Toolshed: Phils' Seabold flying high in AFL

Right-hander shows well-rounded mix after injury-delayed 2019

Connor Seabold has struck out 42.9 percent of the batters he's faced over his first 12 Arizona Fall League innings. (Jill Weisleder/Getty Images)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | October 4, 2019 12:00 PM

It reads like a line from Toy Story 2: You can learn a lot when you're on the shelf. For Woody, the lesson was that all toys have value, broken or otherwise. For Connor Seabold, it was how to turn into a fully loaded starting pitcher.

After being limited to 56 1/3 innings this season, the Phillies' No. 30 prospect is plying his trade in the Arizona Fall League and showing the well-rounded arsenal that is not only producing results, but could point to even bigger things on the horizon.

Seabold's season was put on hold before it could even begin. The 2017 third-rounder was ready to open his second full campaign, but just a few short days after arriving at the Phillies' Spring Training facility in Clearwater, he suffered a strained oblique that he quickly knew would mean a lengthy stay on the injured list.

"I don't think I even made it to the first day of camp," the right-hander said.

Known for his control coming out of Cal State Fullerton, Seabold was coming off a mostly successful first full season, striking out 132 and walking only 33 in 130 1/3 innings, but a rough finish at Double-A Reading had him itching to get back to the Eastern League. The oblique injury pushed that return all the way to late July. In the meantime, the 23-year-old had plenty of opportunities to ruminate on what he could fix before jumping back to the the upper Minors, and one of the first steps he identified was improving his changeup. MLB.com has graded the pitch as average -- the same as his fastball and slider -- but Seabold wanted more.

"Finding my changeup, just by throwing it in bullpens and playing around with it, that ended up being the best part of the whole injury," Seabold said. "The way I use it, the way I throw it, it was just some subtle tweaks really. I started turning it over more and basically overpronating to get it to do what I want. The velocity was always there, but the action has been even better, and that's what it needed. All of that mostly happened just by playing with it when I was hurt."

After five rehab appearances in the Gulf Coast and Florida State leagues, Seabold returned to the Reading rotation on July 23 and was slow out of the gate, throwing only four innings in each of his first two outings -- "I basically had to relearn how to pitch at Double-A," he joked -- but he hardly looked back.

Offseason MiLB include

Seabold didn't allow more than two earned runs in any of his seven starts with the Fightin Phils and finished his season with five straight quality starts. In the ultimate sign of recovery, he lasted seven innings in each of his final two outings -- Aug. 26 against Bowie and Sept. 1 at Trenton. His 2.25 ERA was fourth-lowest in the Eastern League from his return onward, while his 1.13 WHIP placed eighth among qualifiers over that span.

If anyone was rolling into the Arizona Fall League with momentum, it was Seabold. As though he needed any more confidence going into the showcase circuit, the Phillies provided an added boost with the way they alerted him they were sending him to Scottsdale, along with the club's top two prospects, Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, as well as 2016 first overall pick Mickey Moniak.

"When they told me, they said, 'Hey, we're sending our guys this year. We want our talent together,'" Seabold said. "And to be included like that was a really cool feeling, no matter what I needed to do to get there."

Through two-plus weeks in the AFL, Seabold isn't just "one of the guys" -- there's an argument to be made that he's been the standout pitcher of the circuit so far. His 18 strikeouts through three starts (12 innings) lead all AFL hurlers -- above Top-100 talents like Forrest Whitley and Daniel Lynch -- and he's complemented that with only two walks over that span. His 0.75 ERA is the lowest by any AFL pitcher with more than eight innings pitched, and only Whitley (0.54) has a lower WHIP than Seabold's 0.58.

Beyond the results, Seabold's stuff has also been on full display. Pitching on Wednesday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick -- where Statcast data is available -- Seabold sat 91-93 mph with his fastball, topping out at 94.1 in his fifth and final inning. He threw 76 pitches, 16 of which resulted in swings and misses. That 21.1 percent swing-and-miss rate was a significant jump from his 14.5 percent average during the regular season, which ranked 13th among the 146 pitchers to get at least 40 innings in the Eastern League. What's more, those misses came on a variety of pitches -- six on the fastball, seven on the slider and three on the change. Also notable, Statcast has recognized the changeup, which sits 80-81 mph, as a curveball, proving that the pitch is fooling more than opposing batters. 

"The ones I really throw over and get on top of, they have more of a straight-down action," Seabold said. "I can see how that could get mistaken for a curveball by some of the pitch tracking stuff. But really, it's just a changeup that goes straight down sometimes."

The next step in Seabold's development that he's identified is the slider, and the results this autumn have been equally promising. Four of Seabold's eight strikeouts against Salt River on Wednesday came on the breaking pitch -- two looking, two swinging. It's no longer just a complement to the fastball. Like the changeup, it has a chance to become a real weapon.

"The slider has gotten a little better, just since I've been here," Seabold said. "I toyed a little with the grip, and I've started to choke on it a little more. Before, I was getting a little too loose, and that took away from the depth of the pitch. It's got the same sharpness as it's always had, but now, it's got a little more depth and I really like where it's going."

Arizona Fall League hitters might not say the same.

Without a Rule 5 deadline pressing, Seabold's mission this fall is to tack on more innings to his arm, but it seems he's accomplishing even more than that. If he keeps this up, there's a possibility Seabold could be an option for the Major League club in 2020 after a first taste at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The Phillies, who ranked 17th in the Majors with a 4.64 starting-pitcher ERA, could be on the lookout for rotation help if they're to break past the Braves, Nationals and Mets in a crowded NL East.

But for Seabold, that might be getting ahead of himself. He just wants to get through a healthy fall and spring first.

"I try not to focus on that too much just yet," he said. "But the way things are going, I could see myself in a big league rotation. I really think I can put together the pitches to put myself in that spot. Where in the rotation? I'll let that play out. But I like where I'm headed."

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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