Last week’s feature subject for the New York-Penn League Notebook at MiLB.com was Auburn’s Derek Self. I chose Self because I was planning on catching a game in Auburn, he was one of the best closers in the league, and in two seasons I hadn’t written about a closer.
I sat down with the soft-spoken native of Cave City, Kentucky, last week to talk about his preferred role on a pitching staff, his pitch repertoire, and deciding not to turn pro after being drafted in 2011.
Looking back at college, you started and you came out of the bullpen. Which are you more comfortable doing?
It’s one of those things, the first three years in college I did a little bit of both. I was always fine with whichever one just because whatever the team needed me as I was willing to do that role, but I think I came out of the pen a whole lot more and I think I like the pen a little better because starting you’re more relaxed and you’ve got to keep your composure a little better. More slower tempo. I like the fast tempo. I like getting really amped up before I go out there to throw. I like to go out there and throw all out, so definitely the pen. I like pressure situations.
So you like to be the guy they call on when things are in question.
Yeah, for sure. I like to be that guy.
How did you end up in that closer role here, once you came to the Nationals organization?
This whole past year in college, my whole senior year, I was the closer the whole year. They moved me to the closer role, me coming back, and I was perfectly fine with that. I love that role. I’d never actually stayed in a set closer role. I’d always been a middle relief to late relief guy. I started out here, the first three or four games, middle relief, and I guess they maybe saw something out of me to make them want to start using me out of the back end of the bullpen like I did in college. I feel like I had more success in the back end of the bullpen. Ever since they gave me that role right now – there’s really no set roles, but ever since I’ve been in the back end of the bullpen and they just like me there.
Do you know how they plan to use you going forward or is it just like you’ve got to go out there and perform and do your best every day and see what happens?
I think it’s just you go out there every day and do the best you can because there’s really no set roles right now, especially here in short season. Who knows, they could try to turn me into a starter next year. I still don’t know. But I feel like if you’re still performing pretty well at the role they have you in, I feel like they will try their best to keep you there. But as with anything else, you just never know what they want to do with you.
As far as pitches, what does your repertoire consist of?
I have a fastball, cutter, slider and changeup. I just recently put the cutter in, last year in college, and it really worked well for me. It’s been one of my go-to out pitches, or if I’m facing a solid hitter where you can’t just throw straight fastballs to him, because anybody can catch up to a fastball. Slider’s been pretty good. I mostly throw fastballs, really. In this organization we live off the fastball a lot, and we throw it, but like I say, if I have to my other repertoire of pitches I’ll do so.
How hard do you throw?
I’m surprised to hear you say you throw so many pitches because a lot of guys, they focus on two, maybe three, coming out of the bullpen. Do you work on all four right now because you’re not sure of your role? Or do you just like to have all the options?
I just like to have the options. I kind of know what I’m going to throw in the games, and most f the time it’s one inning now, the ninth inning, but if they need me in the eighth then I’m going in in the eighth. But I feel like it’s important to keep all your pitches going. I had all four of those going when I was starting, and of course as a starter you need those pitches. As a reliever you might only need one or two, really – you see a lot of them, especially [one] inning guys – but I feel like it’s important if you’ve got four of them that you can throw, then you just really have the hitter off-balance. Because maybe one day the cutter isn’t working, I might go with the slider. Maybe one day both aren’t working, I need an off-speed pitch, I go with the changeup, because you can’t just sit there and rely on your fastball the whole time. So I think it’s important to work on all four of them at all times.
Do you find that it’s harder now where you’re not throwing a lot of innings, out of the bullpen, do you find it’s harder to work on them during game situations? To work everything in, I guess I should say?
It’s not so much because I feel like here lately I’ve been throwing a lot – every other day, every two days – and if I don’t throw one day that I was up ready to throw then I’m in the bullpen working on it, a full practice out here throwing on flat ground, so I get a little touch and feel. Nothing too hard or anything, but just keep the same rhythm, keep everything intact. Being a short reliever like I am, you have to maintain that every day, because if you don’t throw too much or [don’t throw] too many innings, you start to lose your pitches.
On the other side of that, I noticed there’s been a lot of times where you’ve thrown more than an inning – inning and a third, two-plus. Is that by design at all or is that just what they’re calling on you for?
I think when I first got here they were just trying to see what I have and see where they might want to fit me as, and like I said I was that middle relief guy. At least one or two innings, maybe a little bit more, and I feel like I was doing just fine. I was still trying to get my foot in the water a little bit here, get adjusted and everything. I’ve done that before in the past so it’s nothing new to me to adjust to. Now it’s just, I’m throwing that one inning most of the time, and like I said, if they need to bring me in in the eighth, I’ll come in and finish the eighth up then into the ninth. So to me, really, if they need me to go out there even tonight in the sixth, seventh inning and finish the game out, then I’m fine to do that. I’ve done every single role since college. They’ve tested me out every way you can think of, so I’m used to it. I’m fine with it.
I noticed you were striking more guys out this year than you were in college. Is there any reason for that? Or any explanation for it?
I think the average college hitter, they’re free-swingers a lot, not so much trying to think what pitch you’re going to throw. I mean, you have some good hitters in college who actually take the mindset of a professional hitter. When I get up here, I don’t see so many free-swingers. I still get a lot of ground balls. Same reasons I didn’t get a lot of strikeouts in college is [because] I was getting weak contact. They were just swinging. And up here, I feel like if I really lock them up with a pitch that they’re not looking for and they’re frozen and that’s how I’ve been getting more strikeouts. I feel like most of my strikeouts have been looking strikeouts where they don’t even make an attempt to swing at it. I think that might be a little difference, or who knows, maybe my velo’s gone up a little bit. Maybe I’m hitting my spots better, my pitches are getting better. But I’m not really complaining.
So you say that you’ve got guys that are thinking more. Do you feel like you’re thinking more when you’re on the mound too, as far as how you want to attack a guy?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’ve been thinking a whole lot more since college. In college it was just go with it, maybe go with what coach says, and I can change it up a little bit, maybe shake you off. But here, it’s me and the catcher. It’s a lot more thinking, especially when I got here. I’m more in a groove now. I can tell. I’ll watch hitters throughout the game, especially when I think I’m going to go in. We keep charts and stuff, little scouting reports, just to know what he’s faced. We play these same teams all the time, so you kind of get used to the hitters a little bit. You know if they’re tough, if they can’t hit breaking balls, if they can’t hit fastballs, in or out. And I feel like I do a lot more thinking because it is on your own out there now. I like it though. I like calling your own game.
Last year you were drafted also, in a little bit later round, right? In the 27th round? Did you give any thought to signing then? How close did you come?
Yeah, I did. I was really close, and it just really came down to I felt like I slipped a lot in the Draft. I was getting calls before those rounds and I’d tell them no because I had my mind set on going back. The A’s drafted me, just hoping we could work something out. I gave it a chance to see if we could come to an agreement. We started to come to some minor agreements that I wanted but not all. As the summer went on, the longer it went, I stayed at Lousville and worked out, and I realized that it wasn’t the right thing to go in the Draft. I needed to go back to school. I am a senior, I know how that all works, but I was getting stronger that summer, my velo was actually going up. I was like, I’m doing something right and I think it’s just meant for me to go back to college. It was definitely the best decision for me.
And you went back and had your best year.
Yeah, I would say so. I think I had a really good freshman year, but I feel like I matured a whole lot more. I was definitely ready to go in the Draft last year and be a professional baseball player, but that one extra year of being a senior, especially being a leader in college, being a captain, that really made me grow up a whole lot more. It made me really mature and definitely stepping my foot in the door in professional baseball this summer I wasn’t scared at all. I was ready for it.
Was there anybody that you talked to when you were deciding that, to kind of give you feedback on it, or was it just something you had to think through on your own?
Of course I had an advisor, but to have a one-on-one conversation it was mostly just my dad. He never played baseball, but he knew what was right, go with your heart, and that’s what I did. He said, “You’ll know. Go with your gut and that’ll tell you what you need to do.” Ever since he said that, I knew exactly. I just needed to go back to college. It was a pretty easy decision.
Thanks to Auburn Doubledays Manager of Communications and Broadcasting Eli Pearlstein for coordinating this interview.