Only in minor league baseball, even the tattered remains we still have of it, is a story like Jerrick Suiter’s possible.
I gave the broad strokes of Suiter’s conversion-to-pitcher story in our minor league free agency preview: the oldest player at the Cubs just-completed Instructs in Arizona, unearthed in near-impossible fashion by the Cubs front office, picked from the Pirates in the minor league Rule 5 Draft when he was a position player, now throwing up to 98 mph, and re-signed for the 2021 season.
But it wasn’t until recently talking to Suiter, a lifelong Cubs fan and native of Valparaiso, Indiana, that I realized how cinematic his story was. How this spot he’s in, lauded by Cubs staff as a player to watch moving forward, is the result of five unlikely pitches in a Double-A blowout.
When his Altoona Curve fell down 11-0 in the third inning on August 15, 2019, the pitching coach came to Suiter, then a first baseman with the day off amidst a continued slump, and asked if he might throw.
“I’m like ‘yeah, sure, whatever, I’ve just been waiting on this my entire career,'” Suiter laughs. “I’d always made jokes with managers, the Pirates, our pitching coaches: hey look, if there’s ever a time you’re going to release me, at least me get on the mound.”
But the Curve then righted the ship, posting four consecutive scoreless frames. Suiter was told, much to his disappointment, he was off the hook. And then, with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Altoona pitcher Joel Cesar felt something in his elbow. Suiter sprinted to the bullpen, threw a few warm-up pitches. But, in the meantime, Cesar ruled that he could keep going. An out and Suiter’s chance would be squandered. Instead, Cesar allowed a walk and a single, and Curve manager Mike Ryan gave Suiter his shot. He simply told Jerrick not to injure himself.
“I’m thinking to myself, it’s my second year in Double-A, I’m hitting .230, I’m 26 years old,” Suiter said. “Why not? Let’s see what I’ve got.”
The box score doesn’t show anything pretty. Suiter throws five pitches (all fastballs), gives up an RBI single and then gets a first-pitch pop out. It wasn’t until after the game, when his teammates who had been charting the game came back to the dugout, when Suiter realized the significance of what happened. He’d thrown 94-96 mph, numbers he’d never reached in high school or college.
Days later, once the arm soreness from pitching for the first time in a half-decade subsided, Suiter threw a bullpen for the Pirates. They told him they’d try to find him another game to pitch in before the season ran out, but it was no guarantee. There was talk that maybe he’d try playing two-way in the future. And on August 31, he got the chance and threw the 1.1 innings that the Cubs noticed.
“It was at that point where I was like, well, there’s a good chance I’m going to get released here. I’m going to try to go out and enjoy my time as much as possible, and if it happens, well it was my time to go,” Suiter said. “Getting picked up by the Cubs, and getting this second chance, it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I used to pretend I was Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in my backyard when I was a kid. It’s really helped me find a love of the game again.”
Of course, Suiter’s Cubs career coincided with the strangest season in the sport’s recent history. Suiter attended the Cubs instructional camp last January, throwing a few bullpens (where it was decided he’d switch to the Cubs popular spike-curve grip) and beginning work on transforming his body from first baseman to pitcher. He reported to Spring Training six weeks later, and after just two days of workouts, camp was shut down.
“I didn’t have a catcher for the first month of the quarantine,” Suiter said. “I was playing catch with the backstop on a softball field. I had a bucket of baseballs in the bed of my truck, I’d throw 30, move back, throw another 30, go pick ’em up. It definitely wasn’t easy.”
But Suiter was given a stroke of good luck when he began coaching traveling baseball in Chandler, Arizona with Cubs prospect Brendon Little. The former first-round pick owned a Rapsodo, and together, Suiter and Little built a throwing program consisting of bullpens on Tuesday and live batting practices with local college hitters on Friday. Little helped Suiter interpret the Rapsodo information, and with trial and error, eventually Suiter found some comfort with his new curveball grip.
After the long Arizona summer, Suiter eventually found his way to an Instructional League camp filled with teenage and early twentysomething prospects. Suiter said the focus for him was figuring out the routines of relief pitching: when do you need to push, when do you need to accept an off day. “I’d forgotten how hard pitching was,” he said.
It remains to be seen how much urgency the Cubs will take in Suiter’s development in 2021, where he’ll pitch more than 10 innings for the first time since his senior year of high school in 2011.
“Patience has never been an easy thing for me when it comes to baseball, but I mean I understand that it’s a process,” Suiter said. “I’m going to do everything I can to get to the big leagues, provide for my family … It’s do or die, I’ve got to get going.”