Rick Vanderhook has coached the baseball team at Cal State Fullerton for nine years, a run that has included seven NCAA tournament appearances and two College World Series berths.
One of his foundational beliefs is that pitchers should throw only fastballs and changeups during offseason workouts and scrimmages.
“If you can command your fastball, it’s like having multiple pitches,” Vanderhook said. "You can throw it inside or outside and elevate it. Everything plays off fastball command. I make them learn that.
“I’d rather have a pitcher who can throw a strike when he has to instead of somebody throwing 98 and has no idea where it’s going.”
It’s a philosophy that has worked for the Titans, who have seven pitchers on major league rosters this season. Connor Seabold believes it’s what will lead him to the Red Sox.
Seabold, a 24-year-old righthander, was one of the prospects the Sox obtained from the Philadelphia Phillies last month in the deal for relievers Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman.
He was 23-15 with a 2.89 earned run average in 56 games for Fullerton with 294 strikeouts and only 44 walks over 280 innings. The Phillies selected him in the third round of the 2017 draft.
“They did a great job in college hammering it in not to give up walks,” Seabold said. “That’s how you have success. A lot of teams in our conference play small ball, and you can’t walk hitters and get away with it. I learned how to pitch.”
The key now for Seabold is building up innings. He had a full minor league season in 2018, making 23 starts and reaching Double A. But in 2019, a strained oblique muscle in the early days of spring training followed by a triceps strain limited him to 12 games and 56⅓ innings.
Seabold had a 2.24 ERA when he pitched. But it felt like his development had been paused, as he didn’t return to Double A until late July.
The Phillies sent Seabold to the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.06 ERA over four starts and 17 innings with 22 strikeouts and three walks.
“That was awesome for me,” Seabold said. “What I was able to do there really made a difference because the season had been so frustrating with the injuries. It felt like I had picked up where I left off in 2018.”
Scouts took notice of the improvement in his changeup and saw that his fastball sat at 92-93 m.p.h. with occasional flashes to 94.
“A lot of swing and miss with his pitches,” a National League evaluator said. “To me, he looked like a No. 3 or 4 starter in the majors. There was a lot to like. He competes on the mound.”
One benefit of the injury-marred season was that Seabold worked on his changeup, altering how he pronated his wrist to improve the action on the pitch.
“It has almost a screwball movement, and my command improved,” he said. “I’d be comfortable with it against righties. I feel like it’s going to be my money-maker because I can throw it for strikes and it’s pretty easy to get guys out.”
Oddly, the Phillies did not invite Seabold to major league spring training. But he was added to the club’s player pool when baseball started back up in July.
He has since joined the Red Sox workout group at Pawtucket and impressed the coaches there.
“Very impressive. I can see why we wanted this guy,” Pawtucket manager Billy McMillon said. “He’s gone out there and competed really well. He looks really good. I think his ceiling is up there with some of the best ones.”
Paul Abbott, the Pawtucket pitching coach, didn’t know Seabold before the trade but knew of him. He’s from southern California and his daughter is friendly with Seabold’s girlfriend, Sammie Vandiver, a former Titans softball player.
“I had paid attention to him before we traded for him,” Abbott said. "Now that I’ve had a chance to work with him, I like what I’ve seen. Everything he throws is around the strike zone.
“His fastball is sneaky-fast and has good carry, and his delivery is clean and efficient. His slider is serviceable and I think it’ll get better. He’s got a good idea of what he’s doing.”
Seabold’s consistent release point and arm angle allow him to tunnel his pitches, meaning his pitches look the same coming out of his hand and change direction or speed at a point where it becomes more difficult for hitters to adjust.
Here's new #RedSox farmhand Connor Seabold in the AFL last year.— Tyler Milliken (@tylermilliken_) August 22, 2020
He dominated during his time there, opening a lot of eyes with improved velocity + stuff. Seabold started 4 games (17 innings) and posted a 1.06 ERA with a 7.23 SO/W.#DirtyWater | #MLBpic.twitter.com/RBOsEhgYVG
“His fastball gets on you,” Abbott said. “He’s one of those guys who makes his stuff better.”
The Red Sox see Seabold as a pitcher who, with more experience, will be a rotation candidate.
That’s a good return for two relievers. The Phillies won 10 of 12 games after making the trade as Workman stabilized what had been a shaky bullpen. But if Seabold develops into a starter, the Sox will reap long-term benefits.
“We have some starters in the organization who will soon be knocking on the door, and he’ll be one of them,” Abbott said. “We traded for him for a reason.”
Seabold wasn’t expecting the trade, and it took a few days to “feel the love” of a new organization.
“You wake up one day and hear Brandon Workman rumors and next thing you know you’re on your way to a new team,” he said. "It’s weird coming into a new clubhouse. But fans have reached out in social media and I see what the passion is for the Red Sox.
“It’s been cool. They’ve let me do my thing and hopefully I can put myself in a position where I can get to Fenway Park. I appreciate that they wanted me.”