Earlier this week, I wrote up my primer on Diamondbacks pitching prospect Taylor Clarke. I would like to thank Jim as well as the Ballengee Group’s Director of Analytics Paul Kuo for setting up the interview. The Diamondbacks system as a total is bereft of any top-end, franchise-changing talent, but it does hold a few players that I think have a very good chance to become MLB regulars, with LHP Anthony Banda being one of four guys at the top of my prospect rankings, with Clarke being one of them.
The topics covered in the Q&A included Clarke’s change-up, his ability to spot his pitches, preparing for starts, the challenges of facing more advanced hitters, and preparing for the 2017 season. I wanted to go more into the thought process and go more in depth with how he operates during and between starts.
Your change-up has been often cited as your 3rd best pitch behind the fastball and the slider, how much have you worked on that pitch to make it a viable 3rd option, especially against left-handed hitters?
"The Diamondbacks said that, especially after I got drafted, was one of the things they wanted me to develop more. So that was something I was working on, even going back to college that was always a pitch a little bit behind my other two pitches. So I would always be playing with grips, throw it as much as possible or throw it every day when I’m just playing catch standing up. I definitely think it’s improved over the past couple of years, just one of those things the more I throw it the more comfortable I’ll be with it."
In 2016, you pitched at three different levels between Class A Kane County, Class A Advanced Visalia, and AA Mobile. How much different is it pitching in the Southern League as opposed to the California or Midwest League?
"It was a pretty big jump going from A ball to AA. The hitters are just a little bit older and more mature overall, and so they have more of an approach up at the plate. I feel like they don’t chase as many pitches. Overall, it’s just the hitters had a better game plan it seemed like, and so you had to kind of learn that and the catchers I had, Ronnie [Freeman] and Oscar Hernandez, they really helped guide me through that. I feel like their kind of experience helped me learn what the hitters would be thinking in certain situations and kind of look at pitches to throw and how to handle certain hitters as you go up the ranks."
Are you going to seek advice from veteran pitchers such as Zack Greinke, Patrick Corbin, and Robbie Ray since they were in your situation as a rising young prospect?
"It’s helpful having older guys and whatever advice they got because they’ve been around some time. Any advice they’re willing to give, I’m willing to soak up like a sponge if I have the chance to go up to them for a couple games going up to big league camp."
Do you have any specific routine on days you’re scheduled to pitch?
"For me, it’s a little bit hard to try to find a consistent routine, especially on the road, but there are a few things where I try to prepare a certain way with pre-game stretches and try to repeat it every start. As far as food, eating, superstitions or something like that there’s nothing too specific or crazy."
When it comes to preparing between starts and developing game plans, do you watch video of the hitters you’re expecting to face and if so, how much?
"A decent amount, our video guys do a good job. I always get it available on my iPad within a day or two after my start, so that’s always a useful tool to have. I don’t watch it religiously, but I do watch it enough to see certain things that stuck out to me or something felt off. I watch video more on myself, to try to figure out what’s going on with me, if certain pitches aren’t working, or if I feel off with my mechanics so it’s a tool more to help me, I worry about myself."
Is there a former or current pitcher you try to model your game after?
"Not really, there’s guys I like watching but don’t try to mimic anyone too closely. I always liked watching [Max] Scherzer pitch, just the way he competes mostly. He’s got incredible stuff, the kind of mentality he has on the mound, and how he goes about his business every fifth day. He gets it done professionally. His mentality on the mound is what I try to mimic."
When facing hitters, do you try to approach hitters to your strengths, the batter’s weaknesses, or do you try to reconcile both?
"I definitely try to pitch to my strengths. If my strength happens to be their strength, then so be it. I’ll always still stay with that or might try to go with something else, that’s something I try to work on, having a variety of things so that way even if my strength, fastball command, against a good fastball hitter I’ll have to learn to make an adjustment. I definitely don’t want to pitch towards their weakness, I go with what I can do best."
Who is the toughest hitter you’ve faced so far in your short career so far?
"I try to treat them all the same, no one I remember really jumped out at me. You got to know the scouting report and if they get you the first time you got to make the adjustments and go after them a different way the second time. [Ozzie] Albies from Atlanta was pretty good, I had a hard time getting him out."
The Diamondbacks AAA and MLB teams both play in very favorable hitters park where elevation and dry air play a large role. As a fly ball pitcher, what has been your success in trying to limit the home run ball?
"I try to keep everything down in the zone, I’d say. I heard bad stories coming from Reno, pitching in the Cal League is not too much of a fun league either with some of those ballparks. Keep everything down, pitch in on guys, don’t let them get extended to the ball and let them drive it. Keep the breaking ball down and limit the mistakes over the heart of the plate."
Most baseball prospect publications have you as a consensus Top-7 organization prospect, do you believe that is a strong reflection of the hard work you’ve put in so far?
"Yeah, I definitely think that’s an honor for being up there with some of the other guys, but towards the end of the day I think it’s a number and you have to go out there and produce each day. You still have to put up the numbers. The outlook looks nice on a computer and everyone likes making lists nowadays, at the end of the day you still have to play your game and climb your way through the ranks."
Do you have any personal goals for the 2017 season?
"I think it’s similar for a lot of people, it’s to try and make the big leagues and help out up there. If not, hopefully that time will come whenever deemed necessary and being ready. That is an end goal of the season, but just take that one day at a time."
While Clarke wasn’t invited to participate in big league camp this year, he’s only a year behind at most. Based on his numbers on Fangraphs, I think they’ll have him repeat AA especially with a change in home venue from a pitcher’s park to a more hitter-friendly park. I believe 2017 will be a make or break year for Clarke as a prospect entering his Age 24 season and whether or not he’s ready for the majors come September. From one Ashburn, VA native to another, I hope you find a lot of success at the top of the minor leagues and the major league level.