WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Right-hander Mason Denaburg, the Nationals’ 2018 first-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft, is making very good progress in his first spring training. The 6-foot-4, 195-lb. right-hander did side work Saturday in preparation for his first live pitching session Tuesday.
He threw 40 pitches Saturday and now will have two days off. Denaburg will pitch in a live simulated game Tuesday where he will throw fastballs, changeups and curveballs. He gets six days off between live pitching sessions.
Coming out of Merritt Island High School, about two hours north of here, Denaburg was the 27th overall selection to the Nationals in the 2018 draft. He signed July 3, 2018. In his senior season, he pitched to a 0.99 ERA in 35 1/3 innings, hitting .410 with five homers and 21 RBIs. Biceps tendinitis slowed his final campaign, but he says that injury is behind him now.
“I’m not feeling anything right now, just a normal throwing program every day, and hopefully get live in one or two days,” Denaburg said. “(Saturday) was like my first bullpen that I threw everything. It went pretty good I think.”
Denaburg doesn’t look like your normal high school graduate preparing for college. He has the frame of a big leaguer. He looks like he could play football. And he did up until his junior year: quarterback, wide receiver, punter and kicker. He had a scholarship offer to play baseball at the University of Florida.
“He already has an advanced body as it is,” said Nationals pitching coordinator Paul Menhart. “He’s a thick kid. He’s very athletic. He’s got football in his background. He comes from very athletic parents. His sister is very athletic as well. That’s a prototypical first-rounder or future big leaguer. We want athletic pitchers and he fits the bill.”
With his sister playing beach volleyball close by, his parents come down from home for the chance to see both of them every other weekend. Denaburg appreciates the opportunity to see his family while living out his dream to be a professional baseball player. He’s comfortable working out at spring training in his home state. And even though he’s only 19, being away from home and his family doesn’t faze him.
“I guess I kind of prepared for it over the summer,” Denaburg said. “You’re not hardly with your parents that much. Once you get to that senior summer, you are going to all these different games and they are putting you in hotels and you’re not with your parents. That kind of prepared me for it. I think I’m pretty mature and I live by myself without a problem.”
He has played with All-American teams and even for the U.S. Under-18 National Team in a tournament in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They won the tournament. They played “nine to 11 games” and Denaburg pitched three times. “It was fun,” Denaburg said. “I was more of a closer, but we had six or seven of the best pitchers in nation on our team.”
He has found his teammates acclimating, hanging with roommate Jake Irvin, plus pitchers Reid Schaller and Chandler Day. Denaburg says Irvin provides encouragement.
“Jake helps me because he’s always doing the right thing, so if I ever find myself out of sort or upset he is there to help me,” he said.
Denaburg said the biceps issue is in the past thanks to the physical rehab and strength program with the Nats. The Nationals brought the young arm along slowly by implementing their offseason throwing program.
“I do rehab stuff before I go out and throw, make sure my arm is nice and stretched just so I’m not getting into it too quick,” Denaburg said. “When I was in high school and had to sit out a month and went back to pitch those last couple games, my arm felt really good. And then I obviously signed pretty late, so I wasn’t really throwing. I just hung out with my family and did some stuff with them.
“I got here for the (Rookie-level) Gulf Coast League and they said we are going to start you off fresh with an offseason throwing program. I ended up staying down here the whole time. Just tossing three times a week and I gradually ramped up. By the time instructs came, I was on the mound throwing.”
Menhart has Denaburg focusing on three pitches: a mid-90s fastball, changeup and curveball. They have put the slider on the shelf for now.
“Just let him focus on three pitches as opposed to four,” Menhart said. “We don’t want to see a blend of the curveball and the slider, which can happen. We are definitely not throwing away the slider. We just have him work on one breaking pitch. It seems to help in our experience with a lot of guys.”
Denaburg has found a grip for his changeup that works well. It also looks like a fastball, so hitters don’t know what is coming.
“It’s definitely a hard pitch to find a grip that you can be comfortable with,” Denaburg said. “Once you find the grip, (you’re set). I think I can go to it and throw it whenever I want. It’s like a strike.
“That’s what we’ve been working on. I gripped it like a four-seam, but in an awkward way so hitters could still tell that the spin was different. So we flipped it. Now I’m gripping it like a grip my four-seam. It looks just the same.”
Tuesday’s live simulated game is a big deal for Denaburg because all he has is two innings of work from his time at instructional league in October.
“Once he got through his mound progression, we gave him a little taste of the opposition,” Menhart said. “He showed us some great poise like he had done it before. That’s all we really wanted to accomplish was get him to an offseason healthy. And we accomplished that.”
Menhart has been impressed with the what he has seen from Denaburg.
“He’s got an advanced everything for that age,” Menhart said. “He’s the full-packaged kid. This personal experience in professional baseball is so new to him. So we are taking it slow. He asks very upper-level questions often and it’s encouraging.”
Now that they are over a month into camp, Menhart and staff have helped Denaburg tweak his mechanics and set up a bit. In the weight room, the Nationals strength and conditioning staff has focused on building strength in Denaburg’s lower half.
“(Menhart) told me from the start he wanted to see what I got and then he’d start making changes,” Denaberg said. “We’ve been tweaking little stuff. Starting a little bit farther on the right of the rubber then where I was starting. It’s something little that I work on every day that I try to improve on.
“This offseason, I worked on my legs getting a lot stronger and I think my arm strength, too, has gotten a lot better. I have been out long tossing three or four times a week. I think my strength overall I’ve improved a lot since high school.”
All this work for Denaburg culminates in that next step Tuesday in the live pitching simulation. A live batter in the box. Real game situation. Umpire calling the pitches behind the plate. A hitter trying to hit his stuff. It may not be a big deal to others, but for Denaburg it is a huge moment.
“I threw two innings in instructs, but other than that this will be my first live hitters I’ve faced since last year,” Denaburg said. “Can’t wait. I’m ready for that.”