If anyone understands the arc from unusual angles and how the spin of a baseball can provide a career changeup, it’s Aaron Slegers.
After a 7-inch growth spurt before his senior year of high school, Slegers changed his career arc from self-described “super-fringy” baseball player to major-college star to major league pitcher.
Slegers’ story isn’t so simple, but it is that fascinating.
There is so much more to how the 26-year-old Slegers got to the Pittsburgh Pirates than them claiming the 6-10 right-hander off waivers in mid-January from the Minnesota Twins. They decided not to protect their 2017 Minor League Pitcher of the Year after signing Nelson Cruz.
The Pirates are as impressed by Slegers’ approach to the game as they are his promise as a pitcher in their system, given he has two minor league options remaining.
“We like the intent,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told MLB.com. “We like the conviction, and we like the focus he has brought into camp. He’s been a pro.”
Maybe that’s because Slegers made neither a meteoric rise nor a cataclysmic crash in his career, even if it appears that way. Long before he was a 2013 fifth-round pick out of Indiana, where he was the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year as a redshirt sophomore, Slegers was stuck on the junior varsity at Notre Dame Prep in Phoenix.
“I was a super-fringy JV baseball player at 6-2, throwing in the low 80s and playing first base and third base and the outfield,” Slegers said. “I wasn’t above-average or anything. When I hit my growth spurt, I was even less average, throwing less strikes, still throwing soft.”
Aaron Slegers, top prospect Mitch Keller, Michael Feliz and J.T. Brubaker. Keller, by the way, stands 6-2. Slegers is 6-10. pic.twitter.com/vcdfVnGZLn
— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) February 15, 2019
The growth spurt saw his bones grow faster than his tendons, resulting in arm pain that limited him to pitching two innings as a senior. He walked on at Indiana, but a broken wrist as a freshman and a stress fracture in his right tibia as a sophomore limited his pitching to 8 1/3 innings over his first two collegiate seasons.
“I’ve really been blessed along the way with coaches that gave me time,” Slegers said. “That growth spurt and being a late bloomer, really not throwing 90 miles an hour until I was 19, 20 years old, that couldn’t have been done without coaches to give me time.
“I just worked hard. I lifted. I lived in the weight room my freshman and sophomore year in college, put some mass on my frame and then started throwing harder. A lot of players can’t say they got the amount of chances I got. I’m really blessed to say I had those chances.”
Although Slegers didn’t throw in the 90s until his sophomore year, he went 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA and led the Hoosiers to the Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament, then was drafted by the Twins. His height provided an intimidating presence on the mound and a different delivery for hitters to identify.
“You want to be different as a pitcher,” Slegers said. “The last thing you want is for your pitches to look the same as everybody else’s, and I think I have a unique ability to hide pitches the way I hide the ball. It gets on hitters because I have such a long reach and extension. I believe that it does play up my fastball and changeups a little more deception, so I definitely play off those factors.”
By 2017, Slegers was a rising star in the Twins system, going 15-4 with a 3.40 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 24 starts at Triple-A Rochester. He was called up in August and helped the Twins clinch an AL wild-card. Despite a 42.4 percent ground-ball rate, he started throwing toward third base and experienced shoulder soreness. Soon, his star had fallen.
“With my body not necessarily being on the right planes, I’ve noticed that if something is a little off with my hips, it affects my arm angle a lot more,” Slegers said, adding it affects his release point. “I’m trying to be better at spinning the baseball and throwing more breaking balls.”
Slegers has relied heavily in his career on four-seam fastballs and sinkers, which has been his go-to pitch since college, but is hoping the development of a slider to mask the sinker and the incorporation of a curveball can serve as a springboard to success with the Pirates.
“I’ve always been a guy who throws a lot of fastballs, four-seam and sinkers,” Slegers said. “My sinker has been my go-to pitch in my career, ever since college, but I’ve been working on that slider and trying to incorporate a curveball — we’ll see how that comes around; it’s only about a month old — and a changeup that masks the sinker.”
Through the ups and downs of his career, Slegers has learned lessons. The biggest is to count his blessings every day. That attitude has served him well when he has outings like he did Sunday, allowing three hits and three runs against Tampa Bay, and he hopes in his next outing Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“It means the world,” Slegers said. “Every day, I don’t take it for granted. I’m blessed to have another day in this uniform and another chance to make a big-league club, and I’m going to seize that opportunity to the best of my ability.”