A regular topic of chatter on the website of Collectively Guided Intellectual Peoples—also known as Twitter—is that of position switching: as in, could a given position player pitch effectively, or can a pitcher handle the bat well enough to be a regular position player? We were stunned by the majestic nature of a Jake Arrieta home run, while equally enjoying the dynamic ability Travis Wood brings to all facets of the game. Arrieta and Madison Bumgarner were among the pitchers who vocally expressed a desire to participate in the Home Run Derby; an idea that is more exciting in theory than reality. However, no matter how impressively each of these players handle the bat, it is evident that each of these guys are doing what suits their skill set the best: pitching.
This makes Iowa Cubs outfielder Bijan Rademacher wholly unique. During his high school and college careers, he was heavily scouted as a pitcher—much more than as a position player. He was even told by scouts that he would be taken much higher in the draft as a pitcher, with his ceiling being a major-league closer. Turning down the opportunity to pitch meant turning down the possibility for a greater signing bonus in a higher draft slot, while also lengthening the odds of making it to the big leagues. While many people would have taken the easier and more predictable path, the joy that Rademacher felt in the batters box—compared to the pressure on the mound—pulled him in another direction.
“I just loved hitting. There was something about it. I enjoyed going up in the box and trying to win the game. The last couple times I pitched when I was in high school, I came in to close one of our games, and it was a 2-2 tie in the seventh inning, I was [also] coming up to the plate, so I just needed to hold them and then walk it off, but I gave up a couple runs, and we ended up losing. Then in college, we’re in the playoffs, we just needed to win the game, an elimination game to go on for the finals, and I come in again, and it’s tied in the 10th inning, and I gave it up. We couldn’t win it in our at bat in the bottom half. So the draft came, and I thought “I just want to hit.” Pitching is too depressing like that, I’d rather hit. I could live with striking out—if we lose the game, I can live with that. I couldn’t live with myself if I blow a save, or we lose because of my pitching.”
Imagine being talented enough to forego what other people perceive as your greatest ability, simply because you found more fulfillment in pursuing a different path. It may seem simple in principle, but when other people tell you that it might be a mistake, even the most resolute minds must be prone to questioning themselves. For Rademacher, the doubters helped propel him in his desire to become a major-league outfielder. It was a bold decision that he does not look back on with regret.
“No one gave me a shot to get to Triple-A as a hitter, let alone to succeed and show that I can make the [necessary] adjustments. But [I must] keep working hard, because the journey’s not over. I still have a long way to go to be able to play at the level that I want to be, but I am definitely satisfied with my decision. It goes to show you, making it this far really proves a lot of people wrong, when they said I should have been drafted as a pitcher and not been given the chance. It’s the ability to work hard and put my mind to something and accomplish that goal.”
Rademacher joined the Cubs as a relatively unheralded 13th-round pick in the 2012 draft. His 2012 and 2013 seasons passed with acceptable performance, but nothing that really turned the Cubs’ attention towards him. His time in Daytona in 2014 really put him on the map, when his walk rate jumped to nearly 10 percent en route to a .363 on-base percentage. Given the tough nature of hitting in the Florida State League, eyes were officially opened to the late-blooming nature of his offensive talent. Upon a promotion to Tennessee last season, he upped the ante even further, drawing 67 walks in 433 plate appearances—good for a .379 on-base percentage. This came with another wonderful benefit as well, as his 20 percent strikeout rate in High-A plummeted to under 14 percent in Double-A.
At each level he’s played, he seems to be learning a new skill. In High-A, he learned how to put the ball in play and draw walks to get on base. In Double-A, he learned how to minimize strikeouts while improving his approach to get on more often. This season, split between Tennessee and Iowa, Rademacher is learning how to drive the ball. Still intact are his excellent walk (11 percent) and strikeout (16 percent) rates, but along with it comes a steadily improving .464 slugging percentage and .159 ISO. Having put together his ability to draw walks and drive the ball, Rademacher’s .849 OPS this season represents a career best. This didn’t happen by chance, and he was quick to point out some hurdles he overcame to come as far as he has.
“In two weeks here (in Iowa), I have gotten more offspeed pitches than in two months being in Double-A. They challenged me more in the lower levels, which goes to show that guys up here have more command of their offspeed pitches, and I can only assume it’s going to be the same way in the big-leagues, except they will have velocity along with the command. Last year in Double-A when I was struggling, I didn’t know why. It was one of those “oh no, I can hit, I can do this, I can do this”…and then at the end of the year looking at the tape, I [realized], I am missing fastballs all year, so I’ve gone too big at some point.”
Rademacher is not a big man by professional athlete standards, as his six foot frame was nearly a mirror image of my own. It’s easy to visualize why an inexperienced hitter may believe he requires a big load with his hands to generate power, but he recognized last year he wouldn’t be able to maintain such a long movement if he was to continue to find success against more advanced pitching.
“So (my swing) was really long last year and I had trouble with velocity—especially out of the pen—with guys quick pitching me. So this year, I wanted to shorten up my move—not change it, but shorten it up. And be able to swing whenever I want to swing. I had this long movement where my hand loaded over my head and then my leg quick was huge and I had a big rotation. This year, I kept my hands next to my ear, and controlled the hip movement, to really be able to control my body and move it how I want it to move. To know where it is in space, and have a lot of body awareness. This offseason, I hammered it down saying “I am going to stay short, not try to be too big or hit for power, I just want to barrel stuff up, and it’ll go.””
The results this year speak for themselves. In July, he was promoted to Triple-A Iowa, a prospect’s final stop before a lifelong dream can come true in Chicago. If he is to make it in the major-leagues, it will be his patience at the plate and defensive prowess that gets him there. For his part, he credits his father and brother for playing a central role in the development of those skills.
“I am not afraid to take a 2-0 fastball away if I am looking in, and all of the sudden now I am sitting 2-2 or 3-2. I’ve always been comfortable with two strikes, I think it goes back to when I was younger, my dad used to always make me take the first pitch. He never let me swing at the first pitch, so I’d always get down in deep counts. I’ve always played against my older brother—who is five years older—so the competition never really got to me. My Dad always sacrificed to get me better trained, or find new methods or new ideas. He was always one of those guys that says “if I don’t know it, someone else knows it, so I will find someone who knows it better.” He wasn’t of a one track mind saying “I know everything” or something like that. He was searching online or finding hitting coaches to try and help me get better.”
Rademacher has shown an ability to improve upon weaknesses. This is the most critical element of finding success at more advanced levels. When asked what an area he needed to improve upon before getting the call to Chicago, he answered quickly and confidently. He did make quite clear, however, that a certain left-handed hitting first basemen may not be the perfect corollary for him.
“Lefty bullpen guys (give me trouble), I can crush right handed pitchers. Over my career, I think I hammer the righties, but it’s the lefties I have to focus on. I think (Anthony) Rizzo is a different animal, because he’s what: 6’3, he’s a big guy. He doesn’t have to swing that hard. He gets the barrel to the ball, it’s going to go anyway. So, I am sitting here at 5’11 and 205, 210 on a good day, so I don’t have as much pop as him. I definitely would like to do some of what he does—I know I copied him early in the year—he talked about how he crowded the plate on pitches that he struggled with, and I think he’s doing that with everybody, and makes everything inside, because he wants to pull the ball. So a couple times, on occasion, where I know I needed to get a guy to pull the ball, I crowd the plate, look to hook, and that has definitely helped me out. But I don’t think I can necessarily take everything he’s doing against lefties, but if there is something that he has done in his career that has gotten him to the next level against those guys, I’ll think about it. I think it’s more just getting repetitions off of quality left-handers. Not necessarily just the ones that are going to fill in, because they don’t get you better. You need to actually hit against the quality guys that you know are going to be in the big leagues for a long time.”
As is true with so many young players in the Cubs’ organization, the future is murky for Rademacher. A jam-packed roster creates an uncertainty for all, hitters and pitchers alike. He made clear that the organizational message was to simply play hard every day and get better, and the roster would sort itself out. For inspiration, the 25-year-old felt the Cubs’ current roster had an excellent example of a guy that been doubted at every level, but still managed to find a critical role on the big-league club.
“It’s tough with the crowded roster, but they always tell us never to assume or try to count players. Deep down you want to say “oh this guy has this spot, they already have four outfielders so I am not going to fit in”, but I can’t think about that…I just have to go play. The Cubs have given me every single opportunity available, I love this organization, I love playing for the Cubs. Hopefully one day I can help them win that World Series ring. Whether it’s coming off the bench—like (Matt) Szczur did—or something along the lines of a role player, or anything they see me doing to help the team win.”
That attitude is just fine by me, Bijan. Anything you can do to help the team win that precious ring.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.