Thomas Szapucki has been through this before. He went to the instructional league last fall after being taken by the Mets in the fifth round of the 2015 Draft out of a Florida high school, hoping to work on some mechanical tweaks to his left-handed delivery that he could carry into his first offseason.
But when he reported to New York's Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie on Wednesday, it was clear Szapucki's second trip to instructs was going to be quite different for a few reasons, starting with the most obvious.
"Well, Tim Tebow is here," he laughed. "There are a lot more things in the locker room now, like more shampoos and bottles in the bathroom. There are more security guys opening doors for us all over the place. It's actually pretty nice."
But it's also different in that the 20-year-old left-hander is coming off one of the more dominant campaigns put together by a pitching prospect at the short-season levels. He has become one of the most prominent, legitimate prospects at this year's workouts.
Szapucki posted a 1.38 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP with 86 strikeouts and 20 walks over 52 innings this season between Rookie-level Kingsport and Class A Short Season Brooklyn. That ERA would have been lowest among all non-complex short-season hurlers had he enough innings to qualify. His rate of 14.9 strikeouts per nine innings ranked third among all Minor Leaguers with at least 50 innings; the only two to top him were the Dodgers' Grant Dayton (15.8) and the Astros' James Hoyt (15.2), both of whom are relievers.
The Toms River, New Jersey, native struck out 13 over six innings in his 2016 debut with Kingsport on June 23 and hit double-digit K's in his final three starts, finishing with 10 or more strikeouts in five of his nine starts. His strikeout low for the season came June 29 when he fanned "only" six in 4 2/3 innings. There's a chance he could have padded those stats further if a stiff back hadn't knocked him out of action in mid-August.
Using work that he'd put in during the 2015 instructional league, Szapucki focused on the mechanics of his delivery, raising his arm slot to a three-quarters position. His fastball, considered a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale by MLB.com, had the velocity to dominate the lower levels by sitting in the low-90's with the potential to reach the upper-90's when necessary. His curve, which sometimes has similar depth to a slider, also received a plus grade while his changeup grew more serviceable as the season progressed. Those three pitches were solid enough for Szapucki to be good against short-season hitters, but the southpaw credited a good number of those whiffs to his approach.
"The philosophy at these levels is to establish the fastball first and foremost," said the Mets' No. 8 prospect. "Work it in, work it out, get command of that. Once you're able to get ahead, that's when you execute breaking balls, and I thought I was able to get some good swings and misses off that. I was able to get a bunch of guys off-balance with the fastball, the changeup and the breaking ball, and once I got ahead, that was huge for that level."
It wasn't quite that easy -- Szapucki averaged 3.5 walks per nine innings -- but given the results in missing bats, it's worth asking whether the Mets did enough to challenge him in what could have been his first full season. But coming off a high-school workload, the lefty thought he pitched right where he needed to be to set a solid foundation going forward.
"In [Class A] Columbia, there are obviously a lot more games, and I don't think my arm was in any shape to go for 140 innings this season," he said. "I know the level of competition there, and I know my stuff is good enough to face those guys. But it was more about getting comfortable in my first season and getting confident. Sometimes guys get thrown into those upper levels, and they're in positions where they can't succeed and that can destroy confidence. The Mets put me in a good position, I think, to feel how I do now."
The Mets honored Szapucki at Citi Field on Monday night with their Sterling Award for Kingsport, given to the best players at each of the organization's nine Minor League affiliates. He was the only pitcher honored by the Mets outside of P.J. Conlon, who was named Organizational Pitcher of the Year after leading all full-season Minor Leaguers with a 1.65 ERA between Columbia and Class A Advanced St. Lucie.
At the big club's home, Szapucki came face to face with a Major League team that has relied heavily on homegrown arms during its run of success the past two seasons.
Of the six pitchers to make at least 10 starts for New York this season, 43-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon is the only one not have come up through the Mets farm system. (We're counting Noah Syndergaard among the other five because he was traded from the Blue Jays while still a prospect and needed seasoning on the farm before debuting in the Majors.) Even with the rash of injuries the club has endured of late, the Mets have leaned heavily on depth options like Robert Gsellman (3.13 ERA in six appearances) and Seth Lugo (2.35 ERA in 15 appearances) to keep them in the National League Wild Card hunt.
Though he's still at least two seasons away from being considered for a big league debut, Szapucki can see the advantages of playing in an organization that not only develops pitchers well but trusts them at the game's highest level.
"I know the guys at Triple-A and Double-A, most of the guys at the higher levels think they have a good opportunity to get rewarded and get their chance when they're doing well," he said. "For those of us in the lower levels, I realize this can be one of the harder organizations to move up in because of everything that's going on up top and how there are so many options. But I have confidence in everyone's abilities to get there someday and that includes myself."
In the meantime, there's work to be done in instructs before Szapucki can get too far ahead and think about testing his high strikeout rates in the Show. Having just arrived at Port St. Lucie, he's not expecting to do too much coming off the back injury but is following the guidance of pitching coordinator Ron Romanick to develop other parts of his game such as reading runners and refining his pickoffs. Come spring, the circus will likely be back in town, and with the added attention brought to Port St. Lucie, Szapucki is looking forward to being healthy enough to show a wider audience (including a certain fellow left-handed Met) what those in the Appalachian and New York-Penn Leagues already know first-hand. He's tough to touch.
"I think any pitcher anywhere would want to throw against him," Szapucki said of potentially facing Tebow. "I can't wait to get my opportunity. He's so famous, and you only have to look around here to know that. Maybe by Spring Training, I'll get my chance."
Mets fans should be watching.