By Rob Patrick
Bringing the experience and the knowledge gained from a major college career and four full seasons of professional baseball, Jay Sawatski has joined the staff of instructors at Diamond Sports in Bryant.
A left-handed pitcher, Sawatski reached the Minnesota Twins’ AAA affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., late in the 2007 season, just a step away from the Major Leagues. In 2008, he was pitching for Class AA New Britain, Conn., when he suffered a strained flexor mass, which eventually brought a premature end to his promising career as a player.
He returned to central Arkansas and is now passing on what he learned along the way.
“I’m happy to be here,” Sawatski said after completing a lesson Tuesday with Brandon Oman, a sophomore at Little Rock Catholic. “I had a friend that worked for Coach (Pat) Harrison (coordinator of instruction at Diamond Sports) and said nothing but good things. But I’ve known him for a little while. So, I called him about doing lessons. He said they were moving out here, so I came out and I’ve been enjoying it.[more]
“Coach Harrison, for one reason,” he said of his decision to join the Diamond Sports staff. “His resume speaks for itself. He’s just one of the best guys around when it comes to baseball guys. It’s a great facility too. I don’t know of many indoor facilities around here and, granted, I haven’t been in this area in awhile but I know when I was in high school and probably in college, I don’t think there was anyplace this nice. And it really is something that’s been needed for a while.
“It’s like, today, it’s pouring down rain outside and it happens to be spring break. The kids can’t get out on the field but they need someplace to go practice. So, I think it’s a very valuable thing to have.”
Asked what he thinks are the most important things he can passs along to young pitchers, Sawatski said, “There are so many things. Basic mechanics, I think, and something I’ve been told my whole career, especially once you get to pro ball. It’s kind of a running joke is for everybody who knows anything about pitching, there’s a different pitching philosophy. Everybody’s trying to come up with something new and creative.
“But I just try to keep it simple. You watch any big league pitcher and they may look completely different in their delivery but, if you freeze frame certain parts of it, they get to the exact same spot. Every one of them gets on the back side, they drive, they get to a certain spot but they just might have a different way of getting there.
“It’s the same way with watching a hitter. A guy might have a funky swing but, at contact, he’s at the same position as everybody else, for the most part.
“So, I just try to keep it simple and what a kid does naturally, I just kind of try to adjust what they do. Not every kid’s the same and I’m not going to try to make them that way. It’s like the pitching coordinator for the Twins organization said he’s not trying to make pitching robots out there. He doesn’t want everybody pitching the same because, when you do that, you have the hitters seeing the same thing over and over again. That’s why submarine pitchers, for example, are so successful because the hitters never see them. But they still have to get to this certain point. How you get there can be different.”
A star at Pulaski Academy, Sawatski played American Legion baseball for Little Rock Continental Express team, as a rival of the Bryant Black Sox. In college, he excelled in two years at Westark Junior College (now University of Arkansas-Fort Smith) before joining the Arkansas Razorbacks. He was recruited by Norm DeBriyn but became a member of current head coach Dave Van Horn’s first team at Fayetteville. During his senior season, he became a workhorse out of the bullpen with the occasional start for the Hogs in their run to the College World Series, working nearly as many innings as the weekend (conference) starters.
“That was an experience,” acknowledged Sawatski who roomed with Razorbacks Clay Goodwin and Boyd Goodner, both from Benton. “It was something I’ll remember the rest of the my life. It’s one of those things that, looking back on it, you can enjoy it but, when you’re there, just the hustle and bustle of everything, you don’t have time to really sit back. You get there, check in the hotel, go do interviews, go sign autographs. It’s all great. It’s all part of the experience and it really is a fan-friendly place to go. All the fans get to meet all the players, see their favorite teams, which is incredible but it wasn’t until it was over with that you got to sit back and appreciate it. It would’ve been nicer if we had been there more than two and out, to be there more than the four days we were there. But it was exciting.”
That June, he was chosen in the eighth round of the Major League draft by the Twins, beginning his pro career on a short-season team in Elizabethan, Tenn., before joining the Class A team in Quad Cities, Iowa the rest of the 2004 season. In 2005, he was assigned to the high A affiliate in Fort Myers, Fla. He spent a year and a half in Connecticut where he turned in his best season with a team-best 2.87 earned run average, before joining the AAA squad in Rochester.
“Being on the DL (disabled list) is just a bad place to be,” he stated. “It was disappointing. The doctors told me that the problem with that injury is that — it’s not like a UCL where your velocity suffers — what goes is your control. My velocity’s still around a mile or two from what it always was but I couldn’t throw a strike to save my life.
“I’d pitched through it for a little while and my numbers suffered. Then going down to re-hab for three months, at the end of the season, they look at numbers and, obviously, I’d pitched my way out of being a top prospect. When it comes down to it, it’s a business and I understand that completely.”
His release came in December.“I wanted to get another job but, at the same time, I didn’t really want to entertain the idea of playing independent ball. I didn’t really want to kick around in independent ball for three years and then be in the same spot I’m in right now.
“But it’s something I’ll never regret,” he concluded. “And you watch the Major Leagues right now and some of my best friends are playing with the Twins and a couple of other teams.”
One of those guys, Matt Garza, wound up in the World Series last fall with the Tampa Bay Rays. Another, Nick Blackburn, emerged as a starter for Minnesota last season along with outfielder Denard Spann, a regular on the ESPN Baseball Tonight Web Gems segment.
For information about instruction from Sawatski, log on to www.diamondsportsbryant.com, or call 501-653-BATS (2287).