Stokes hopeful improved fastball leads to opportunity
Since last season, Jimmy Stokes has picked up some velocity on his fastball. He also picked up a college diploma.
Stokes, 23, was selected by the Cleveland Indians in the 22nd round of the 2012 draft. The right-handed reliever has split time between the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers and low-A Lake County Captains through two years of professional ball. He currently remains in extended spring training, ready to earn a roster spot, but first, he had to earn his college degree.
When the Lake County Captains’ season came to a close last September, Stokes made a quick departure from Eastlake as part of a promise to his parents. While other players returned home or headed to the Arizona Fall League, Stokes took his talents south to Elon, North Carolina and found himself seated in a classroom the following day.
Stokes was a junior at Elon University when he was drafted and signed by the Indians. But before he could sign his name to a contract, Stokes’ parents made him promise he’d post his name to a college diploma as soon as possible.
“It’s a huge weight off my shoulders so I’m glad I went back and did that,” Stokes said.
Though his bachelor’s degree is in political science, Stokes won’t be running for office as long as he can continue a baseball career. Even after he hangs up his spikes, he hopes to remain in the industry.
“I’d like to work in baseball as long as I can and even after my playing days are over,” he said.
With a college degree tucked in his back pocket, Stokes swapped his cap and gown for a baseball jersey. During the second week of spring training, the Indians player development staff informed him of a new throwing program. He and Adam Miller, who signed a minor league deal with the team in March, worked with player development assistant Eric Binder as part of a program to develop velocity and improve mechanics.
“Binder was extremely helpful,” Stokes said. “I’ve probably made more strides pitching in the last two months than I have in the past years.”
Stokes said he’s seeing positive results from the throwing program, including an increase in command, control and velocity. He said his fastball now sits in the mid-nineties, a favorable boost from past years when he topped out in the high eighties to low nineties.
With a new sense of confidence, Stokes now awaits a roster opening among the organization’s other teams. He said he hasn’t received a timeline for his return, but he’s content on continuing the program the Indians have crafted for him.
“I feel like it could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a couple weeks, but that’s kind of out of my control,” he said.
When he does receive an assignment to a team, Stokes says he’ll be excited to test the waters.
“I’m really excited now to get there, kind of show what I can do, and do some real damage,” he said.
Stokes did some damage in the New York-Penn League last year, as he posted a 0.87 ERA, surrendered 14 hits, struck out eight and walked one through 10.1 innings of relief work for the Scrappers.
After he joined the Captains in July, Stokes posted a 4.50 ERA as the result of 17 runs, 13 earned, 31 hits, two home runs and a 16:16 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He said the biggest difference he noticed between the short season and low-A level was the increased number of power hitters in the Midwest League and the changes in approach for the hitters.
“Playing for a whole season in that league, you’re going to see teams over and over again, so trying to attack hitters differently was a change,” he said.
Stokes also said he had to overcome the challenge facing opponents who grace the covers of Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the like.
“At first, it’s just telling yourself you belong out there,” he explained. “You’re playing with guys you read about in magazines and see on TV. You’ve just got to keep telling yourself, “Hey I can still get this guy out.’”
Last season, Stokes said he worked on putting more sink on the ball and adding a little more run on his fastball. Now, with more velocity, he feels like he can pitch with a straighter fastball. His arsenal consists of his driving fastball, change-up and a pitch he calls a power curve, though some consider it more of a slider. He said his aim for the current season is to continue to establish his fastball.
“Now I think I can be a little more aggressive when it comes to attacking hitters,” Stokes said.
With new aggression, Stokes also feels a new sense of confidence. He underwent Tommy John surgery as a sophomore in college and spent a season as a redshirt sophomore when he was drafted in 2012. With his injury in the past and harder fastball in his present, Stokes feels that the components of his game are falling into place.
“I probably had a little slower lower learning curve just getting everything back,” he said. “Now, everything’s starting to click again. I’m throwing the ball the way I want to be throwing the ball. I have a newfound confidence in myself as a pitcher.”
Stokes’ confidence has him begging for the ball in momentus situations. He knows he can’t control where he plays or what city he ends up in, but he knows he’ll take advantage of any opportunity he receives.
“I want to pitch well and I want to pitch in big moments,” he said. “I don’t want to be a guy that comes in when we’re down 10 runs. I want to be in there for those critical innings.”
For now, Stokes awaits a roster assignment from Arizona. From the midwest to the east coast, and way out west, he’s racked up miles over the past year. Those miles translated to lessons both in the classroom and between the foul lines. He may have a college degree, but for now, he’ll close the textbooks to post zeros in the scorebook.
Stephanie is a crime and general assignment reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio. She’s an alumna of Cleveland State University with a degree in Journalism and Promotional Communication. You can follow her on Twitter @7thInningSteph.