Being a starting pitcher is kind of like being a pilot of a 747. You need to be on your game no matter what external factors are affecting you that day. Sometimes it’s lack of control — extreme winds, no feel for your pitches — sometimes the people you are guiding aren’t cooperating — restless passengers, errors in the field — but no matter the situation, it’s your job to persevere and lead those relying on you. Perseverance is something this staff knows a great deal about. The highs and lows of baseball and life are not foreign to this young staff. Despite being from various pedigrees, backgrounds and parts of the world, the Atlanta Braves minor league pitchers with the class-A advanced Lynchburg Hillcats has one commonality: tenacity.
Gus Schlosser: 762 miles from Henley Field at Florida Southern College to Lynchburg City Stadium. Schlosser got the nod as the opening day starter for this stellar staff. Not the guy you would imagine getting the honor, not because of skill level, but because he had zero experience starting in his first professional season. This three-quarters-style pitcher is an all-around athlete. At his Division II school, he was asked to hit and pitch, and hit he did. With nine bombs in his final season at Florida Southern, Schlosser not only dealt with a 7-1 record and 2.90 ERA, but slugged enough to keep his bat in the lineup. The Braves liked Schlosser enough to take him in the 17th round in 2011. The dividends have paid handsomely thus far. An 8.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was exceptional to say the very least in his first season. This season, the 2009 Florida JUCO Player of the Year has hit a stride with six wins in eight decisions, tied for most in the Carolina League as of the May 30, and 49 strikeouts, fifth in the CL.
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J.R. Graham: 2,755 from Stephen Schott Field at Santa Clara University to Lynchburg City Stadium. It’s hard to say that a guy who was all-state in high school in the powerhouse baseball state of California, a division I athlete and a fourth-round pick has had a meteoric rise, but that’s where we stand right now with Graham. A true two-way player at the beginning of his college career, Graham didn’t bring his 98 mph fastball to the mound full-time until the end of his sophomore year at Santa Clara University. The next season would be all the Braves would need to see from the bulldog-ish pitcher to make him the 146th pick overall in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. That foresight has given the Braves a young arm to add to the bountiful crop of up-and-coming pitchers. After being named to the Baseball America Rookie All-Star team in 2011 and compiling a 1.72 ERA with 52 strikeouts in his first 57.2 innings, Graham, the 13th-best prospect in the organization, has dominated the CL in 2012. A 6-0 record and 2.37 ERA have set Graham apart from much of his competition. Manager Luis Salazar is so impressed with the youngster that he has gone on record on multiple occasions to say that Graham will be in Atlanta in a maximum of two years. A fiery and emotional competitor on the mound, Graham has the persona of a top end pitcher in the making.
Dimasther Delgado: 3, 875 from his home town of Aguaducle, Panama to Lynchburg City Stadium. The most trying and tragic story belongs to this young Panamanian. A fearless lefty on the mound, Delgado’s love and will have been tested early in his career. A horrific car accident that killed one in February of 2010 left Delgado with a broken left hand, right femur and a torn ligament in the same knee. Going into the season Delgado was ranked by ESPN.com as the 85th-best player in the minors. The 2010 season was long gone for him, but his talents and potential were still recognized the last two seasons by Baseball America. In both 2011 and 2012, Delgado was ranked as the 18th overall prospect for the Braves. While 2011 was a bounce-back season, 2012 was met with more tragedy as Delgado’s mother passed. He stayed to be with his family and took a few extra weeks before joining the Hillcats. After a few average starts, this resilient pitcher has won his last two starts with a career-long outing of 7.0 innings at the time of print.
Aaron Northcraft: 2,494 from Mater Dei High School to Lynchburg City Stadium. This 22-year-old may have come straight from high school, but big-time baseball is his forte. In his senior year at Mater Dei, Northcraft wowed scouts for the nationally ranked Monarchs baseball team. Pitching for a baseball powerhouse gave Northcraft exposure, but his skillset got him ranked as the 84th-best high school prospect in 2009. A 10th-round call from the Braves had Northcraft taking the leap from prep school to the pros. Northcraft is still a young pitcher by age, but his experience and willingness to adjust and improve has taken his game to another level. Making the leap to high-A ball teamed Northcraft up with Pitching Coach Derek Botelho. Northcraft and Botelho tweaked Northcrafts’s delivery before the season started. This slight adjustment to bringing his hands over his head has loosened Northcraft and allowed him to throw more strikes with the highlight being a nine “K” showing this season.
Cody Martin: 2,499 from Patterson Baseball Complex at Gonzaga University to Lynchburg City Stadium. The pedigree for Martin is what sets him apart from his peers on the staff. Martin’s father, Chuck, was a Braves farmhand in the mid-1980s.
Chuck compiled an 8-4 record with a 2.81 ERA in 80.0 innings pitched in two seasons in the South Atlantic League. However, it was a calling to be a family man that pulled him away from the rigors of a baseball lifestyle. You would think pressure would be added to the younger Martin from Chuck’s early success. However, Martin said, “He (Chuck) always taught me to do things the right way (in baseball). But there was never added pressure to succeed or make baseball a career.”
In his voice is a sense of pride every time he talks of his father and the knowledge passed down to him. Previously speaking about his father, Martin stated, “I learned from my dad (Chuck) to keep my composure. I may not show it on the mound, but there’s a fire deep down there.”
That passion drove Martin to being the ERA Champion in Division I Baseball at Gonzaga University. His 0.86 mark garnered him numerous accolades with the highlight being his name being called in the 7th round in the 2011 draft.
Martin’s stellar performance in Danville and Rome got him enough attention to be ranked the 19th-best prospect in the organization by Baseball America. This season, Martin has had some bumps in his first season stating in professional baseball, but there’s no doubt that this five-pitch stud has the makings of a major leaguer.
Just for fun, let’s compare Martin and Chuck’s stats through their first 80 or so innings since Chuck was primarily a reliever and Martin has been used as a starter this season:
Chuck: 8-4, 2.81 ERA in 80.0 innings pitched. He allowed 32 runs (25 earned) on 63 hits. Six of those hits were homers. Chuck registered 77 whiffs while walking 39 batters in the combined seasons of 1984 and 1985.
Martin: 6-5, 2.70 ERA in 83.1 innings pitched. He allowed 33 runs (25 earned) on 71 hits. Seven of those hits were homers. Martin registered 103 whiffs while walking 25 batters in the combined seasons of 2011 and as of May 30, 2012.
Did I mention each was drafted twice? Chuck was drafted in the 7th and 24th rounds by the Cubs and Braves respectively. Martin was drafted by the Twins and Braves in the 20th and 7th rounds in his career. For the Hillcats’ sake, I’m sure they are happy that Chuck chose family.
The journey of these talented pitchers to Lynchburg has encompassed 12,385 miles. This is a journey that doesn’t incorporate the endless work in the gym, the grueling bus rides and constant pressure to perform. If they weren’t driven by the desire to be great, they could take those 12,385 miles it took to get to Lynchburg and hop on a plane to enjoy the tropical paradise of Suva, Fiji, just 12,295 miles away. However, that’s not what this battle-tested staff is about. They much rather take the 455 mile trip to Atlanta for the grandest of stages.