Matt Esparza is a 22-year-old 14th round pick in 2015 by the Cleveland Indians out of Folsom, California.
“I think it’s going to be a unique experience,” said Esparza about earning his first Opening Day start. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited and hopefully there is a good energy for the team.”
Esparza, who stands 6’2” 195 lbs., will be a veteran anchor of the High-A Lynchburg pitching staff, along with returning fellow starter Thomas Pannone.
“There’s a good amount of guys on this team that played with that team (the Carolina League runner-up) last year, so there’s that experience and hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to repeat that,” Esparza said about the carryover effect from 2016’s success.
Selected out of the University of California-Irvine, he begins his third year in the Cleveland farm system. He has only been pitching since his senior year in high school, as he was strictly a position player prior to that. Getting the Opening Day assignment is a novel accomplishment at this point in his career, but one he hopes to replicate in future seasons.
His offerings include a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a change-up. An established rapport with returning pitching coach Rigo Beltran will aid in his development. His plan for the season is to work on command of the fastball, gaining a better feel for moving it around the strike zone. For his curveball, it is getting a consistent shape and spin to it, so that it does not hang and offer up a tempting target for batters.
The changeup is his newest pitch. “I’m working on throwing strikes with it and developing it as an overall pitch,” said Esparza. “Rigo will grab me, sometimes before batting practice, sometimes after, and we’ll go to the bullpen to work on something he saw in the game or in my between start work.”
Growing up in northern California, Matt was an Oakland A’s fan. He developed his love of baseball through his family. His father played in high school and a bit in college, but the love of baseball extends to his whole family, from his grandparents, to his mother, and on down. “It was always there,” he said, “in the background, on TV, everybody liked it.”
He began his college career at Tennessee, but with minimal experience as pitcher it was not enough to get him many opportunities, especially as a freshman. In college, top starting pitchers usually only start one day each week. This is not an environment conducive to developing your skills as a pitcher, much less becoming a draft worthy prospect.
“It was a steep learning curve,” Esparza said about making the transition to pitching, “to go from high school to a pretty high level baseball program with that little experience and knowledge. I took my lumps, and I was fortunate enough to run into a lot of good people that helped me out.”
He transferred to Cypress College, where he pitched for a season, tallying a 5-1 record with a 3.14 ERA in 13 games, seven of them starts. He chalked up 70 strikeouts in 63 innings while only walking 23 – solid numbers for a relatively novice pitcher.
In the summer between Tennessee and Cypress, he got to play in the Northwoods League for the Green Bay Bullfrogs. As a pitcher, this was his first experience facing hitters with wood bats, but more advantageous was the fact that he was part of a five-man rotation and got to pitch regularly.
“It was pretty similar to professional baseball,” he said, “the volume of games you play, the travel. It was a great experience. I enjoyed it. It was a good precursor to how to operate in professional baseball, the everyday aspect of it.”
Opening Day 2017 for the Hillcats was marked by heavy overnight rain and a weather front that brought 17-mile-per-hour winds to Calvin Falwell Field in Lynchburg, not the picture of ideal Opening Day conditions.
Esparza took it in stride and tried to stick with his game plan.
“We went in trying to feel our way through, seeing a new lineup. So it was a little bit shaky, but it was a good starting point.”
Facing off against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Esparza delivered four innings of six-hit baseball. In the second inning, two of those hits resulted in three runs for the Pelicans. Leadoff hitter Eddy Martinez singled on a grounder up the middle, and was followed by Trent Giambrone, who hit an arcing liner deep into right field. The 17 mph winds lofted it over the right field fence. Two batters later, Daniel Spingola would also knock one into the wind over the right field corner and Myrtle Beach had a lead they would never relinquish.
Esparza was backed by two wind-aided home runs for the Hillcats, but would take the loss. His second start would mirror Opening Day. Again, going only four innings against the Salem Red Sox, he would strike out five, but got saddled with the loss.
On the Hillcats’ first road trip, he would finally get in the win column. In seven strong innings against Myrtle Beach, he would scatter eight hits and a walk, allowing only two runs and his Lynchburg teammates would hold on for the victory, putting his record at 1-2 for the season.
As the season progresses, he will continue to work on his delivery and going out every fifth day to compete to the best of his ability.
“The pitching line usually takes care of itself if you do what you are trained to do,” said Esparza.
With improved consistency and his mature approach, he will continue to get opportunities to develop and advance through the Cleveland farm system.
Photo: Jay Westcott/The News & Advance