“Bring it on!”
That’s how left-handed pitcher Evan Lee greeted me as we started to talk about his baseball summer during Nationals fall instructional league workouts and games in West Palm Beach, Fla., this month. You can tell by that reaction that Lee brings that same attitude to the mound when handed the ball for the Nats.
Lee, 23, is currently pitching for the Nats in their scrimmages against the Marlins, continuing preparations for a hopefully uninterrupted 2021 season. The southpaw, who played outfield and threw for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 2016-2018, has already pitched for the Nats with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season Single-A Auburn. He was a 15th-round 2018 selection.
His 2018 Razorbacks team came within three outs of a College World Series title in Omaha, falling to Oregon State, two games to one. Current Nats farmhands Jackson Rutledge and Matt Cronin were also on his team.
In a normal 2020 season, Lee would have been pitching for low Single-A Hagerstown, but the Covid-19 global pandemic changed all of that for everyone.
Lee has a fastball that has been clocked at 92-95 mph, touching 96-97 mph. In his most recent outing against the Marlins, Lee hit 93-95 mph.
“I am fastball heavy,” Lee said. “I’ve got a high spin fastball that I like to use as well as a breaking ball behind that. It’s a 12-to-6 curveball. Those are my two pitches that I would consider plus pitches. The rest is a changeup and a cutter. A cutter/slider that I use sparingly to get hitters off of my fastball or breaking ball. Just give them a wrinkle. If I am able to have four pitches, I am real successful.”
Lee said the day-to-day plan for instructional league is similar to what he would go through during previous spring training workouts and a lot like what the team was doing at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., over the past three months.
“(We have) yard days where they get all their individual work in and then play a game after,” Lee said. “It’s very similar down here. There’s just more guys here now, but it’s been really, really fun and really good. We have been getting a lot of good work in, scrimmaging the Marlins.”
Lee missed out on real games in Hagerstown because of the cancellation of the minor league season, then drew extra motivation when he saw he was not a part of the 60-man player pool in Fredericksburg.
“It was tough,” Lee said. “With Covid-19 impacting so many people, I was very fortunate to have access to a lot of things that people didn’t. When I looked at the 60-man that made it to Fredericksburg, it kind of gave me motivation because I thought I could belong there. So I went work and transformed myself mechanically, transformed myself physically and transformed myself mentally.
“That’s just all the coordinators and coaches have said is how my transformation has come a long way and that they are proud of me because I am a completely different pitcher, completely different person than I was last year. I took what they wanted me to do in instructional league last year and brought it to fruition.”
Prior to the instructional league back in his home state of Arkansas, Lee worked out with other pro prospects to get better, working under the direction of former major league right-hander Dustin Moseley, who pitched from 2006-2012 for the Angels, Yankees and Padres. Moseley was the winning pitcher in Game 1 of the 2010 American League Championship Series for the Yankees against the Rangers.
“I worked out in Little Rock at a place called Proformance Sports Academy, which is run by a prior big leaguer, Dustin Moseley,” Lee said. “I trained with a bunch of pro guys in that facility. We were able to kind of just get better together. All of us were stuck at home, a group of about five to seven of us. We just got after it. We got to work. We had Rapsodo and we had all the technology we needed and we just went to work on transforming ourselves. A lot of live BP action, a lot of sports specific weightlifting. We followed the programs the Nationals or our big league club provided for us. It was just a competitive environment because we wanted to get better and we took it every day as if we were in the season. It was really good.”
Rapsodo measures the impact of spin on every ball. It shows the actual flight of a pitched baseball and calculates the corresponding trajectory of the same pitch without any spin.
Lee started three games for Auburn at the end of the 2019 campaign, and pitched more than one inning most outings as a reliever, going 3-2 with a 2.65 ERA in 12 games. The Nats have him coming out of the bullpen during instructional league scrimmages.
“As of now, I have been coming out of the bullpen, throwing an inning or two as we go,” Lee said. “They started me in Auburn towards the end of the year and I did really, really good. It will be a question mark going into next year. I’ll be sure to ask that question in the exit meeting, but as of now it’s been in the bullpen, which I think I can move fast with, so I’m not opposed to it.”
The scrimmages with the Marlins run through Oct. 24. There are eight more games scheduled. The next game is set for tomorrow afternoon.
“They are full nine-inning games with umpires,” Lee said. “We have been playing them almost every day and we flip-flopped back and forth, have a home game and then have an away game the next day. So it’s been as game regulation as you can get it.
“I got in my first game last week, I threw an inning and struck out two. Really good there. My next outing will come this weekend. I have an intrasquad that I will pitch in (today) and then after that, throw a bullpen and be ready to face the Marlins this weekend. It’s been going good.”
Lee said minor league pitching coordinator Brad Holman has been a big influence in helping him improve his approach mechanics, and senior advisor for player development Spin Williams aided in the transition from two-way player to everyday pitcher.
“Brad has been instrumental in my development,” Lee said. “I can date that back to my previous instruct years, where he broke my mechanics and broke everything down as we were watching it and gave me pointers and gave me things that I needed to work on to become more successful, and they have all paid off, so I give it to him. He has been an instrument in my development as a player.
“Spin Williams has been a big part in helping me change from being a position player/pitcher to just a full-time pitcher. It’s taken me a little time, but I feel like I am getting successful and have a routine now.”
Lee said Holman and the staff have worked to help him move the ball around in the strike zone. The coaches are getting Lee more confident in using his changeup in any count.
“I have always had good stuff,” Lee said. “I have always been able to get guys out from pure stuff. The thing that I needed my jump with was location. My location and my command were more sporadic than what it needed to be to move up in the ranks. That’s one thing that I really focused on and not worried so much about how hard I could throw it, but more concerned of location and making sure that I am hitting my spots.
“The next thing was to develop the changeup and to make sure that I have that ready to go at any time in any count. That helps me a lot get cheap outs because as a swing-and-miss guy and foul balls, to be able to throw a changeup in there and limit my pitch count, that’s big as well.
“Those were two big factors as well as some mechanical things that they saw would help my durability and to get more out of my body instead of just brute force it.”
Lee took his offseason seriously. He worked on what the coordinators said needed improvement. Lee did not get down on himself because he wasn’t pitching for Hagerstown or in Fredericksburg. He got to work. Just because there was no minor league season, Lee still treated each workout and each game as a professional, repeating in his mind what the Nats told him to get better at. At instructional league this month, the coaches have been impressed with that transformation.
“I have had a lot of success down here,” Lee said. “Keep opening their eyes every day, and thankful for the opportunity that I do have to get work and to get their eyes on me in hopes that I can pass some people. That’s what I’m trying to do down here.”