By Rob Rains
When the Cardinals selected Robert Stock in the second round of the 2009 draft, he was like all of the other players coming out of college, high school or those who signed as international free agents ready to begin their professional careers.
Every player always starts out full of hopes and dreams, with expectations of major-league success.
“It’s like guys are given a little blank book when they sign,” said Mark DeJohn, the Cardinals’ longtime minor-league field coordinator. “You have to write in it. You have a beginning, a middle and an end.
“You write your own story. Sometimes you get guys like Stock where everything looks really rosy at the beginning, and then it kind of goes downhill and there are struggles. But now he’s at least in the middle of the book and he’s writing a good story.”
Nearly a decade after that draft, Stock was playing at Busch Stadium last week, but not as a Cardinal and not as a catcher, the position he was playing at USC when he was drafted. It’s a story the Cardinals have tried to write numerous times over the years, taking a position player who isn’t hitting and see if they can turn them into a pitcher.
They did it with Jason Motte, and he closed out a World Series. They did it with Sam Tuivailala and he made it to the majors. So did Rowan Wick, although not as a Cardinal but as a Padre, like Stock, last season. They have another young player in the organization, Walker Robbins, who is now trying to make the conversion.
“I don’t know if we do it more than other organizations, but we’ve had our share,” DeJohn said. “We’ve had our successes.”
The greatest success story was Motte, a converted catcher who went on to save 60 games as a closer in the majors, 54 of them for the Cardinals.
Stock has his own story and as is almost always the case with these players, it started with failure.
A struggling hitter
Stock was the 67th overall pick in the 2009 draft and immediately showed why the Cardinals were so high on his potential. As a 19-year-old he hit .321 with seven homers in 41 games at rookie level Johnson City. He was promoted to their low A club in Quad Cities the following year but did not have the same success, finishing the year with just one homer and a .213 average.
After posting a combined .246 average in 2011 between Quad Cities and Palm Beach, Stock’s future was looking a little shaky. That was when the organization decided to try to develop him as a pitcher. He also had pitched in both high school and college.
“You don’t really have a choice,” Stock said of the decision. “It was just like, ‘Hey, you’re a pitcher now.’ It doesn’t really matter what I wanted.”
Stock spent the next three seasons bouncing from Quad Cities to Palm Beach to Peoria, never getting out of A ball. He was almost exclusively a reliever, appearing in 105 games. By the end of the 2014 season, however, it didn’t look as if the transition was going to work and Stock was released.
“His fastball was special and he had a good breaking ball from what I remember,” DeJohn said, “but it didn’t seem like he could find the consistency with what he was doing. He showed flashes. He was a determined kid and always a good kid.”
DeJohn saw enough early on after Stock started pitching to even mention his name during a spring training conversation with team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., who always likes to keep his eye on what prospects are coming up through the system.
“When Stock first became a pitcher, I said to Bill, ‘You better keep an eye on Stock,’” DeJohn said. “Time passed. I guess I was wrong on Stock. But now I guess I was right. It was just delayed a little bit.”
Getting released by the Cardinals started Stock on a baseball odyssey. He signed with the Astros the following March but was released within a few weeks. He then moved to the Pirates organization and appeared in a total of 12 games before he was released again.
He spent the next season in independent baseball, then hooked on with the Reds in 2017. After finally having success in Double A, Stock signed with the Padres as a minor-league free agent in 2018, moved up through Double A and Triple A and on June 24 got the call that he was on his way to the major leagues.
Stock’s nearly 10-year journey had finally taken him where he wanted to go.
“We were friends on social media before he got picked up by the Padres,” said current and former teammate Greg Garcia. “I saw video of him throwing off mounds and saw the velo. I always knew he had a great arm. If you look at some of the videos he’s like at a kids park throwing into a fence. He didn’t even have a catcher. He’s really come a long way. It all worked out for him.”
Stock said he never once thought about quitting, not any of the three times when he was released, or even when he was playing independent baseball in New Jersey.
“Mostly because what else is there that’s better than playing baseball?” Stock said. “I played a year of independent baseball, and that’s about as low on the totem pole as you can get but it was one of the best times I’ve had playing baseball. There was no thought about stopping.
“I didn’t ever have to psyche myself up to keep doing it. Some people might have had to do that. I just knew I had to continue to get better. I have the ability to throw the ball fast and the ability to throw strikes.”
A Busch Stadium moment
Stock had been in Busch Stadium before he arrived with the Padres for the Cardinals’ home opener. Back in 2011, when he was still a catcher, he was on the Quad Cities team that came to Busch to play a Midwest League game in what turned out to be a short-lived experiment. Carlos Martinez pitched that night. Garcia played shortstop.
Nobody knew that night could predict the future, or envision that it would be eight long years before Stock would be back at Busch for another game, this time jogging in from the visiting bullpen to start the sixth inning.
Stock at least had a few fans in the stands. He married a woman from St. Louis, Sara Krutewicz, whom he met on a blind date in Florida a couple of years ago. She and other family members were at the game.
“All of them except my wife were wearing their Cardinals gear over their Padres gear until I came in the game,” he said. “She had her Padres stuff on the whole time.”
Stock had mixed results in his two appearances in the series. He got the win in the first game, even though he gave up a double to Matt Carpenter and an RBI single to Marcell Ozuna, and on Saturday served up a long home run to Ozuna.
“I was in big league spring training for three years as a catcher with a lot of those guys like Carpenter and Yadi,” Stock said. “To face them eight years later it was a lot of fun.
“When you are out there pitching, you’re just trying to compete and win games. You don’t think, ‘It took me eight years to make it to the major leagues.’”
That’s a part of Stock’s story which some of the people who have watched it unfold can, however, appreciate.
“I never had a chance to play with him, but obviously we knew about him back then,” said Kolten Wong. “He looks good. His fastball is coming in hot, and he’s sitting 99 to 100 and looks like he has a good feel for his slider.
“My hat’s off to him, 100 percent. If you’re grinding and trying to figure out a way to get to the big leagues and you start at one position and end up an another … hat’s off to you, that’s one hell of a way to get there. You came up as a catcher and did it as a pitcher? Congratulations. With hard work and dedication you can turn yourself into a good player.”
Added Garcia, “You can’t really teach 98. You’ve either got it or you don’t. Some guys are blessed. It’s just about will and desire.”
“Happy for him”
DeJohn has watched hundreds of players come and go during his three decades of working in the Cardinals’ farm system. When he sees somebody like Stock finally make it, and knows what it took for him to get there, it brings a smile to his face.
He was back home for a while in Connecticut last summer and happened to catch Stock coming in to pitch against the Mets while watching the game on television.
“His mechanics were different than when we had him,” DeJohn said. “His arm was in a higher slot. The thing he had, like all of the other guys, was a tremendous arm. It all starts with arm strength.
“Some guys tried it and it didn’t work out. You’ve got to have a special arm to do it or come up with a specialty pitch. What happens with a lot of those guys is even if they throw hard, they have to get the command of the fastball down.”
In Stock’s case that took time, more time than the Cardinals were willing to give him. Every pitcher making the transition is working against the system, trying to show they can advance and progress at the same time other pitchers are ready to move up behind them. Sometimes they simply run out of time and there isn’t a spot available for them anymore.
That’s what happened to Stock, and where his story becomes even more interesting, driven by all the bumps in the road he had to overcome to finally make it.
“I’m happy for him because it worked out, even if he’s not still with us,” DeJohn said. “What you should be proud of in this game is when you overcome a lot of adversity. He was released three times, so I don’t think we were wrong about him back then. But he didn’t give up. He deserves all of this.
“It’s like buying a car. There is a difference if your parents give it to you or they make you work and you have to buy it yourself. You take better care of it and appreciate it more if you had to work for it. That’s what he should really take a lot of pride in. He went through a lot to get where he is.
“If anybody should take credit for what he’s done it’s Robert Stock. He should give himself a pat on the back. He’s the one who did it, and maybe his family that supported him. But in the end, trust me, Robert Stock is in the big leagues because of Robert Stock.
“It’s a great story.”
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Photos by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports