Prospect Trahern making waves
Pitcher dominating Double-A in year he was to reenter Draft
ERIE, Pa. -- Dallas Trahern isn't supposed to be here.
He belongs here. His domination of Double-A hitting this season has proven that. Still, he isn't supposed to be here. This was supposed to be the year he went back into the Draft, not the year he became a breakout prospect in the Minors. That was the plan, but plans change.
The Tigers will again stock their farm system this week when Major League Baseball conducts its First-Year Player Draft. If anyone needs an example of how valuable the later rounds of the Draft can be, Trahern is pitching proof.
Three years ago, he was a second-team high school All-American, the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in Oklahoma, yet he was an afterthought. His plans to play at the University of Oklahoma were so set that the Tigers took him in the 34th round without any expectations. He was going to play shortstop and pitch on the side, then come back out for the Draft in 2007.
"When they first drafted me," Trahern recalled of his visit with Tigers scout Steve Taylor, "he came to my house and told me they weren't going to make an offer. And I was going to go to school."
Two days later, Oklahoma changed its pitching coach, Ray Hayward, a former Tigers scout who recruited Trahern. Taylor moved aggressively to try to sign Trahern. It's a part of Draft legend, though Trahern downplays the circumstances.
"There were a lot of things," he said. "In college, you only get one-year scholarships. If you get hurt, you're done, and now you're paying for school the rest of the time. There aren't a whole lot of guarantees there, so I felt like this was a better opportunity at the time, and I felt ready to take this jump."
Some teams that had scouted him liked him as an infielder. The Tigers saw a fastball with some sink and envisioned a pitcher. Trahern wasn't leaning either way, so he figured he'd let the team choose.
So far, that sink has helped him rise through a farm system stocked with pitching talent. Some Tigers prospects throw harder, but so far this year, few, if any, have thrown better.
His 90-92 mph pitch can drive hitters crazy because it doesn't move until late. Hitters are often already in their swing when they finally read the drop. The result is usually a ground ball, often early in the count.
The Tigers saw plenty of that pitch from Cleveland's Fausto Carmona. Trahern, for his part, likes to watch Cy Young winner Roy Halladay throw it.
"It's a great pitch," Erie pitching coach A.J. Sager said. "It's a hard one to teach. Guys just seem to have it, just the way their arm slot is or the length of their fingers. You talk to Dallas, and he just grabs a ball and throws it, and it just happens to sink eight feet."
Sager and SeaWolves manager Matt Walbeck had Trahern in his first full pro season two years ago at Class A West Michigan, where he went from being unbeaten in high school to learning about losing as a professional. His 3.58 ERA was eighth in the Midwest League, but his 7-11 record and 15 wild pitches didn't reflect it. He was well-prepared for his starts, they said, but the results weren't showing.
He lost 11 games last year at high Class A Lakeland with even better stuff. His ERA, and batting average allowed and walks all dropped. Yet early on, he was still struggling, mainly because of big innings.
"I had a nine-run inning, I had a seven-run inning and I had an eight-run inning in three out of my first six starts," Trahern said, "and I couldn't get the bleeding to stop, really. So about the middle of last year, our manager, Mike Rojas, said, 'Hey, we can't have eight-run innings.' And I just had to really work on it until I saw when things are going bad, how to stop it."
When he noticed hitters getting fly balls, he'd try to make a tweak. The more he did it, the more consistent he became. It went hand-in-hand with his approach to the game. As physically gifted as he is, the coaching staff loves his mental approach.
"I think one of the most important things about him," Walbeck said, "is he asks very, very good questions. He's very inquisitive, not just to me or A.J., but other people. He asks questions out of honest, genuine curiosity to find out why this happens this way, or what is a pitcher thinking when he might do this, or what about a hitter. He's seeing the game in the way that a champion would see it almost. He's seeing the game through the eyes of someone that's ahead of their time. The experience right now, he's soaking up like a sponge."
The experience is paying off this season, but just as important, he has added to his game. After two years as a sinker-slider pitcher, he worked on a changeup this offseason, giving hitters a change in speed on top of his movement. He learned to throw his slider more against all hitters, and he has toyed with a cutter to get the opposite movement.
Before, hitters could know Trahern's pitch was going to sink, but they couldn't do much about it. Now, it's hard for even Trahern to know where it's going sometimes.
"I tell him, 'Well, if you don't know where it's going, there's a good chance the hitter doesn't, either,'" Sager said.
Over his first two starts of the season, Trahern threw through the chilly April weather to induce 32 ground balls, compared to just six fly balls. After 14 groundouts and three flyouts over eight innings of one-run ball Saturday, his ratio for the season is better than 2-to-1.
Meanwhile, he's getting the results. When he won his season opener April 9 with six scoreless innings, he joked that it was his first winning record since high school. He won his next four starts, and has another five-game unbeaten streak going now. Add in a win in a spot start for Triple-A Toledo, and he's 9-1 for the year.
"Not that it's entirely what it's about," Trahern said, "but it's a good feeling. It really is. I mean, to have a winning record and to win games has been incredible. It's been a great experience so far. And hat's off to this team, for sure. This is the best team I've played with."
His teammates appreciate him in return.
"He lets his defense work behind him really well," third baseman Kody Kirkland said. "He makes them keep the ball on the ground. Makes it nice. Makes it a little fun and entertaining for us."
Ask Trahern which start he's proudest of this season, however, and he points to his lone loss. It's also his only complete game this season, eight innings with two runs allowed in a 2-0 defeat at Altoona on May 7. It looked much like a result he would've had last year in terms of run support, but he needed less than 100 pitches to get through it.
"I pride myself in getting complete games," he said. "That's my favorite thing to do."
Whether he receives no runs or eight runs of support, Sager says, he hasn't seen a change in Trahern. The consistency is the thing, and it's not just on days he pitches.
"If there's 142 games in a season, he'll ask me 113 times if pitchers can hit," Sager said. "He wants to hit every day, and I have to tell him no 113 times. Every day."
At least once, he got a yes.
"We had pitchers hit," Walbeck said, "and he was hitting them off the [arena] over here [beyond left field], hitting like a regular hitter. He just loves to play."
That might be the would-be college shortstop still in him, but that's probably the only sign left. In what would've been his draft year, he's generating discussion, but as a Minor League prospect, not a Draft prospect.
"I've been really blessed," he said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.