As a high school pitcher for Columbus North the past four years, Daniel Ayers could usually rely on his fastball and locate it anywhere in the strike zone to get batters out.
These days, it’s a far greater challenge. The 25th-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles spent last summer and early fall with the club’s rookie league team in Sarasota, Florida, and is now back in Sarasota in extended spring training.
“I’ve made good progress,” Ayers said. “Being one of the young guys, it’s more about learning the professional game. It moves a lot faster. Guys are now, all of them are very competitive. Learning the smaller strike zone, you’re learning more how to pitch.”
Consistency is key
Instead of trying to increase velocity on his fastball, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound left-hander is trying to stay consistent with his speed throughout a starting assignment.
“The thing with us having such a long season is, you want to maintain your velocity throughout the whole season,” Ayers said. “In high school, I would come out around 90-92 (mph) in the first inning and then maybe lose a little bit toward the end of games. But I’ve built up my strength to where I can maintain my velocity through an outing.”
That wasn’t always the case last season in Sarasota. He went 0-2 with a 10.38 ERA, striking out two and walking nine in 4-1/3 innings.
“It’s just the beginning for him,” said his father, Mike Ayers. “He went last summer, and frankly, I think he was scared to death. It kind of got him acclimated to (professional baseball). But he’s more confident and thinks he can move up through the system. He’s worked hard for it.”
Back home and hard at work
After playing in a fall instructional league, Ayers came back to Columbus over the winter and worked out at Maximum Velocity Performance (MVP) with Nate Frasier five days a week. Ayers expressed gratitude to Frasier and to North head coach Ben McDaniel and pitching coach Trevor Baty for letting him use their facilities.
“Over the offseason when he was home, his body was in much better shape,” said Baty, who was also Ayers’ travel team coach the past four years. “He’s throwing the ball in the strike zone a lot lower than he used to. In high school, he could throw it anywhere for a strike, but he has much better location now. He’s developing a lot better feel for his change-up.”
Ayers left for Sarasota for Spring Training in late February and made a couple starts in minor league spring training games. He’s made three starts in extended spring training.
In his most recent outing on Thursday against a team of Boston Red Sox prospects, Ayers struck out four, including three in his third and final inning. He gave up one hit and no runs.
“I came out this spring training, and I was throwing considerably better than I was at the end of last year,” Ayers said. “I made a lot of progress from last year. My big thing was throwing more strikes, establishing my fastball early in games and attacking hitters. All my work in the offseason is starting to pay off. They’re very happy with the progress I’ve made.”
“He has a plus fastball,” said Rick Peterson, the Orioles director of pitching development. “He spins the ball well. We’re trying to get him to develop a plus change-up.”
Ayers is hoping to get called to join the short-season Class A Aberdeen (Md.) Ironbirds of the New York-Penn League in June.
“There’s been no real indication,” Ayers said. “Being my first year, there’s no rush with anything. There’s going to be another draft in early June, and a lot of new guys are going to be coming in here. But if I keep improving the way I’ve been improving, best-case scenario, I’ll be up in Maryland.”
Peterson, a former Oakland A’s, New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach, said the goal for Ayers should be to land with the Orioles’ Single-A affiliate, the Delmarva Shorebirds, next spring.
“Not everyone can be a major league pitcher, but the prerequisite to becoming a major league pitcher is to be a major league person, and he certainly has those qualities,” Peterson said. “He has a good work ethic, he’s patient and he’s a joy to be around.”