Photo by Ed Sheahin for The Sports Capitol
How can Mason Denaburg make it? The Nationals' starters explains
BY TODD DYBAS | JULY 25, 2018
NATIONALS PARK — Stumping Max Scherzer is difficult. He has thoughts that move rapidly into words. Stifling either is a rare occurrence, whether joking or in a philosophical discussion.
He was recently asked this: If the Nationals’ first-round pick, 18-year-old high school pitcher Mason Denaburg, asked you how he gets from the draft to a major-league rotation, what would you tell him?
“I don’t think we have enough time or you have enough words to write,” Scherzer said.
Then he paused. Took a breath. Another. A thought almost came out, then he stopped and thought some more.
It’s fair to wonder what the film in Scherzer’s mind showed while he considered the question. Did he see himself at Parkway Central High School in Chesterfield, Missouri? Or when he was jettisoned to the bullpen at the University of Missouri, something that bothers him more than a decade later? His minor-league stops? The trade that sent him from Arizona to Detroit?
Surveying several other starters in the Nationals clubhouse, from still-trying-to-make-it Erick Fedde to the most-hyped pitching prospect in history, Stephen Strasburg, brought similar stalls before answering in exclusive conversations with The Sports Capitol.
“Ohhhh,” Fedde said as his first response.
Tanner Roark thought it through before starting to explain how much fun he had at college.
Strasburg delivered what an aggregated thought from the various pitchers would sound like.
“I don’t think there’s a right answer to that one,” he said.
The Nationals selected Denaburg 27th overall in the 2018 draft. His age is on his face and through his shoulders. When he comes set, the outline of his body is more linear than curved, joining his countenance to tell you he is 18 years old.
He played multiple sports and marks motocross rider Travis Pastrana as his preferred athlete. Denaburg previously rode motorcycles. His agent, the all-powerful Scott Boras, emphasized this was an activity of the past. Signing for $3 million to pitch takes away other things.
Denaburg had the option to sign for his slot money (though, predictably, Boras was able to get the Nationals to pay over the slot) or play for Florida. Two current members of the Nationals rotation went from high school to professional baseball: Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Hellickson. Gonzalez was a first-round pick, like Denaburg. Hellickson was a fourth-round pick. Everyone else went to college. Scherzer went to Missouri. Strasburg to San Diego State. Fedde to UNLV. Roark to Illinois.
What’s clear is the trip is different for everyone. Gonzalez didn’t have to consider college after being selected 38th in 2004 out of Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens when he was 18 years old. His family’s status made the decision for him.
“I made the decision signing right out of high school, but I was nowhere near $3 million,” Gonzales said. “I had no other choice for me. My family wasn’t — we weren’t doing too well financially, so for me it was an opportunity to take advantage of and I got to play baseball. For me it was a win-win, a no-brainer for my decision. … Traveling does get long. Situations of being on a bus for hours is not fun. Sharing a room with a roommate, that’s a part of the balance beam understanding this is a long road ahead.
“It’s funny, I always used to tell myself a glass of water is so much better in the big leagues than it is in the minor leagues. It’s just having that mindset, something to trick your mind to believe that small sacrifices go a long way. You look at it now, yeah, you’re going to lose time [with friends], but when you get up there, a lot of those friends who were texting you will never get a chance to talk about the situation you were in.”
Gonzalez rode the buses thinking about the water and trying to be observant. He lived with seven other players at one point in order to split the rent as much as possible. His first pro stop was Kannapolis, North Carolina, population roughly 40,000. Bristol, Virginia, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Arizona Fall League, and a return to Kannapolis populated his first two years. The salvation of Double-A Reading came when he was 20. His major-league debut happened when he was 22, or 6.3 years younger than the league average age. Even in his first stop in Kannapolis, he was almost four years younger than the average player.
“I had to learn through the minor leagues — it’s definitely not an easy road,” Gonzalez said. “They’re not going to just hand you a gift to be in the big leagues. They’re going to make you work for it and earn it. You’re going to have your ups and downs. It’s just trying to find that even keel the entire time. Find that balance beam where baseball’s fun, at the same time you know hard work will get you where you need to be. I think for me, just all in all be very observant. Try to be around someone that’s similar to you.”
The player drafted in front of Gonzalez, catcher Jon Peterson, and the player drafted behind him, right-handed pitcher Jay Rainville, never made it to the major leagues. Gonzalez has the third-highest WAR of anyone drafted that year in the first round.
College was crucial for the rest of the staff who did not have the choice presented to Gonzalez or Denaburg.
Roark left Wilmington, Illinois for the University of Illinois. He was 21 at the start of his careening journey to get into the major leagues and stick. He didn’t debut in the major leagues until he was 26. He turns 32 in October.
“I had one of the best times of my life in college,” Roark said. “And, I have a lot of friends because of that. I was from a small town in Illinois. No diversity whatsoever. It was just — you got to go out and be on your own and be responsible, not like you don’t have to do that in pro ball, in pro ball it’s more of a grind at that young age depending on how good he is and how fast he goes on up. You learn a lot about yourself. That’s what I took away from [time in college]. I wanted to get drafted out of high school. It didn’t happen. Then I went to college and learned a lot from the coaches and just the experience and how unprepared I was for pro ball if I ever got drafted.”
Roark’s ladder of success appeared to have greased rungs. He made a stop in the Frontier League in independent ball before return to an affiliated league. He often proudly walks around the clubhouse in a T-shirt touting work. The idea is on his mind when thinking about what’s most important for Denaburg, who is likely starting this path with the better physical gifts.
“Don’t think it’s automatic,” Roark said. “You’ve still got work your ass off. You have to work. When you don’t want to, you’ve still got to do it because there’s someone right behind you who wants to take your job. I still think that way to this day. I was that young guy coming up, wanting to get to the big leagues and came my opportunity and I did. Luckily took advantage of it. Now, I’ve got to keep learning and adapting each year.”
Fedde is the closest in age to Denaburg among the current Nationals rotation options. He’s 25 years old, going up and down from the majors to Triple-A Syracuse and generally trying to find his way after being the 18th overall pick in 2014. Fedde was 22 when he arrived in Hagerstown, right in line with the average age of the league. That’s because of his time at UNLV.
“Probably the biggest thing is the growing up factor,” Fedde said. “I look back when I was 18, you’ve never lived on your own, you’ve never been quite responsible for yourself; every little thing you do. Coming into the minor leagues, everything’s going to speed up. Very quickly, you’re going to be at the field every day. You’re not going to be going to college parties. You’re going to be at work. That’s a thing you realize really quickly, this is no longer — it’s still fun — but this is how you plan to put food on the table for the remainder of your life. The advice there is if you want to do it, make sure you’re ready to commit fully because this is important and be ready to grow up quickly.”
None of those pitcher have dealt with the hype, finances or success of Scherzer and Strasburg. Their divergent personalities and journeys give them unique perspectives. Strasburg went through all the hoopla that can be mustered. Scherzer has played for three teams despite his tools. They both spent time in college to get better. Both work relentlessly despite prior success. That work frames their mentality when considering how to advise Denaburg.
Scherzer emphasized the lower body, in addition to the mind. All the pitching techniques learned throughout the minors or otherwise mean little if the body is not able to carry them out.
“It’s going to first start in the weight room,” Scherzer said. “You’re going to have to go from an 18 year old to a man. This is when a lot of kids — I know a lot of us in particular — when you put on the next 20-30 pounds of muscle, it’s crucial that you get after it in the gym and put on that type of weight and strength to make it as a pitcher so you can post every fifth day and take on a full season and be able to do it year after year. Your conditioning and strength training is the foundation of your durability. And, sometimes durability is more important than ability.”
Strasburg, perpetually sweat-soaked and tinkering with everything from his body to his delivery, expressed similar thoughts to Scherzer. The work will substantiate the talent.
“I think they draft you because they see some potential and they see some ability,” Strasburg said. “So I think always trust in your ability. I think you notice a lot of guys that have a lot of talent, but some guys might not know how to work hard or get better and those are the guys that kind of get weeded out. So, I would think constantly, be your best pitching coach, just grind, keep grinding, don’t quit and try and take coaching from anybody. You don’t know where something may come from and make you a lot better and get you to the next level.”
When asked about possibly going to college at Florida instead of signing, Denaburg said he didn’t know how to answer the question, as if the thought wasn’t quite real. Entering the Nationals’ thinned pitching system with a $3 million investment in tow automatically makes Denaburg a crucial piece. This season has shown how limited the minor-league starting pitcher options have become for an organization once loaded in the category. The Nationals hope last year’s first-round pick, starter Seth Romero, or Denaburg, or both, rise through the small towns and long bus rides to emerge as rotation pieces.
“He’s got all the physical tools and great work ethic to go with his talent attributes,” Boras said of Denaburg. “Knock on wood, we expect him to follow the chain of events we’ve had with our draft picks and the Nationals where we’re at 100 percent rate, so I guess we’re doing OK. Which is pretty unusual when you think about draft numbers and players. Most organizations are less than 20 percent.”
Gonzalez made it through straight from high school. The rest of the staff used college and the minor leagues to get this far. If Denaburg sat down with them, he would hear about the challenge of the journey, the needed mental and physical strength no matter the starting point. He would also have to make some time. The conversation would be long.
Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.