One of my freelance jobs is working as the official scorer for the Copperheads in the Coastal Plain League, a summer collegiate baseball league a la the Cape Cod League. Last week I received a call from David Camp, the team’s general manager, who told me that new Mets pitcher Taylor Tankersley was working out at the team’s stadium.
Through Camp, I was able to get in touch with Tankersley, who graciously agreed to answer some (okay, a lot of) questions from me. Here are some of those questions:
You went 13-0 with a 0.44 ERA as a senior at Warren Central HS. What was it like being recruited by both college and pro teams?
It was a busy year. I had already committed to Alabama in the fall. I had signed early to go to Alabama. Education is very important in our household. Being from a small town, I really wanted to go to school. There was talk that I was going to be drafted. The Royals called me in the fifth and asked if I would sign for a certain amount of money and I said no. They didn’t draft me.
I got a call the next day they drafted me in the 39th round, a little (draft-and-follow) maybe if they had some money freed up later in the summer they would come at me but they never did. I was glad that it worked out the way that it did. Maturity-wise I needed to go to college. I wasn’t immature but professional baseball is a tough life and at 18 it’s really tough. So I’m glad it worked out the way it did.
I always wanted to go to Mississippi State and play for Ron Polk. But during my recruiting year he was gone, he had left to go to Georgia for a couple of years. Ole Miss made me a very good offer but I just didn’t like Ole Miss. It really came down to Southern Miss and Alabama. I really liked Southern Miss a lot, I liked the coach there, but I wanted to play in the SEC so I went to Alabama.
You spent a lot of time both starting and relieving in college. Was that a problem in your development?
It was a blessing, very much a blessing. It opened the door to what my future would be like in professional baseball. Obviously in high school I was a starter, everyone was a starter, but in my freshman year (coach Jim Wells) said my delivery was a little herky-jerky and he didn’t know if he could start me. I just wanted to pitch. I had a great year.
Sophomore year he told me he was going to start me but I had to make some adjustments but those didn’t work out too well. Then in my junior year I went back to being a swing man, but mainly as a reliever. I liked that. I can get loose quickly, I like pitching with the game on the line. A position player comes to the park everyday preparing to play. A starting pitcher comes to the park every five days to prepare to play and the work in between is on his own. I have a position player’s mentality. I like to come to the park preparing to play.
I did not go my career with the label of a first rounder. I was not a standout for the whole time I was in high school and college. But I did very well at the right times and I was a college lefty. If you go back to the 2004 Draft, the bottom half of the first round included six or eight college lefthanded pitchers. J.P. Howell, Zach Jackson, myself, Jeremy Sowers went a little bit ahead of us. My agent told me that once a college lefty gets picked they all come off the board quickly because teams know there’s not many good ones. And so the draft worked out just perfectly for me to get picked where I did.
How hard were you throwing that last year in college?
I think the fastest I’ve ever thrown a ball is 94 and that was rare. Usually my top is 92, at that time.
Talk about your minor league experience
Greensboro, Jupiter, Fall League in ‘05 and then in ‘06 eight weeks in Double-A and then the big leagues.
When did they transition you to a reliever full-time?
When I went to the Fall League. If you were to go back and look at my Fall League stats, if I had 12 appearances, the first six were pretty brutal and then I don’t know what it was but something clicked and the last six I was lights out. Somewhere out there I figured it out.
In 2007 and 2008, you split time between the majors and minors despite pitching well in Florida. What were the reasons for being in the minors?
It’s a “What have you done for me lately” environment. That’s part of the business, part of being a relief pitcher. You have to get the job done each time out and if you have two or three bad ones, they’ll find someone else.
When did you hurt your elbow?
July of ’08.
You tried to do rehab
The first approach was rest, bone growth stimulator, calcium pills, things like that hoping the bone would heal on its own. I came back in Spring Training of ’09 and knew the whole time I could not pitch with that elbow. In April of ’09 I had surgery and missed the whole season. I came back last year and the elbow held up.
Most people hear elbow and they think Tommy John ligament replacement surgery but you had a screw put in your elbow
Two screws. I fractured my olecranon. The olecranon is the knob of your elbow. Basically I had cracked it by hyperextending and bouncing my elbow off of itself. It cracked diagonally and now I have two screws that sit perpendicular to the crack.
What was involved in the rehab?
Initially it’s range of motion and after that it’s strength. Basically it’s like any other rehabilitation – long, slow, at times painful – you just keep plugging away and keep working.
No, I will say that when I made it to the majors the first time I felt like it was on my own merit, like something I had done and earned. I realized with surgery and the game being taken away taught me is that it’s a gift, it’s given. I was born with a left arm that could throw. I didn’t do anything to earn that. I could always throw a baseball. When that was taken away from me and now that it’s given back, I realize it’s a gift. So when I got back to the big leagues last year it was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and thanks instead of pride. It was completely different.
Your last 8 games you got hit pretty hard (.412/.450/.1.059) including 3 HR to your last 20 BF. What happened in this stretch?
Fractions of an inch. If you were to go back and look at video of those splits that you spoke of, I can remember getting Adrian Gonzalez out twice in Dolphins Stadium and combined he hit the ball about 750 feet and both got caught on the warning track in center field. I got Josh Hamilton out; he hit a screaming line drive right at the left fielder. Things like that, the ball was bouncing my way, I had good fortune. The last half of my big league outings last year the ball was falling in the gap or sinking over the fence. On paper it looked like a dramatic difference but there really wasn’t.
What happened with the Marlins after the season was over?
They released me. They said, “That’s it.” That ship sailed. I was a little disappointed with the way they handled it initially but it quickly sunk in that they make decisions based on business. It was nothing personal. I appreciate everything they did for me and the opportunities they gave me. Jeffrey Loria, the owner of the Marlins, changed my life. They drafted me in the first round, gave me a jump start financially on my adult life and I was in the big leagues two years later. I will forever be in debt and grateful for the opportunities they gave me.
How did the contact with the Mets work out?
Adam Wogan contacted my agent and said there was some interest, that they might be willing to make me an offer. They eventually did. Actually it’s a small world. My wife’s cousin is married to a girl that was sorority sisters with Adam Wogan’s wife at Wake Forest. She texted me and said, “You know there’s a guy I know who works with the Mets that I know very well and I can shoot him an email.” So, I’m thinking this guy is like an equipment manager or someone who doesn’t have any pull, so I say, “What’s his name?” She says, “Adam Wogan.” I said, “Really, that’s who’s been in contact with my agent.” She goes, “Let me shoot him this email and see what happens.” Two days later the Mets made me an offer. I don’t know if that had anything to do with it but she gave me a good personal endorsement.
Do you have any friends on the Mets?
Ronny Paulino caught me last year in Florida. Great guy, great teammate. On a personal level we’re not that close but on a professional level he’s a solid, solid baseball player. The guy I know the best is Mike Nickeas. He and I were on the same Fall League team and we clicked very well. We’ve been playing phone tag back and forth. We haven’t spoken yet but we will and I’m sure we and our wives will get together and spend some time together.
Yes, I’ve got a long history with those guys because I did the same thing with the Marlins. I love it. I really relish the opportunity to pitch with the game on the line. I love having runners on base, two outs and Ryan Howard standing in the box and it’s me and him. It’s either going to be my day or his. I love that and hopefully I get that chance again.
You’ve had great success in the majors versus LHB but have struggled versus RHB. What can you do to be more successful versus righties?
Get them out with whatever’s working the best that day. I really don’t put that much stock in the numbers, the splits, the average against. Those are things the higher-ups worry about. If there’s a guy in the box, I have confidence in my ability to get him out.
What’s your main pitch?
Strike one. I don’t mean to throw the quotes at you but honestly it’s day-to-day. When I’m warming up in the bullpen you can tell maybe my fastball’s got some pop on it. On days like that I come out knowing that I’ve got a little juice on it and so I can use that to attack and put guys away. And I’ve got days when my slider is nasty and I’ll come out here and use that. Day to day, it’s not like it’s Ryan Howard and this is how I pitch him, I go A-B-C. Because A might be brutal that day, so I might go B-B-C. Then the next time out B sucks, so I go A-C-A. You just know yourself. My job is to get him out right then. My job is not to light the gun up, my job is not to do anything else but get him out right then.
What kind of action does your change have?
Down. I throw a split now, I switched grips from a change to a split and my breaking ball to more of a slider grip. It’s similar action but I took my index finger off the ball and I really like the results I’ve gotten from both of those adjustments.
What role do pitching coaches play in the major leagues? Do you have any knowledge of Dan Warthen?
I don’t other than he must be doing something right. Because he and Adam (Wogan) are two of the only holdovers from last year. A lot of the coaches are new, a lot of the front office is new but Dan has kept his job. They must have a lot of confidence with him.
In my experience in the major leagues the main job of the pitching coach is the scouting reports and getting you the information that’s applicable to you. It’s up to you to take that information and use that in your game and how you’re going to attack the hitter. Also minor adjustments throughout the year, a pitching coach can be very helpful. Those are more with the starting pitchers than the relief pitchers. As a reliever you’re coming out with a “here it is, hit it” type of mentality. Starters have to come out and throw a fastball down and away 65 times during a game, so repeating your delivery is much more important to them. And confidence. Not enough people put emphasis on confidence. It’s not whether you have the ability to perform the task at hand, it’s whether you believe you have the ability to perform the task at hand.
What was your take as an outsider the last few years on the Mets?
I don’t think it’s a matter of talent, they’ve always had very talented ball clubs. From the outside looking in, I would say cohesiveness, playing together as a unit and health has been a huge issue.
Any Mets you hated to face or thought you had great success against?
The guys that I’ve faced the most, in my memory, was (Carlos) Delgado, Shawn Green and maybe at times turn (Carlos) Beltran around. I faced Ike (Davis) a couple of times last year. There’s nobody that sticks out in my mind that I’m going to walk in the clubhouse and get a funny look from. If I joined the Phillies I think I would get maybe a look from Howard or Utley like, “So you’re that guy, the bald white guy who comes out spitting at us.”
Do you expect better command and fewer walks and HR now that you’re one more season away from surgery?
That’s always the goal. When I’m operating at my best or close to it, I’m just on the edge of “Out of control.” It’s a fine line. Sometimes you miss or sometimes you see a guy yank a breaking ball 40 feet into the dirt, that’s because he’s doing everything max effort.
Probably not, hopefully not to be honest with you. I don’t feel like I’m coming off an injury anymore. I came off an injury last year. While I did not pitch in the big leagues all year, I did not go on the DL; I stayed healthy for the entire season. That was a feather in my cap last year coming off surgery. This year I’m stronger, I’m one more year removed from surgery. I’m healthy and I’m strong. Elbow issues and the surgery I had are in the past and have no influence on this season.
With R.A. Dickey, Capuano and Young the Mets have assembled some pitchers known for their intelligence. Will you fit in with this brainy group? Does intelligence help pitchers more than hitters?
Yes I would place myself in that category when it comes to knowledge of the game. If we took the SAT I’m sure those guys would beat me out. So would Nickeas, too, he’s a smart cat.
Memory and retention of past experiences are more important than someone watching “Jeopardy” and being able to answer all the questions.
Yes, being intelligent helps pitchers more than hitters. But I’ve also played against some very intelligent hitters. Carlos Delgado was Albert Einstein in the box, he knew what was going on. Shawn Green doesn’t have that same reputation but he was very intelligent at the plate. As a hitter and as a pitcher too, you have to be one or the other. If you like to take an intelligent approach or if you like to guess, a lot of major league hitters are guess hitters, but to be a guess hitter you have to do your homework and have an educated approach so you know when to sit on what pitch. You either have to sell out to one approach or the other.
Did the Mets tell you what to expect in Spring Training?
I’m hoping to get a lot of that information from Mike (Nickeas), just a feel for how it goes, what their routine is. But he may not know too much himself because it’s a new staff. Terry Collins is going to implement a lot of his own ideas. I’m going to be down there a week from yesterday. January 31st I’m going to be down in Port St. Lucie. I’ll have almost three weeks to get acclimated to the organization, make some relationships, get into a routine, find out what they’re going to expect. That’s the reason I’m going to go down early is so that I do get acclimated.
Initially, my reaction to the Mets signing Tankersley was – Sure, why not, we need a lefty in the bullpen. But now I am actively rooting for him to make the club. I hope this piece gives some insight to how thoughtful and likeable Tankersley is in real life.