When Shane Baz unleashed a 95 mph lightning bolt on the high school fields of Texas, he pressed to be perfect for the multitude of scouts who were usually gathered around with radar guns aimed at the right-handed flame-thrower.
Perfection was a driving force that Baz used to earn a first-round selection by the Pirates (12th overall) in the 2017 Draft.
Separating perfection from being a fierce competitor challenged Baz, who struggled after signing a $4.1 million signing bonus with the Pirates. But a change of scenery (a trade from the Pirates to the Rays) and a change of mind-set (learning that you don't always have to be perfect on every pitch) has Baz displaying his exceptional talent.
The biggest change has been his mental approach. Baz, who is 19 years old, said it was a "culture shock" when a new start with the Rays led to a realization that he didn't have to be perfect on every pitch.
"I have an abstract mind-set when I'm out there, which means that you're not really honed in on one specific thing," the Rays' No. 9 prospect explained. "It's more like I treat myself like I'm playing myself as a video game. That's the best way I can put it. It's just like, 'OK, I'm going to throw a fastball here.' I don't have to try too hard to spot it up perfectly. I can put it where I want. I know that my stuff is good enough that I don't have to be perfect. I'm still trying to be perfect, but I don't have to be. I'm going right at guys, putting the ball over the plate and letting them try and hit it. It's gone really well so far. A lot of guys have looked really uncomfortable in the box."
Last season, Baz was 4-5 with a 4.47 ERA. He had a 1.62 WHIP. Pitching in the Appalachian League, even after the Aug. 2018 trade to the Rays, Baz struck out 59 and walked 29. This season, with Bowling Green in the Midwest League, Baz is 2-0 with a 1.44 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP. He has struck out 32 and walked seven, decreasing his walk rate by a remarkable 50 percent. He has not walked more than two batters in any of his five outings.
2019 MiLB include
"It's tough to draw a perfectionist out, but when they start to see what they can do when they aren't a perfectionist, and see the success that they can have, it makes them much easier to reach," Bowling Green Hot Rods pitching coach Brian Reith said.
Reith had Baz focus on attacking the large part of the zone.
"Shane has overpowering stuff," Reith said. "He doesn't need to nibble at the corners. We try to set him up in the middle of the plate and attack the upper third, especially, but it doesn't have to be there, just the big part of the zone, especially early in the count, get in some good counts, and still be able to attack hitters with that slider. His changeup has come around quite a bit, too, but he can use his fastball in any count and overmatch hitters."
Baz said that he was shocked by the trade, but that the transition to the Rays has been exceptional.
"I've learned so much this year," Baz said. "I'm in a good spot. Dewey Robinson, our pitching coordinator, challenged me. He said, 'If you're going to throw a fastball, throw it right over the plate. It's got such good movement, it's such a good pitch, it doesn't have to be on the corners. You can throw it right down the middle, and guys aren't going to hit it. As far the breaking ball, throw it down the middle and let it break how it wants.' That's been the biggest difference, and there have been a few little changes to my mechanics that have helped."
Baz initiated his transformation in the offseason, focusing on his mental approach.
"There is a book called 'Relentless,' and it was about having that mind-set that you're the best," Baz said. "When I'm on the mound, I have to think that I'm the best player out there. I believe it. The biggest change was me trusting my stuff enough that I can throw it by everybody and getting a swing and miss on every single pitch, no matter where I put it. That's what I've focused on, getting it over the heart of the plate, challenging guys, not trying to be perfect every single pitch … whatever happens, happens. I just try to give myself a chance to get an out every at-bat.
"Last year, there was a lot of pressure, being a high pick, but realizing that you don't have to be perfect is big. Every player goes through struggles. Guys in the big leagues go through struggles … maybe not Mike Trout … but other guys go through struggles. Knowing that that's part of the game and staying within yourself, knowing how good your stuff is, and not trying to be perfect with every pitch is key.
"I can miss over the plate, and my stuff has enough movement that it will get a swing and a miss, and ultimately get an out. It's led to me being a lot more comfortable and relaxed on the mound. I'm out here pitching. I'm not trying to strike out every batter. I'm not trying to make every pitch perfect. I'm trusting my stuff."
Reith believes that Baz has put himself in a position to be successful by being intelligent and coachable, in addition to having outstanding talent.
"Shane has the big arm, that's obvious," Reith said. "He's working on pounding the zone a little more, and he's fine-tuning his secondary pitches. He's got a lot of pluses."
Marathon: Quad Cities outlasted Burlington, 13-10, on May 31. The game took four hours and 21 minutes and saw River Bandits pitchers rack up 19 strikeouts. River Bandits reliever Felipe Tejada recorded 10 outs, nine of which were K's.
Name change: Starting on Friday, June 7, the Clinton LumberKings will be playing at NelsonCorp Field. The 82-year-old home of the LumberKings was called LumberKings Stadium this season until the naming-rights deal was wrapped up. Originally named Riverview Stadium, the park was known as Alliant Energy Field from 2002-11 and Ashford University Field from 2012-18.
More flooding woes: Quad Cities is hitting the road again due to high water from the Mississippi River surrounding their stadium, Modern Woodmen Park. The River Bandits will have played 46 of their first 56 games on the road this season. The latest move is for June 4-6, when a series with the Chiefs was moved to Peoria. The River Bandits are scheduled to play at home on June 7 against Kane County.