We continue our offseason capsules getting to know some of the top prospects in the Nationals system who played in the Arizona Fall League. Today the spotlight falls on right-hander Sterling Sharp. The 24-year-old from Southfield, Mich., was a 22nd-round selection in 2016.
In part one of our sit-down with Sharp (Twitter: @DatDude_Ster42), we will focus on his return from an oblique injury and his time in the AFL.
Sharp worked his way back from the injury early in the season to post solid numbers and pitch in important games. He went 5-3 with a 3.99 ERA in nine starts at Double-A Harrisburg, with 45 strikeouts and 14 walks.
For the AFL Surprise Saguaros, Sharp went 2-1 with an impressive 1.50 ERA in six starts, helping the club reach the league title game.
Although he allowed a big hit in that final game, Sharp was proud of what he accomplished this season after going down with the oblique injury in May.
Sharp went through the arduous task of rehab through all of June and July before returning to pitch at short-season Single-A Auburn. He eventually came back to pitch in the second game of the Eastern League playoffs for Harrisburg in Bowie.
“It was a long process, especially for obliques, you can’t really do much,” Sharp said of his rehab. “We had this machine (called a Hivamat), kind of like an ultrasound, it’s like vibration pulses going through your body. It targets the part that hurts. For me, oblique. I did that for about two and a half weeks. That was all I could do. So, I would go in for about an hour and do that.
“Then we moved on to core exercise to try to see if the oblique would withstand that. That was a minor setback. By the second day of core it flared up again, so we stepped back a little bit, got an MRI to make sure things were fine. After that, got into throwing, a week after that.”
Following the Double-A postseason, the Nats invited Sharp to participate in the Arizona Fall League. He joined the Saguaros, which did not have a long list of well known prospects, but managed to win their division and reach the league final versus Salt River.
“We would always make jokes about how, on paper, we might not look like the best team there and we ended up being in the championship game,” Sharp said. “We had a lot of guys there that just love playing. When it was time to perform, everyone played to their best and it showed. We had a good group of guys. I’d like to think the pitching staff - the starting rotation and the bullpen - kind of carried that team.
“Orioles right-hander Dean Kremer, Yankees right-hander Glenn Otto, Royals left-hander Daniel Lynch, all of those guys were a great starting rotation, easy to follow if you see the guy before you go out and shove. So you want to match that.”
Nats coach Larry Pardo and Saguaros pitching coach Mike Anderson from the Rangers organization helped Sharp fine-tune his setup on the mound.
“It was cool to bounce ideas off of both,” Sharp said. “One little change that we had was when I come set on the mound I slightly close off my back foot so it’s not pointing directly at third base,” Sharp explained. “I’m kind of like pigeon-toed on the mound. That was causing a little pain that we kind of found out in my knee because I was caving in a little early. Talking to them, we switched up a little bit so I’m now almost parallel right on top of the mound. That was a minor change that helped me stay back on the rubber and relieve some of that knee pain. It felt good and results worked out for me there.”
The adjustment relieved pressure on his load-bearing knee and allowed him to pitch pain-free.
“It was more my heel was on the rubber and the toe wasn’t. The switch made the whole outside part of my foot, toe and heel, lined up on the rubber.”
The Nats have Patrick Corbin in their rotation. The southpaw sports one of the game’s most lethal sliders. Sharp arrived in Surprise, Ariz., with a directive from the Nationals to work on improving his slider.
“Mostly the slider, that was the main pitch (I work on),” Sharp said. “Throughout my career I’ve been mostly a sinker, changeup guy. It’s been tough for me to spin it. So last offseason, this year and going into this offseason that’s going to be my main focus. I knew that was what the team wanted me to work on and what people wanted to see. I know the first three or four starts I was leaning on that pretty well. Last two (starts), I didn’t use it as much.”
Sharp also had time to fine-tune his sinker to make sure he could throw to all parts of the zone.
“The other one would be back-door or glove-side sinker, just use the whole plate and not always the arm-side part. It kind of opens up more planes or pitches that I can use to get other guys out.”
That was the pitch that Jerar Encarnacion got hold of for the grand slam in the Saguaros’ 5-1 title game setback. Sharp knew what happened with that pitch, and what he was trying to do.
“That was a pretty soft sinker that just had lateral movement and didn’t have any depth down,” Sharp said. “It was a little but slower on the velocity than I would like. It was more of kind of placing it instead of trusting it and throwing it.”
Sharp’s early starts in Arizona were outstanding. But because he was experimenting with the slider and sinker a bit more, his walk total jumped a bit.
“I was pleased with the (early starts). The walks, I think it was 11. I’m not usually a guy that walks people,” Sharp said. “But being out there I’m working on things I necessarily wouldn’t throw during the year. I know four of those 11 walks came with two guys. They were pretty notable hitters.
“I was trying to something I wouldn’t do normally, just trying to get out of my comfort zone and work on things I would probably need in the big leagues. The 11 walks ... I know that it was more my fault thing, not just the command. I was working on things that I necessarily didn’t have the past year. (Overall), I was pleased with it.”
Coming up in part two of our chat with Sharp, we talk about how he looks to lower the spin rate on his sinker pitch, the mental part of bouncing back from a tough outing and how he and his teammates watched and celebrated the Nats’ run to the world championship.