I first saw 2010 31st round pick Jason Townsend in State College at the end of the 2010 season. The right-hander was making one of his final appearances in a year where he would combine for a 3.60 ERA in 20 innings. My recap of Townsend’s performance that night was brief.
“Jason Townsend pitched the ninth inning and was wild, throwing 31 pitches in total, and walking the bases loaded. Townsend got out of the inning without allowing a run.”
That about summed up the season for Townsend. He ended up with good numbers, but it was a mystery as to how he got there. He walked 5.4 batters per nine innings and had a .313 batting average against, combining for a 1.90 WHIP.
That’s about what you’d expect from a 31st round pick. When you see a college senior taken that late, the expectations are low, and the term “organizational depth” gets tossed around. But despite the low draft spot, and the poor control, Townsend had something that made him a bit more intriguing than your typical 31st round pick.
A 97 MPH fastball.
An upper 90s fastball doesn’t do a lot of good if a pitcher has no control over the pitch. That was the case with Townsend. But it does make the pitcher a guy to watch in the event that he can gain some control. In Townsend’s case, that happened in 2011 at West Virginia.
“I think last year was a big step from State College,” Townsend said, reflecting on his 2011 season.
The right-hander from Alabama put up some strong numbers out of the West Virginia bullpen, with a 2.38 ERA in 53 innings. This time it wasn’t luck. He cut his walk rate to a 2.4 BB/9 ratio, and held batters to a .238 average against, leading to a 1.13 WHIP. His control was significantly better this time around, and he showed good movement on his fastball, driving it down through the zone.
Townsend credits the improvements to some mechanical adjustments. He focused on keeping the weight on his back foot, and focused on lengthening his stride to the plate. Both adjustments helped him keep the ball down in the zone, and helped improve his control. His stride length will continue to be a focus this year.
“I think that’s going to be the big key this year, just exploding to the plate and lengthening my stride to keep the ball down,” Townsend said.
Over the off-season, the right-hander took part in the typical workout routines: running, swimming, stretches, and so on. But a big focus for him was something we’ve seen more and more athletes embrace: yoga.
“My girlfriend’s mom is a yoga teacher back home, so that kind of pushed me to do it a little bit more,” Townsend said about the workouts.
He went to classes twice a week for an hour and a half, taking part in a special class called “hot yoga”. The temperature in the class would be cranked up to 85 degrees the entire time.
“I was the only guy in there for an hour and a half. I had to bring about two different towels and about three water bottles,” he remarked about the class.
That would be good training and preparation for pitching on a baseball field in the middle of July. Yoga also provides some added value for Townsend.
“For me, I have tight legs and tight hips,” Townsend said. “That’s a big part of my life right now…doing a lot of stretching and yoga and being flexible really.”
The right-hander turned 23 last September, and is expected to make the jump to Bradenton this year. His added control in 2011 was a welcome sign, but it came with some decreased velocity. He mostly worked in the lower 90s, touching 95. That’s a fair trade-off when you consider that a 96-97 MPH fastball won’t be very effective without control.
The big test will be whether he can maintain his numbers as he moves up. It’s hard to call him a top relief prospect until he reaches the AA level. His adjustments since entering the system have worked so far, and you’ve got to imagine the focus on yoga will only help his stride to the plate, which will be a key to future success.