Toolshed: Pobereyko took advantage of AFL

After starting in indy ball, Mets righty reliever dominated circuit

Matt Pobereyko has struck out 89 batters over 61 1/3 regular-season innings during his Minor League career. (Jerry Kime)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | November 17, 2017 10:20 AM

Trust Matt Pobereyko, he wasn't looking forward to his second season with Florence of the independent Frontier League.

The right-handed reliever, who went undrafted out of Kentucky Wesleyan College in 2015, first signed up with the Freedom a year later with a fairly happy ending when his contract was purchased by the D-backs on July 5, 2016. After separate stints with the complex-level Arizona League affiliate, Class A Short Season Hillsboro and Class A Advanced Visalia, Pobereyko was released on Oct. 13 and headed back to Florence this past spring. He didn't have to wait quite as long in 2017. The Mets, looking to fill a bullpen hole at Class A Columbia, purchased his contract on June 21.

"You don't want to repeat any level or leagues in indy or the Minors," Pobereyko said. "Once you're repeating levels, that's when things can feel defeating. So just to get out of there again was exciting. I was right back into it and pushing forward again."

It doesn't like a third return trip will be a worry in the immediate future.

On Thursday, the 25-year-old finished out the Arizona Fall League with a 0.00 ERA over 11 2/3 innings. Cody Carroll, the No. 25 prospect in the Yankees system who has pitched as high as Double-A, was the only other hurler to toss that many innings without allowing an earned run. Pobereyko wrapped up his AFL campaign with 13 strikeouts, one walk and seven hits allowed over eight appearances with Scottsdale.

While the AFL is meant to be a prospect finishing school for some of the Minors' best young talents, it could end up proving to be the start of Pobereyko's journey as a bonafide prospect in the Mets system.

"Coming out here and pitching like I have, this is something I can pride myself on for sure," he said. "Indy ball guys can get a bad rap, I know that. We can be used kind of like a revolving door. But this is a chance to cement myself in this organization. I'm not a money guy. I went undrafted. But I can be someone they can count on going forward."

To be sure, Pobereyko has earned every chance he's gotten since his repeat trip to the Frontier League. In his second stint with Florence, the Indiana native, who can throw in the mid-90's and relies more on his splitter than his slider as offspeed, was a dominant closer for the Freedom. He struck out 38 of the 67 batters he faced (56.7 percent) while allowing only two earned runs on eight hits and five walks over 18 innings.

A 1.00 ERA jumps off any stat sheet, but stuff and tools get players signed into affiliated ball. Unlike the D-backs the year before, the Mets saw enough to move Pobereyko immediately to a full-season affiliate with Columbia, and it didn't take long for him to stand out to Fireflies pitching coach Jonathan Hurst.

"I'll tell you what, he was a great add for our organization," Hurst said. "He was obviously an older guy looking for a chance, but the stuff I saw from him right away told me this might be something we got lucky with. What he brought to the table was nothing but positive. There might have been points where he got a little fatigued, but he's really settled into our philosophy and throwing program. We're still seeing the results."

The numbers in the South Atlantic League weren't quite as eye-popping as in indy ball, but they were certainly solid. Pobereyko finished with a 3.15 ERA, a 1.17 WHIP, 53 strikeouts and 14 walks over 34 1/3 innings with Columbia. His 37.1 percent strikeout rate was sixth-best among the 205 pitchers with at least 30 innings. He was also especially tough on his fellow right-handers, holding them to a .169 average.

But not many officials in the Mets front office were getting the chance to see the right-hander in action. While plenty of national attention was paid to the Fireflies when Tim Tebow was on the roster, the former Heisman Trophy winner was promoted to Class A Advanced St. Lucie four days after Pobereyko was assigned to Columbia, and in the remaining two-plus months of the season, there weren't many New York officials making the flight from Queens to the South Carolina capital.

The Mets relied on Hurst's reports about Pobereyko, and late into the season, those reports carried a little more heft when the Columbia pitching coach knew he'd be filling the same role with Scottsdale. Hurst worked behind the scenes to get the reliever a Fall League spot, informing him with two weeks left that he was a candidate and in the final week that he indeed would spend his autumn in Arizona.

For Pobereyko, having someone like Hurst go to bat for him was a sign he was a valued part of the organization.

"He was definitely a factor in that," the pitcher said. "It was a big help to me. Coming into the Mets, I didn't really know anyone, and as the season went along, he was the only pitching contact I really had. I didn't have Spring Training like everybody else, so he was the only guy who saw every inning and everything I had."

Hurst could notice a difference 

"For [the AFL], he knew I'd be here, and he knew a couple of the other guys like Mickey Jannis and Tim Peterson that he got to know a little bit in instructional league. He's a lot more relaxed, and that's great because this is time to compete. He's now having success in front of a lot more people than just me. Our farm director, the pitching coordinator, even our hitting and outfield coordinators have seen him, and they've all been very happy with what they've seen. You can see he's starting to think, 'I got a shot at this.'"

The two still had work to do to illicit those front-office praises, however. Spotless ERAs don't appear out of thin air and especially not for pitchers facing batters with Double-A, Triple-A or even Major League experience for the first time. The work focused on the off-speed offerings, specifically the splitter, in an effort to get them to be more than just chase pitches out of the zone.

"We worked with him on relaxing his wrist a little bit and that's helped him repeating it while throwing it off the fastball," Hurst said. "The slider has some good depth to it, but the split is basically his changeup with better direction. It's more controllable, which is big for him because his delivery forces him to throw across his body. That causes him to open up, so we've been focusing on keeping the front side under control through the pitch. At one point, it all blew up and synced together just in time for the Fall League."

"In indy ball, I could pretty much beat anyone with the fastball," Pobereyko added. "I'd work on the offspeed here and there in anticipation of getting picked up, but once I got here [in the AFL], I feel like I've really enhanced the location of my offspeed. My walks are down, and I think that explains some of the success behind it. I've become more advanced with my pitch selection because I can go to the split or the slider in more counts."

It didn't take long for the control to lock in. Pobereyko didn't allow his first walk until his fourth AFL outing on Oct. 26, and that ended up being his lone free pass, despite facing 42 batters the last six weeks.

Now the trick will be carrying this momentum into the offseason -- his first as a member of an organization. Hurst said Pobereyko will be on a throwing and strength-and-conditioning program designed by Mets staff, and the pitcher plans to add some personal touches he used prior to his breakout in affiliated ball.

"Last year, [Arizona] cut me loose in early October, so it was a pretty quick release," he said. "I kept throwing and didn't take too much time off, just in case anyone wanted to see me throw. That was to my benefit because it forced me to keep working, keep trying to get better, keep refining things. Now, I may not have to compete just to get a look, but I want to stick as close as I can to what worked. Maybe a week off weights, two weeks off throwing, but I don't plan on changing much."

There's definitely one thing that'll be different, though. He knows he's heading to St. Lucie for his first official Spring Training and has his eyes set on an assignment to Double-A Binghamton after showing the brass his potential. That's 617 miles away from Florence and perhaps a lot more figuratively.

"It was very exciting for me," said the hurler. "Being back in indy ball for a second year or being 25 on a [Class A] roster, I wanted to get my timeline back on track, and that's what I can do here. I might skip a level now. That's a possibility. It's more about what this says about my career and where I can go from here than just pitching."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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