May 23rd, 2011.
This was a great day for the Phillies. Chase Utley made his return to the lineup after missing nearly two months with a knee injury. They scored 10 runs that night, and they beat the Reds for their 29th win of the season, on their way to what could be the best season in franchise history. For most in the baseball world, it was just another day. For Joe Savery, it might be the day that saved his career.
The Clearwater Threshers were in Jupiter to take on the Hammerheads, Florida’s high-A affiliate. It was a pretty ordinary minor league game attended by 330. Clearwater scored in the top of the third on a Brian Gump double, and Jupiter tied it at one in the bottom of the 6th on a Dallas Poulke single. Low scoring games are common in the Florida State League thanks to the heavy air, but this one was a bit extreme. Jupiter’s 6th inning run would be the last one scored until 17 innings later when they won it in the bottom of the 23rd.
Joe Savery began that game as the DH. This was his first season as a position player in the organization. As an amateur at Lamar High School and Rice University, he was seen as a potential pro as a hitter. He played outfield in high school, but he moved to first base at Rice, likely since it would be less stressful in his arm. Playing both ways for the Owls, he was a star from the moment he stepped on campus. During his three year career, he was named to the first and second All-American teams once, and in 2007 he was a Golden Spikes semi-finalist, the award for best amateur baseball player in the country.
Savery was assigned to Clearwater to start his career over as a position player. In limited at bats at higher levels, he was able to hit well, but in high-A, he could get off to a good start and build up some confidence. That proved to be exactly what he did. He hit .450 in April, and even though he didn’t hit for much power, it’s still very impressive. Hitting professional pitching is hard, even for the people whose lives are focused on it. Savery stepped in after not being a regular hitter for three seasons and made it look easy.
Minor league pitchers’ workloads are closely monitored, even for the non-prospects. In extra inning games like this, some pitchers need to be stretched to or beyond their limits. Only half the bullpen might be available on any particular night, and teams don’t plan for games to last as long as this one did. Three Threshers relievers pitched three or more innings, and around the 18th inning, Clearwater was getting desperate.
Of course their DH that night was drafted in the first round as a pitcher, but obviously his career wasn’t going so well, or he wouldn’t be hitting. His pro debut with Williamsport in 2007 was okay; his ERA was 2.73 in 26.1 innings, and his peripherals were okay although he walked too many batters. He reported to the Arizona Fall League that year and struggled, but that’s not uncommon for pitchers, especially those so new to professional baseball.
The first warning signs came the next year in his full season debut with Clearwater. At 22 years old and coming from a big college program, Savery should have pitched well. Instead, his strikeout rate dipped a little to 7.3 per 9 innings, and his hit rate shot up to over 10 per 9. His walk rate improved, but he was left with a 4.13 ERA and 1.54 WHIP. It was too soon to call him a bust, but he would have to improve at higher levels if he was going to become the pitcher the Phillies thought they were drafting.
Instead, as he rose towards the majors, his statistics went the wrong way. Despite a 12-4 record for Reading in 2009, he really didn’t pitch very well. His strikeout rate continued to decline while he struggled with allowing too many baserunners. After an Eastern League All-Star appearance, he was promoted to Lehigh Valley where he predictably struggled. In 2010, he would spend a full season with the IronPigs. If Savery wasn’t as good as his 12-4 record in 2009 suggested, he probably wasn’t as bad as his woeful 1-12 record in 2010 showed. The Phillies moved him to the bullpen late in the year, but it didn’t help. The rule 5 draft went without him being selected, and they decided that Savery should try hitting to salvage his career.
So Savery would come in to pitch in the 19th inning. Position players pitching in minor league games like this isn’t uncommon, but he was different since he was now eight weeks into his hitting career. It turned out to be his night. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out one. Another position player, Darin Ruf, pitched after Savery, and he was pretty effective too. Savery would finish the game at first base.
What was most remarkable about his outing that night wasn’t that he pitched, but how he pitched. It was reported that his fastball was touching 92-93, unheard of from Savery in previous seasons. His stuff had deteriorated badly as a Phillies prospect. His fastball was well below average, sitting in the mid 80’s, and he simply couldn’t miss any at bats. That’s a far cry from the pitcher he was at Rice.
Rice is a great college baseball program, but they have a reputation for overworking pitchers. From Jeff Niemann and Phil Humber who had injuries reduce their stuff to Wade Townsend whose career was completely derailed, the list goes on and on. Rice pitchers get injured, and Savery was no exception. He was second in the WAC in innings in his freshman year, and the next year he dealt with a serious shoulder injury that limited him on the mound. His strikeout rate declined post-injury, but the Phillies hoped he could gain it back. Until 2011, he didn’t.
In June, he was promoted back to Reading. For the first week or so, he continued to bat. However, after his great month of April, he wasn’t particularly good at the plate. Even going back to May with Clearwater, he still wasn’t hitting for much power, and the balls just weren’t dropping in for him. On June 27th, he took to the mound for Reading in a more conventional fashion. It was revealed that the Phillies planned to have him pitch in relief twice a week and have him hit in the others.
The strikeouts and scoreless innings piled up for Savery. His velocity and stuff were much closer to what they were in his amateur days. In six appearances with Reading, he struck out 14 batters in nine innings and only allowed one run. He was back on the map as a pitcher. The Phillies certainly took notice, and his role shifted back entirely to pitching. He was promoted to Lehigh Valley, and he continued to pitch well. In 25 innings, he struck out 26 batters and allowed five earned runs on 23 hits and six walks. Unlike previous years, he showed a split against lefties that showed he could be effective as a lefty specialist, but he was successful against righties too.
On September 17th after the IronPigs lost the International League Championship to Columbus, Savery was added to the Phillies’ 40 man roster and promoted to the majors. In four brief appearances in the majors, Savery impressed. He only allowed one hit and struck out two in 2.2 innings, and the Phillies will send him to the Instructional League to stay warm in case he’s needed later in the postseason. This is a completely different position compared to where he was at this point last season, thanks to the Phillies’ patience and Savery’s hard work, and it might’ve all started on May 23, 2011.