By Arden Zwelling in Dunedin, Fla.
By Arden Zwelling in Dunedin, Fla.
Top Blue Jays prospect Nate Pearson has the tools to set all-time MLB velocity records. But if he does, amazingly, it’ll be a bit of a disappointment.

His high-school coach swears it sounds like a bee up close, only louder, buzzing as the seams cut through the air. His minor-league catcher says the sound it makes in his mitt is unlike any he’s heard, and that if he doesn’t get it in the right spot, he’ll be reminded when he wakes up the next day. His college pitching coach, who helped him first reach triple digits, believes that with a bit more development he’ll throw harder — harder than anyone ever has before.

“I think he’s going to throw 110 in four years,” says Zach Bove, that college coach, who now works in player development for the Minnesota Twins. “I know just from talking to him that he’s got more in the tank. If you see him throw, he’s not a max-effort guy. And he generates a lot of force. He sequences so well and so easily. I think there’s definitely more in there.”

Such is the tantalizing potential of Nate Pearson, this baby-faced, self-effacing kid from a Tampa Bay suburb with curls on his head and nitrous in his arm. Only a month past 23, he’s as tall as Rob Gronkowski and weighs as much as LeBron James. He just finished a dominant minor-league season with a 2.30 ERA across three levels, striking out 10.5 batters per nine. His fastball’s atomic. His swing-and-miss slider’s a plus pitch, and he drops his curveball in for a strike whenever he needs to. He throws his change-up harder than Zack Greinke’s fastball. Entering the season, he was already a consensus top-100 MLB prospect. By July, he was across-the-board top 25. Next spring he’ll be top 10. And before long he should be off those lists entirely and on a major-league mound instead.

That’s when Toronto Blue Jays fans will finally get to see a fastball that’s already been up to 104-m.p.h. in a game and 105-m.p.h. in a side session. That velocity is right in line with New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, who holds the record for the fastest pitch ever recorded at 105.8 m.p.h., and St. Louis Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks, who’s touched 105 twice. Only nine others have ever hit 103 — most of them once or twice; none more than a dozen times. Pearson could top all nine during his first MLB appearance.

Or he could be so much more. If he reaches his ceiling, he might not shatter velocity records at all, instead serving as the ace of a future, post-rebuild Blue Jays rotation — a role that would see him throwing merely in the high-90’s or low-100s over long starts. If Pearson ends up pitching brief, maximum-effort stints out of the bullpen — the type of outings that allow for 104-m.p.h. fastballs — it likely means he either didn’t fulfill his potential as a starter, like Chapman, or came apart physically like Hicks, who blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery in June. That kind of velocity generally leads to compromises, either in role, longevity, or both — and that kind of velocity is nowhere near 110.

“I think he’s going to throw 110 m.p.h. in four years.”

For his part, Pearson wants it all — Chapman’s record, the starter’s job, the durability, the long career. Whether or not it’s possible is a question Pearson’s uniquely positioned — and determined — to answer. Guided by a progressive, data-driven approach, he’s doing everything he can to build what he literally envisions as a hall-of-fame career. That’s what he’s chasing. Not only velocity, but Cooperstown. Throwing harder than anyone ever has would be a remarkable accomplishment — a heavyweight title around his waist — but Nate Pearson wants more.

“I’d say it’s a goal of mine, but it’s not one of my top ones. It’s kind of like a sideline goal,” he says. “If I do all the things I want to in my career, that goal will just come along with it.”

Pearson has the body to generate real power and a passion for cutting-edge, data-driven training techniques

He’s not quite sure where the height comes from. Dad — Dave, a tech executive — is six-foot-two. Mom — Elaine, a dietician — is five-foot-four. All his grandparents are under six feet. In fact, no one on either side of the family approaches Pearson’s six-foot-six, which he reached suddenly during a high-school growth spurt. He tried out basketball, of course. Soccer, too. He played tight end for a bit. But by his sophomore year he’d figured out he wanted to be a pitcher. Which made sense — just 16, he was already throwing 90.

But throwing that hard while growing that quickly puts a body under an awful lot of stress. And shortly after he touched 90 for the first time, a growth plate in his right elbow fractured. Pearson had surgery to insert a three inch screw into the back of his ulna, and spent his entire junior year recovering, appearing in only eight games as a designated hitter. “He was disappointed. But, to his credit, he was there every day, helping our guys any way he could,” says Jeff Swymer, Pearson’s head coach at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School in Spring Hill, Florida. “A lot of kids would just quit showing up and feel sorry for themselves. Or walk around with a ‘poor me’ type of attitude. But he’s never been that kid.”

The scouts who’d been showing interest pre-injury suddenly disappeared, and when it came time to make a college commitment in his senior year, Pearson wasn’t sure if he’d even get an offer. Ultimately, he received two: One from the University of North Florida and another from Florida International University, his preferred choice. He made a verbal commitment and signaled his intent much more forcefully on the mound as a senior, gradually regaining his overpowering velocity. By the time he graduated, he was up to 95.

Still, MLB clubs either weren’t buying his health or weren’t willing to make the financial commitment to sign him away from FIU, and he went undrafted that June — a rarity for a high schooler throwing that hard. That was a disappointment for Pearson, but maybe not as disappointing as his FIU experience, which saw the program run through three pitching coaches in one season as it underwent significant turnover. Pearson pitched fine — a 2.70 ERA across 18 relief appearances and a start — but he didn’t feel like he was getting any better. “With all the uncertainty, it wasn’t a great culture for me to be who I wanted to be. And to get to where I saw myself being in three years,” he says. “I wanted to be a first-rounder, go high in the draft. And as I looked ahead to the future, I was like, ‘I just don’t see it happening here.’ I wanted to take myself out of there.”

Rather than transfer to another Div. 1 school, where he would have had to sit out for a year due to NCAA rules, Pearson opted to join a junior college program — the College of Central Florida — where he could play right away and, in a year, either transfer back to a Div. 1 program or re-enter the MLB draft. The move wasn’t without risk. Pitching for a junior college still carries a stigma with some MLB organizations. You’re facing lesser competition. You’re supposedly learning from inferior coaches. You’re working out in worse facilities. But having lost a year of progress in high school, Pearson didn’t want to burn another.

When he first sat down with Central Florida’s head coach, Marty Smith, and pitching coach, Zach Bove to discuss transferring, it wasn’t like the meetings he’d had with other schools. Smith and Bove didn’t try to sell him on the success of the program, the perks he’d enjoy, or how he’d step in and be the team’s ace. They asked Pearson what his goals were, and went to work charting a plan to help him achieve them. “Nate was a big ol’ dude who could chuck it,” says Smith. “But we knew, and he knew, he needed some polishing.”

“He should've been the first pick that year. Nate will prove that he was the best in that draft class.”

To help counteract the injury risk inherent when throwing as hard as he does, Bove introduced Pearson to a series of contemporary training methods — popularized by DriveLine Baseball and its most accomplished client, Trevor Bauer — that he still utilizes today: Weighted plyocare balls filled with sand that he whips into walls; weights he straps to his wrists to help strengthen his shoulders; resistance bands for warm-ups and recovery; a long, flexible tube — casually referred to as a “wiggle stick” — he holds straight out and shakes to strengthen his rotator cuff. Bove also optimized his schedule, structuring a purposeful program around the days Pearson was on the mound — “high-intensity days” — to allow his arm the best possible recovery.

Pearson grew addicted to the routines, and the results they delivered. He refused to compromise for anything. One night, after returning home from a two-day visit to the University of South Carolina (the school was offering him a scholarship to return to Div. 1 his junior year), Pearson pulled his truck up to Central Florida’s facility. The sun was down, the lights were off, no one was around. He was scheduled to throw a 20-pitch showcase in front of MLB scouts the next day, but he hadn’t thrown in days and knew he wouldn’t be his best if he didn’t loosen up his arm. So, he went into the facility, rummaged around for a bucket of balls and dragged one of the big, standing nets used to protect fielders during batting practice out to the field. Then he walked 90 feet in the opposite direction and whipped the entire bucket of balls through the dark, only knowing if he was on target when he heard them hit net. “Not that many 19-year-olds would do that,” Bove says. “They’d say, ‘Ah, screw it, I’ll just do what I’ve got to do tomorrow.’ Not Nate.”

The next day at the showcase, Pearson threw 100 for the first time — pitch after pitch. Scouts were stunned. One, from the Boston Red Sox, texted Smith to tell him he’d never seen triple digits on his radar gun before. From that point forward, Smith and Bove would regularly count 60 scouts hanging over fences and railings to watch Pearson throw bullpens and warm up prior to starts. Junior college hitters couldn’t touch him — one day he struck out 15 over eight innings. As the season wore on, Pearson began leaning on his curveball and slider during starts simply because he wanted to work on them.

But the junior college stigma still followed him into the 2017 draft. Some MLB teams wondered how he’d fare against better competition. Plus, there was the screw in his elbow and a commitment to Louisiana State University, meaning if a team selected him early in the first round they’d have to stomach a large bonus. Those factors conspired to drop Pearson all the way to the Blue Jays at No. 28. The club paid him $2.45-million to turn pro and, in hindsight, appear the benefactors of circumstance. If he was healthy in high school, if his FIU experience wasn’t such a nightmare, if he hadn’t made the unorthodox choice to transfer to a junior college, Pearson’s probably pitching for another organization.

“I’m still convinced, if he was the same exact player and the same exact kid, but went to the University of Florida or LSU or somewhere in the SEC, he’d be the first pick overall. No doubt,” Smith says. “I’ll tell you forever, he should’ve been the first pick that year. I don’t know who was. I’m sure he’s a really good player. But Nate will prove that he was the best in that draft class.”

Unlike most young fireballers, Pearson often throws harder the deeper into a start he gets

Pete Alonso may have hit 50 homers for the New York Mets this season, but last November he was just another prospect walking to the plate to face Nate Pearson. Starting the 2018 Arizona Fall League all-star game with the industry watching, Pearson was only scheduled to throw an inning so he dialed up the intensity. He got the first batter he faced to ground out on a 101-m.p.h. heater. He struck out the next with 103.

His first pitch to Alonso was 103, too. Huge cut, blew it right past him. Feeling confident, Pearson doubled down, 103 again — crack. Alonso lifted it up into the hot Arizona air where it carried high and far over the right-centre field wall. “Now that I think about it,” Pearson says, “I should’ve gone slider.”

Pearson didn’t watch as Alonso rounded the bases. But he didn’t stew, either — didn’t drive a fist into his glove. He walked in front of the mound to signal for a fresh ball and couldn’t stop smiling. “It was just fun,” he says. “The place is going nuts because I was throwing insanely hard. And then the guy just did something crazy and hit it out. Like, neither of us was supposed to be doing that. It was just an insane experience. One of the better baseball experiences I’ve had so far.”

Even when things go wrong, Pearson just can’t get enough of this game. He’s so in love with it, so focused, it’s almost boring. He uses social media exclusively to praise the accomplishments of baseball-playing friends, teammates and coaches, then stays off of it entirely a couple hours before bed to keep his mind clear so he can be at his best the next day. Away from baseball, he likes fishing, jet skis and thinking about baseball. If he’s up late, he’s probably watching old footage of Nolan Ryan. His primary indulgence is adding to a sneaker collection already so vast he can’t even estimate its size — more trainers he can work out in, more cleats to wear on the mound. “I always knew this was what I wanted to be when I grew up, a baseball player,” he says. “I felt like I understood the concept way more than I did with soccer or football or basketball. It’s just more fun.”

Six months prior to Alonso’s home run, Pearson wasn’t having fun at all. He’d taken a comebacker below the right wrist in the second inning of his first start of the season — an outing that had already been delayed six weeks by an intercostal strain. He’d fractured his ulna on the play, the same bone with the screw in it. Even with the fall league, he ultimately logged only 22 innings in 2018, necessitating an approach to his 2019 season in which he alternated between starts of five innings and two innings, a strategy Pearson chose from a list of options presented during spring training. It was unusual and limiting, but it didn’t stop him from laying down a marker for all the baseball world to see.

“He's got a thirst for knowledge. He really wants to learn and get better.”

Pearson quickly proved too dominant for both high-A and double-A. And not long after throwing a flawless inning in the MLB Futures Game, he was given the green light to pitch as deep into games as he could. He reached triple-A in August and went seven shutout innings in his debut. He finished the year with a 2.30 ERA over 101.2 innings. He struck out 119 and walked only 27. He even looked better in the uniform. After pushing 300 lbs. in high school, he was down to a lean 245.

“Watching him go through his workouts, you can see why. He’s very locked in with what he’s doing. Moreso than other players at the same level,” says Jim Czajkowski, who’s coached Pearson at multiple minor-league stops. “It’s like what I saw with Adam Wainwright when I had him as a first-rounder. Or guys like Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman. It’s the desire, the will to win that’s in those type of players. They want to be better than just good. They want to be elite.”

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To that end, Pearson is continually evolving. He pitches exclusively from the stretch these days, having ditched his wind-up late last season in order to be more accurate in the zone. Now that he throws all four of his pitches for strikes, he tries to sequence them differently throughout a game to be more unpredictable, stealing strikes with first-pitch curveballs at the knees. He’s wary of not letting his change-up get too slow, working to keep it right around 10 m.p.h. slower than his heater. He thinks about release points, arm slots and pitch tunnelling — how difficult it will be for a right-handed batter to see his stuff if he follows up a fastball on the outside corner with a slider in the same spot thrown with the same arm action. He also consciously manages his energy throughout starts and will purposefully work at less-than maximum effort early so he can peak later in an outing. Many young starters struggle to learn how to maintain their velocity over long outings and typically see a decrease in effectiveness as they fatigue. But Pearson works the opposite way.

“We’ve all seen the numbers. He’s upper-90s, even around 100, late in starts. That’s thanks to his work ethic, his delivery, the way he uses that big body in ways to maximize his velocity,” says Jeff Ware, the Blue Jays’ pitching coordinator. “He’s got some of the best routines I’ve seen in this game. And I’ve been in it for 27, 28 years. Just the focus and the way he goes about it every day — he doesn’t skip a beat.”

Pearson is as tall as Rob Gronkowski and weighs as much as LeBron James

In January, Pearson spent a week at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven pitching and hitting laboratory near Seattle that has quickly gone from a subversive curiosity within the industry to a respected house of baseball innovation and pipeline for MLB development staffs. Starting at 8:30 every morning, he lifted weights, played catch and worked on his arm care routine, all under the watchful eye of Driveline instructors, who used data gathered with sensors and cameras to show him inefficiencies in his movement patterns — the way his front knee finished just a little too far forward in his delivery, for example, or how he could create more torque with better separation between his hips and shoulders. With no fewer than a dozen people (including a contingent of Blue Jays developers) looking on, Pearson stood on a makeshift mound with high-speed Edgertronic cameras and a Rapsodo unit — which measures velocity, spin, movement and break — trained on him, and delivered a pitch just like he’d throw it in a game. The Rapsodo data popped up on a large flatscreen monitor overhead, and if it was what they wanted it to be, the crew would watch footage of his pitch in slow motion over and over, looking to identify what Pearson did with his arm, hand and fingers. Then, he’d try to recreate it.

That process is called “pitch design,” and Pearson figures the sessions he spent working on his breaking pitches with Eric Jagers, a Driveline instructor who now works for the Philadelphia Phillies, provided the biggest benefit from his time in Seattle. In high school and college, Pearson’s slider and curveball were inconsistent and similarly shaped. Now, his slider’s getting more swings-and-misses than ever with its depth and late break. And his curveball’s moving up and down, not horizontally like it once tended to. “I just wanted to get as much info as I could,” he says. “Now, I have all these numbers that I can baseline my stuff on and see how I’m maintaining the shape of my pitches throughout the season.”

Pearson now knows he spins his slider at nearly 2,500 revolutions per minute with negative-eight inches of horizontal break. He also knows he spins his four-seam fastball at approximately 2,400 revolutions per minute with a little more than eight inches of horizontal break. That means his slider cuts almost as far to the left as his fastball runs to the right, which is what he wants. If he maintains consistent mechanics and throws both pitches on close to the same axis they’ll look very similar out of his hand and move very differently once they reach the plate.

He’s become similarly invested in his spin efficiency — a measure of how much of the spin he puts on the ball causes breaking movement instead of forward momentum. A low or high reading isn’t good or bad — it depends on the action you want on the pitch. Take his 12-6 curveball, for example. Pearson wants the spin efficiency on that pitch to be as high as possible with a vertical break well into the negative, and thanks to a bevy of minor grip and release adjustments it’s made significant progress. Not long ago, its spin efficiency was only around 50 per cent — now it’s around 85, maybe closer to 90 on a good night. Trevor Bauer has one of the best curveballs in baseball, regularly throwing his at 100 per cent. Pearson figures if he keeps diligently working at it, he can get there himself someday.

Few pitchers have attempted to throw as hard as Pearson — let alone over a starter's workload — without enduring a major injury

That’s pitching in 2019, and Pearson can’t get enough of it. He figures Driveline’s approach resonates with him so much because he’s a visual learner, and the Blue Jays are looking for ways to work with that. When he showed up for camp in the spring, the club devised similar pitch design workouts so he could continue the development process while readying himself for the season. He used Rapsodo during all of his side sessions to reinforce whether a pitch that felt effective actually was. When he threw live batting practice, he’d turn to a coach like Czajkowski after a pitch he liked and tell them to make note of it. Later, they’d go over the data and video from those particular pitches, determining what was making them work well and how Pearson can replicate that feeling more often going forward. With Rapsodo units on hand at each minor-league affiliate he pitched for this season, the work continued in between outings.

Ultimately, the goal of all this data analysis is to elevate Pearson’s intuitive understanding of his body and pitches to the point where he doesn’t need the data at all. To get him recognizing from feel when he’s thrown a slider with the right spin efficiency, or a curveball with ideal 12-6 break. Then the Rapsodo is merely confirming what he felt, rather than guiding his adjustments. That way, he can worry less about the pitches and more about pitching. “You get between the lines and you’ve still gotta play the game,” says Czajkowski. “You still have to set hitters up. You still have to brush people back. You still have to do things to get them off of your fastball. The game is still the game. There are just new tools that have evolved that can help him get better faster.”

“You have a guy who’s throwing 104, and who wants to make that 104 as great as humanly possible.”

Pearson says all the credit for the rewards he’s reaped from modernizing his training approach should go to Bove for introducing it in the first place. Bove, naturally, says the opposite — that all the credit should go to Pearson for buying in so unequivocally. Even though they’ve both moved on and now belong to different MLB organizations, they’ll be back at Central Florida this off-season to work together. The college has its own Rapsodo unit now — thanks in part to a sizable donation from Pearson’s signing bonus — and the two of them wear that thing out.

“He’s got a thirst for knowledge. He really wants to learn and get better. He goes off and does research on his end and brings me all this information, which is so awesome to see,” Bove says. “That daily devotion to it, that work ethic, I think, is what separates guys like him.”

The all-time velocity record is a "sideline goal." Pearson's main target is Cooperstown.

They didn’t have any of this stuff when David Aardsma was in Pearson’s shoes. For the majority of his career, Aardsma relied solely on how he felt and how coaches told him he looked. He worked hard, but it was never informed by anything empirical or individual to him as an athlete — it was just what everyone else did. And, for a while, it worked. Aardsma pitched in more than 300 MLB games beginning in 2004. He spent two seasons as one of the league’s best closers for the Seattle Mariners. But then it all caught up to him. He had hip surgery, elbow surgery, labrum surgery. He lost three clicks off his fastball practically the moment he turned 30. It wasn’t until later in his career that he discovered how to use video and data to lift better, train better and get the most out of his body. He bought in entirely, regained velocity and squeezed one more MLB season out of his arm at 33. It was simply too late for him. He needed this stuff when he was at Pearson’s stage.

Aardsma works in player development for the Blue Jays now. He was watching from the stands when Pearson put on that show at the Fall League all-star game. The hardest Aardsma ever threw was 102. And that took every ounce of effort he had. He watches Pearson hit 104 with smooth mechanics and knows there’s a rare opportunity here to do something special. That belief is only furthered when he sits down with Pearson to pore over all that video, all that data. It’s the questions Pearson asks, the way he interprets the information, the clear idea he has of where his pitches stand today, where he wants them to be, and what he must do to get them there.

“He’s already a monster, and he can get a lot better. That’s what’s scary about him.”

“He’s obviously a massive human being. He’s different size-wise. But his baseball intellect, his baseball IQ — that’s different, too. He’s able to think critically about himself, about his stuff, about pitching,” Aardsma says. “His size allows him to throw that 104. But his head will allow him to get even more out of it. You have a guy who’s throwing 104, and who wants to make that 104 as great as humanly possible.”

Count Aardsma among those who believe Pearson could break Chapman’s velocity record someday, and even reach 110. The Yankees closer was one of the pitchers Aardsma studied closest when he was trying to prolong his career. Chapman’s mechanics were so fluid and efficient, compact and explosive, leveraging his six-foot-four, 212-pound frame into elite velocity. Pearson’s two inches taller and more than 30 pounds heavier. If he can learn to move as efficiently as Chapman, the radar gun readings will only increase. Take his age, his build, his natural velocity, his commitment to arm care and development, his room to grow — the ingredients are all there. “He’s already a monster,” Aardsma says, “and he can get a lot better. That’s what’s scary about him.”

Of course, it’s also scary in a much more unpleasant way. Yes, Pearson’s a monster. But despite evidence to the contrary — the metal in his elbow, the tune-ups in a baseball laboratory — he’s human, too. And few humans have tried what Pearson’s attempting without something going awry. If he does end up setting a velocity record, it’ll almost certainly mean he’s a reliever and something to do with his health or performance has undermined his capacity as a starter.

But preventing that something is exactly the point of all this work, isn’t it? It’s all designed to counteract the trap doors that have sabotaged so many of the hard-throwing physical specimens that preceded him. To preempt erratic command, ineffective secondary weapons, fraying ligaments and tendons. Pearson is a case study in modern player development — a pitcher who could prove what’s actually possible, determined to push his arm as far as it’ll take him and discover just where the limits lie. Maybe you can throw that hard as a starter. Maybe he’ll be the first. Such is the tantalizing potential of Nate Pearson, this baby-faced, self-effacing kid doing everything he can.

“I just stay even-keeled — I probably won’t ever change. I think of all this as if I’m still playing as a kid. I don’t think of myself any better or different than a little leaguer, honestly. I’m just older and at a different stage,” he says. “We all start somewhere. We’ll see where I end up.”


Designed and edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Allasyn Lieneck/Dunedin Blue Jays (4); Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images; Allasyn Lieneck, Dunedin Blue Jays; Courtesy New Hampshire Fisher Cats; Courtesy New Hampshire Fisher Cats; Miguel Arcaute/Lansing Lugnuts.