Former Ranburne High School baseball coach Bart Young is far from a likely Yankee fan. As of just barely more than two years ago, he followed the rival Boston Red Sox.
But there’s nothing like a local boy making good to open Braves hearts and even a Red Sox fan to pinstripes, and Ranburne product Chase Whitley’s fast rise up the Yankees’ farm system is doing that.
“Chase, I hope that he gets a call up (to the parent team),” said Young, who coached Whitley in high school. “I’m thinking, maybe, if not after the All-Star break, maybe in the September call-up he might get a look.”
As of this writing — just two years after he was drafted in the 15th round out of Troy — the 22-year-old Whitley is with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.
His eye-catching work out of the bullpen has fueled his rapid rise up the farm system of Major League Baseball’s most storied franchise, and he’s 5-3 with a 3.59 ERA in 26 appearances spanning 47 2/3 innings this season.
He’s averaging almost a strikeout per inning, and opponents are batting .213 against him.
His sudden rise has caught the attention of media covering the Yankees. Pinstripesplus.com, the Scout-affiliated site that covers the team, has featured him four times this year alone.
This past fall, Chuck Johnson, a scout on the Yankees Arizona Fall League crew, raved about Whitley in New York Baseball Digest.
“Despite his current career path as a reliever, the Yankees like his future potential as a starter and could have him repeat Trenton next year as a member of the rotation,” Johnson wrote. “If that doesn’t work out, and if David Robertson ends up the in-house replacement for Mariano Rivera, Whitley has the stuff to step into the set-up role down the road, and could potentially close, as well.”
They know Whitley’s name in New York, and this just six years after the then-junior helped Ranburne win a Class 2A state title.
They know Whitley’s name at a time when the parent team just lost starters C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte to injury, but baseball is a long-view sport. Whitley is keeping things in perspective.
“Just try to go out there and make pitches,” he told The Star by phone this past week. “The thing I’ve learned here is try to just control things you can control, and all I can control is, go out there and make a pitch.
“If it gets hit, it gets hit. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, and just try to get better each and every day.”
He’s doing that, and his development as a pitcher accelerated in pro ball just by getting to focus on pitching. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Whitley was also a position player when not pitching throughout his pre-draft career.
“That was the whole issue when I got drafted was to be able to focus on one thing,” he said. “It’s not having to take ground balls and take batting practice day after day.
“When I was a hitter, I was locked in on hitting. I would do the pitching thing occasionally, but I was locked in on being a hitter.”
While Whitley has benefitted from focusing on pitching, he has tried to maintain some aspects of a position player’s mentality. This, he said, comes on advice from instructors at Oxford’s Excel Baseball Academy, where he works out during the offseason.
“Pitchers overanalyze the game a little too much,” he said. “My thing is I try to … stay aggressive and keep everything going in the right direction.”
His development as a pitcher has seen tweaks in his mechanics, but the focus has been on growing his pitching repertoire. As Whitley puts it, it’s about “becoming more of a pitcher and not just a thrower.”
He started in a good place.
“At the time of the draft, Whitley was considered to have the best changeup of any college pitcher,” Johnson wrote, after calling Whitley’s repertoire “nasty.”
“He throws a four-seamer, which touches 96 and has a very late rise, just enough where he will miss a lot of barrels,” Johnson wrote. “He throws an 85-or-so slider, and, while the break isn’t big, it’s late, which, in the overall scheme of things, is almost a preferred option because the potential of a mistake is less.
“He has a nice change in the 83-84 range and consistently keeps it down in the zone.”
Refining the slider has been Whitley’s focus this year.
“When you’re trying to learn a pitch and execute a pitch, it’s not like it happens overnight,” he said. “It takes some time to get a pitch to feel comfortable with it.
“I started to feel comfortable with it last year, and just now, I feel like I’m starting to throw it for strikes when I want to.”
Rapid-rising players usually go through adjustment periods from one level to the next, and Whitley hit what he called his longest tough stretch since being drafted between May and early June of this year, in Triple-A.
He was called up to Scranton on April 12 and started well, going 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA and 11 strikeouts in his first 13.2 innings. The month of May was tougher, as he allowed eight runs over 15 1/3 innings.
His ERA climbed during that span and stands at 4.71 over his past 10 outings, mainly because of walks. He had issued seven in May and nine over his past 10 outings, dating back to May 25.
Whitley said he tried to nibble the edges of the plate too much.
“I was trying to make pitches on the black (edges of the plate) instead of trying to pitch to contact,” he said. “When you’re a young guy at this level and facing guys that have been around for a while, you’re not going to get the calls that you would if you were a veteran.
“The last thing you want to do is pitch to make the umpire make decisions for you.”
He seems to have gotten back on course over his last two outings, allowing just one run and three hits over 5 1/3 innings.
Meanwhile, his hometown has watched his rise with interest.
“It’s pretty incredible,” he said. “Any time something happens, I get calls and texts. They seem very excited, and I’m just trying to do good for myself but also represent them the way that I should.”
Those in Whitley’s baseball circle say his sudden rise has not surprised them.
“Chase is an extremely hard-working, driven guy, and that’s why he’s gotten to where he is,” said Josh Beshears, Excel’s pitching instructor. “Over the past couple of years since he was drafted and has been with the Yankees, he has continued to develop.
“They’ve given him one or two things each offseason to focus on and work on, and he’s continued to do that. When he reports to spring training, he’s done the things they’ve asked him to do.”
Young, who talks to Whitley about once every two weeks, has had to learn to like that MLB franchise in New York that wears pinstripes.
“The day he got drafted, he called me as soon as he knew where he was going,” said Young, now teaching at Haralson County (Ga.) High School and coaching his sons’ recreation-league teams. “He said, ‘Coach, I’m a Yankee, and you know what that means, don’t you? You’re going to have to throw all of your Red Sox stuff away’.
“I have, and I’ve become a Yankees fan. I wear my Yankees hat everywhere now.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.