Ian Clarkin unintentionally made one of the most unusual first impressions in baseball history when New York selected him at the end of the first round of the 2013 Draft. The left-hander from San Diego may have to explain himself for years, especially once he reaches the Bronx, because of a playful video interview of him on MLB Network that aired seconds after his name was called -- the young lefty had declared his distaste for a certain pinstriped team.
"I cannot stand the Yankees," Clarkin memorably said in a clip he never thought would air. It was an innocent dig at his mother, Lydia, a lifelong Yankees fan. The New York media jumped all over him. He was suddenly an 18-year-old in damage control, worrying more about headlines than his impending high school graduation.
But these days, he's emphatic about his love for all things Bronx Bombers. He's dined with Derek Jeter and met up with manager Joe Girardi and GM Brian Cashman last December. He's ranked as the team's top lefty prospect, and, after a full season, he's only grown more eager to get back on the mound and justify the high expectations fans and the front office have put on him.
"It's a very exciting time to be a New York Yankee," he said.
Clarkin, New York's No. 6 prospect, spent most of last summer with Class A Charleston before making one last start for Class A Advanced Tampa. Combined, he finished 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 75 innings. He walked 23 and allowed just six homers.
We caught up with Clarkin during Spring Training to talk pitching, his Kris Bryant fandom and recent baseball fashion.
MiLB.com: So you're finishing up your second Spring Training with the Yankees -- how's it been going so far?
Ian Clarkin: Everything has been amazing -- the new management from Gary Denbo -- everyone loves what Denbo is doing to the system. It's been a change and all the players love it -- we get to wear our pants [legs] down now. For how many years, we had to wear pants up -- probably for 20 years. It's a bunch of changes, though, and all the players are really liking it.
MiLB.com: Wow, who knew wearing your pants down would be such a hit?
Clarkin: [Laughs] It was big for the Yankees! Most of the guys wore their pants down in high school, including myself, so it's just a big change. We've been joking about it. All the players are happy -- we like all the changes.
MiLB.com: What type of stuff have you been working on this spring in Tampa?
Clarkin: For myself, just getting right back to it. The big thing for me, with the high leg kick that I have, is it's more of a balance-point issue. That's a bigger thing for me. Everything else has been great so far. But with the leg kick, you tend to fall forward a bit and different things happen when you pitch, so the biggest thing is the balance point. Also, I've taken my leg kick out when I'm in the stretch. I'm working on a slide step -- it's actually a big change. I've been doing it for a while now. I need to be quicker to the plate. It's something I've struggled with. It's all about rhythm.
Ian Clarkin allowed one run over five innings in his lone start for Tampa last year. (Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)
MiLB.com: Is your pace something the Yankees coaches talked to you about, or something you just wanted to improve?
Clarkin: [Laughs] A couple buddies told me I was really slow. It wasn't too much of a problem -- only a few starts when it was blazing hot and I needed to take my time, step off the mound, wipe my sweat off. And I didn't take into account that, you know, they're standing out there behind me in the heat, waiting for me to throw the next pitch. One of my coaches told me I took 40 seconds between pitches -- that's when I knew I needed to change.
MiLB.com: And once you reach Double-A and Triple-A, you'll have the new clock.
Clarkin: Yeah, I really think it's going to help the pitchers. It's tough for hitters to not be able to step out of the box. You throw him a good curve and he gets fooled, and he has to get back in there without re-establishing himself in the box. It's an advantage for pitchers.
• Even more from Clarkin over on the blog »
MiLB.com: What was your offseason like? Did you work or travel or do anything fun back home?
Clarkin: Definitely, I played a lot of golf back home, being a pitcher. I went surfing a lot. I went to the beach -- in San Diego, you can do that on Christmas. I went to the beach on Christmas Eve and went surfing a bit. But I was working my tail off to be where I wanted to be and complete the dream -- there wasn't much time for fun stuff like that. But I went to the beach and fished on my off days.
MiLB.com: I was just down in San Diego for the Winter Meetings -- the area around the stadium is great. I think you were there, too, right?
Clarkin: Yeah, me and [Yankees second base prospect] Gosuke Katoh -- he's a good friend -- we went and we saw Mr. Girardi and Mr. Cashman and got to talk to them real quick. Just standing in the hotel lobby, you're around so many great baseball minds.
MiLB.com: You had a handful of innings in 2013 and then an injury, so last year was more or less your first real season in the Minors. What was it like at Charleston?
Clarkin: It was a lot of fun -- the Yankees fans are so great, throwing in front of them every day. Charleston is a great place, a lot of fans supporting you and at the same time, it was just fun, my teammates make it a lot of fun. There's a bunch of great guys in the Yankees organization and I'm excited for all of them and myself. It's an exciting time to be a Yankee.
MiLB.com: What did you learn last year? Was facing Class A batters and the overall Minor League life what you expected coming out of high school?
Clarkin: I learned a lot last year, how the life is -- I expected it to be like that. The bus rides were pretty brutal, that's the worst part. Playing baseball for a living is great, but the grind is the life. It's the getting home at 12 at night and getting some dinner, when the only thing open is fast food, and then waking up early and going to the field. The bus rides were the worst for me -- I can't fall asleep on the bus, so I would be wide awake for every 12-hour trip. I expected the rides to be bad -- I never look forward to the long road trips -- but waking up and playing baseball every day is what I want to do for a living. I learned how to study hitters, to research hitters; I did a good job of writing down different stuff, taking a notepad into the dugout, learning from just sitting there -- you can learn a lot of things, and I'll continue doing that this year.
MiLB.com: The Yankees gave you a brief taste of Tampa last summer and then shut you down in early August. Was that a frustrating moment, to put the glove away for a bit, or was it satisfying to know you accomplished what the team wanted you to?
Clarkin: I knew my innings were coming up and I'd be shut down soon. I can't worry about what I can't control, but it was awesome. It was everything I expected and I loved every minute of it. You hate putting down the glove, but you're at your limit. For myself, I think it frustrates everyone, not just me. But it's smart -- [the Yankees development staff has] been around the game longer than I have, they know what to do.
MiLB.com: They talked about your curveball being one of the best in high school when you were drafted in 2013. What do you feel is your strongest pitch now? Did the Yankees kind of tell you to take things easy with breaking balls at all last year?
Clarkin: I didn't know that. I don't like to toot my own horn usually, but it's pretty good -- it's my favorite pitch to throw. But you can't live and die with the curveball. I learned about throwing the fastball low and at the knees, getting ahead in counts. This year it's a big difference with my changeup, I'm really excited to throw that, more than my curve actually. I'm really looking forward to throwing that in a game.
MiLB.com: What was that like to be the last pick of the first round, to stand up there with Commissioner Selig?
Clarkin: Oh man, if I could live that day over, I would do it 100 times again. It was the biggest thing for me. I get asked that question, think about that every day, how big a sigh of relief it was. Going late into high school, after Team USA, I missed a few weeks of school, and then I had all the teams coming to my house for an interview, and I'm not even able to play yet. That was a lot of added pressure, and plus all the training we did, getting home at night after training and having to eat dinner and do homework and take a shower and going to bed at 1 a.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. for school -- some people don't see that. For me, after all of that, it was the biggest sigh of relief. I thought, 'Man, I'm exhausted, what a year.' A few days after the Draft, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I just got drafted by the New York Yankees!' It was a surreal moment, pretty incredible.
MiLB.com: You got to see Derek Jeter last month -- what was it like to meet him? I think you'd first met him rehabbing in 2013 as well?
Clarkin: We met in 2013 when we both went down [to Tampa], I got to talk to him a lot then. We had dinner one night and he talked about how to handle ourselves with social media and the media and certain things that happen -- leadership. "Captain's Camp" is all about leadership. It was amazing to sit there and listen to what he had to say, and, I think this goes for everyone, but for me -- I was sitting there -- I could have sat there for a whole day just listening to him talk. It's unbelievable to be around someone like Derek and it was amazing.
MiLB.com: Speaking of handling situations, you made some headlines at the Draft when a video showed you talking about watching the D-backs beat the Yankees as a kid back in 2001 and your feelings about that. (Clarkin told MLB Network he "cannot stand the Yankees.") Has your family come around finally on the Yankees?
Clarkin: My mom grew up a die-hard Yankees fan, so that video was made for her because she saw it before it aired, and I didn't even know it would air. It was like, 'Ha-ha, mom, I got you!' And my dad wasn't a Yankees fan before -- he was still mad about Goose Gossage [leaving Pittsburgh in 1977] -- he was a Pirates fan growing up. But he's so happy now with all the progress -- he's happy because I'm so happy. He roots for the Yankees more than any other team, but he kept saying, 'You threw me under the bus!' But we're all happy as a family and they know how happy I am to be a Yankee.
MiLB.com: Did you actually see that video play on MLB Network that day? Was that sort of like an "oh, no!" moment when you finally heard yourself in that context after such a surreal experience?
Clarkin: I didn't see it at the Draft, I had no idea what was going on. I was on the phone -- there's a few pictures of me on the phone -- and I was just thanking the Yankees for the opportunity to play for them -- and then that night I was just exhausted. The next morning we had to go back home for graduation. I get home and my dad picks me up at the airport, he tells me, "Hey, Ian, don't check Twitter. I hear there's not so many good being things written about you." I said, "Uh oh." I got home and I looked up what's going on -- I checked Yahoo! and I'm on the front page of Yahoo!, CNN, SportsCenter. Someone called me -- they said, "Hey, you have an interview with ESPN New York, The New York Post, The New York Daily News." He said, "You have it in 40 minutes."
I remember there were so many people at my house -- everyone was at my house, we're all celebrating -- and I just had to close my door and laid in my bed, thinking, "Gosh, I can't believe this is going on." And I had to say something, but being 18, and I hadn't even graduated high school yet, and to have to talk to ESPN -- I learned a lot from that day. I liked that that happened, though -- I got to taste a little of what that's like.
Ian Clarkin borrowed a leg kick from Trevor Hoffman (center) and mechanics from Clayton Kershaw. (Cliff Welch, Getty Images)
MiLB.com: Some have compared you to Clayton Kershaw. You yourself said you'd modeled your game after Jonathan Papelbon. Are those fair or accurate comparisons?
Clarkin: It's funny, I used to watch Kershaw and I never thought I looked the same, which is funny, because I got my leg kick from Trevor Hoffman, watching him growing up. But now that I've gotten to pro ball, we have all this film and I see how close Kershaw and I are in mechanics, and it's amazing -- he's the best pitcher in baseball. You look at what he's done -- it's awesome to see the best pitcher in baseball has the same mechanics as you, or rather, that you have the same as him. One thing that I love the most about Kershaw is his balance point, and that's my biggest thing going into next year, finding balance.
MiLB.com: What was it like growing up in San Diego, and have you thought about eventually living in New York City?
Clarkin: I haven't thought about the future quite yet -- I always wanted to live at home. I've only been to NYC a few times, but I haven't put much thought into it. The only thing on my mind is getting to New York and winning championships. Last year at Charleston, they had these photos on the wall of Mariano [Rivera] and Derek winning the World Series and how happy they were, and I just want to be there and be in that picture.
MiLB.com: What's your relationship with the Cubs' Kris Bryant? Did you guys face each other growing up at any point or you're just a fan of his? I see a lot of chatter on Twitter about him.
• Clarkin on nearly following in Bryant's footsteps and more »
Clarkin: He was going to USD and I think when I committed, I talked to him a lot. Just talking every time I'd go, we'd talk all the time and whatnot, and we were both on the USA team. And I promise you -- people could say it's not true, but I remember where I was when I said this -- people knew about Kris, but I remember standing in center field watching Kris take batting practice, and I said, "He will be a top-three pick next year. Mark my words." Kris and I had a good relationship, and hopefully he breaks camp with the Cubs, I'm expecting a big year. He's so down to earth, you wouldn't expect him to be baseball player. He's always treated everyone with so much respect. We still have a friendship, I'm just really happy for him.