Over the four years Joey Aversa spent following Ricky Tiedemann’s progress at Lakewood High School, the Toronto Blue Jays area scout became convinced that he had to get the left-hander in the 2020 draft.
Certainly, there was a lot to like. Elite-calibre athlete. Six-foot-three frame to dream on. Fastball in the 88-91 m.p.h. range, complemented by a changeup with plus potential and a developing slider.
Tiedemann could hit, too, but his arm was his ticket and Aversa was determined to punch it.
Only the pandemic-related shutdowns that summer narrowed the draft, which went from 40 rounds to five, and the unexpected availability at No. 5 overall of the pricy Austin Martin further choked off opportunity. Still, Aversa pounded the table, a virtual one that year, for the Blue Jays to use their fifth and final pick to land Tiedemann. But essentially out of bonus pool space once Martin was priced in, they opted for collegiate outfielder Zach Britton instead.
“That's the one part of the job that sucks,” says Aversa. “You get tight with guys, then the draft happens and you don’t get them. I wanted him. I was plugging hard for him. ... They all liked him, too.”
No other team took Tiedemann that summer, either, so the next year, the Blue Jays ended up with another shot at him. This time, Aversa didn’t miss, pegging him for the third round and getting him there, at No. 91 overall.
All the 19-year-old has done since is make the pick look like a steal as he rockets through the farm system and up leading top-100 prospect lists. Already he’s gone from low-A Dunedin to high-A Vancouver, with another promotion to double-A New Hampshire imminent after his clean fifth inning during Saturday’s Futures Game prospect showcase at Dodger Stadium.
Aversa had full conviction in Tiedemann from the jump. Not even he anticipated a trajectory like this.
“I’ve never seen a guy make adjustments that quick and put them into play that fast — and I've been in player development,” says Aversa, a scout with the Blue Jays for 12 years who reached triple-A as a player and coached with the Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres. “It's amazing to see what they've done with him. In the third round, basically, you're buying the athlete. He's basically been the same guy, but he jumped. The stuff is totally different.”
Beneath a spotless sky on a 27 C afternoon, Tiedemann sits in the stands at Nat Bailey Stadium, home to the high-A Vancouver Canadians. He’s just thrown another electric bullpen — there is a lot of “attaboy Ricky” from coaches and teammates after each pitch — and finished his post-workout arm care when he considers all his growth over the past 12 months and how quickly he’s progressed.
“Yeah, very quickly,” he says. “It's my first pro season and it's been fun and cool to see all the recognition and everything. But I try not to let it control my game. I go out there every week, treat it the same way. I don't really listen to a lot of the things that people say just because I still have to do the same thing every week. I've just got to keep doing it.”
When he first joined the Blue Jays after signing for essentially slot at $644,800, Tiedemann “didn’t really have a program.” He’d done some higher-level work on his mechanics, learning how to use his lower half more effectively, but during his year at Golden West Junior College, he was essentially doing the same things he was doing during high school at Lakewood.
“Didn't even lift much,” he says. “After I got drafted, I started getting all that together and it shows.”
The Blue Jays gave him a detailed routine, one that didn’t just include weightlifting but also a series of exercises designed to not only build strength but also retain and increase his flexibility. Yoga was part of the plan along with weighted balls and arm bands. The usual. Tiedemann got after it and followed the nutrition plan provided, too, while he threw at the Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Fla.
By the fall, the club’s player-development staff were abuzz about the transformation. The fastball velocity began ticking up, first to the mid-90s and then up another notch. As he got stronger, the high-school slider Aversa described as a “get-this-crap-off-my-hand kind of thing” began showing legitimate bite. Excitement built even further during spring training, when his stuff played as well in competition as it had in the pitching lab.
“He's a young kid and for a young man to be as focused on the process of getting better, at times it can get lost in the level of talent he possesses,” says Canadians pitching coach Phil Cundari, who worked with Tiedemann in the spring before getting him in Vancouver. “He's been dominating and it seems like he still has another gear, I believe, that he hasn't touched. That will come with the challenge when he gets to another level.”
Striking is the way Tiedemann dove into the work.
Young prospects, particularly talented ones, can get stuck in their ways, believing all they’ve done to get drafted will be enough to move them up the ladder. Sometimes, it takes experience with the game’s cruel realities for them to realize talent alone isn’t enough. Rather than having that mindset, Tiedemann simply didn’t know what he didn’t know. Despite that, his intent to dominate left him open-minded enough about the resources around him.
“These are professionals,” he says of the club’s player-development staff. “I trusted what the Blue Jays wanted me to do and I followed everything they wanted. It kind of just went off from there.”
Positive reinforcement came from seeing what extra strength did to his stuff. While he continued to use the same grips he’s thrown with since he was a nine-year-old emerging in the incredibly deep Southern California baseball scene, throwing harder helped give his slider some definition. The fastball played better too and further accentuated the changeup, which dies just as a hitter thinks he’s about to crush it. Natural athleticism made each gain play up, a by-product of the deliberate approach taken with his progression.
“You can't just build strength and expect to be throwing harder,” says Tiedemann. “You have to build strength while staying loose at the same time. A lot of guys that throw hard are limber, skinnier guys that are really loose. So you have to get stronger. But you need to stay loose, as well."
He’s done that and more so far this season. In six low-A starts with Dunedin, he allowed only six runs on 11 hits and 13 walks in 30 innings of work while striking out 49 batters. At high-A Vancouver, where he’s 4.2 years younger than the league’s average age, he’s allowed 12 runs, 10 earned, in 37.2 innings across eight starts, walking 12 and striking out 54.
“Some players, whether they're that age or older/younger, they have to see the process work before they trust it, where I think Ricky jumped in head-first and trusted the process the Blue Jays laid out for him, nutrition, strength and conditioning throwing programs, the recovery, the whole package,” says Canadians manager Brent Lavallee. “It's easy to put the credit where it's due because he really immersed himself in his routines and what the org asked of him and he's reaping the benefits now.”
Not to mention earning widespread recognition for the way he’s pitched.
“He’s going to be so good,” says Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford, who grew up playing with Tiedemann’s older brother Tai, a prospect in the Texas Rangers system. “Should be seeing in him double-A shortly. Just by watching all his videos, I don’t see why he’s still there (in high-A). He’s a dog on the mound. He’s not scared of anybody. You want that guy on your team.”
Once he gets to New Hampshire, a stone’s throw from the big leagues, expect the chatter around Tiedemann’s timeline to the big leagues to pick up, especially if he keeps shoving.
Earlier this season Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins raised eyebrows when he said the teenager “has the stuff to compete right now in the major leagues,” but that “it's a matter of just being really consistent with it and building up a workload.”
There are those who feel a late-season relief stint isn’t unreasonable and Alek Manoah’s aggressive path to the majors is definitely challenging organizational thinking about how many minor-league innings a pitcher really needs. The workload factor is a key difference, however, as Manoah had college seasons of 55.2, 54 and 108.1 innings at West Virginia before going 11th overall in the 2019 draft and then spending 2020 working at the Blue Jays’ alternate training site.
Tiedemann, meanwhile, had his senior year at Lakewood truncated by the pandemic and, after de-committing from San Diego state so he could take a shot at the 2021 draft, logged 38 innings over seven starts for Golden West, the junior college he ended up at after his first choice, Long Beach City, shuttered its program.
For that reason, the Blue Jays are wary of putting Tiedemann through too much, too soon. A late-season touch of the majors, should one be merited, would come at the end of a surge in workload and at an increased strain given the additional adrenaline and stakes. That’s one of many reasons to tamp down such talk.
Matt Buschmann, the club’s bullpen coach and minor league pitching co-ordinator, says the priority “is getting him used to playing professional baseball and pitching for five months straight and dealing with the ups and downs that the season brings.”
In spite of the dominance to this point, there’s still work to be done for Tiedemann, too. Focal points include better utilizing his slider in and out of the strike zone, cutting down walks and maintaining his velocity over the course of an outing. Thus far he hasn’t thrown more than five innings or gone beyond 84 pitches in any of his starts due to usage restrictions.
Identifying, drafting and developing an elite starting pitcher is immensely difficult, and the Blue Jays can’t allow themselves to get tripped up two-thirds of the way there. The biggest challenge they face may very well be temptation because his natural ability and raw stuff play so damn well.
“The deeper into the strike zone you can tunnel pitches, the tougher it is for a hitter and he does that better than most guys I've seen, at least this year,” says Cundari. “But it's also just the quality of the pitches that he's throwing up there. When you add the deception that he creates because of that tunnelling, it's just made him that much nastier.”
Back in his days as a minor-league infielder in the Cardinals, Marlins and Mets systems, Aversa loved to talk smack with his teammates. His joy in trading barbs continues to this day, although the back-and-forth is mostly with fellow scouts now. Of late, though, rather than taking hits, he’s been getting compliments for his work in identifying Tiedemann.
“The other scouts are like, ‘God, you stole him there. I loved that guy,'” he says. “It was just luck of the draw, you know?”
Maybe, but the process wasn’t simply some random serendipity, even if some elements seemed composed by the cosmos. Aversa first learned of Tiedemann when Tai pitched at Long Beach City. That got him in on the ground floor as the younger brother began his run at Lakewood. When Tiedemann ended up at Golden West, Aversa had a direct pipeline to head coach Roberto Villareal, whom he played for from 1986-88.
All that helped build a fuller picture and fed into the belief.
“He's a great teammate, super-good kid, just the normal Southern Cal kid,” says Aversa, before relaying a story about Tiedemann’s long hair. “I was like, ‘Hey, do you have a problem cutting that?’ He was like, ‘No, no. I'll do whatever.’ That's kind of how I do it — if I'm coaching, what kind of guy is this? Is he going to be a turd? That’s where as a scout you can get burned. If he’s a turd in the clubhouse, it looks like I didn't do my job. The talent part is pretty easy and those guys were on board with that.
"But Ricky was just super good the way he treated his parents, his relationship with his mom. I was like, this kid is a freaking model citizen and he's a competitor on the field. When he takes the ball, it's almost like he goes into costume.”
Though he was willing, the Blue Jays were never going to make Tiedemann cut his hair so he still has it, collecting it into a ponytail on the mound. And he’s still “happy-go-lucky” off the mound and a ferocious competitor on it. Much of that comes from growing up with five brothers, of which he and his fraternal twin Roman are the youngest. Tai is the third oldest and of the six, they’re the only two in professional sports (Roman is pursuing an acting career), although they all played baseball, football, basketball and other sports together and against one another.
The internal competition between them helped “build mental fortitude when it comes to going out there and handling your business,” says Tiedemann.
It also helped build the confidence needed to forego what he felt were substandard draft offers in 2020 when “I didn't really get the money I wanted,” and de-commit from San Diego State because “I thought I was ready to compete at the next level,” and “bet on myself” by going to junior college for another shot at 2021.
“It worked out for me,” he says.
For Aversa, too, who was “biting my nails” on draft day a year ago because Tiedemann was ready to sign if the Blue Jays took him in the third round.
“I knew that this kid is not going to go buy a car, he's banking on himself,” says Aversa, “that the signing bonus is a down payment until he gets to the big leagues and makes the big money."
“Looking back, no one knew that he would jump (in performance) like that,” he continues. “If other teams had known that, they would have jumped on him earlier, too.”
No doubt they would have, but they didn’t. Instead, Aversa got his guy, Tiedemann got the opportunity to make a leap and the Blue Jays are better off for it.