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Photo Credit: IMG Academy

‘I try to control the controllable’: Kendall Williams, leaving home, and the pursuit of genuine interactions

When he was 12 years old, Kendall Williams’ parents got divorced. By his own admission, the divorce was fairly messy, leading him and his father, Brent, to get pretty close over the next few years. 

Brent owned a construction company and worked a lot, often from 6 o’clock in the morning until dark. But, just as countless dedicated parents do, he always found time to throw with his son. Throughout his childhood, his father would pitch to him, field ground balls and foster his love for the game. 

“I look up to him and his opinion holds a lot of weight for me,” Williams told Blue Jays Nation of his father. “I put my head into baseball, and it was a little bit of a safe place for me.”

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Unsurprisingly, this early support from his father made him immensely passionate about both the game of baseball and the potential of him carving out a career for himself as a professional athlete. 

Long before being selected by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 2019 MLB Draft, Williams attended the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida following a successful stint at his local high school. IMG, an athletic preparatory boarding school, caused him to need to move away from his family and his humble hometown of Olive Branch, Mississippi at the age of 15. 

Williams falls in an interesting age range in that he’s just young enough to see and understand the value of analytics, but old enough to not have grown up in a period in which spin rates and launch angles ruled the minds of scouts and evaluators. 

When it comes to new-age methods of tracking and controlling mechanics, he’s no stranger to the otherworldly machinery used by teams of all levels. He and his fellow pitchers were frequently tracked with Rapsodo machines at IMG, but they were never shown the numbers. In that sense, he’s open to seeing things from a different angle, but will never blindly change his ways to appease a computer program. 

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“I think it’s cool, but I’ll never be one of those people that’ll ride or die by the numbers,” he remarked. “Numbers don’t mean everything, but there’s definitely some importance in having good numbers.”

His decision to sign with the Blue Jays after being drafted and ultimately forgo his commitment to Vanderbilt was a somewhat surprising one, given the prestige and reputation of the college program he was about to play for. Having been the former home of such names as Sonny Gray, David Price, and Walker Buehler, among others, the program remains the pinnacle of progress and sophistication in college baseball. 

Though he was grateful for the opportunity and thrilled by the prospect of becoming a Commodore, he didn’t feel like he needed it. Mainly, he felt that he’d grown up enough as a person since leaving home in his sophomore year to attend IMG, which isn’t an easy emotional or mental feat by any stretch and didn’t believe he could grow anymore as a person by moving again and attending college. 

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He didn’t go into the draft with a specific number in mind he needed to sign and, after a lengthy discussion with his family, decided that, if it was only his baseball abilities that needed to be honed, he could do that at the professional level. 

Even before he was selected by the Blue Jays, he knew they were interested in him, as evidenced by the fact that the club’s Tampa area scout, Brandon Bishoff, was at every single one of his games during his senior year at IMG. Williams and Bishoff developed somewhat of a relationship through their early conversations.

“He always came up and talked to me, and I got a really good vibe from him,” Bishoff said. “He was a player that stayed at the top of my list throughout the year and he was a kid that I really did get to know well.”

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The younger brother of Blue Jays regional crosschecker Matt Bishoff, Brandon recalls once watching Williams stretch before one of his starts. Immediately upon noticing he was there, Williams turned around and warmly greeted Bishoff, much to the surprise of his catcher at the time, who later told Bishoff, “he must like you, because he doesn’t talk to anyone on game days!”

It was this eagerness and class — and the coincidental proximity of IMG to the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin — that pushed Bishoff to organize a meeting between Williams, Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins, Ben Cherington, Tony LaCava, and then-director of amateur scouting Steve Sanders. It was clear that the Blue Jays, as an organization, liked him from the very beginning. 

The feeling was, of course, mutual, as Williams showed tremendous interest in becoming a Blue Jay as well. He even took an early morning cross-country flight from where he was training in California to Dunedin in order to attend one of the team’s pre-draft workouts. Bishoff also says that Williams met a large portion of the organization’s staff and spent a significant amount of time around David Aardsma, a former MLB pitcher who currently serves as the organization’s coordinator of player development. 

To Bishoff, Williams’ changeup — which notably induced 18 swings-and-misses in his final start of his senior year — combined with his long hair, tall stature, and ability to make adjustments, reminded him vaguely of a young Noah Syndergaard, who the Blue Jays selected out of Legacy High School in Mansfield, TX in 2010. 

“I’m really big on the little things,” Williams cleverly remarked. “The biggest thing we’ve worked on is the smoothness and effectiveness of my delivery without outputting as much work.”

It wasn’t a sure thing that the Blue Jays would draft him, says Bishoff. Though he doesn’t know of any specific teams that were interested, he heard many murmurs about clubs who had him near the top of their lists. The team worked diligently and decided that if he was still available by their pick, they’d pull the trigger and hopefully make him a Blue Jay.

In 2019, Williams had a successful, albeit abbreviated, season with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays. He pitched to an ERA of 1.13 in 16.0 innings, striking out 19 and walking just seven in five starts. 

After the season ended, he got right into his offseason preparations, training with the likes of Rowdy Tellez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who, despite being a lot bigger than him, provided both physical and mental challenges which introduced him to the organization’s culture. 

For Williams, it comes down to one question: why? He’s constantly seeking to understand why he’s being asked to do what he’s being asked to do. He’s learning the process of accomplishing his goals, not just the goals themselves. Since joining the organization, his main focus has been his lower half mechanics, which Williams says will help him “refine” his delivery.

In 2020, Williams assumes he’ll start in either Lansing or Vancouver, but doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on the purely logistical elements of his game. He knows what needs to be done and doesn’t seem to be easily distracted when it comes to matters like these. In this case, he won’t be focusing so much on the “why”. 

“I try to control the controllable,” he said of his 2020 season. “You just have to put your head down, do your stuff, and people will notice. You’ll get moved as soon as you need to get moved.”

After listening to him talk for a while, it’s staggeringly hard to believe that Kendall Williams is just 19. Though he carries the laid-back attitude of most players his age, he’s not nearly as media-trained, nor as seemingly vague, as one would expect him to be. Instead of being jaded or overly pompous given everything he’s already achieved, he’s confident, polite, and cautiously optimistic. 

At this point, Kendall Williams seems poised to become one of the next top Blue Jays prospects. He’s currently the team’s No. 11 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s rankings (though he never checks prospect rankings for his own sanity) and should be moving up the ladder as quickly as his mechanics and delivery will allow him to. 

Regardless, the Blue Jays appear to have gotten themselves a personable, well-disciplined pitcher with achievable goals. All of this from a high school pitcher from Mississippi.