From Reliance to Ownership - Caleb Sampen, Tampa Bay Rays
My baseball journey started very similar to most baseball players, loving baseball as a kid. I had the luxury of growing up with a father who pitched in the Majors for the Expos, Royals, and Angels. A lot of my success in baseball is attributed to this because of what he taught me growing up and because, in my opinion, good movement patterns are contagious (a topic for another time). This gave me a leg up from an early age, but that edge seemed to subside around the time travel ball came around. I was an average baseball player but not elite and certainly not on any top state rankings. Despite this, I knew I was going to play baseball in college one way or another.
The summer after sophomore year is an essential year for college recruiting. I was unable to play that summer due to a stress fracture in my lower back. At the time I was very upset that I couldn’t get the exposure like the other players. After months of wearing a back brace and slowly building my strength back up, I was able to begin playing again my junior season. During this time I started to realize that playing college baseball was not an absolute. That was a major reality check for me.
After my junior year, I felt healthy and ready to show off to some scouts in the summer. The only problem was that I was on the Indiana Bulls B team, which meant less scouts at the games. By less scouts I mean basically zero. At this point I had no contact between any colleges and players in the top of the class were already committed to top tier Division 1 schools. I just topped 88 mph on my fastball during the high school season which I thought would gain interest from multiple colleges. It wasn’t until the second week of summer ball where I finally got the opportunity to pitch because my coach thought I was just a shortstop. I knew that my future in baseball would be on the mound so I needed to pitch in front of some scouts, but I wasn’t ready to give up playing the field every day yet either. One day I came in to close out a game for my B team. There were 4 fields all next to each other with scouts scattered around the area. I knew this was a prime opportunity to pique some interest and get my recruiting process started. After a red bull and extreme levels of adrenaline I was able to top 91 this day. By the end of the summer I had scouts watching me pitch but mostly small D1 schools and JUCO’s. I decided to go to Wright State University because it was by far my best option in terms of playing opportunity and development to play at the next level. Opportunity and development are two major things that most kids don’t care enough about when picking a school. Too often kids pick schools based solely on the name of the college and the renown that comes with it. If your goal is to play professional baseball, make sure you remember to keep this in mind when choosing a college.
It wasn’t until my time at Wright State where I really learned what hard work was. I always thought I was “grinding”, but when you surround yourself with a team full of guys who want to succeed at the professional level, you get humbled very quickly. I was given the opportunity to pitch every Sunday as a freshman behind two draftees and was able to throw to a current top 100 prospect (Sean Murphy). Every player in the starting lineup (and a few younger guys not in the starting lineup/rotation) ended up playing professional baseball, except for one. This kind of culture changed my mindset on what it would take to be successful moving forward in baseball. After a successful freshman season, I was sidelined by an Ulnar Nerve Transposition and missed my sophomore season, again. This time it shook me a bit. Knowing that I was on a path to likely be drafted and then having to miss a season was nerve racking to say the least. Things really started to change for me once I came back from this injury.
Up until this point, I coasted through high school on ability alone, then had success as a freshman by simply following orders. I hadn’t really taken the time to think about what was truly best for me as a player and invest everything I had into being the best I could be. In a way, I think that injury may have been the best thing to happen to me in my baseball career.
As I began to return from injury, I started messing around with Driveline’s Plyo balls. Mainly just the green 1 kg ball. After watching video of myself throwing pre-injury it was clear that some things needed to change mechanically. One of my biggest issues was my arm path. I was able to clean up my arm path significantly on the back end of my rehab stint. In my mind, it was the best time to make a change like that because it had been so long since throwing at 100% effort. My brain was more open to this change because I hadn’t thrown in such a long time (there is no science behind this, just how it felt when I was doing it). So, I started on the weighted ball program that our pitching coach had put together for us in the fall of 2018. This was the first time I had ever tried a program like this. Coming straight off of injury I pulled down 102 mph with a 5oz ball. It was a major confidence boost, but if the velocity jump from before surgery didn’t transfer to the mound then who cares, right? And it didn’t. This is the start of when I really took my baseball career into my own hands. Sitting 88-91 on the mound and throwing 102 with a running start didn’t sit well with me. I knew I had a lot more in the tank but wasn’t sure how to get it out. All of this happened right before my hopeful draft season in 2018. By the time the season rolled around, I was sitting 90-93 basically because I was trying to throw harder, but my off speed was not what it was prior to the injury. After 2 starts in the 2018 season my shoulder flared up and I had to take some more time off. At this point I didn’t care about the velocity anymore, all I wanted to do was stay healthy. Throughout this time I started to follow 30+ social media accounts specifically about pitching mechanics, velocity, and anything that I thought may help me be a better player. I ended that season throwing a total of 40 innings. Not a lot of innings as a starter. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the upcoming draft. I had a lot of interest mostly based on what I did as a freshman but wasn’t sure how serious the teams were. I ended up sliding later in the draft than I had hoped, likely due to my suspect injury history. The Dodgers took me in the 20th round and even though it wasn’t what I was hoping for, I knew I was ready to start my professional journey, especially with a first class organization like the Dodgers.
As soon as I arrived to the spring training facility I got a taste of what a high level organization with access to essentially unlimited funds was like. Not exactly the minor league grind that I was expecting. Organic food, high tech slo-mo cameras, Rapsodo every bullpen, and force plate mounds. Things that I never really had access to before. Soon after, they began to teach us about pitch movement, spin direction, spin rate, spin efficiency and really understanding how your stuff plays based on these factors. Essentially strengths and weaknesses of your own arsenal. I really dove into it and realized I had a lot of things I could change in regards to my pitch movement and how much added velocity would help me. That first offseason I ended up getting traded to the Rays, another great organization. The Rays are different than the Dodgers because they use a small amount of funds to get the most out of their guys, but very similar because they are very good at doing that.
After my first full season in Bowling Green with the Rays I knew I wanted to make big strides in most of my pitches. In 2019 I used a 2-seam, 4-seam, cutter, curveball, and changeup. Relying mostly on my sinking 2-seam (likely had laminar flow) and my cutter. I had a great season but a few things stood out to me. I wanted my fastball velocity to increase, and my K% to increase. I lead the Midwest league in swinging strike %, however was barely above average in K%. Why was that? I think I was lacking an elite put away pitch. I used my cutter often in hitter friendly counts because of my confidence with the pitch. That lead to a lot of swing and misses and a lot of counts that swung into my favor. Even though I had a good season, I had a lot of things that could use some work. So I flew out to Seattle to train with the best at Driveline. After an assessment and some online training I stayed there for 5 weeks to prepare for Spring Training and go through some pitch design sessions. My main focus being increasing strikeouts and higher velocity. After breaking down my biomechanics from the assessment I was able to clean up some mechanics. Although this is still a work in progress, I did see some gains when I hit 97.1 in a velocity bullpen. After this I shifted my focus to pitch design in hopes that I could improve every pitch in my arsenal at least a little heading into spring training. My 4-seam fastball efficiency improved to 98-100%, my curveball efficiency improved to about 90%, my changeup lost about 5 inches of vertical break while adding horizontal break, and my cutter is my baby so I didn’t touch that, and I’m currently working on a slider.
This is pretty much my whole life of baseball summed up in a few pages. If you take anything out of this at all make it this:
If you really care about your career, you need to begin to understand how your body moves, how your pitches move, and what works for you. The more self-reliant you can become the better your chances are of making necessary adjustments on the fly. Taking ownership in your career and not simply following orders will pay dividends in the long run when things inevitably begin to go poorly. I would rather my career end doing something I believe is going to help me, than end doing what someone else told me was going to work.