The Unheralded Success of David Speer

In the game of baseball there are two fundamental and opposing goals. On the offensive side of the game the goal is to score runs – more runs for your team means you win the game. A fairly simple calculus, in principle. Whether you are pitching or playing defense, the name of the game is to get outs.

Hidden within the bullpen of the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats is a pitcher, David Speer, who has built his career on that simple premise, getting batters out. More often than not, when he makes an appearance, outs are the likely consequence of his time on the mound.

The 6’1” 185 lb. southpaw out of Columbia University is in his third professional season since being selected by Cleveland in the 27th round of the 2014 first year player draft. His career numbers indicate an effectiveness that has led to his continued promotion through the Indians system. In 68 career games, with only one start, he has pitched 127 1/3 innings allowing only 26 earned runs for a 1.83 career ERA. He has 130 strikeouts to his credit, with only 27 free passes gifted to the batters who he has faced, two of those being intentional base-on-balls. This gives him a 4.81 K/BB ratio for his career. Strong numbers for a pitcher who was not even certain that baseball would become a possible career direction when he began college.

“It was always my dream,” Speer said about playing professionally, “but it didn’t become a realistic dream, anything I gave serious thought to, until my junior summer playing in the Cape Cod League.”

The Cape Cod League was his third season playing summer baseball as a collegiate player. In 12 games during the summer of 2013 he pitched 25 innings with 25 strikeouts and only eight walks. He followed this up with his senior season at Columbia where he was the Ivy League pitcher of the year with a 7-2 record, a 1.86 ERA in 87 innings, and had a strikeout to walk ratio of 10.7 to 1.

It was the Cape Cod League that had really propelled him to excel as a senior and put him in a position to be drafted.

“It gave me some confidence, some good feedback that I can play with these guys,” said Speer. “Then I starting getting a few questionnaires from teams, and I thought, ‘okay there’s a shot’.”

Before being drafted he had pitched almost exclusively as a starter, but has made the shift to bullpen work as a professional pitcher.

“I’ve transitioned more to relying upon my four-seam fastball and slider,” said Speer about making the move to the bullpen.

As a starter he had developed a full repertoire of pitches, including four-seam and two-seam fastballs, a changeup, a slider and a curveball. He still might pull one of those other pitches out of his pocket when needed, but now that he is facing an opposing lineup for a shorter duration, he can focus on his plus pitches.

“It’s been a process, starting my whole life, to now being a short reliever, a one or two inning guy in the middle or late innings of a game,” he shared.

The biggest change he has faced as a professional is in the mental aspect of coming out of the bullpen on short notice. “Going from knowing when I’m going to pitch to how to be prepared. Now suddenly knowing I’ve got two minutes to warm up for the next hitter. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with warming up in a tie game in the 8th inning.”

Though he rarely tops the mid to upper 80’s in pitching velocity, it is his delivery that had led to his continued success throughout his college time and during his professional career.

“I think I have a pretty unorthodox delivery,” said Speer about his pitching style. “It’s not conventional. No pitching coach would call my mechanics perfect, what you would want a young pitcher to replicate, but it works for me.”

Fully aware of the limitations of his mechanics and velocity, he uses it to his advantage to keep hitters off balance, and it is an overall package that works well coming from the bullpen, especially following upon several of the hard throwing starting pitchers in the Hillcats rotation.

During the course of his baseball exploits, divided between his collegiate experience, his summer league experience, and now his three years in the Indians organization, he has totaled 359 innings pitched. From that wealth of experience he has amassed 328 strikeouts and only 75 base-on-balls. This gives him an overall K/BB ratio of 4.37, a hallmark sign of a successful pitcher.

“I think my good location,” said Speer about what makes him successful. “That gives the hitter the perception that everything I throw is going to be a strike and allows me to expand the strike zone late in the game and get me more swings and misses.”

An examination of his mental makeup and his performance on the mound lead one to conclude that he has an excellent chance to continue to be successful in the short relief role as long as he continues to generate outs.

“If I wasn’t drafted, I don’t know exactly what I’d be doing,” said the former economics and political science major. “I would have done something that was a challenge.”

For now the only challenge he has to face is to continue to get opposing hitters out and he can continue to put off the question of what life would be like without baseball as he moves up within the Cleveland organization.

Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance (pictured with Speer is Cole Sulser)

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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