"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
Hall of Famer Warren Spahn
Rain delayed the start of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats with the Hartford Yard Goats game today. The newly-minted Yard Goats were forced to become this year's peripatetic minor league team, as their home park (Dunkin' Donuts Park) will not be ready for another two months.
As a result, the game played at the Fisher Cats home field was to be a home game for Hartford. As the Yard Goats came off the field after the top of the 1st inning, leadoff hitter Ramel Tapia was tardy in getting into the batter's box. As a result, under rules implemented by MiLB to speed up the pace of play, he was assessed an automatic strike.
Fisher Cats' starter, LHP Shane Dawson of Drayton Valley, AB, who threw 51 of 71 pitches for strikes over 5 shutout innings on a strike-zone filling afternoon in his AA debut, hardly needed the help.
The Albertan was selected in the 17th round by the Blue Jays in the 2012 draft. Although he moved slowly through the Jays minor league system, he got hitters out wherever he pitched through a combination of location, movement, and pitch sequencing. In 2013, however, with the Blue Jays short-season affiliate Vancouver, Dawson experienced considerable elbow soreness, and was sent to the club's facilities in Dunedin, where doctors discovered that he was missing one of the four core muscles that make up the rotator cuff in that throwing arm. The absence of the muscle did not mean surgery or the end of his career, but it did necessitate a program to strengthen the remaining muscles. The new routine was to take some time - Dawson was shut down in July of 2014 with more shoulder and elbow soreness.
Fast forward to 2015, and the new regimen was taking effect. Dawson was lights out at Lansing, limiting Midwestern League hitters to a .242 average. Promoted to Dunedin in August, he experienced continued success, and won a combined 15 games between the two levels.
It was thought that Dawson would return to Dunedin for at least the first half of this year, which is a fairly common Blue Jays practice, but his spring training performance convinced management that he could get hitters out at the next level.
Getting ahead of the hitters was the key to Dawson's success in the past, and such was the case today. He threw first strikes to 10 of the 18 hitters he faced, and threw no more than two balls to any hitter. After falling behind 2-0 to David Dahl, the Colorado Rockies' 2nd-ranked prospect, he came back with three straight strikes to get Dahl on a foul tip to end the inning - this was one of only three times he fell behind Hartford hitters on the day.
An 18-pitch 2nd inning was Dawson's longest on the day, but his cutter and slider confounded Yard Goat batters for his second straight 3-up, 3-down frame. He needed only 5 pitches to get out of the 4th, but was bailed out by an outstanding throw by LF Melky Mesa to nail a hitter trying to stretch a single into a double, and a gem of a sliding grab by CF Roemon Fields. Dawson works quickly and throws strikes, which tends to keep his defence alert and on their toes.
Dawson gave up a pair of infield singles in the 5th. Both were tough plays for New Hampshire 3rd Baseman Matt Dean, who was moved to the hot corner due to some thinness at that spot in the system (Dean has played only a handful of games at 3rd over the past three seasons). His afternoon was over after the 5th, having surrendered only 3 hits and no walks on the day. Dawson struck out four, and recorded 5 groundball outs, compared to 2 by the flyball.
Dawson does not overpower, with his fastball topping out at 91. He proves that of the three pillars of pitching (location, movement, and velocity), if you have the first two, the third doesn't always matter. Dawson threw all of his pitches for strikes today, and commanded both sides of the plate. His cutter was working extremely well, starting outside and then coming back to the outside corner to right-handed hitters. Dawson spent much of the day on the black, and Hartford hitters could only square up two balls by my count.
Dawson has never been ranked a top prospect - the top draft choices and guys who can light up a radar gun get the attention. By the time a pitcher gets to AA, however, he needs to have a plan to get hitters out that relies on more than just the speed of his fastball. Dawson certainly appears to know what he's doing on the mound, and while he throws harder than former Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle did in his final years, it's easy to compare the two.