Things get real when you talk to the affable Max Pentecost about fishing. Ask him where his favourite spots to cast a line are, for instance, and he replies, "If I told you I’d have to kill you," in a way that makes it clear he’s not sharing. He does concede that he’s found a couple of spots in Florida "that were really good" and counts a 42-inch Snook he landed last August off Honeymoon Island among his best ever catches. "This year, I caught a 9½-pound bass," adds the native of Winder, Ga., "but I still can’t break the 10-pound mark. I’ve tried my whole life."
Right now, however, the 23-year-old Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect is more than happy that pursuit is on hold. On May 12, Pentecost made his season debut with the low-A Lansing Lugnuts, going 3-for-4 with a home run in his first game since Aug. 7, 2014 with short-season-A Vancouver. In between those two contests, the 11th overall pick in the 2014 draft underwent three different surgeries before finally getting to the root of his shoulder problems, giving him more down time to pursue his hobby than he wanted. If things keep going well, it will be a while before he fishes again.
"That’s the goal," he says.
Pentecost first noticed something wrong shortly after he signed with the Blue Jays in the summer of 2014. He spent a week with the rookie-ball Gulf Coast League Blue Jays before joining Vancouver and instead of his shoulder feeling better, it got worse. "I didn’t really know how to handle it at first because I’d never been through anything like that," he says. "And at the same time, I just got into pro ball, trying to work on things offensively and defensively, and that put a real halt to the progression."
Pentecost underwent a shoulder cleanup after the 2014 season and assumed that he would report to spring training the following year ready to roll. He wasn’t and "that’s when my head started spinning," he says. Another shoulder cleanup, this one performed by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, followed in the spring of 2015 but again the surgery failed to resolve the issue.
The entire season ended up being lost, but a serendipitous breakthrough occurred when Dr. Steven Mirabello, part of the Blue Jays medical staff, happened to attend a presentation by Dr. Craig Morgan, who described all of Pentecost’s symptoms.
"He was giving a seminar on this tear that wasn’t very common, I know Curt Schilling had it, that was the main guy," says Pentecost. "Lo and behold, I went and had another MRI, looked at that spot specifically and there was a small tear there. It was a bit of a relief because up to that point there was no real excuse for the pain, no tear or anything, and once we found that, it relieved my mind that there was something wrong, I wasn’t just playing mental games."
The third surgery, called subacromial decompression, took place in the fall. Pentecost has been trending right since.
"We’re confident in Max’s ability and confident that he’s got a chance to be a major-league catcher, and a pretty good one," says Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ director, player development. "He brings some things to the table that looking throughout baseball, you don’t see very often."
The challenge Pentecost faces now is in making up for lost time on the field. He isn’t catching yet – the process of rebuilding shoulder strength continues through a throwing program that has him up to 120 feet – but to regain his timing at the plate he’s getting regular at-bats as the designated hitter. A complicating factor is that he’s up a level after an entire year off, jumping in mid-season without a proper spring training. Managing his own expectations isn’t easy.
"It was a pretty big, drastic change," Pentecost says of how he felt at the plate before and after the injury. "I remember my first game back, I swung at a fastball, about 90 mph and hit it straight right. I don’t know how I did it, but I at least saw it OK. The eyes and the hands weren’t working together yet. The biggest thing is building an approach, getting back comfortable, it’s going to take a little while and that’s something I’ll really have to accept."
Lugnuts manager John Schneider routinely makes that point to his catcher. The Blue Jays obviously have high hopes for Pentecost and want him to succeed as quickly as possible, but they are also cognizant that there’s a price to pay for all the missed time. That’s why they wanted to ensure he was taking at-bats as soon as possible, rather than waiting for him to be ready to resume catching before activation.
"To come up when pitchers are stretched out and have gotten into a groove, it’s tough. And then you throw into it that he’s not catching, just DHing, sitting for an extended period of time between at-bats, it’s tough," says Schneider. "It’s easier for us to tell him that than it is for him to understand it sometimes.
"We all know that Max has hit his whole life, we took him where we did because of that hit total and what he can do behind the plate. It’s always going to be a game of adjustments, but you’ve got to let him go a bit."
In 32 games, he’s batting .262.
"There are days when I’m seeing the ball great, putting good swings on it, the next day I won’t see the pitch at all, why is that happening?" says Pentecost. "I just know it’s going to come with reps. Most of these people already have 200, 300 at-bats, I’m just scraping right around 100. I’m trying to stay patient with myself and trust that I’ll adjust."
In the interim, while he rebuilds his shoulder strength, Pentecost continues to work on the aspects of his defensive game that don’t involve throwing. Drills to improve his receiving, blocking and footwork are a regular part of his routine. "That’s all I did last year," he says.
Pentecost’s defence was part of the attraction for the Blue Jays, who felt he had the potential to be an impact player both at the plate and behind it. At Kennesaw State, he was a team leader, handling pitchers with aplomb and showing off a strong throwing arm to boot. During his time off, Pentecost has tried to continue developing the mental side of his game, trying to read what’s happening before him, even though he isn’t behind the plate to do anything about it.
"I’ve learned a lot just by sitting and watching, talking to the coaches and the rovers about what they would do in a certain situation that’s about to come up," he says. "Honestly, it did me good to just sit back and watch instead of being out there thinking on the field. That’s going to be an area it’s going to take a little while to get back into, calling the game, taking it upon yourself to control the whole team."
That, of course, won’t happen until he gets the green light to start throwing again. He’s making gains, slowly learning to trust his shoulder again, to believe he can air it out without bracing for pain.
"There are still points where I’ll get a little tightness or soreness and you just have to figure out how to get rid of that," Pentecost says. "We’ve worked on a bunch of things that’s really improved it, the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of success and I’m all the way up to 120 feet with no pain on back to back days. It’s a really bright future. It’s going to be great to get back in there because … catching is where I’m most comfortable, I’ve prepared a lot the whole time while I was down there rehabbing, I was still able to work on my hands and everything, and I’m looking forward to getting back in there."
There’s no set timeline for him to resume catching. Like a pitcher rehabbing an arm injury, he’s throwing to tolerance with all the necessary precautions, waiting patiently to be fully whole as a baseball player again.
"It’s been a real roller-coaster, you go up when times are good and everything is going well, then all of a sudden, it starts to go downhill and you reach rock bottom again," Pentecost says of the past 20 months. "At the same time, it prepares you mentally. It really tests you in ways I’ve never been tested before, it was very difficult but at the same time, for the future I might be stronger."