Throwing 100-plus mph, Royals prospect Josh Staumont crackles with potential

Royals prospect Josh Staumont learning to be a major league pitcher

Kansas City Royals prospect Josh Staumont got a chance to see what big league spring training is all about, in hopes of one day having his number called up to the majors.
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Kansas City Royals prospect Josh Staumont got a chance to see what big league spring training is all about, in hopes of one day having his number called up to the majors.

On a quiet spring morning last year, Jeff Montgomery slipped into a blue practice jersey, pulled on a pair of white pants and made his way out to the back fields at the Royals’ spring training complex.

Montgomery, a Royals Hall of Famer and the franchise’s career saves leader, had come to camp to take part in the club’s alumni instructor program at minor-league spring training, an annual week where former Royals don uniforms and mingle with the team’s prospects. So it was, on this sun-baked morning, that Montgomery found himself here at the base of the Art Stewart Tower, an observation deck that overlooks a cloverleaf of fields, kibitzing with a group of young pitchers.

It was there, Montgomery says, that he first heard the sound. The way Montgomery remembers it, he was introducing himself to another young pitcher when the first baseball flashed across the corner of his eye. A thunderous pop came next.

Montgomery swung his body around to get a better look, and for the next six months, he couldn’t stop thinking about what he saw. He would tell friends the story. He would rave about the discovery. It was that impressive.

There, on a narrow strip of mounds, squeezed between two back fields, Montgomery could see the future: A 22-year-old with a head of blond hair and a right arm that crackled in the morning air.

The kid’s name: Josh Staumont. Montgomery needed to learn more.

“There was something different,” he says, “about the way the ball was coming out of his hand.”

In that moment, as Montgomery turned back to another minor-leaguer, he knew nothing about the mystery kid. He didn’t know that Staumont, a second-round pick in 2015, was entering his first full season in the Royals’ system, or that just one season later, he would be the top prospect in the organization, according to Baseball America. He didn’t know that the kid had once thrown a baseball 102 mph in college; or that control problems had hampered his draft stock; or that when he was a senior in high school, professional baseball seemed like such an audacious career move that the little-recruited Staumont settled on playing baseball at a small NAIA school just a few miles from his home in La Habra, Calif.

Heck, on that day, Montgomery didn’t even know the correct pronunciation of the pitcher’s name (it’s Staw-mont). But after 13 years in the big leagues, and a stint as a Royals broadcaster, and a lifetime in baseball, he had witnessed this gift before. The fluidity of the arm. The baseball exploding out of the hand.

That whirring sound, like a missile approaching a target.

“I tell people this,” Montgomery says. “There are certain guys. I remember Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Certain guys like that. When they get on the mound, and they throw a baseball, you don’t need a radar gun.”

It’s easy to pass this off as spring-training puffery, some romantic baseball tale about a young pitcher who has yet to find himself associated with the best prospects in the game. But this is also true: Staumont, now 23, has the tools and profile that make baseball men dream.

At 6 feet 3 and 200 pounds, he possesses an optimum build for a power pitcher. On the right day, he can unleash a baseball 100 mph and spin a breaking ball that leaves opposing hitters in tatters. Inside the Royals’ front office, he has inspired comparisons to Zack Greinke, the last Kansas City pitcher to win the Cy Young Award.

It is partly because of his pitching style, says Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, but also because of his idiosyncratic nature. In interviews, Staumont uses words like “efficacy” and “intrinsic” in the flow of conversation. Other days, he will calmly challenge authority with well-crafted questions.

“It’s his mannerisms,” says Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “His facial expressions. It’s his body language.

“Like Greinke, he’s convicted. He’s processing.”

Yet he is far from a finished product. In 2016, Staumont walked 104 batters in 123  1/3 innings while splitting time between Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas. The command issues subsided as the season progressed, but they also invited questions about his future. For now, Staumont’s overpowering stuff is enough to overcome his bouts with wildness. But Royals officials know that won’t last forever.

“That’s going to get magnified,” Picollo says.

So now, after his first spring in major-league camp, Staumont is ticketed for a spot in the starting rotation at Class AAA Omaha or Northwest Arkansas. Club officials view him as a potential midseason option in the bullpen if a need arises. But for now, for an organization on the cusp of transition and still looking for its next homegrown starter, there is more value in Staumont pitching every fifth day.

And still, the question beckons: The Royals never expected Staumont to rise this quickly; now how long can they wait?

“If he’s pitching well, and we need help in the bullpen, he’s the obvious guy,” Picollo says. “We’re going to run into it.”

A Josh Staumont story: It’s a morning last spring. Royals outfielder Brett Eibner steps to the plate during a live batting-practice session on a back field. The day before, Eibner, a 27-year-old former second-round pick, was optioned back to minor-league camp. He has spent three weeks competing against major-league pitchers in Cactus League games, but now he is here, digging into the box against Staumont. A small crowd of fans congregates to watch. Staumont throws three pitches.

98 mph fastball. 98 mph fastball. And then … curveball.

“I don’t even know if Eibner even came close to making contact,” said Jeff Montgomery, who watched from a few feet away. “It was just like total domination.”

Colin Gonzalez grabbed his bag and showed up to the baseball field at Azusa Pacific University preparing for another afternoon as a Royals area scout in Los Angeles County. It was the fall of 2013, and Gonzalez had recently relocated from Florida to Southern California. He expected a routine day on the job.

Azusa Pacific, a small evangelical school, was one of the few schools in the region to hold an official scout day. The school had produced talent, such as big-league catcher Stephen Vogt, but this was not a hotbed. Gonzalez expected to see some players, fill out some reports, then maybe check back in the spring.

Then Gonzalez laid eyes on Staumont.

“You could just hear it,” he says. “It was just thunder coming out of the bullpen.

“It was too good to be true.”

Staumont, a sophomore, was not eligible for the draft that year. He had recently transferred from Biola, an NAIA school in La Mirada. Two years earlier, his fastball had sat in the high 80s and baseball seemed like a nice way to knock some money off his tuition. After minimal interest from the major programs in the area, he settled on Biola. His mother worked there.

“That was literally all it came down to,” Staumont says. “I could play a sport that I loved and get an education.”

But Staumont kept growing. His body kept maturing, and his arm kept throwing harder and harder, surprising scouts and coaches and stretching the laws of physics. In his freshman year at Biola, his fastball clocked in around 93 mph. When he followed pitching coach John Verhoeven to Azusa Pacific the next year, he was consistently hitting 96. Later that same year, he hit 99 mph for the first time.

“He just looked like he was playing catch,” Verhoeven says.

As his velocity spiked, scouts flocked to Azusa. But Staumont’s body was not ready to harness the newfound power. On the mound, he resembled Nuke LaLoosh, the flawed prospect from the movie “Bull Durham.” As a junior, he issued 54 walks in 68  1/3 innings. His coaches described the problems like this: He was used to driving a mid-sized sedan. Now he had to learn how to control an Aston Martin.

“The mind and the body weren’t control over that arm yet,” Gonzalez says.

The Royals would select Staumont with the 64th overall pick in the 2015 draft. They doled out a $964,000 signing bonus. The decision came just six weeks before the club would strip its minor-league pitching depth in trades for Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto.

If there was a time to take a chance on a collegiate pitcher with high upside, this was it. The Royals, Picollo says, envisioned Staumont as a project, somebody who would require time and development. But back in Southern California, Verhoeven believed Staumont was ready to take off.

There was something about him, Verhoeven says. He had a plan.

“He was a pretty meticulous kid, but a deep thinker,” Verhoeven says. “I realized from the get-go, if you show Josh respect, he’s going to run through a brick wall for you.”

Another Josh Staumont story: It’s the spring of 2015. Division II Azusa Pacific is playing a midweek game against the University of San Diego, a rising program in Division I. The game is a blowout. Azusa Pacific is getting drilled. So APU head coach Paul Svagdis inserts Staumont into the game to get some work. He has rarely pitched in relief. His adrenalin is pumping. He maxes out in one inning.

He hits 102 mph twice. Teammates look on in awe. The San Diego batters keep spraying line drives into the first-base dugout. Pretty soon, the entire dugout has gloves on.

“Holy smokes,” Verhoeven mutters to himself.

Baseball players are creatures of routine. But Staumont is more obsessive than most. Every night before 7 p.m., he lays out his clothes for the next day. He organizes his locker in military-grade fashion, each piece of equipment lined up perfectly. His teammates rib him about his neat-freak ways and time spent on his hair.

“I’m a planner,” Staumont says, smiling.

Staumont means this in a general way. He plans out his daily pitching routines. He studies other players. He spent most of this spring entranced by the way reliever Kelvin Herrera separated his hands early in his pitching delivery. It was something so simple, Staumont says, but it made sense.

“You just have to hone down, almost do a checklist of what they do,” Staumont said, “to see if something kind of clicks.”

In the minors, Staumont’s aptitude and mind has made him a quick learner. The stories are everywhere. In his first year, the coaching staff focused on speeding up the tempo of his mechanics. Last summer, Picollo says, they recommended tweaking his delivery so he brought his hands over his head during his windup. After just one bullpen session, he started using it in games.

“He said: ‘It doesn’t bother me,’” Picollo recalled. “ ‘If you guys think it’s better, then I’ll do it. And he did it.’”

There are other stories, too. Last October, the Royals asked Staumont to work on his changeup during a stint in the Arizona Fall League. If Staumont is going to become an elite starter, an effective third pitch could become crucial. Again, he took it to the extreme, forsaking results and throwing changeups in counts that didn’t even make sense.

The Royals came away impressed. For Staumont, it’s all part of the plan. There are small goals and little tests and opportunities to learn. And then there is the future. He thinks about that, too.

“Everything that I want, I have pretty much laid out,” he says. “It’s not something I’m super open about. But at the same time, I like routine. It’s something intrinsic with our game.”

One more Josh Staumont story. It’s March 16. The Royals are playing a split-squad game against the San Diego Padres in Peoria, Ariz. Staumont is making his final appearance in a Cactus League game before the season begins. He throws three scoreless innings. He strikes out five. On his final pitch of the day, a 3-2 offering to San Diego’s Corey Spangenberg, Staumont paints a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner. He goes to the locker room and hears “nice job” from Alex Gordon. A moment later, he thinks back to the pitch. It was a full count, a situation he would prefer to avoid. One ball away from another walk. But still, it was an important test. It felt good.

“No hesitation,” he said.

These days, it seems Staumont cannot go a week or two without somebody asking about his velocity. Yes, he can throw 100 mph. But there’s so much more to pitching, he says.

“It’s just kind of the easiest thing to put on paper,” he says. “It’s just like height and weight. It has very little to do with actually succeeding and your efficacy on the mound. But it is nice to have something that I can rely on.”

The Royals would agree. There is no way to predict exactly where Staumont’s career will go from here. There are still questions about his future, of course, questions about his role. Club officials believe he has the dominating stuff needed to slot into a starting rotation; rival scouts still wonder about his command and third pitch.

But then there’s this: He is one of the few people on the planet who can throw a baseball faster than 100 mph, and that’s a good start.

“He has the pure tools to pitch at any level he wants to pitch at,” Montgomery says.

To become the full package — a starter who can bolster a rotation for years — the Royals stress that more development time in the minors could be vital. Yet they could also be tempted by his potential in the bullpen.

“He’s a guy, quite frankly, that we’re hoping can help us sometime this year,” Royals manager Ned Yost says. “He just keeps coming.”

On a spring morning inside the Royals’ clubhouse, Staumont is not thinking about any of this. He is talking about his goal to “go unseen” during camp, and his desire to observe his older teammates. He is talking about learning, and how pitching can challenge your mind.

He is thinking about his next pitch, and his next outing, and his next start. He can’t stop thinking about the plan.