The pitch that changed Josh Staumont’s life felt just like every other pitch, and if not for the story that follows, you would probably find the whole scene exceedingly routine. Boring, even.
There was a windup, of course. An easy release. A radar gun popped behind the plate. A collection of college teammates smiled inside the dugout.
This was a scrimmage on a nondescript college field three years ago. This was Staumont, a 19-year-old transfer, introducing himself to his new teammates at Azusa Pacific, a small evangelical university tucked in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
Staumont was a sophomore then, and if he’s being honest, he was still playing baseball for practical reasons: He loved the sport, of course, but he also enjoyed slicing a little bit of scholarship money off his tuition.
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As a high school pitcher in nearby La Habra, he had thrown in the high 80s — sometimes cracking 90 mph — but had gone mostly unnoticed by college recruiters. Just two local schools — Biola and Azusa Pacific — had even bothered to offer a scholarship. Staumont spent his freshman year at Biola before following a pitching coach to Azusa, and that’s how he found himself on the mound during the first intrasquad scrimmage of the fall season.
He could not know that moment, that first pitch, would change the way he thought about the game.
He didn’t know that the first radar-gun reading would flash 99 mph, that the next would pop 98, that his teammates would be waiting for him in the dugout afterward, ready to give him a hard time about the eye-popping readings. Surely, the gun was hot, Staumont told them.
He didn’t know that a summer of intense long-toss sessions and a rapidly maturing body would fuse in perfect harmony, creating an electric fastball, that the result would be a selection in the second round of the 2015 draft by the Kansas City Royals. He didn’t know, of course, that by the fall of 2016, after his first full season in the minors, he would be ranked as the top prospect in the Royals system, according to Baseball America.
“He has a gifted arm,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.
When spring training begins in February, Staumont, 22, will emerge as one of the most intriguing figures in the Royals’ camp, a power right-hander in an organization that must round out its starting rotation and fortify its bullpen. Staumont, club officials say, could offer a potential solution in either role.
Baseball, of course, is no stranger to romantic stories of late bloomers or out-of-nowhere successes. You can find them in any organization, on any major-league roster. But even then, even in those terms, even as Staumont spent October and November facing some of baseball’s best prospects in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, the story feels … well, sudden. Staumont never expected this, he says.
Well, not until that scrimmage three years ago.
“I played baseball because I loved baseball,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “It was a way for me to get into the school and get a couple thousand dollars off the tuition. And that was literally all it came down to. I could play a sport that I loved and get an education.
“Of course, as soon as I started throwing harder, that all changed.”
Three years later, Staumont is positioned for a potential breakthrough in 2017. Still a relative unknown outside of niche prospect coverage and hardcore fans, he will enter spring training with an opportunity to compete for a starting spot in the Royals rotation. He could also factor into the team’s equation in the bullpen.
For now, Royals officials are tapping the brakes on a potential timeline. Staumont is entering his second full season of professional baseball. In all likelihood, he’ll begin the season in the minor leagues, where he could position himself for a midseason call-up.
He is still working on a third pitch — a change-up — to complement his upper 90s fastball and 11-to-5 curveball. He is still refining his command, a constant thorn, though a dominating finish to the 2016 season offered positive signs. In this way, Staumont is still a work in progress, a piece of clay still being molded. But when he is on, when his fastball is hitting 100 mph, and his pitches are hitting their spots in all four quadrants of the strike zone, he can resemble one of the best homegrown pitchers in franchise history.
“I happened to be at one game, where, quite honestly, he reminded me of Zack Greinke,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “I felt like he was just toying with hitters. He’d throw a fastball at 92, and then he’s throwing the next one at 97. He’s throwing a curveball at 85, and then he’s throwing one at 77. He had a plan.”
But before Staumont was lighting up radar guns in the minor leagues, and before he was regularly topping 100 mph in cities such as Wilmington and Springdale, he first had to learn how to harness his new gift. In baseball, fastball velocity can be the sport’s most potent weapon. But mastering a 100 mph fastball can be a little like learning how to handle an Indy Car. And this, of course, was a challenge he never anticipated.
As a high school senior in Orange County, he had opted to play college baseball at Biola, an NAIA school near his home. His mother worked at the school. He was impressed by the program’s head coach, John Verhoeven, a former big-league pitcher. It was small-time college baseball, relative to the perennial powers in the area, but that was fine.
As a freshman, his fastball topped out in the low 90s, impressive for the NAIA level, but nothing that would send scouts flocking. Staumont focused on his schoolwork and thought about his life after college. After the first season, Verhoeven left Biola to become the pitching coach at Azusa Pacific. Staumont would follow. The greatest transformation would begin that summer, he says.
For years, he had shown off his incredible arm strength during games of long toss with teammates, slinging a baseball close to 400 feet in the air. But the long toss didn’t always translate to increased velocity off the mound. So that summer, Staumont took on a new regimen, more focused, more intense.
“(I would) get out to 350, 400 feet, and then bring that same intensity to 300, 200, 100 and then ultimately 60 feet,” Staumont said. “After my freshman year, that’s when my velo jumped.”
By his sophomore year, scouts were congregating at Staumont’s starts. By his junior year, he was projected to go in the first 100 picks of the 2015 draft. This was different, he thought. This was real.
But while his velocity was devastating on the Division II competition, his results on the mound were mixed. Some days, his command came and went. The walks piled up. After one start, Azusa Pacific coach Paul Svagdis approached Staumont with a simple suggestion: You throw 100 mph. Throw it right down the middle.
It seemed like the right advice, Svagdis thought. But Staumont responded with an answer that the college coach still remembers.
“Have you ever thrown 100 mph?” Svagdis remembers Staumont saying. “Well, I’m just learning how to do it myself. If I had the answer how to throw it right down the middle, I’d be doing it.”
While Staumont was often erratic on the mound, Verhoeven, the pitching coach, remained confident that Staumont would develop control over time. And on some days, Svagdis says, he was off by just inches, not feet.
“It wasn’t all over the place,” Svagdis says. “That’s what I always thought was pretty unique about Josh. When he’s throwing close to 100 mph, you’d think he’s hitting the bull like ‘Bull Durham.’ It was nothing ever like that. He’d throw a fastball and try to throw it on the outer half. And he’d miss two balls out.”
The command issues didn’t deter the Royals from taking Staumont with the 64th pick in the 2015 draft and offering a slot-value signing bonus ($964,600). Club officials saw a premium arm available in the second round, a possible fast mover through the system.
“For that type of pick, you’re trying to get some college arms that are a little bit more mature,” Picollo said. “He fit the bill.”
That year, Staumont logged 40 innings at Rookie-League Surprise and Rookie-League Idaho Falls, posting a 2.48 ERA. He struck out 58 batters, but walked 32. And when the 2016 season began, the focus turned to polishing his command.
The progress was sometimes slow; Staumont still issued 7.6 walks per nine innings in 2016. But a late-season run at Class AA Northwest Arkansas offered hope. In his final 10 starts, Staumont recorded a 3.17 ERA while striking out 71 and walking 33 in 45 1/3 innings. Slice the sample size smaller, Picollo says, and the trends were even more encouraging.
Staumont credits a simple adjustment; he was keeping his arm in the glove too long, which caused him to have trouble finding a proper release point. The Royals preached a delivery with more tempo. By the second half of the season, he had identified the issue.
“It was causing a lot of erratic behavior, especially when it came to the fastball,” Staumont said. “It was just figuring out how my body worked.”
For Staumont, the learning process continued in the Arizona Fall League, which concluded earlier this month. The next step comes in spring training. The Royals view Staumont as a starter in the long term. But his stuff could also slot into the bullpen. The one constant: If you can throw 100 mph, you can play somewhere. This time, Staumont says, he is ready for anything.
“It’s easy to look at him in the pen, only because he throws hard,” Picollo said. “But in this climate, in this industry, it’s all about starting pitching.
“He gives you glimpses of what a starting pitcher should be able to do. For those reasons, we still feel very strongly that he’s a starter.”