home to Cedar Rapids after Tuesday’s matinee series finale in Beloit. They’ll be home for six games (three vs Wisconsin and three vs Burlington). Friday night, May 30, is another special jersey promotion. It’s “Star Wars” night with white/black “storm trooper” themed jerseys that will be auctioned off via silent auction with proceeds going to a charity. The first 1,000 fans through the gates Friday also get a free Star Wars t-shirt.

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

Kernels Star Wars Jersey

 
Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

Star Wars t-shirt giveaway

 

 

 

 

 

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs; jersey/t-shirt images: Kernels.com)

GameChat – Rangers @ Twins, 1:10

Look at that, would ya? A REAL outfield!

Yes, I know, Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia won’t make anyone’s list of ‘best defensive outfielders’ in MLB baseball, but at least neither of them have spent the past 10 years making a living playing shortstop.

More importantly, we’d like to hope that the arrival of Willingham and Arcia will mean fewer games where the Twins try to get by on 3-4 hits for an entire game.

I’ve got plans for the day, so I won’t be around to see or hear the game, but let’s hope our guys can put the weekend road sweep behind them and start a little winning streak of their own. – JC

Texas @ Minnesota
Choo, DH Dozier, 2B
Andrus, SS Mauer, 1B
Moreland, 1B Plouffe, 3B
Beltre, A, 3B Arcia, O, RF
Rios, A, RF Willingham, LF
Gimenez, C Kubel, DH
Martin, L, CF Suzuki, K, C
Choice, LF Hicks, CF
Odor, 2B Escobar, E, SS
  Tepesch, P   Correia, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 4 0
San Francisco 2 0 1 1 3 0 0 1 x 8 12 1

yeah we have definitely played better baseball on Memorial Day..

The biggest news for today is that Hicks is officially dropping the switch hitting label – he is going to be a righty only. Given his split stats, that’s probably a good idea.

Memorial Day is for Remembering

I sat down to write a Memorial Day post that captures the meaning of this Holiday and quickly determined I couldn’t do better than Babs did a year ago. So, rather than pale by comparison, I’ll simply re-post her contribution. Enjoy your holidays, but pause at some point today to remember. – JC

We’ll come back to baseball later today, of course, but I want to encourage all of our readers to take a moment’s pause today. For all those who have served in our nation’s military, we thank you.  For all those families who have sacrificed, we thank you.

But in the true recognition of Memorial Day and it’s history, we remember those who fell in the service of this country and we honor their memory. This is not Veterans Day -although I esteem them highly and am very glad to have them with us. This is Memorial Day – the time to remember those who never came home paying a cost none of us have ever paid.

There is no way to pay the debt owed for the privileges I enjoy.  I can only recognize the depth of loss.

We encourage all our readers to enjoy their Memorial Day in whatever manner they choose but to take a moment during the day to remember those we’ve lost. We use this quote a lot but considering Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War, it seems appropriate.

… The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … 

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

GameChat – Minnesota @ San Francisco, #3, 3:05

One more game on the left coast as the Twins try to end the road trip on a high note.

Roster changes are being promised for when the Twins get back home. I hope that means this is the last time we see three shortstops in the Twins line up for a while.

Minnesota @ San Francisco
Dozier, 2B Blanco, G, CF
Mauer, 1B Pence, RF
Plouffe, 3B Posey, C
Suzuki, K, C Sandoval, 3B
Nunez, LF Morse, 1B
Parmelee, RF Colvin, LF
Escobar, E, SS Crawford, B, SS
Santana, D, CF Hicks, 2B
Nolasco, P Bumgarner, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 4 0
San Francisco 2 0 1 1 3 0 0 1 x 8 12 1

This looks like another one of those games that almost makes me glad the Twins front office has decided that Iowa should be blacked out from seeing. – JC

GameChat – MInnesota @ San Diego #2, 8:10 pm

Does this game start earlier tonight? It appears so.

Regardless, here are tonight’s lineups.

Minnesota San Diego
Dozier, 2B Cabrera, E, SS
Mauer, 1B Smith, S, LF
Plouffe, 3B Headley, 3B
Parmelee, RF Alonso, 1B
Suzuki, K, C Gyorko, 2B
Kubel, LF Venable, RF
Escobar, E, SS Maybin, CF
Hicks, CF Rivera, R, C
Hughes, P, P Ross, T, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 2 4 0
San Diego 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 1

Hey this winning thing is kind of fun, isn’t it? Sure, 80% of Twins fans don’t really find out about the win until the following day when it all takes place after normal people head to bed, but it’s still a W.

Only 4 hits for the Twins, so it’s tough to find a lot of offensive heroes, but Chris Parmelee’s RBI single in the 6th got the Twins on the board and Trevor Plouffe had half the team’s hits, including a HR for an insurance run in the 8th.

But BOD honors go to Phil Hughes, who contributed another excellent start. 7 innings.of shutout moundwork, 7 hits, no walks and 7 Ks. Nice.

And in honor of this achievement taking place in a National League park where Hughes had to borrow a helmet and bat three times, we have a picture I took proving he actually got some practice using the bat during spring training in March.

HughesBatting1

A Kernels Day in Photos

I’m traveling for work the first half of this week, so I won’t really have an opportunity to write a regular weekly update on the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Perhaps it’s just as well, though, because the Twins’ Midwest League affiliate did not have a real good week.

The Kernels dropped from the second spot in the MWL Western Division standings all the way to the cellar, as they endured an eight-game losing streak.

That losing streak ended Sunday in Burlington, however. Cedar Rapids topped the Bees 7-6. As a bonus, the win lifted the Kernels out of the MWL West basement.

Since I don’t have anything exciting to write about this week, I thought the least I could do is provide a few pictures of the game on Sunday. I had hoped to take more, but it turns out there are very few spots where you can take pictures at the Burlington ballpark that aren’t behind netting.

Some of the photos are a bit blurry. I hoped they just looked blurry on Sunday because I was having a few beers at the game, but no, they’re still a little blurry.

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

3B Bryan Haar and SP Ethan Mildren

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That's something he would not be doing by the 9th inning, however.

Manager Jake Mauer coaching 3B in the first inning. That’s something he would not be doing by the end of the game, however. Mauer was ejected in the 7th inning following a heated discussion with the umpires over a balk call.

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Leadoff hitter JD Williams

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra pulling in to 2B with a double

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Tanner Vavra chats with manager Jake Mauer. Vavra would ultimately be stranded at 3B.

Chad Christensen

Chad Christensen

Ivory Thomas

Ivory Thomas

Mitch Garver

Mitch Garver

Joel Licon

Joel Licon

Bryan Haar

Bryan Haar

Bo Altobelli

Bo Altobelli

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada

Ethan Mildren

Ethan Mildren

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer's ejection.

Tommy Watkins took over 3B coaching duties following Mauer’s ejection. Two runs scored in the 9th inning with Watkins and his bubble gum in charge.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels' final run.

Tommy Watkins gets a close-up look as Chad Christensen tags up and scores on a sac fly for the Kernels’ final run.

 

GameChat – Mariners @ Twins, 7:10

I have to be honest, I’m not sure I could name 5 guys on the Mariners’ roster this year without looking at their posted line up.

Fortunately, I have that line up right here.

Seattle @ Minnesota
Jones, J, CF Dozier, 2B
Saunders, M, RF Mauer, 1B
Cano, 2B Plouffe, 3B
Hart, DH Parmelee, RF
Smoak, 1B Suzuki, K, C
Seager, 3B Kubel, LF
Ackley, LF Pinto, DH
Zunino, C Hicks, CF
Miller, B, SS Escobar, E, SS
  Young, Cr, P   Gibson, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Seattle 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 0 4 9 1
Minnesota 0 0 2 1 1 1 0 0 x 5 12 0

I didn’t get to listen to a lot of the game, but it sure seemed like a good, solid team effort.

Kyle Gibson worked a very nice seven innings. Glen Perkins closed with a nicely un-dramatic ninth inning.

Six different hitters had doubles, two had home runs. One guy, Brian Dozier, had one of each so he gets our BOD award. – JC

Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier

When baseball gods get angry

Everyone who has ever played the game knows you simply do not anger the baseball gods.

The baseball gods are a vengeful lot. Any kind of slight, whether real or perceived, can cause them to rain down bad karma on players, coaches, teams and even, apparently, entire organizations.

Someone in the Minnesota Twins organization must have really ticked off those baseball gods back during spring training, because the Twins have had one calamity after another since March. That’s when arguably the top power-hitting prospect in the game, Miguel Sano, was lost for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), requiring Tommy John surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the consensus top minor league prospect in baseball, Byron Buxton, injured his wrist in the outfield on one of the back fields of the Twins’ training complex in Fort Myers FL. In fact, the baseball gods must really have it in for Buxton because just days after he was activated by Fort Myers, they zapped his wrist again, sending him back to the DL.

The Twins have had so many injuries at the Major League level that they’ve routinely been sending out career infielders like Eduardo Escobar to play in the outfield over the past week. The Twins currently have four players on a Disabled List of one kind or another. Others, including $23 million a year man Joe Mauer, have missed stretches of games with injuries despite avoiding a trip to the DL.

However, the wrath of the baseball gods has perhaps been visited hardest upon the Twins’ Class A Midwest League affiliate, the Cedar Rapids Kernels.

Randy Rosario

Randy Rosario – on the DL

Cedar Rapids’ uniforms don’t have players names sewn on the back of their jerseys above the number. That’s probably a good thing this season, because the club may have needed to retain a seamstress full time just to keep up with the roster changes already during 2014.

Roster turnover is not unusual in the minor leagues, of course. Players are promoted, demoted and even released at various points during the season, making it not at all unusual to see close to 50 different players take the field in a Kernels uniform at some point during the summer. A year ago, 49 different players (including Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey on an injury rehabilitation assignment) put in time with the Kernels.

But this year’s Cedar Rapids club is getting an unwelcome jump on the roster musical chairs game.

Jeremias Pineda

Jeremias Pineda – on the DL

On Tuesday, less than six weeks in to the new season, pitcher Jared Wilson became the 34th player to wear a Kernels uniform this year.

Before the end of the first game of the Kernels’ doubleheader Tuesday night, shortstop Engelb Vielma had been pulled from the game after coming up lame as he left the batters box in the second inning and center fielder Jason Kanzler had been injured on a collision in the outfield.

(UPDATE: After the 2nd game, Kernels manager Jake Mauer confirmed Vielma injured his hamstring and Kanzler likely has a concussion. Mauer said he expects both players to be placed on the Disabled List and hopes to have replacements up from extended spring training in time for Wednesday night’s doubleheader.)

Of the 25 players who arrived in Cedar Rapids from spring training to start the current campaign, pitcher Brandon Peterson has earned a promotion to Class high-A Fort Myers, pitcher Miguel Sulbaran has been traded, pitcher Christian Powell has been released and seven original 2014 Kernels have spent some time on the club’s Disabled List. If Vielma’s name is added to that list, he would be the eighth.

Centerfielder Zack Granite was hitting .313 for the Kernels just four games in to the season when the baseball gods struck him down with a rotator cuff strain.

Zack Larson

Zack Larson – on the DL

About ten days later, catcher Michael Quesada fell to a right wrist contusion.

Less than a week after Quesada was felled, outfielder Jeremias Pineda broke his wrist and pitcher Randy Rosario hit the Disabled List with a left flexor mass strain.

The game’s mystic guardians finally looked in other directions for almost two weeks before returning their attention to the Kernels with a vengeance and sidelining infielders Tanner Vavra (right ankle sprain) and Logan Wade (dislocated left shoulder), as well as outfielder Zack Larson (right hamstring strain) all during the first ten days of May.

That’s an average of better than one player a week that manager Jake Mauer and his coaching staff have had to replace due to injury.

Logan Wade

Logan Wade – on the DL

So far, the nine players added to the Kernels’ roster as replacements from extended spring training have managed to avoid the DL, though Kanzler would break that string if he lands on the DL following his injury Tuesday. One replacement, Jonatan Hinojosa, was with the team only long enough to play in one game before finding himself suspended by Major League Baseball for having tested positive for a PED.

Michael Quesada

Michael Quesada – back from the DL

Twins farm director Brad Steil must cringe every time his phone rings and he sees Jake Mauer’s name on the caller ID.

Perhaps remarkably, Mauer has patched together line ups that have managed to win more games than they’ve lost. In fact, with five weeks left in the Midwest League’s first-half race, the Kernels are right in the thick of the race for second place in the league’s Western Division and the automatic postseason spot that would come with it.

The Kernels struggled through a tough six-game road trip during which they won just two of six games and they play just seven of their next 17 games at home, but both Quesada and Vavra have returned from their injuries.

Even Quesada’s return, however, poses a peculiar challenge for his manager. The Kernels’ current active roster includes 13 pitchers and 12 position players, four of which are catchers. Of course, at this level, it’s not unusual for catchers to play some first base. Which is good, because the Kernels’ regular first baseman of late, Chad Christensen, is likely going to be needed in the outfield.

The arrival of JD Williams from extended spring training, where he’d been recovering from his own spring training injury (a broken thumb) has certainly provided a spark at the top of the Cedar Rapids batting order.

Tanner Vavra

Tanner Vavra – back from the DL

After Monday night’s doubleheader against Peoria was washed out, the Kernels were scheduled to play back-to-back doubleheaders against the Chiefs Tuesday and Wednesday.

Going in to Tuesday night’s games, Peoria sat in second place in the MWL West, just a half game ahead of Cedar Rapids. There were four more teams, however, bunched tightly together behind the Kernels and all of them have their eyes on the second Western Division postseason spot.

- JC

(All photos: JC/Knuckleballs)

GameChat – Twins @ Tigers #3, 12:08

Happy Mothers’ Day to all you moms out there!

mothersdaybaseballSam Deduno takes the mound for today’s rubber contest against the Tigers. Joe Mauer reportedly showed up today saying his back felt pretty good, so he’s at least back in the lineup for the second consecutive day at DH.

I won’t be around for the game today. I’ll be spending the day with my mom and family having dinner at a casino :)

Let’s hope Deduno makes it a terrific Mothers Day for Twins fans.

Go Twins!

Minnesota @ Detroit
Dozier, 2B Kinsler, 2B
Mauer, DH Hunter, To, RF
Plouffe, 3B Cabrera, M, 1B
Colabello, 1B Martinez, V, DH
Pinto, C Kelly, D, 3B
Nunez, LF Jackson, A, CF
Parmelee, RF Avila, C
Hicks, CF Romine, A, SS
Escobar, E, SS Davis, R, LF
  Deduno, P   Ray, R, P
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Minnesota 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 0 4 10 1
Detroit 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 3 7 1

I missed the entire game, so I have nothing but the box score to go on here, as far as naming a BOD.

Sam Deduno appears to have had a decent enough start. That’s great to see.

The two Eduardos, Nunez and Escobar, each had a couple of hits.

But I’m going to go with Josmil PInto as BOD for his two hits, two runs scored and a RBI.

Pinto2014ST5

Josmil PInto (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

‘ZONING’ With Kernels Pitching Coach Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga is in his first year serving as the Cedar Rapids Kernels pitching coach, but he’s far from being a rookie when it comes to working with young pitchers in the Twins organization.

After bouncing around the minor leagues for much of the 1990s with the Expos,  Rockies and Mets organizations, the Venezuela native began coaching young pitchers for the Twins organization in 2001 and he’s been helping to develop the organization’s young arms ever since.

Arteaga spent several years as the pitching coordinator for the Twins’ Venezuelan Academy and coached at both Rookie League levels before serving as the pitching coach for the Class high-A Fort Myers Miracle a year ago. This season, he and Gary Lucas (the 2013 Kernels pitching coach) traded assignments, bringing Arteaga to Cedar Rapids.

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and manager Jake Mauer share a light moment while watching a pair of Kernels pitchers work out. (Photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Several hours before game time, you can find Arteaga, often sporting a shirt with the word “ZONING” across the back, working with his pitchers in the Kernels bullpen down the right field line at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Recently, he agreed to sit down and talk about his work with the Kernels and the Twins organization.

First things first. What’s with the ZONING shirt?

“We’re trying to implement, as an organization, visualization, focus, concentration – actually throwing the ball to one spot without thinking how to throw the ball,” Arteaga answered.

The secret to doing that, according to the coach, is visualization.

“First, you know what you throw in certain situations and you know where you want to throw it, right? That should be how we pitch. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses and how to apply that to the hitters’ tendencies.

Ivan Arteaga

Ivan Arteaga

“So zoning is basically, we’ve been working for the last couple of years on having the pitchers visualize the pitch before they throw it. OK I have an 0-0 count, I want to throw a breaking ball, I don’t want to throw it down in the dirt, I want to throw it for a strike. So I’ll visualize the pitch how I want to throw it.”

Arteaga was quick to point out, however, that it’s not a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pitching.

“Everybody’s doing it for the most part, (but) everybody has his own way of doing it. Getting in to the process of thinking about pitching, and throwing the ball; not thinking about the process of ‘how do I throw the ball? My mechanics are off, or this or that.’ You throw the way you throw and it’s kind of hard for us to change that.”

It’s not that pitchers don’t need to work on mechanics, of course, but those thoughts are ideally confined to the bullpen workout sessions. Pitchers can’t afford to be thinking about that kind of thing on the mound during games.

“You shouldn’t and if you’re doing that, then something’s wrong,” confirmed Arteaga.

While he’s an advocate for the Zoning philosophy, Arteaga doesn’t believe that simply subscribing to the approach will assure a young pitcher’s success.

“I don’t think that success will be dictated by the Zoning or by how you run or by how you lift or if you sleep enough or how heavy you are or how skinny you are,” said the coach.

“Success is a combination of all those factors, plus talent. Success is how you put together the whole package. Mental toughness and talent all together and you apply that in to the game.”

Arteaga has been entrusted this season with a number of the Twins organization’s top pitching prospects. Some were high draft choices, others highly coveted international signings, but the coach sees similarities in what each of the pitchers on his staff must overcome.

“Facing adversity,” Arteaga said. “Because that’s the main thing. The game is full of adversity. I’ve seen guys with a lot of talent, but they cannot get people out. And I’ve seen guys with lesser talent that are just great, because they’re mentally tough and they know how to apply their talent to the game and to the hitters’ tendencies.

“So, to say that the guys that are pitching well are doing the Zoning and the guys that are not are not doing it, I don’t think that would be very smart on my part. I think that everybody’s doing it, it’s just that this is a level where everybody’s so young and so inexperienced. There’s a lot of things they’re working on at the same time. Holding runners. Getting in a routine. Playing every day. Some of these guys just worked on Saturdays or Fridays. Now they come to the ballpark every day.”

While subscribing to the Zoning philosophy, in itself, won’t assure success, Arteaga believes there is one thing that a pitcher must develop.

“As a pitching coach, if I have to pinpoint to one thing that is going to make these guys succeed throughout the year, it’s mental toughness. Mental toughness is part of the Zoning. Mental toughness is part of who you are as a pitcher when adversity strikes. Adversity could be having a cold, you’re sick. Maybe homesick. That’s adversity. It’s just the way it is.”

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that such things can enter in to the mind of a professional ballplayer when he’s on the mound during a game but, said Arteaga, “It’ll be there. But how do you set your priorities straight, being able to put all that aside and go and perform?”

One thing you hear a lot about with pitchers spending their first year or two as professionals is that organizations try to limit the number of different pitches they work on in a given season. A pitcher who threw a variety of pitches in high school or college sometimes seems to focus on just a fastball and one variety of off-speed pitch early in his professional career.

Do the Twins or Arteaga take that approach with the Kernels’ pitchers?

There’s no one answer to that question, according to the coach. “Always depends on the player, always.”

Arteaga also doesn’t believe there’s a single right approach.

“If I tell you that there’s a philosophy out there that is successful, everybody would be doing it,” Arteaga said with a laugh.

“So everybody’s different and as a coach you have to fluctuate, not only man to man, player to player, but day by day. There are some days that will be cold, some days will be rainy. You have to learn to adjust to that and as a coach you have to let the guys pitch and learn.

“There are some days that the change up might not be there or the breaking balls won’t be there or they’re very good in the bullpen, but not so good on the mound. Or you see that they’ve had a bad week, headaches or something. And the day of the game, everything goes away and they have a great game.

“So this is baseball. There’s nothing set in stone. There’s nothing for you to do every day and you’re going to be successful. There’s no guidelines for that.”

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

Kernels pitching coach Ivan Arteaga and pitcher Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballsblog.com)

For Arteaga, that means treating every player as an individual.

“As a coach, I’ve got to adjust to every single one of them and understand what they do and how they do it and how they can be successful by doing that.

“Now, yeah, we want to establish the fastball in and out, throw the ball down. We want them to have at least ten per cent change ups every day they throw, the starters, and about 15 per cent the sliders or curve. That’s what we do.

“It’s a very simple philosophy. Attack the hitters. Be athletic around the mound. Pitch inside. Throw the ball down and attack. Attack.”

Treating each player as an individual must be a challenge, given the widely varying backgrounds that pitchers at the Class A level have. Some were still pitching for their high schools a year ago, some were in college and some have been working their way up through a couple of years of short-season rookie leagues within the Twins organization.

Arteaga believes it’s important for him to demonstrate consistency in his approach, even as he works with players individually.

“Number one, I am the coach so I try to be the same every day, regardless of the score or regardless of what happened. I won’t panic. I won’t get too high or too low. If they see that in me, they understand that I am under control. I’m fine with what they’re doing.

“Now, if I pay enough attention, they will tell me what they need. Once I pay attention, and I get to know them and they get to know me, we establish a relationship. Then I can treat everybody in a different way.

“For the most part, yes, you have a standard. That’s who I am. I’m not going to be different to you than I’m going to be to them. That’s who I am.”

The individual approach enters during individual instruction, according to Arteaga.

“Now, how do I teach you? How do I approach the teaching part of it? That is different. You have different needs as a lefty than as a righty. Different needs as a starter than as a reliever. Different needs as a long reliever than as a closer. So, yes, I have to adjust to each and every one of them.”

Since Arteaga was working at the next level up in the organization, with the Miracle in Fort Myers, a year ago, he hadn’t had an opportunity to work much with this year’s crop of Kernels pitchers prior to spring training this year. That means they’ve had just a couple of months to get to know each other. Has that been enough time to establish those individual relationships?

“Yes, it’s all about paying attention. It’s all about spending the time with them. When you’re on the road, this is your family. You’re spending 14 hours on a bus ride in this class. You get to know them a little bit.

“I believe that they know me well. They know how I’m going to act and react and what I like and not only me, as a coach, but what the Twins want. I’m basically an extension of what the Twins philosophy is. Twins first, then yes, as a person, you put out your knowledge and experience and what you are and you try to teach them the way you teach.”

The speculation in the media and among others who follow the Twins minor leagues has been that the Twins had Arteaga and Lucas swap coaching assignments this season because the Twins knew they’d have a number of significant Latin American prospects on the Kernels’ staff and they may find  it helpful from a communication standpoint to have a Spanish-speaking pitching coach.

Arteaga isn’t certain that was really a significant factor, however.

“I don’t know if that’s the case,” observed Arteaga, concerning such speculation. “I guess that it’s got something to do with it. Obviously, the communication factor is important.

“Yeah, I think that helps, but at the same time, I think I have one half (of the pitching staff) that were born in the United States. They’re college guys, some of them are very good prospects. So I have to be able to teach baseball.

“Personally, I think that I can communicate with anyone. I’ve worked on my English for a long time and keep working on it. I prepare myself all the time to be able to communicate in both languages. Not only in baseball terms, but in life. Understand the culture, understand how Americans go about their everyday lives. I’ve spent half of my life learning that, because I was here, playing and coaching.”

Speaking of top prospects, his Kernels staff has a lot of them. Does he feel any additional pressure to make sure all of the high-priced pitching talent with the Kernels this summer progresses the way the Twins want?

“I feel motivation. I have a plan every day and I do my best every day so they can get better. I’m not pitching anymore, so I don’t have stress or sense of urgency because I do everything that I can every day to teach these guys how the game is, the game that we want them to pitch, the Minnesota Twins. So I have my own plan that I have learned over the last 14 years with the Twins.

“So to have guys, regardless of how much talent they have, to be able to coach them every day, that’s my motivation. If not, I wouldn’t be here. That’s what moves me every day, to have the motivation to teach somebody and to actually help them with the game and with life.”

Certainly, a coach like Arteaga must get a sense of satisfaction from seeing his pitchers succeed, though.

“You do,” Arteaga confirmed. Yet it isn’t just seeing pitchers advance through the ranks that gives him satisfaction.

“I think I get most satisfied when we make eye contact, regardless of the situation, that’s the best communication you can have with a human being.”

“I can talk to you all day,” Arteaga continued, “but when you’re pitching and I’m coaching and you pitch a good inning or a bad inning or a bad at-bat or something, and you walk in to the dugout or I go to the mound and there’s eye contact, you should know what is what and how I feel. That’s the relationship thing you create with the player, regardless of whether he’s going to be here for one day or ten days or 25 years. Because you care.”

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Ivan Arteaga having a between-innings chat with Aaron Slegers (photo: JC/Knuckleballs)

Arteaga understands that’s not an aspect of the game that many outsiders can appreciate.

“People don’t see that. Fans don’t see that. Journalists don’t see that. TV cameras don’t see that. TV cameras will look at emotions and what is exciting for everybody. But as a coach when, for whatever reason, your team gave up 14 runs that night, then you make eye contact and you’re able to assure those guys, ‘you know what, it’s okay, it’s going to be fine, we’ll work on it.’”

The night before Arteaga sat for the interview, two Kernels pitchers had been victimized for a combined 12 runs. Can he communicate that kind of assurance to those guys after that kind of night?

“Of course, because that’s baseball, It’s every day,” assured Arteaga.

“Because what if I overreact last night and I tell them that they’re not good enough? Maybe because I don’t feel well. That’s me, but it’s not about me. It’s about them. So what if I overreact and I tell them they’re not good? The next thing you know, I’ve lost all that the staff had for me because I overreacted. So maybe apologizing might not be enough after that.

“So, I’m with them every pitch. Yeah, we lost a game, fine. Then today is a different day and make no mistake, these guys are going to work today to get better so they can pitch well tomorrow. It’s a 142 game season.”

Through the first week or so of May, Arteaga’s work with the Kernels is beginning to pay off. Two Kernels starters (Aaron Slegers and Kohl Stewart) are among the top 10 Midwest League pitchers in WHIP, two (Slegers and Ryan Eades) are in the top 10 in strikeouts and two more among the top 10 in saves (Hudson Boyd and the recently promoted Brandon Peterson). Nine Kernels pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or below.