Three years ago, when Sean Nolin dramatically changed his eating habits and exercised relentlessly to reshape what scouts had routinely described as “a bad body,” most of the dietary sacrifices he made weren’t especially hard. The Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect learned to eat the right foods, at the right times, in the right proportions—save for two nights of the week. “I’m pretty much full Italian, so Sundays it was usually pasta, and leftovers on Wednesdays, that was classic,” says Nolin of the feasts his mother would prepare for the family. “I worked out hard and dropped down the diet, but I’m not going to disrespect my mom and not eat dinner.”
Nolin dropped 40 pounds—from 265 to 225—between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, transforming the extra bulk he carried on his six-foot-five frame into muscle, upping his velocity by a couple of miles an hour, and as a result catapulting himself up the organizational depth chart. This season he made his big-league debut—a hastily arranged May spot start against the Baltimore Orioles that didn’t go well—finished strong at triple-A Buffalo, and on Friday begins winter ball play with Escogido in the Dominican Republic, where he’s slated to make 6–8 starts and log 30–40 more innings. By the time spring training rolls around, he should be on the cusp of the majors, either in the mix for a job in the starting rotation or fighting to be the first call-up from Buffalo, depending on what the Blue Jays do this off-season.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do is get some bulk innings on him just to get him caught up a little bit,” says Tony LaCava, the Blue Jays assistant general manager who oversees the farm system. “The fact he’ll be used as a starter is critical because we want him to prepare the same way he’d prepare here for his starts. Now it’s a matter of making up for lost time.”
That lost time came earlier this year, when the left hander’s progress during spring training was slowed by hip surgery he had in September 2012, and lingering weakness contributed to a groin problem that left him on the disabled list to open the minor-league season. The Blue Jays had hoped to get the 23-year-old into the 150–160 inning range, but instead he logged just 110.1 frames between double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo, posting a cumulative record of 9-4 with a 2.77 earned-run average, with 116 strikeouts and just 35 walks.
Then there was his ill-fated outing against the Orioles on May 24 at Rogers Centre, when he allowed six runs on seven hits and a walk in 1.1 innings. He didn’t arrive in Toronto until late the night before his start, limiting his acclimation period. "My mound presence I felt was pretty good but I guess I was just so excited and so amped up, that I just got myself overheated," he says. "It was excitement, it wasn’t anger or sadness. I felt like I had already thrown five innings after the first inning."
Back in New Hampshire, he focused on finding ways to better channel his emotions. Described by coaches and teammates as a fiery, emotional competitor, that internal drive at times can get the best of him on the mound. The challenge is in finding ways to use that energy positively.
"It’s been better than previous years but it’s still probably the biggest part of the game I have to work on," Nolin admits. "It’s all right in moderation. Sometimes I just get a little overworked but I also feel that drives me a little. It’s hard to let it go. I’ve got to find a way to channel it, but still have my stuff. I’ve tried before having no emotion, nothing, and I just felt lazy. It’s tough."
Still, the Blue Jays have high expectations for Nolin, who can add or subtract to a fastball that ranges from 88–95 mph, and typically sits 90–92. His changeup has late life and could end up being the difference maker for him, and he also features a curveball and a slider.
The entire repertoire has improved significantly, largely due to his weight loss, since the Blue Jays drafted him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. Dana Brown, the special assistant to GM Alex Anthopoulos, was taken by Nolin’s arm action and delivery after watching him pitch for San Jacinto College in Houston, and pounded the table for him during the draft. Nolin’s poor physique and the back problems he had as a result turned some teams off him, and eventually led him to the gruelling regimen three years ago.
Once he dropped to 225 lb., Nolin felt he was too skinny and packed on an additional 10 lb. of muscle to his frame. Since slimming down, pitching has felt "easier on myself because I don’t have to do as much (effort-wise). I just tried to be smooth and my body felt a lot quicker and I was a lot stronger going toward the plate. I was able to stay in a better delivery."
The willingness to put himself through that—he did at least an hour of cardio every day on top of regular baseball activities—impressed the Blue Jays and earned him more opportunities than a sixth-round pick would typically get. "Where I was drafted and everything made me work harder," he says. "I was a guy they liked, but I had to do stuff myself to get where I am."
And right now that’s with Escogido, where more experience and refinements may help bring Nolin closer to a longer-lasting return engagement with the Blue Jays.