By Rob Rains
Between the time baseball’s amateur draft begins on Monday night and ends on Wednesday afternoon, the 30 major-league teams will select more than 1,200 players from high schools, colleges and junior colleges, giving them a chance to pursue a professional career.
Anthony Shew is living proof, however, that a player does not have to be drafted to still become a prospect.
Shew has risen from his undrafted status to become a member of the starting rotation at the Cardinals’ Triple A team in Memphis, just one phone call away from the major leagues.
“When you first get here (into the pros) it comes up when you talk to guys,” Shew said. “’When did you get drafted? What was your signing bonus?’ I got $1,000 and a plane ticket (to Johnson City, Tenn.) which was more important to me. After I had made a couple of starts, I felt just like another player.
“When we come out here every day, we’re not wearing our draft status on our shirts. You have the opportunity to make of it whatever you want.”
What Shew has done over the course of three years is turn himself into a prospect.
The journey begins
Shew completed his senior season at the University of San Francisco in the spring of 2016, and the right-handed pitcher was not tethered to his telephone or watching the draft click by selection after selection on his computer.
He wanted one of the major league organizations to call and say they were going to take him with their next pick, but realistically Shew knew that probably wasn’t going to happen.
Part of his thought process came from experience. The 2016 draft was the fifth time Shew was eligible to be selected – as a senior in high school in Mission Viejo, Calif., after each of his two junior college seasons at Saddleback College, and after his junior season at San Francisco. That meant teams had already had more than 4,800 chances to call Shew’s name as a draft pick. Nobody had called. The last chance he had to be drafted passed quietly as well.
“I was sort of prepared for it because my season hadn’t really ended the way I wanted,” Shew said. “Mentally I was sort of prepared for it, but I still felt like a baseball player.”
Shew, having earned his degree in business administration, spent a couple of weeks at his parents’ house and considered his future. He said he just “hung out; took some time away from everything.” He then made a trip back to college and dropped in on his coach, Nino Giarratano.
“He came in like most seniors after the draft and I asked him if he wanted to continue to play,” Giarratano said. “He said he sure did. I said, ‘Keep your fingers crossed. Somebody will call. They will need a pitcher.’”
It wasn’t long afterward when Giarratano’s phone rang. Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ scouting director, said the organization needed a pitcher for one of its lower-level farm teams.
“He asked, ‘Can Shew do it?’” Giarratano recalled. “I told him, ‘He’s the perfect guy for you. Not only can he do it, but if he gets healthy he can pitch in the big leagues someday.’ He (Flores) gave him that opportunity. Anthony is making both of us pretty happy.”
Giarratano believes one of the reasons Shew wasn’t drafted was because “we pitched him too much. He just needed to go someplace where he could rejuvenate and rest. As soon as he did that he really got going.”
Flores had not called Giarrantano out of the blue. The Cardinals’ area scout in northern California at the time, Zach Mortimer, had watched some of Shew’s games and turned in a report that said he was a draftable player but the opportunity to pick him never came up during the 40 rounds of the draft.
“It was good teamwork,” Flores said. “We had information from our analytics department, our area scout had written him up as a possible pick and then the coach raved about the kid. When those things come together, when you are looking for somebody, those factors all in tandem led to him being signed.
“It’s a testament first of all to the kid. It’s one thing to get an opportunity. It’s another thing to get that opportunity and seize it. … He’s taken advantage of his opportunity.”
Learning to read swings
Shew was smart enough even in high school to realize the reason a lot of pitchers get drafted is because of one element of their game – an ability to throw a baseball really fast, close to triple digits.
Shew watched one of those pitchers on his own team, Kiernan Lovegrove, turn that ability into becoming a third-round selection by the Indians in 2012.
“I really didn’t throw hard enough then, probably about as hard as I do now,” Shew said. “We all know how that works as far as the draft goes. He (Lovegrove) was throwing 98. He was right next to me. I wasn’t that guy, just like now. I was more of a, ‘Throw it where they are not going to hit it’ guy.
“Everybody would love to have that (ability) but we all work with what we have. I’m just trying to get the most out of what I have.”
Seven years after that draft, Lovegrove is now in the Giants’ farm system, working as a relief pitcher in Double A.
Shew found himself at Saddleback College a couple of months after that draft, and that was where his life and career intersected with that of Chris Malec, who had become the hitting coach for the Gauchos shortly after his playing career, mostly in the Yankees farm system, had come to an end.
Shew’s pitching education was just beginning. He was the student. Malec became the teacher.
“He knows absolutely everything about trying to hit a baseball,” Shew said. “I was pitching that fall and he came over to me and said, ‘Why did you throw that pitch?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, it just felt good at the time.’ He started in on a conversation about this guy doing this, you had just thrown that. It was something new to me.
“He was our third base coach so every time we had a scrimmage or a game I was on the dugout rail trying to get him out of the coaches box to talk to me about what he was seeing. I spent a lot of time learning about everything he knew.”
Malec, now the head coach at Santa Margarita High School in southern California, remembers those conversations as well.
“Anthony had a big curiosity,” Malec said. “He had a passion for the game and he really wanted to take it to another level and a deeper understanding. I could see he was a smart, studious pitcher who was trying to figure out how to learn the game at a higher level about what hitters were trying to do.
“A lot of our conversations revolved around, ‘What would you try to do as a hitter in certain situations. How would you attack, or counter, what the pitcher was trying to do?’ He was mature beyond his years. His desire to learn was part of the fun.”
What Shew was trying to do then basically was the same thing he tries to do now when he takes the mound for the Memphis Redbirds. He knows he isn’t going to blow hitters away with his fastball, which on a good day can hit 94. He has to get hitters out in other ways.
“There are very few pitchers that can pitch close to 90, but he’s one of them,” Malec said. “I’m proud of him for that. He’s learned to do it almost like a Kyle Hendricks. He (Shew) knows how to get people out. He got people out in high school, he got people out in junior college and in college. He’s getting people out now in the minors.
“There’s something to be said for guys that just continue to have that hunger about how to keep going. He’s a born winner. It’s impressive.”
Shew has taken those lessons he learned from Malec, and more he learned at San Francisco, and carried them into his minor-league career. Once he got past the first few months at Johnson City, where he was still being affected by his overuse in college, Shew has made a steady progression through the farm system.
The 25-year-old Shew began this season at Double A Springfield and was promoted to Memphis after five starts that produced a 1.93 ERA. He has made five starts with the Redbirds, going 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA.
“When I try to get a little too fancy or do a little too much it starts to go haywire,” Shew said. “I pay a lot of attention to what the hitters are doing. … I’m optimistic I will throw harder; I’m not going to say no to that. I like to think through at-bats. I think through my workload as I’m preparing for a start. There’s always a thought process involved. I don’t throw a pitch for no reason. There is something I want to accomplish with every pitch.
“Even guys who throw with really high velocity have a reason for making the pitches that they do. When I was a kid I was more impressed by Greg Maddux then whoever the hardest thrower was at the time. I was really locked into Greg Maddux and all of the things he could do and do it with pinpoint precision. I thought it was like magic when I was a kid.”
Shew is not by any means comparing himself to Maddux, a Hall of Famer, except for the similarity in their style of pitching.
“That’s something I try to bring to the table,” he said. “No one is ever going to be as good as that guy and the things he did, but that’s something that’s definitely stuck with me over the years.”
One memory that has stuck with his college coach, Giarratano, over the years was a game against St. Mary’s when Shew was a junior.
His pitching opponent that day was a sophomore, Corbin Burnes, now a member of the Milwaukee Brewers. Even though he has spent more than two decades as San Francisco’s baseball coach, Giarratano has no problem recalling the details of that game.
“Both guys went over eight innings and Anthony won 2-1,” Giarratano said. “I think that’s the greatest memory I have. Burnes is now a big-leaguer, and Anthony is at Triple A knocking on the door. Who would have ever known then what was going to happen in their careers. It was a wonderful matchup.
“One equalizer for Anthony will always be his ability to throw his changeup. Without that he would be like a lot of guys trying to get outs without much velocity. That changeup helps his fastball, and his command on his fastball is extraordinary. That, and his competitiveness, is what separates him.”
One of Shew’s cousins is pitcher Ian Kennedy, now with the Royals and in his 13th season in the major leagues. It was Kennedy, indirectly, who taught Shew how to throw his changeup.
“I stole my changeup off his baseball card,” Shew admitted. “He’s always been ahead of me because he’s older, so he’s helped give me insight into what the next level looks like. I try not to bug him too much, but I do ask questions about taking care of his arm, about certain things during games.”
Shew’s baseball journey already has provided him with a couple of major-league connections besides his relationship with Kennedy. When he was a junior in high school, his team played for the southern California championship in Dodger Stadium. Shew warmed up three times during the game in the bullpen but didn’t pitch in the game.
As a senior in college, he did pitch in AT&T Park (now Oracle Park) in San Francisco. Two months ago, he faced off against a rehabbing Clayton Kershaw in Tulsa.
“I got to hit off him too, that was an experience,” Shew said. “I got to see a Kershaw curve ball. It’s as good as they say it is.”
Getting a chance to pitch in another major-league stadium, for real, against major-league hitters, has been and remains Shew’s goal. He has a lot of people rooting for him, not only because of the road he has taken to try to get there, but also because of how hard he has had to work to get the most out of his ability.
“I’m so happy for what he’s been able to accomplish,” Giarratano said. “I’m not shocked. All he needed was a chance. All he needed to do was get healthy. I’ve seen him at his best at times and he’s got a lot of components that make a really successful pitcher.
“He continues to persevere. We keep rooting for him. I think all of baseball keeps rooting for a guy like this to make it. It’s all those kids who don’t throw 95 to 98 but love to play and they just master their craft like him. There are so many kids who will get overlooked, so many kids who have to wait years like Anthony did to really get that opportunity.
“I think he’s going to show everybody. He keeps believing in himself and working. He’s a very simple guy, not complex. He knows what he wants to do.”
Said Malec, “It’s not an easy road. There’s different ways to get there. If you get to the ultimate final destination (the major leagues) it truly doesn’t matter how you get there. He’s worked really hard at finding his way to what makes him successful.”
Memphis manager Ben Johnson also can be included in those who have been impressed by Shew’s performance and those rooting for him to succeed.
“Every time he has taken the ball he has given us a chance to win,” Johnson said. “What I like about Anthony is he knows who he is as a pitcher and he kind of stays within himself. He just goes out and pitches. He’s almost a throwback in a sense. He utilizes the art of pitching to his advantage.
“It’s refreshing, as someone who’s been watching the game for almost 40 years now. Kyle Hendricks is a prime example. It can still be done. … I think Anthony could help a major-league club.”
Three years removed from his last draft snub, Shew knows there will be a lot of players disappointed after Wednesday that they were not selected. He has some advice for them.
“Understand your path,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys who get phone calls after the draft. They get a chance to play even though they weren’t drafted. There’s guys who go to Indy ball and end up in the big leagues.
“There are all kinds of pathways, all kinds of stories. If it’s what you want, stick with it.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Memphis Redbirds