Photo Credit: John Lott
Sean Reid-Foley and his brother David, both pro pitchers, were back home in Jacksonville, Fla., in the offseason, tutoring a group of 13-year-olds who were asking questions about how to throw a breaking pitch.
Don’t ask us, David quipped. I can’t throw a slider and Sean can’t throw a curveball.
Jokingly, they decided to demonstrate. But Sean wound up and snapped off a curveball that took a last-second dive into the dirt.
Sean never had much of a curveball before that. He does now.
“My brother said, ‘Wow, you’d be really dumb not to use that,’ ” Sean Reid-Foley recalls. “It kind of stuck. In spring training, the coaches didn’t take it away from me so I’m still throwing it. It’s working well.”
Lately, so is Reid-Foley, who is one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects. He has a crackling fastball, a new curveball, a slider and, until recently, an alarming habit of walking a lot of hitters. Over his brief pro career, which began two years ago this month, he has walked one batter for every two he has struck out – and he is a strikeout pitcher.
But in his past three starts for the Class A Lansing Lugnuts, Reid-Foley has walked only two batters in 21 innings while striking out 22. Those starts – seven, eight and six innings – were the longest of his career.
“The biggest question on me is walks,” he told me in Lansing on Sunday after allowing two hits over six shutout innings. “My biggest thing is, let’s not walk as many as I did last game. It’s not about getting 15 punch-outs a game. Let’s limit the walks to one or two at the most and go from there.”
And maybe get out of Lansing for good.
After last year, he was not expecting to return.
Reid-Foley is just 20; a strapping specimen at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, with 26 tattoos and a fiercely competitive disposition. Another side of his personality was on display last Saturday afternoon, the day before his most recent start, when he was among a group of Lansing players who put a passel of kids through their paces during an event that might loosely be described as a clinic.
Photo Credit: John Lott
Reid-Foley did a lot of grinning, fist-bumping and cheering for 90 minutes as he tossed ground balls to group after group of youngsters. These kids were considerably younger than those he and his brother, a pitcher in the Dodgers’ system, are accustomed to coaching in Jacksonville. But he was clearly enjoying himself on what otherwise would have been a day of rest.
“It’s fun,” he said. “If I think about it, I was there 10 years ago, looking up to the dudes playing in Jacksonville in Double-A. Now that I’m playing minor-league baseball, I see it from their point of view. It’s awesome. I love working with the kids. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
But he would gladly trade his gig in Lansing for a step up the ladder.
Reid-Foley expected to start the year in advanced Class A Dunedin. The Blue Jays had promoted him to Dunedin last July for eight starts. His Florida results were similar to those in Michigan: 24 walks and 35 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. So for his final two outings of 2015, he was back in Lansing.
Still, he thought the Jays would give him a chance to shape up in Dunedin. Instead, they called him to the office at the end of spring training and told him he would be a Lugnut again.
“Honestly, I don’t really remember much about the meeting,” he says, “because I kind of blacked out on it. I was mad.”
What he does remember is pretty vague.
“They said just go be a leader in Lansing, lead the staff,” he says. “At first, I was like, why are they doing this to me? But at the same time, I understand it’s a big learning experience. I sometimes ask, why am I still here? But at the same time, it’s fun. It’s a good group of dudes. I’ve enjoyed my time here.”
The Blue Jays believe Reid-Foley has the potential to be a special pitcher. And there is no mystery about why he is back in Lansing. When I asked Sal Fasano, the club’s minor-league pitching co-ordinator, about that, he rattled off a shopping list.
“We wanted to see him master that level,” Fasano said. “Limit walks. Throw more first-pitch strikes. Throw fewer pitches per inning. Get deeper into the games that he starts. Also, smooth out his delivery while still keeping his power stuff.”
MLB.com ranks Reid-Foley third, behind Anthony Alford and Conner Greene, on the Jays’ top-prospects list. But for all the expectant talk about him, he is very much a work in progress. And he is only 20.
At that age, a blue-chip prospect often needs to learn the accountability process that will help him advance to the big leagues.
“We wanted him to basically take ownership of every part of his five-day routine – game day, workouts, side day routine, long toss, etc.,” Fasano said.
(A side day is the day a starter throws a bullpen session between starts and typically works on specific pitches and mechanical issues.)
Photo Credit: John Lott
Adds Lansing manager John Schneider: “There was a very specific plan for Sean, being a young kid. He pitched in the Florida State League last year, but there’s very specific interdepartmental things that he’s been working on and doing very well on.”
“Mechanics, repeating stuff, being a little bit more crisp with his secondary stuff,” Schneider says. “You can put his stuff up with anyone throughout baseball, I think, and it’s going to play at a high level.”
His challenge is to harness the stuff and embrace the routine. Schneider says Reid-Foley is doing that, which could mean another shot at Dunedin is on the horizon.
“He’s definitely doing the things we’ve asked him to do, not only with his delivery but also with the way he’s going about throwing his pitches,” Schneider said. “I don’t think it should be too long for him.”
Reid-Foley was the Jays’ second-round draft pick in 2014. He signed for $1.13-million and went straight to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. In his first pro game, he lasted two-thirds of an inning, allowing one hit and two runs. And in that brief appearance, he walked two batters.
That was an omen. His fastball sits in the 92-95 range and occasionally hits 97, but walks and deep counts have continued to haunt him, although his dominant flashes have been frequent too.
For example, in one start for Lansing last year he struck out 10, walked one and allowed no runs. But a high pitch count forced to him to leave after only 5.2 innings. It was his longest outing of the season.
The trend continued early this year. But increasingly, he has learned to rebound from walks and pitch out of trouble. And his past three deep starts – none more than 100 pitches – have afforded a glimpse of what Reid-Foley might become.
“That’s probably the biggest change,” he says. “Even early this year, I’d go walk, walk, and then the pitch count would just spike up.”
Those three starts represent a tiny sample size. The Jays are looking for consistency.
His curveball has helped, Reid-Foley says.
“I would say because I’m kind of effectively wild, like up in the zone, it helps out because the curveball travels on the same line as those pitches,” he says. “I have a good feel for it now.”
When he talks about working with those 13-year-olds in Jacksonville, Reid-Foley says it has been frustrating at times. The kids are not always quick to pick up on his lessons. That, he says, has helped to teach him patience.
In Lansing, the Blue Jays are forcing him to apply the same lesson to his own career.