Thursday, September 13, 2012

An Interview with RHP Jordan Jankowski

I met Jordan Jankowski (also called J.J. by some) late last month in Greeneville. I didn't have time to interview him while I was there, but I made arrangements to talk to him later for a couple of reasons. First of all, anyone who's been paying the slightest bit of attention to the Astros farm system is probably aware of Jankowski's extraordinary strikeout rate. In 23 appearances for the Greeneville Astros, he compiled 53 strikeouts in 32 and a third innings, an incredible strikeout rate of 14.8 strikeouts per nine innings. On top of that, he only walked 10 batters for a 5.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

But my reasons for wanting to get to know Jordan better went beyond his stats, one reason shallow and one not. I'll admit I'm a huge fan of players wearing high socks and when Jordan came out of the bullpen that first night sporting the look, he earned all kinds of brownie points with me. But it was his work ethic that really impressed me. As I was hanging around during the pre-game workouts getting a few pictures and just generally observing, I noticed that Jankowski and Mike Hauschild were the first players out on the field both days, getting in their work. They were also among the last to leave, and they were working hard. High socks, hard work and a sexy strikeout-to-walk ratio are, after all, the keys to my heart.

But before I get to the meat of the interview, there is a story involving Jankowski that needs to be cleared up. In preparing for the interview with Jordan, I had Googled him so I could ask a couple of semi-intelligent questions to go with the goofy ones I normally ask and up popped an article that I'd totally forgotten about. I'm not going to link to the article because, frankly, I didn't find it very fair, particularly after talking to Jordan, and I don't really want to give the author any more clicks on it.

The gist of the story was that Jordan was scheduled to pitch in the regionals for Catawba College (NC), but he was instead leaving to participate in a major league pre-draft workout so he was asked to leave the team as a "team decision," with his coach proclaiming, "You're with us or you're not with us. You've got to be all in."

The problem with the story is that, according to Jordan, there were a lot of details left out. And I have to go by what Jordan tells me because the author of the article didn't bother to get Jordan's side of it at the time.

It turns out that Jordan was prepared to pitch as many pitches as needed in the first game of the regionals before leaving for the Astros pre-draft workout and he was prepared to pitch again after returning, but his coach wanted him there to cheer on his teammates in the interim. The plans to attend the workout were made before Catawba even made the regionals and, as a senior, it was Jordan's last chance to pursue his dream.

Jordan was not present for the team vote and had no opportunity to defend himself or explain his side of the story as he was in the training room getting his arm iced down at the time. But according to a friend of Jordan's who was there, the team was led to believe that Jordan was not willing to pitch at all, and even then, only three of his teammates wanted him off the team.

Jordan was somewhat reluctant to even talk about the situation, but once he opened up to me and explained it, he seemed to feel a sense of relief in getting his side of the story out there. When he was drafted, he read a couple of blog comments that questioned his character and that stung.

As Jordan put it, "I was never really able to defend myself about what happened exactly. It made me look like I was a bad teammate. Yeah, I went to the workout, but I was still willing to pitch for them. I would have thrown 140 pitches for them and then gone to the workout on one day's rest. I don't want people to think I'm not a team guy because the wrong story's out there."

Now that that's out of the way, let's go on to the rest of the interview (edited for brevity and clarity) ~

On his draft experience: "I was actually drafted in '08 and [again] this year in the 34th round both years. In '08 I was drafted as a catcher. [Why didn't he sign in 2008?] I don't think I was ready. I thought at least I could get some of my education done and mature a bit. I actually went to school at Miami Ohio first and then I transferred because ... I wasn't really developing how I thought I should develop. I left to find a place where I thought I could develop a little better."

On his transition from catcher to pitcher: "I really just started pitching fully when I transferred because at Miami Ohio I was a closer and I [only became a starter after the transfer to Catawba]. I might have pitched 20 innings total in high school and in my first year [of college] I threw about 30 and then I threw maybe 40 the next year. Then I threw 100 my junior year and 90 this year so really I had no [significant] pitching experience until the last two years."

On his workout routine: "We have to be there about 2:00 or 3:00. I normally get there at 12:00 every day. I do some extra running. I lift three days. Try to get in better shape. I really hadn't had that much training as a pitcher so I've been trying to build myself up to be more of a pitcher."

On his pitch selection: "Mainly fastball, slider, curveball, but I throw in a changeup here and there. [Pitching Coach] Hector Mercado really helped me a lot with that. Coming in to the season, I didn't even throw a changeup so he actually helped me a lot. Fastball [is] mainly high 80's to low 90's."

On his high strikeout rate: "Yeah, I get a lot of swing and misses, but I really started striking out a lot of guys when I transferred my junior year. I definitely favor my slider a little bit, but I like to mix it up. I get most of my strikeouts on my slider, but I think it's the way I set it up is the reason that it works that way, or how the catcher sets up mainly."

What has he accomplished in the short season?: "Mainly I feel like I established myself. I feel like I've opened a few eyes that I can maybe be that guy that can get a quick inning later on in the game. I'm not your [typical] closer. I don't throw upper 90's. But I can still strike guys out even though I don't throw that upper level."

What does he need to work on?: "I need to work on a changeup and just repeat my motion. My changeup is coming along. I'm starting to throw it a little more, and I think that's going to help me a lot more with keeping people more off-balance. The other thing I need to work on is maybe mixing my pitches a little bit better, just trust in everything I have. I know that sometimes I rely on one or two pitches, but Hector Mercado was telling me the more I mix everything together [the harder it will be] for them to make solid contact off me because he says that's just one more thing they've got to think about. So I guess maybe just work on trusting everything I have and throw all my pitches."

On sporting the high socks look: "I refuse to wear my pants down. I've always worn high socks since I was little. I think that's what a baseball player should look like. It's what they looked like in the old days. I just like the look. I like the colored socks and how it looks with the uniform."

Who on the team makes him laugh?: Everyone's funny in the bullpen. We actually had bullpen awards and the funniest guy that we came up with was Tanner Bushue. He always kept everyone laughing in the bullpen. He and Zach Dando were the funny guys."

Which teammate has a pitch he'd like to steal?: "I'd have to say definitely Mike Hauschild's fastball. His fastball moves like two feet. If I could steal that off him, that would be unreal. He can throw that to lefties, righties. That's one of the best pitches you could possibly have that moves that much and he just gets so many groundballs, it's just unreal to watch him pitch."

Which teammate would he least like to face on the mound?:  "I'd honestly probably say either Terrell Joyce or [Rio] Ruiz. I said Joyce because if you make a mistake, he can hit it a long way. Leaving a fastball up, he can hit it. And Ruiz, ever since he got there, showed that he's such a patient hitter. I felt like he had a good approach at the plate."

What would he do if he couldn't play baseball?: "I really want to do something in sports, something sports-related. I really don't want to think of something outside baseball. I'd probably try something [related to] baseball, maybe work at a baseball school, somehow impact someone's life so they could get to experience what we experienced this year and give them the chance to experience living the dream."

On something most people don't know about him: "In high school, I used to be 260 and I lost all kind of weight. I was 260 my senior year and I dropped down to like 195 when I went to college. Then when I left college last year I was 240 and this year I weighed in with the Astros at 189. I lost a lot of weight to get where I'm at. [Another thing would be] the one game I remember pitching in little league. We were 12 years old and it was a championship game. At the bottom of the seventh, we were winning by one run and there was a guy on first base and I gave up a walk-off home run to a girl. It was the championship game in a little league tournament so I didn't pitch the next couple of tournaments, you can put it that way."

Any final words for Astros fans?: "The future's bright. We have good players. Everyone's going to work hard to put a quality product on the field for you."

14.8 strikeouts per nine innings and Jankowski's just now really learning how to pitch? The future looks bright, indeed. It also looks a little classier each time he steps on the field in those high socks.

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