Twins pitching prospect Tyler Jay puts himself back on track
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Informed after a recent Fall Stars Game that he had hit 95 mph on the radar gun, Twins pitching prospect Tyler Jay didn't bother to suppress a quick grin.
"I'll take that," the left-hander said with a nod. "It's coming back."
Limited to just three Class A outings over the past season and a half because of nagging injuries and fatigue, the sixth-overall draft pick in 2015 is eager to make up for lost time.
With a fastball sitting consistently in low-90s fastball and a 5.87 earned-run average through his first eight outings in the Arizona Fall League, the former University of Illinois closer can feel himself rebuilding career momentum after a patience-trying absence.
"I missed it a lot," he said. "You really learn a lot about yourself going through that kind of stuff. You're itching to get back out there. You're trying to rush things. But the more I learned to take it day by day and just kind of slow things down, the better things were going."
Able to work past concerns about circulation issues in his neck and shoulder area, Jay was able to avoid surgery after moving back to the bullpen full-time late in spring training. He believes his issues this season were more about getting out of sync with his delivery than anything structural.
"It was just that my mechanics were off," said Jay, generously listed at 6-foot-1. "I was flying open a little bit. With the body type and build I have, to generate that much force to get the velo I do, if you're a little bit off it can make you feel symptoms of things. It was all rushing. I got too antsy with it instead of sitting back."
With the help of Class A pitching coach Henry Bonilla, Jay has gradually been able to reclaim his delivery.
"He's healthy," Bonilla said. "There's nothing wrong with him. That's the most important thing."
Late last week, Jay was throwing in the bullpen and felt something click — in a good way.
"I felt everything fall into sync," he said. "I'm excited about it. Even when I was at Fort Myers, (Bonilla) told me not to worry about the velocity. It will come. He said it's there."
Jay received a $3.9 million signing bonus after the Twins took him one pick ahead of Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi, a finalist for American League rookie of the year, and three picks ahead of Ian Happ, who hit 24 homers as a rookie outfielder this season for the Chicago Cubs. The top two picks in that 2015 draft — Dansby Swanson and World Series hero Alex Bregman — have already established themselves in the majors, as well.
If Jay can stay on the mound long enough to get the requisite seasoning, he might push for a big-league bullpen job by the second half of 2018. The Twins, who recently lost fellow lefty relief prospect Randy Rosario on waivers to the Cubs, would welcome that sort of timeline.
Jay, who walked two and struck out two in an inning of work Thursday, Nov. 9, believes he will be better in the long run after surviving these past two seasons.
"You obviously don't want to get hurt, but you can take that kind of mindset into your career going forward," he said. "Before, when your arm's a little tired, you're kind of mentally not there. But when you go through something where you're getting a little scared with surgery (talk) and stuff like that, it really toughens you up."
Jay has worked hard on his conditioning, pushing his weight back up to 195 pounds after dropping as low as 165 by July 2016. That's when he was shut down for the year at Double-A Chattanooga after 13 starts and a 2.84 ERA at Fort Myers, followed by two more starts and three relief outings for the Lookouts.
His innings total was at 83⅔ after working just 18⅓ in his first pro summer of 2015.
"I was really tired," he said. "It was my first full season, and I was dropping a lot of weight. I was more exhausted than anything. I probably dropped like 20 pounds, and that was just from starting and not being used to the heat in Florida."
The whole experience was eye-opening for the 23-year-old product of the Chicago suburbs. Watching from afar, he took note of former teammates like Trevor Hildenberger, Alan Busenitz and John Curtiss reaching the Twins' bullpen as they ended a seven-year postseason drought.
"I got a chance to play with all those guys," he said. "Just seeing the success they're able to take with the same kind of concept and stuff that they're using in the minors and just translate it to the majors, that's pretty impressive."
In college and even through the first half of 2016, Jay's slider was a so-called "wipeout" pitch. That devastating weapon hasn't quite come all the way back, but he's hopeful improved velocity with his fastball and the resulting separation would improve his slider, as well.
"I mean, it's there," he said. "That hasn't left. It's always been there. It's something I just have."
Ideally, Jay will top out at 95-96 mph with his fastball and keep his slider in the 86-88 mph range, with the option to slow it down even further "if I want to get a little more spin on it." He's also still throwing his curveball and the occasional changeup even though his starting days appear to be over.
"I don't know what my role is going to be, so I might as well keep them," he said. "If it ever turns into how it was in college, where I'd go two, three, four innings, if I ever am asked to do that I want to have more than just two pitches."
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