Lakeland, Fla. — Man, he had it going for a minute last year. It had to feel like living a dream.
Right-handed reliever Will Vest, claimed by the Seattle Mariners from the Tigers in the 2020 Rule 5 draft, came charging out of the gates last season. In the first 14 games of his big-league career, covering 15.1 innings, he’d allowed just two earned runs. Opponents were hitting a meek .212 against him.
He was the Mariners’ Rule-5 version of the Tigers’ Akil Baddoo — instant heat.
Go back to a game in Seattle, Saturday night, April 17. The Mariners were down 1-0 to the Astros and manager Scott Servais trusted Vest enough after just six outings to pitch the eighth. Vest struck out Michael Brantley looking at a riding four-seam fastball up in the zone, walked Carlos Correa, then struck out Aledmys Diaz looking at a change-up and got Abraham Toro to line to left with another change-up.
Pretty heady stuff for a 26-year-old 12th-round pick who had pitched just three games above Double-A before being snatched away from the Tigers.
Just that quickly, though, the dream burst. By July 17, he was DFA’d and back in the Tigers’ organization, pitching at Triple-A Toledo. In 18 games between May 3 and July 6, Vest was tagged for 22 earned runs in 19.2 innings, opponents hitting .338 against him.
On the night he was released, Servais and Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth pulled Vest into the office and asked him, what did you learn? It was the same first question he got Wednesday after his first workout at the Tigers’ minor-league minicamp.
“The first thing that came to my mind was that I was good enough to be there,” Vest said. “I learned that in those first couple of months. That was the biggest positive I took out of it.”
For sure, the riding fastball, hitting 94, 95 mph, played. The slider and change-up were effective when he could throw them in the right counts and hit his spots. What he will need to do next time, though, is avoid the quicksand.
He got into it deep last May and he didn’t really extricate himself until this winter.
“The biggest thing I learned, especially when I got back over to Detroit, was just to separate the mental side of it and once you get on the mound, just compete,” he said. “I think I was fighting so hard to try to get back to what I was doing, honestly fighting a little too much.
“When I’d leave the field I was constantly thinking about it. That’s why I was excited for the offseason, just to get away, get a break and refresh.”
Vest wasn’t the first nor will he be the last pitcher to lose his mechanics. Unwittingly, his delivery became too rotational and he was losing the zip, the ride on his fastball. He command grew more and more wonky, so much so that he ended up throwing just 47% of his pitches in the strike zone.
And you know what happens when pitchers start getting hit — they tend to start nibbling on the edges of the zone and end up in too many hitter-friendly counts. It was a full-on avalanche for Vest.
“The characteristics on my pitches changed,” he said. “Due to some mechanical stuff. I think that’s what I was fighting every day trying to get back. Once you do that, it becomes a snowball effect. Instead of trying to get a guy out, you’re worrying about what you are doing on the mound.
“You can’t do that, especially at this level. Throughout the year I lost the characteristics of the successful way I pitch. That’s why I struggled. I was pitching as someone I wasn’t used to being.”
Vest set out this offseason to get back to the dominant pitcher he’d been during the 2020 instructional league, the pitcher that captured the attention of the Mariners in the first place. He got with North Carolina-based Tread Athletics and pitching coach Ben Brewster.
“The focus was on getting my fastball back to where it was,” he said. “I’ve always been a four-seam guy who could throw it up in the zone and last year toward the end it wasn’t playing as well. The fastball started sinking and the velocity was down.
“So I’ve been focused on getting the fastball back which, obviously, I think once I get the fastball back, that’s going to bleed over to the off-speed pitches.”
Brewster didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. He went back to the video, comparing Vest’s mechanics and pitch characteristics from last fall to where they were at the end of last season.
“We had a good blueprint to follow,” Vest said. “The reason I got Rule-5’d was how I performed at instructs and we had that to look at. We looked at what changed and that’s what we worked to get back to.”
At minicamp, which opened for pitchers and catchers on Wednesday, Vest has a fresh batch of pitching experts to work with. The Tigers completely revamped their player development system under vice president Ryan Garko. The pitching department is now being run by former Dodgers pitching coordinator Gabe Ribas, along with long-time college pitching coach Steve Smith and another ex-Dodger instructor Stephanos Stroop.
“There is a lot of energy here, a lot of new faces,” Vest said. “Coming into camp, my bullpens felt pretty good, as they had in the past. Every time I show up to spring training I feel like I’m already ready. Typically I don’t need long to get my velo up. Everything is on track.”
Vest is a guy the Tigers would like to count on as an option out of the bullpen at some point in 2022. Time will tell if he’s worked out all the mechanical kinks, but there don’t appear to be any emotional scars from the sudden crash last season — which is just as encouraging.
“That’s just something you learn to deal with,” he said. “Every season I’ve had a setback or a regression or failure. I’ve had to deal with that. And obviously I’ve progressed the following year. That’s the biggest thing I take from it. Just because you get sent down or DFA’d, it’s not necessarily the end of your career.
“I did fall into that snowball of wanting to get back to what I was so badly. But just having that break was big for me, just hitting that reset button.”