Ashton Goudeau headed into the 2019 season and admittedly was looking -- and able -- to reset.
After all, he had been traded the previous spring from the Royals to the Mariners, then became a free agent after the season concluded. Joining the Rockies as Minor League free agent, it was his third organization in a little over a year. And having not produced an ERA under 4.00 since 2015, it was another change of scenery that he hoped would help him turn the corner.
But early in Spring Training, Goudeau spotted a familiar face from his days with Kansas City. During the right-hander's time in Class A Lexington, he worked with pitching coach Steve Merriman, who happened to be Double-A Hartford's pitching instructor last year and is now the Rockies' Minor League pitching coordinator.
"You know, coming into Spring Training I didn’t really know anybody here; I thought I didn’t," Goudeau said. "And then one of the first people I ran into in Spring Training is one of my former pitching [coaches] from my time with Kansas City that would end up being my Double-A pitching coach for the year. And just having someone here I was super-familiar with and just kind of where the game is going as far as technology and like learning.
"I was able to learn a ton last year as far as myself and the pitchers. So that helped me out a lot."
Using that technology available to him, most notably Rapsodo, Goudeau went from a 5.79 ERA across three levels in 2018 to a 2.07 mark and 0.92 WHIP -- both career bests -- with the Yard Goats. After departing two separate organizations, he made a quick impact with Colorado and became the team's 26th-ranked prospect. A 2012 27th-round pick of the Royals, he's on the verge of making the Majors for the first time.
There were a few tweaks Goudeau made in regard to his hand positioning with his pitches, making them both more effective and deceptive for opposing hitters. In looking at Rapsodo and the data with Merriman and the Hartford staff, the 27-year-old got a sense of how he could make strides by changing how he released his pitches.
"We were able to kind of figure out how to make all three of my pitches come out of the exact same arm slot, come out of the hands the same with the same spin," he said. "Just being able to kind of tinker with that and learn how to do that and being able to sort of both sides of the plate and tunnel off my pitches, that was like the big thing. Just learning how to do that. I would say that’s probably the biggest thing I learned last year that helped me out."
In keeping that ability to tunnel his fastball, curveball and changeup, Goudeau not only produced his best ERA and WHIP, his peripherals showed positive gains. According to Fangraphs, the Arkansas native had a 2.07 FIP and 2.25 xFIP, both of which ranked as the best of any pitcher in Double-A with at least 70 innings pitched. Goudeau also was tops in strikeouts to walk percentage (26.2 percent), fourth in strikeout percentage (30.1 percent), ninth in walks per nine innings (1.38) and 10th in walk percentage.
While Goudeau points to his hand positioning and tunneling his pitches as the biggest differences last year, he also made a permanent change to his repertoire early in April that allowed him to focus on his three pitches. During spring camp, he considered eliminating his slider altogether. He chatted with Merriman, who thought Goudeau could focus on the other three pitches while keeping the slider "in his back pocket" just in case. But after allowing four five runs -- four earned -- over 3 2/3 innings in his first start on April 9, he was leaning more in that direction. Back home in Hartford, Goudeau and Merriman sat with assistant general manager of player development Zach Wilson and the decision was all but made.
"Steve and I had a meeting in the office and Zach brought it up that, we were talking about the slider and he made the comment, ‘If you got rid of the slider and never threw it ever again, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,'" Goudeau recalled with a laugh. "I kind went into the season, and that's kind of what we were talking about already. The decision was easy. I never threw a slider after that. So things just kind of like took off from there."
Things take off in a hurry for Goudeau, who pitched at least six innings in six of his next seven starts, including a May 18 outing in which he was perfect for six frames against New Hampshire. It only got better for the 6-foot-6 starter on June 5 against Trenton, when he recorded a career-high 12 strikeouts, only the second time he'd reached double digits. But the apex of his season also became something of a weird low point, thanks to a freak injury.
During his start, Goudeau was talking to catcher Brian Serven in the dugout about one of the Thunder hitters and mimicked a swing. While gesturing, he hit his hand on the bench. He did not feel any substantial pain and completed the start as planned. Later on, when his right hand swelled, it was revealed there was a break.
"It kind of hurt, obviously, but it didn’t like swell up or do anything. You know, I was fine," Goudeau said. "I went back out and I think I threw two or three more innings, however many I threw. I went out and pitched half the game with a broken hand. And nothing really got affected. And then I woke up the next morning and my hand was like double the size of what it should be. It was black and blue, all that good stuff. So we all kind of knew it was broken. But we had to go get the X-rays to kind of confirm it."
Although Goudeau was placed on the injured list and did not rejoin the Yard Goats until mid-August, he yielded only four earned runs over his final 17 1/3 innings of the regular season. He credits the time staying in game shape while on the shelf for being able to remain dominant down the stretch.
"When I found out it was broken, they told me how much time I was gonna miss," he said. "I was pretty upset -- I'll use that word, I'll say upset. I was pretty upset and I went to our strength coach and I remember making a comment to him that was like, ‘I’m not going to take any time off. We’re going to continue to do strength, conditioning, everything we can except throwing.'"
With a strong, albeit truncated, season under his belt, Goudeau took a spot on Salt River's roster in the Arizona Fall League and was just about perfect. He went unscored upon in 13 regular-season innings with 18 punchouts while yielding four hits and no walks. He pitched in the Rising Stars Showcase and tossed a scoreless frame.
To put the icing on the cake of what was a dominant fall season, he was the winning pitcher in the Championship Game, striking out three over 2 2/3 scoreless innings. Facing some of baseball's best young talent, Goudeau never blinked and earned Pitcher of the Week honors on Oct. 23.
"The AFL was such a a big confidence thing for me," he said. "Being able to go there and kind of be on my own and still happen to continue to do the things I was doing, just like seeing what I was already doing in Hartford, applying that to a little bit higher of a level of competition against those type of players and seeing that it was still going to work. Being able to just kind of like keep myself accountable that way, that was like a huge kind of like confidence thing. And just kind of like after the first couple of games I was going like, ‘OK, this isn’t too overwhelming.’"
Goudeau carried that momentum into his first big league Spring Training, compiling a 3.38 ERA in eight Cactus League innings before play was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While he wishes he could be on the mound in game action right now, he said he's making the most of his time as he remains near the club's facility in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He's trained with a handful of players from the Rockies, Cubs and D-backs organization in recent months, even helping build a mound to throw bullpen sessions at a local park, similar to how some other Minor Leaguers have handled their training regimens. Despite the uncertainty of the past three-plus months, Goudeau is remaining positive about a potential season on the horizon. Now on the club's 40-man roster, he said he'll be ready if and when his big league debut comes.
Eight years after his selection in the Draft, Goudeau is looking forward to building off a career season and making more of a mark on a Major League diamond.
"It’s kind of like that switch where we were kind of like sulking for a couple weeks but then kind of realizing where this potentially kind of headed," he said. "Like, ‘Hey, you’ve got an even better chance to do something at the big league level this year.’
"So, I mean, it's kind of really exciting. There’s a lot more to look forward to now than just focusing on we should be playing."
Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.