AFL Spotlight: Matt Packer
The “AFL Spotlight” is a weekly feature piece on a player from the Cleveland Indians farm system that is participating in the Arizona Fall League. League play wraps up on November 15th.
“I feel like I am back to 100%. I am recovering well when I throw and I feel good about it.”
Those are the words of Indians left-handed pitching prospect Matt Packer who is currently participating in the Arizona Fall League this offseason.
Packer, 25, came into the 2012 season with a lot of promise. He was expected to pitch a majority of the season at Triple-A Columbus and potentially move into the big league mix by the end of the season, but a shoulder injury in spring training sidelined him for most of the first half of the season and in the second half of the season he spent most of his time scrambling to get back to the pitcher he was going into spring training.
The injury was more specifically a muscle pull in his rotator cuff and no surgery was required, but it was enough of a setback to where it took a lot of time to come back.
“It was something that happened at home when I first started throwing,” Packer recalled. “Initially, I think I did not hurt it as bad as I did as I thought it was just normal spring training soreness when you get your arm going every year and it hurts a little bit. I gave it some rest at home and did not try to push it too much, and I think in the rehab process we might have tried to rush it a little bit too. It is something that lingered for a while before I could really get back to 100%.”
Anytime you are dealing with an injury to the shoulder it is serious and the player and organization has to be careful in bringing a pitcher back. In Packer’s case the severity of the injury was not high as it was a simple muscle pull, but pushing it too hard could have resulted in much more serious damage.
After being shut down at the beginning of spring training, Packer began a throwing program a few weeks later but still did not look right.
“At the end of spring training I had already started throwing out to 120 feet,” Packer said. “The coaches were watching me and were just telling me it did not look good. I was forcing through it and getting it there, and it was just not the same way I throw. So we shut it back down and I had to wait another three or four weeks before I could even start throwing again. Enough time had passed where I had to start from scratch with my throwing program.”
After a long two months in extended spring training building his arm strength back up and getting ready to throw in games, Packer made his return to the mound on June 26th in a rehab outing at rookie level Arizona, and then several weeks later on August 6th he was pushed to Triple-A Columbus – the place he was expected to pitch all season. Overall, he made 14 combined starts between Arizona, High-A Carolina, Double-A Akron and Columbus and went 4-5 with a 3.70 ERA (65.2 IP, 73 H, 8 HR, 16 BB, 47 K).
“I went to Arizona for three games, Carolina for two, Akron for three and went to Columbus,” Packer said. “It felt great. I felt like coming out of the gate I had great command of everything. I was not throwing as hard as I had in the past, but the command was there and I felt good about it in my first four or five starts. I did not pitch great in all of my starts, but I finished strong and I felt like I ended well and ended healthy, which is good. I did not really expect a call to Columbus when I was in Akron as they were in a playoff run and I figured once I got there that is where I would be the rest of the year, so I felt great to get the call up to Columbus. I felt like they wanted me there.”
Packer is not a power pitcher by any means as he instead relies on a deep four-pitch mix, an ability to command all four of them and throw them for strikes, and has a good feel for pitching. But his fastball velocity was down consistently at 84-87 MPH this year compared to the 88-91 MPH it usually is at. The drop in velocity is a byproduct of his recovery from the shoulder injury, and getting it back to normal is a primary goal for him this offseason.
“For sure,” Packer stated. “I will definitely be working on my arm strength and it will be the main thing I work on in the offseason to get it back to that consistent 89-90 MPH every time I go out.”
Even with the drop in velocity this year, Packer has still been able to pitch effectively and get results thanks to his good changeup and slider and the good sinking action he gets with his fastball. In seven games out in Arizona this fall he is 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA, and in 12.0 innings he has allowed 16 hits, 1 home run, 3 walks, and has 9 strikeouts.
Packer has mostly pitched in relief, but he is just happy to be pitching and is fine with pitching in any role.
“I talked to the pitching coach and he said it is just about throwing me as much as they can,” Packer said about his role. “Maybe they want me to get a lot of appearances, I don’t know, but either way I will end up throwing a decent amount and I will be in good shape.”
Packer is using his time in the AFL to fine tune some things, but mostly to just get him back into the flow and make up for lost time this year. He wants to finish strong in order to give him a good springboard and something positive from which to build on going into what is shaping up to be a big year for him next season.
“I’m out here more to get in some innings and treat it as the end to my season,” Packer said. “It is fun as you are mostly facing the one through five hitters from High-A and Double-A teams, so you know the competition is going to be good. If you pitch well, you know you accomplished something which is good to know. I want to finish strong and make sure I feel good going into the offseason. I am not working on anything new; I am just trying to get that fastball command down and trying to throw my other pitches for strikes.”
When things wrap up in the AFL at the end of this week, Packer will go home and get right to work for next season. Pitching in the AFL has shortened his offseason considerably, but he is focused and knows what he needs to do in order to come into spring training next year ready to compete for a spot on the Columbus staff and maybe open up some eyes on the big league staff for consideration in Cleveland later in the year.
“My usual plan is I take a week where I don’t do anything, and then I start working out and the throwing program starts and you start getting in shape for the next season.” Packer said. “I have no plans other than trying to get stronger and getting that arm in shape.”
The season may not have gone the way Packer had hoped, but he is making the best out of what was a scarier situation several months ago. His good showing across four levels the second half of the season and a solid showing in the AFL gives hope that the shoulder injury is behind him.
“There is always good and bad that comes from any season,” Packer said. “But I am just glad I was able to pitch some innings this year as I was worried there a little bit at the start.”
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