SALISBURY, Md. - Mitch Horacek prefers to live in the present, believing that philosophy is a pitcher’s best friend. Ignore the call the umpire didn’t give you on the batter now standing at first base, even though he might have been the third out of the inning. Forget about the slugger waiting in the on-deck circle in a one-run game.
Just focus on the here and now, says the Single-A Delmarva left-hander, and you’ll be fine.
Not that it’s so easy, mind you.
“The hardest part is trying to stay in the present,” explains Horacek, a ninth-round selection by the Orioles in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft. “I think that’s the hardest part for any baseball player. It’s easy to think back on your past outings, your past at-bats, and bring those to the plate or to the mound with you. The best approach I’ve found is to just try to keep everything away. Live in the present, play in the present. That way, your future expectations, your past can’t really affect you.”
But if he could peer into the near future, there’s a good chance the 22-year-old’s attention wouldn’t be trained on baseball, even though there’s about a month left in the Shorebirds’ season.
Instead, Horacek would be focused on the three classes standing between him and a hybrid degree in engineering and economics at Dartmouth College. Once the South Atlantic League campaign ends, Horacek will pack his bags and, instead of heading home to Littleton, Colo., he’ll head for Hanover, N.H., to complete his studies at the revered Ivy League institution.
“It’s not just for the sake of getting the degree,” Horacek explains. “I really like learning. I’m always reading books, I’m always thirsty for information. But the experience itself, just being there on campus, is something like no other. If not for anything else, I just want to go up there and enjoy the school, enjoy the people, enjoy the atmosphere for one last go-around.
“It’s a fallback plan, but it’s also an accomplishment. I grew up in Denver, Colo., so to the people there, the Ivy League is something that’s over the hills and far away. Everyone’s conscious of Ivy League schools, but no one really knows much about them. I didn’t know much about them. I couldn’t have named any outside of Harvard, Yale, maybe Princeton when I was in high school. But after going and doing it and meeting people from the school, it’s really something to be a part of that. I think when I finally get my degree, it’s going to be pretty special.”
If you think the notion of an Ivy Leaguer hoping for a career in the major leagues sounds like a mutually exclusive arrangement, go back to school. The Big Green has been pretty fairly represented in the bigs, and two current big leaguers are alumni: Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks and Marlins infielder Ed Lucas. Former Orioles front office executive Jim Beattie, who pitched in the majors for nine seasons with the Yankees and Mariners, played at Dartmouth from 1974-75.
Horacek has three classes remaining. He’ll take advanced Spanish, so he can better communicate with his Spanish-speaking teammates; a religious studies course, perhaps pertaining to Islam, so he can better understand current world events in the Middle East; and earth studies, an elective meant purely for enjoyment.
With the demanding schedule he’s faced - playing baseball during the summer and studying during the offseason - it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Horacek is a slightly different kind of minor league ballplayer. His teammates still rag him when he says something not befitting a soon-to-be Dartmouth grad. But his approach to the craft of baseball isn’t the kind usually encountered by Alan Mills, the ex-Orioles reliever who serves as Delmarva’s pitching coach and first encountered Horacek last summer at short-season Single-A Aberdeen after he was drafted.
“He’s very analytical,” says Mills. “He’s a good learner. He’s a very intelligent guy, and he wants to learn. A lot of times in a guy’s first or second year, it can be a wrestling match to coach them because they’ve been doing something a certain way for a long while and they’ve been successful doing it. Even if you see that, in the future, (that success) is going to taper off, they don’t see it yet. But when a guy is like Mitch, Mitch takes in what you give him and he processes it. If he doesn’t quite understand something, or he’s not sure, he won’t just let it go. He’ll come to you and try to get a better understanding.”
Mills says the fact that Horacek is a pitcher with an Ivy League background could lead to some problems, given a hurler’s propensity for self-examination.
“Pitchers have a lot of time on their hands, so they overthink and overanalyze a lot of things,” Mills says. “But when you’re used to figuring things out, as he would be as an engineer, sometimes you can take it to the extreme. This part of the season, guys get moved up and advanced, so guys that don’t get moved, they sit and try to figure out, ‘What must I do to make progress?’ Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do that you’re not already doing. It’s just a matter of space and numbers. But sometimes, guys end up trying to do a lot more than they need to be doing.”
Instead, Horacek has learned to remain within himself in the present to succeed. He’s 5-10 with a 3.95 ERA in 20 starts, and has hit a bit of a wall after going 4-6 with a 2.57 ERA in 12 starts before the All-Star break. He commands a lively fastball, features a change and uses a slider as his go-to strikeout pitch. Horacek leads the South Atlantic League with 124 strikeouts. In fact, the two pitchers behind him in the league strikeout register also pitch for the Shorebirds - 2013 first-round pick Hunter Harvey (106) and lefty Steven Brault (102).
Mills doesn’t coach his pitchers to look for strikeouts - that means more pitches, which translate into longer innings and outings, and lead to more wear and tear on young pitchers’ arms. He prefers his charges to pitch to contact, utilizing command early in the count to seize control of the at-bat from a hitter. Get ahead in the count, Mills believes, and the advantage tilts squarely toward the pitcher.
“If you make your pitches and you’re aggressive in the zone, strikeouts are going to come,” Mills says. “Anytime you make a guy swing and miss, well, it’s almost like a home run for a hitter. Maybe not quite the same, but it’s the part of pitching you enjoy from the first time you took the mound. But that’s not something we’re after as a staff.”
Horacek has been a good pupil, and enjoys the cat-and-mouse game between batter and pitcher. But he also knows the mind can play tricks on a pitcher, and that thinking can be both his most efficient weapon and his worst enemy. Hence his preference to stay in the present and block out everything else around him, focusing only on the hitter he’s facing and nothing else.
“The hardest thing for me is keeping my mental game in check,” Horacek says. “It’s the hardest thing, in my opinion, for a pitcher when your thoughts run crazy on the mound. It’s hard to control. To try to curb that, I’ve read a few books, I practice being calm by going over my game plan in my head and just visualizing success.”
And what plans does he have for the future? Horacek isn’t quite sure.
“With my degree in hand, I’ll have opportunities down the road,” he says in the home dugout after he finishes running sprints the day following a start at Perdue Stadium in Salisbury. “But sitting here now, I couldn’t put my finger on any one thing. I really do like engineering. I like knowing the answers to how things work, why things work. I like knowing the math behind it, but I’m not necessarily a math guy. ... I don’t think I’d want to sit at a desk, crunching numbers all day. I don’t think that’s my kind of engineering. For some people, it is. At this point, I don’t really know what kind of engineering I’d want to do - if engineering at all. I like numbers, but I’d be perfectly content doing something other than engineering.”