Listen up: Balester making some noise
Young right-hander working to develop his repertoire
Collin Balester's story is pretty average. Collin Balester is not.
Balester is a tall pitcher from California who was drafted straight out of high school, and he succeeded in the Minor Leagues throwing a hard fastball. It's not exactly the stuff Disney movies are made of.
But while the story may not be unique, the man certainly is.
On this Monday afternoon, the Triple-A Columbus pitcher is standing at his clubhouse locker talking. Whatever the topic is probably isn't important, at least judging by the expressions of his teammates, who appear to have tuned him out yet again.
"It's true," Balester says. "I talk too much."
So while Balester's right arm stands to make him millions of dollars in Washington, his mouth will ensure he is the victim of clubhouse pranks for years to come. A few weeks ago, teammates lined his pants with Icy Hot minutes before he put them on, briefly silencing Balester.
"It's all in good fun -- except that," he said. "That wasn't fun."
When Balester is on the mound, it's other people that do the talking. Mostly they talk about his fastball.
Columbus pitching coach Steve McCatty describes it as "Major League." Washington general manager Jim Bowden calls it "real strong." The radar gun calls it mid-90s.
None of that flusters Balester. He's been hearing it since he first clocked 80 mph as a 12-year-old.
Back then, baseball wasn't his primary sport. It was surfing. His father owns a surfboard manufacturing company, and Balester has been riding the waves in California since he was born.
But when the baseball scouts came calling during his junior season of high school, he put away the surfboard to pursue his new dream. He never seriously considered playing for a college.
"I didn't really want to go to school," Balester said. "So I said I was going to work hard and try to get drafted. I didn't really get too caught up in surfing anymore after that."
He credits surfing with helping him build up his arm strength, saying the sport requires a tremendous amount of athleticism. Pitching in landlocked Columbus, it's tough to find people who understand.
Sometimes when Balester goes back home, he'll head into the water on his board, but not to surf.
"I'll go paddling to strengthen my arm," he said. "But no surfing. I don't want to do something stupid and fall off."
The statistics also talk, and they remind Nationals fans to temper their enthusiasm. Lots of hard-throwing pitchers are drafted every year, but not all of them get called up to the big show.
Balester has the raw tools for success, but he still has to chisel away at the details that separate good and great pitchers.
His ERA this year has hovered around 4.00. But more telling are his strikeout numbers, which have fallen by more than one per game since he was promoted to Columbus.
"He had a couple situations where he had a pitcher up with two strikes, but instead of striking him out, he allowed him to bunt the runners over," McCatty said of a recent outing. "It's about situational pitching -- getting guys to hit the ball where you want them to hit it."
It's the type of detail pitchers don't have to work on until reaching higher levels in the system. Once they start facing better hitting, they can't just rely on throwing the ball harder to get out of jams. Instead, they have to develop the ability to pitch strategically.
That also allows pitchers to keep their pitch counts down. In his nine starts in Columbus, Balester has reached the sixth inning just three times, and he has yet to go into the seventh.
|"He's got a great attitude. He gets excited when a pitch feels good. When he throws a couple good changeups, he'll get excited about that and pound his glove."|
|-- Columbus pitching coach Steve McCatty|
That's meant more time in the bullpen with McCatty, but Balester doesn't view it as a chore.
"He's got a great attitude," McCatty said. "He gets excited when a pitch feels good. When he throws a couple good changeups, he'll get excited about that and pound his glove."
In Columbus, he's also had a chance to learn by watching, as starters from the Nationals come through on rehab assignments after injuries. Some opposing teams have rehabbing big leaguers, and at the beginning of August, he found himself toeing the rubber against Curt Schilling.
"Just watching him pitch is unbelievable," Balester said. "He throws strike, strike, strike -- every pitch. He can throw any pitch from any count."
The Nationals are hoping Balester develops a similar repertoire, complementing his fastball with his offspeed pitches. Bowden said it's just a matter of time, and he points out that if Balester had gone to college, he'd only be a junior right now.
John Lannan came through the organization with Balester, and the two were going to room together in Columbus. But then Lannan was called up to Washington, depriving him of what would have been an eventful living experience.
"There's never a dull moment with that kid," Lannan said. "He can really just talk for a while."
Lannan relieved Balester during last Wednesday's game in Columbus. The two didn't allow an earned run over eight innings, but the one unearned run that crossed on Balester's watch was enough to tag him with the loss.
The pair represents a wave of young pitchers coming through the Nationals' farm system. At Columbus, and elsewhere down the system, the team is stocked with young talent full of potential. At low Class A Vermont, three of the team's starters have ERAs below 2.50.
Balester is the pitcher who's received the most publicity, being named the organization's top prospect by Baseball America and getting to participate in this year's Futures Game in San Francisco.
Balester has noticed the level of pitching improve throughout the organization, and he says he follows the stats of the other prospects.
"I think we can be a contender in a couple years if we keep going the way we're going," he said. "You can't complain about being a part of this organization. Things are getting a lot better."
McCatty agreed, saying that all organizations have a handful of top prospects, but the depth the Nationals have assembled is among the best he's seen.
The only time Balester's world slows down is in the offseason. He goes home, but he said "you can lose your mind because you don't know what to do."
He's fortunate to have high-school teammate Hank Conger just down the street. Conger, who was Balester's catcher at Huntington Beach High School, now is a Minor Leaguer in the Angels system.
Balester is a strong candidate to join the Nationals for Spring Training in 2008. He said despite the "top prospect" reports, he knows he still has work to do before he's ready.
"It's cool to see your name and that people think highly of you, but I don't think too much about it," he said. "I like to stay underneath the radar."
One place he hasn't been able to accomplish that is the clubhouse, where he never seems to run out of things to say. But once the work day begins, he heads out to the bullpen ready to go, throwing changeup after changeup. With each pitch, he's moving toward his goal of starting in Washington, a chance to show his fastball to the game's best hitters.
And if things turn out just right, he'll leave them speechless.
Michael Phillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.