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Mudville: November 23, 2020 8:25 pm PDT
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BULLDOZING A ROAD BLOCK

Minor league life is tough. Having no minor leagues this summer was tougher.

This is not only the survival of the fittest, it is the survival of the most creative.

Imagine being a young player on the rise, looking to gain a pivotal year of experience as you climb the minor league ladder in hopes of getting to the major leagues one day.

Imagine doing this as a submarine pitcher, one of the most unique skills in baseball.

Then the ladder is taken away.

What to do now?

How does a minor leaguer survive and prosper when there are no minor leagues? Here at BallNine we search hard for baseball answers and bring real life experiences home.

Where does a minor leaguer go when there is nowhere to go?

What happens to the journey when the road is blocked by Covid?

Here is how one minor league pitcher is dealing with a career detour no one could have anticipated.

His name is Josh Hejka.

He is 23, a right-handed submarine pitcher, who put up eye-popping numbers in 2019 for two Mets rookie league teams, Kingsport and Brooklyn.

Incoming: from the land down under. Josh Hejka gets ready to mow down another batter while pitching for the Brooklyn Cyclones, 2020. Photo: Liz Flynn

Over 22 appearances Hejka posted a 1.33 ERA as a reliever, compiling four saves. He did not allow a home run. He walked five and struck out 24. He held right-handed batters to a .200 average. Lefties hit just .226 against him. All this after being signed out of an Independent League after a college career at D-III Johns Hopkins University that culminated in a College World Series appearance in 2019.

Hejka owns a degree in computer science and understands the analytical game better than most. Just to get this far is an accomplishment, and Hejka is not about to be derailed now. The bigger the challenge, the deeper he digs in. Perseverance is the word.

“This is clearly an unprecedented time for everyone in the minor leagues especially,’’ Hejka told BallNine. “This is the first time in my life where the traditional schedule, having a season, then having an off-season and then coming back and playing the next season has been disrupted.

“I worked really hard this off-season and was excited to show what I had improved on and the gains that I made, and we got to spring training and we were only there for a week. I got put into the offseason right away.

“It is really easy to fall into paralysis by analysis.”

“This summer I tried to reframe it. It would be really easy to say, ‘Oh this sucks,’ and sit around and not do anything for a few months and then wait for them to tell us what we are doing and get started again.’’

That’s not the way Josh Hejka approaches challenges.

This is someone who made himself into a submarine pitcher in high school, then worked hard to find a place to pitch in college and made the most of that opportunity, academically and on the mound.

“This sucks right now,’’ he said of having no season, nowhere to play, “but it could be, looking back, that I will be grateful to have this time to work on certain goals.

“This year would have been a really big year for me in terms of proving myself in the organization as a prospect. I thought it was an opportunity to reframe it to continue to get better, figure out my strengths and weaknesses.

“How do I play to my strengths more? How do I improve my weaknesses and really take advantage of this time that we have? I think this time was valuable in that I could continue to get better.’’

How did Hejka improve with no minor league baseball?

“I wanted to clean up my mechanics a bit,’’ Hejka said.

“I’ve been throwing submarine since I was a junior in high school. I’ve had some great coaches along the way but none of them have really known how to teach a submarine pitcher.

“There are some key differences. You are bent over, your arm slot is lower. I’ve made some big improvements these last few months in terms of cleaning up my glove side. Before, if you watched video of me pitch, my glove side would fly open really early and not really contribute anything.

“My back leg, I am getting a lot more push from the entire leg, I was kind of falling forward too much. I’ve really worked on generating more power from my back leg and hopefully the combination of those two things will make my mechanics more efficient and increase velocity and make me a little bit healthier in the long run.’’

Data is a pitcher’s friend, especially a pitcher like Hejka who understands data so thoroughly with that computer science degree.

“There is a lot of baggage that comes with that word analytics,’’ he explained. “People have different interpretations of that word and preconceived notions of what that means. When I think of analytics, at the end of the day, it is putting yourself in the best position to succeed. In player development, that means using data and using it in the correct ways. It is really easy to fall into paralysis by analysis. Overloading players with data, they don’t know what it means, and they start over-thinking. I’m lucky where I went to school, our coaches were very good at curating that information for us and then as I got older I was able to handle more and more of it without falling victim to overthinking.’’

Hejka focused on his slider this summer.

He wanted more movement and working with the Mets minor league department he dug deep into data.

“I can throw the slider in one of two ways,’’ Hejka said. “One is throw it a little bit harder and it kind of spins but doesn’t move. There are other times it comes out a little slower, but I am really getting around it and it’s kind of moving like a Frisbee slider that you hear about from sidearm and submarine pitchers.’’

Looking at all his sliders from the past year the ones that generated the most swings and misses were the ones that moved eight inches or more

With the help of Rapsodo for instant pitching data feedback he is generating as much movement as possible on the slider.

“My slider moves side to side but the way it plays off my fastball is more like an overhand 12-6 curve ball,’’ Hejka said. “My fastball has side spin to the arm side and is really coming in on those right-handed hitters. My slider is moving away from those right-handed hitters.’’

And when Hejka is submarining on the mound, wearing his Rec Specs, there is a little Wild Thing look coming at the batter.

Turns out submarine pitchers have a special place they can learn. Who knew?

“There is actually an organization called Sidearm Nation,’’ Hejka told me. “It’s run by a guy named Geoff Freeborn and he is an old submariner who played for Team Canada in some events.’’

Freeborn, a left-handed pitcher, played pro ball on five different continents.

“He started this organization to get people like me, other sidearm and submarine pitchers connected with each other and to learn from each other,’’ Hejka said. “I have been to two of his camps. There was one in Maryland I went to after my freshman year in college. At that point in my career I was walking and hitting some right-handed batters, and this was extremely helpful in my command.

Wild Thing - I Think You're Groovy. Josh Hejka Sits down another unlucky customer in the 2019 College World Series. Photo: Niki Dillard

“Every team I have ever been on I’ve been the only submarine guy, so it helps just to have that connection. About a year ago I went to another camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Chad Bradford was running it.’’

Bradford carved out a 12-year career as a submariner, including one season with the Mets.

“He’s super low, knuckles scraping the ground,’’ Hejka said. “That camp was incredibly helpful and he taught me a new changeup, which I started throwing this off-season for the first time.’’

There was no season to show it off, so he continues to perfect that changeup on the sideline.

The camp brought another benefit. Hejka found a pitching community where he could talk about different ways of improving his submarine game.

“I’m in their Facebook group, I follow them on Twitter and Instagram’’ Hejka said. “It’s nice just having that network, that if I have a question I can pick the brains of these people.’’

They speak the same submariner language

Hejka is living at his parents’ home in Dearborn, Michigan, where he went to high school and is working out at different locations.

“I play catch with my dad every day. When I’m long-tossing and he can’t make the throw back to me he brings his fungo out and hits me fly balls, which is pretty funny,’’ Hejka said. “This is the first time since I was in high school that I’ve played catch consistently with my dad and it is kind of cool coming back to the roots of baseball. It’s a game that your dad teaches you. He was my coach too growing up, so it is special having those moments with my dad.’’

Once again, making the most of the situation so future success is possible.

Like all dads, Jim Hejka loves to watch his son play.

“I went to school in Baltimore, which was eight hours [away],’’ Josh said of his Johns Hopkins days. “He would make the drive every weekend for our games. He came to a couple of my games in Brooklyn last year.’’

Jim and Josh Hejka in 2007. As we like to say at BallNine baseball is a game passed down between fathers and sons. Photo: Connie Hejka

In the 2019 D-III College World Series, Hejka threw 152 pitches over 9 2-3 innings in a Thursday win and then came back on Saturday to earn the save in an elimination game. He also set the school’s appearance record that season with 25. He was not drafted so he signed to play in the United Shore Professional Baseball League in Michigan, playing for the Westside Woolly Mammoths at Jimmy John’s Field in Utica, Michigan.

The Mets signed him out of that league and he impressed.

Then came Covid this spring.

Hejka is putting his computer science degree to good use from the mound and other places. When BallNine kicked off, it was Hejka who created the original website design. “I created a process that would easily add new stories and update on all the pages,’’ Hejka said.

I can’t think of any other ballplayer who did anything like that in his down time this year.

“Outside of my baseball training,’’ Hejka said with a laugh, “I had a lot of time to branch out.’’

Clearly, with his background and intelligence, Hejka could be in baseball a long time and not just working from the pitching mound.

Hejka attended the Florida Baseball Ranch a few years ago and came away with helpful information. “They are very big with looking at elite pitchers and seeing what they do and then trying to incorporate that into the delivery of their athletes,’’ he said. “That is something I’ve done a lot too. I’ve watched submarine pitchers like Darren O’Day, Eric Yardley, guys with similar arm slots as me but I’ve also watched a lot of video of the best throwers in the world: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole – and the Florida Baseball Ranch has 13 different phases of the delivery that elite throwers tend to have in their delivery.

“The funny thing was Nolan Ryan literally was an example for every single one. That’s somebody I’ve been watching a lot of video of because he did it all without modern technology, instant feedback. He was one of those guys who was just born to throw. He did it for 27 years and he had perfect mechanics. He was one of those guys I love watching.

“My average velocity is 84.1 miles per hour,’’ Hejka said, not anywhere near the Ryan Express. “In major league pitchers I would be in the top five of lowest velocity – most of those guys are submarine guys. Command, movement, deception, I have all those except for velocity. That is one of the things I am trying to improve as well.

“Long tossing builds athleticism, arm strength and durability,’’ he said of his routine. “The second thing is developing strength in the weight room while also paying attention to your mobility to make sure you are maintaining or gaining range of motion. I believe both of those things not only help guys throw harder but allows their bodies to handle the stresses of increased torque and velocity so that they will stay healthier.’’

Hejka is focused on improving his craft. He is hoping to get invited to the Mets’ Instructional League.

“It’s hard to stay disciplined and keep that mental fortitude when you don’t know what is coming next,’’ he said. “I had to develop a better routine. To do things even when it is not easy to do them. I think I have improved a lot in the mental side of things these last few months.’’

Hejka writes down goals for the day each and every day.

“It’s the way I stay disciplined, the way I hold myself accountable,’’ he said.

No matter what the next step is – when it finally comes after this bizarre no minor league season – Josh Hejka will be ready.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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