West Tunnell, a Phoenix-area native (Anthem), is a 26-year-old right-handed reliever prospect who originally went undrafted in 2016. At Baylor, he was a reserve infielder but transitioned to pitching not too long afterwards. The Diamondbacks signed him in November of that year and put him in the bullpen. After a brief 2017 season where he was making the adjustment from position player to pitcher, he picked things up quickly in 2018 with a solid showing between Hillsboro and Visalia as a bridge guy then setup man. He would pitch the 2019 with Visalia and Jackson, serving as the closer between the two clubs (was the final pitcher in 36 of 43 outings). In the 2019 season he posted a 1.11 ERA with a 60/21 K/BB ratio in 45 innings and picked up 19 saves in 20 tries between the two levels. Visalia and Jackson would both go on to win their respective league championships, with Tunnell recording the final 3 outs of the Southern League Championship.
His repertoire consists mostly of a mid 90s fastball, which tops out at 98 MPH, and a late-breaking slider in the mid 80s. He hides the ball pretty well in his delivery, which makes him a difficult match-up against right-handed hitters. RHH put up a .158 average (16 for 101) with a 13/41 BB/K ratio and 3 HR against Tunnell on the season. That makes him as a potential intriguing match-up righty (a.k.a. ROOGY) late in the game where you bring him in to face a set of right-handed hitters. Walks are definitely to monitor, although he improved in that area after jumping to AA with just 4 in 17 innings with Jackson after putting 17 on in 28 innings with Visalia. If you want a comparison, his upside is basically the right-handed version of Andrew Chafin: a match-up reliever who misses bats but also has a tendency to lose the strike zone for short stretches. Given that MLB is instituting a 3-batter rule for pitchers starting in the upcoming season, that affects players with that kind of skill set the most (more so for the LOOGYs).
I got the chance to interview the late-blooming reliever prospect, who in 3 years has gone from taking the mound for the first time to a strong year as the closer for two teams that won championships and on the cusp of reaching the majors.
Unfortunately due to a couple boneheaded decisions I made, I was unable to save the audio recording for the interview so at best I can only give a summary of the answers.
Decision to sign with the Diamondbacks influenced by Phoenix roots: Tunnell was set to do a pro day workout as a pitcher before the Diamondbacks signed him on November 1, 2016. The location of the team didn’t have that much of an impact more than they were the first team to offer a contract.
Describing the jump from High A to AA: He described AA hitters as less willing to chase than High A hitters, meaning he had to be more in the strike zone and issue less walks. He also talked about being more efficient at getting hitters out so he’s able to pitch consecutive days or 3 out of 4 games.
Advice from his dad when going up the minor league system: His dad was an infielder in the Mariners system, playing in Short A in 1983 and High A in 1984. West talked about his dad having that experience being helpful when he himself was getting started.
Pitching the 9th inning knowing the team trusts him to get the job done: He talked about how his role changed in the last two seasons in the organization. He started off as a middle reliever with Hillsboro before moving to a setup guy with Visalia later that year. The team decided to test him and pitch high leverage situations with Visalia and Jackson during the 2019 season. One quote he gave came from his pitching coach stating they lose if he had a bad game.
Recording the final out of the Southern League Championship: At the time, he entered a 6-1 game and struggled a bit out of the gate. He was hoping that he didn’t have to be yanked from the game before the final out was recorded. He described the feeling of recording the final out and getting mobbed by his teammates as an unforgettable experience.
Thoughts of the new MLB rule where relievers have to face a 3-batter minimum: He doesn’t believe the rule will affect him too much and will have a bigger impact on LOOGY-type relievers.
The possibility of pitching in the high elevation in Reno: He heard about how tough it was to pitch in Reno from Riley Smith, another pitcher in the organization. He went back to the same point about adjust to the AA level, getting better at throwing strikes and not walking hitters to add extra opportunities for the opponent to score runs.
Any off the field hobbies: Tunnell is a huge eSports fan and enjoys outdoor activities with his teammates, girlfriend, and family.
Tunnell could be a perseverance story as a former undrafted pitcher who despite all the odds eventually worked his way into the majors with his hometown team after a position change. After his 2019 season, he seems like a safe bet to be invited to Spring Training as a non-roster guy with a chance to see how he fares against MLB and fringe-MLB competition. His performance there should give the front office a pretty good idea if he’s going to be a part of the team’s list of call-ups for 2020 during the season. He’s still has a ways to go, as he’ll have to continue to pitch well in a larger sample size with AA Jackson as well as show he can handle adversity in the pitcher-killing environment in Reno. Like Josh Rojas and Merrill Kelly, Tunnell has the chance to be another homegrown player on the Diamondbacks roster in the near future.