Rays Pitching Prospect Nick Sawyer Begins to Learn the Importance of Control
By Robbie Knopf
Nick Sawyer‘s professional baseball career began about as humbly as you’ll see. He was selected by the Rays out of Howard College in Texas in the 40th and final round of the 2012 MLB Draft. But once Sawyer actually got on a mound, things quickly began to change. He dominated Gulf Coast League hitters for 3 appearances before doing the same to hitters in the Appalachian League, and by the end of the season he had cracked full-season ball with the Bowling Green Hot Rods of the West League. Overall, Sawyer put up unbelievable numbers, going 4-1 with a 0.28 ERA, a ridiculous 16.6 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 0.0 HR/9 in 20 appearances, allowing just 10 hits in his 32 IP. Armed with an electric fastball that touched the mid-90’s and an unhittable slider, Sawyer burst onto the scene as a sleeper prospect in the Rays organization. This season, though, has not treated him nearly as kindly.
Sawyer’s ERA for the Hot Rods remains impressive at 1.89 in his first 12 appearances and 19 IP, and he has allowed just 4.3 hits per 9 innings. His strikeout rate has even remained nearly as high at 15.5 per 9 innings. The major difference, though, is his walk rate, which has more than doubled to 8.5 per 9, and incredibly Sawyer has failed to manage a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio despite his exorbitant amount of strikeouts. That hasn’t influenced Sawyer’s ERA all that much so far, but slowly but surely he has realized that it is much harder pitching against more experienced hitters.
Sawyer is still working on consistently locating his fastball, something that becomes increasingly hard as he reaches back for more velocity. With that in mind, Sawyer has resorted to his slider more than ever, and it is indeed an excellent pitch. However, its flaw is that Sawyer can’t throw it consistently for a called strike and instead has to rely on forcing hitters to swing-and-miss. Down at Rookie ball, hitters will flail helplessly at anything that looks remotely like a strike. Even at Low-A, hitters are already learning to lay off of breaking pitches and you have to do a better job selling it to get your whiffs. Sawyer has been unable to do that so far, striking out a ton of batters but walking way too many as well thanks to fastballs that keep missing and a slider that he can’t set up. For Sawyer to return to dominance, he will have to do a better job spotting his fastball and learn to throw his slider for a strike. That could take some time.
A related consideration is that Sawyer does not really know what to do against left-handed hitters. Sawyer features a deceptive delivery that gives righties fits, but lefties have a better look at the ball, robbing Sawyer of another tool that he uses to force hitters to swing-and-miss. So far on the season, Sawyer has a solid 26-12 strikeout to walk ratio against right-handed hitters but just 8-8 against lefties, and he will have to improve his fastball control and command for that to change.
Hitters still can’t do anything against Nick Sawyer. The late bite on his fastball and sharp break on his slider have made it next-to-impossible for anyone to hit the ball with authority against him, and the only player that will stop Sawyer from succeeding is himself by losing control. Sawyer’s potential hasn’t changed one bit and if he can throw more strikes he could zoom through the minor leagues. However, it’s beginning to sink in that even for a pitcher who looked as dominant as anyone at any level of baseball last year, improvements always have to be made. Sawyer will look to improve his control and command and get back to overpowering hitters like the Rays know he’s capable.