Bakersfield, Calif. — It’s been a hell of a year for Tyler Herb.
Flash back to nearly a year ago—the start of September, 2015. Herb, then 23, just finished his first full season in the Seattle Mariners’ organization, and it didn’t go well. The righty, pitching at Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League, was 7-8 with a 4.64 ERA in 27 starts. He was hittable — 174 hits in just 139 2/3 innings pitched. He allowed too many free passes — 52 walks, nearly 3.5 per nine innings. To put it bluntly, he was nothing special for a major college product pitching against hitters more than a year younger.
It ate at him all winter.
“Honestly, last year I knew I had a terrible season,” Herb told me sheepishly. “I was not prepared. I knew going into spring training last year that I was not prepared.”
“I did not want that to happen again.”
Herb was the Mariners’ 29th-round pick in 2014, the 861st player selected in that draft. He signed unceremoniously following a good four-year career at Coastal Carolina University. Seniors in the draft, especially those picked in the 29th round, don’t get a big signing bonus… or any signing bonus. They get a plane ticket. Failing in Low-A often marks the end of the road.
Thankfully for Herb, that wasn’t the case after last summer; the Mariners felt strongly enough after this year’s spring training to keep him in the fold, and they chose to test him with their High-A affiliate in Bakersfield. Ironically, everything turned around on the very thing the Pennsylvania native had failed at the year before: offseason preparation.
“Before my first spring training I stayed at home, but this past winter I went back down to [Coastal Carolina],” Herb said. “I was with my pitching coach, I got in a great environment, I worked with guys who were out there pushing every day. I feel privileged to have used their facilities and those resources all winter, and that’s been the biggest difference.”
You can feel the urgency in his voice, and from there it’s an easy jump to imagine the anxiety he must have felt all winter after last summer’s disappointment.
“I’m going to be honest,” he continued, “I really put it all on the line this winter.”
Just months later, Tyler Herb’s offseason work was already paying off.
Fast forward to June 21, 2016.
It’s the top of the third inning in Lake Elsinore, California. Herb walked off the field after tossing a scoreless inning, working around a single to get a strikeout, a groundout, and a flyout. Though just months removed from 29th-round anonymity, Tyler Herb was a world away in both mindset and mood. He’s been the ace of the Bakersfield Blaze for the last three months, and on June 21, he threw a scoreless inning in the California League’s All-Star Game. The underdog—a small-town, 29th-round senior signee—staged a coming-out party amid the farms of California’s Central Valley.
Herb was 7-3 with a 3.28 ERA in 15 starts for the Blaze this summer. He cut down on both hits and walks, and even developed an out pitch, whiffing 93 hitters in 85 innings (by comparison, he struck out just 95 hitters in 54 more innings the year before). Not even a year after limping through Clinton, Herb was suddenly impossible to ignore. In early July, the Mariners promoted him to Double-A Jackson.
Wait, this is the same 29th-round pick who failed in Low-A less than a year ago, right? A few months later, he’s cruised past the most intimidating hitters’ league in pro ball to the Mariners’ upper minor league affiliates? Where did it all go so right for a guy who got it so wrong the year before?
“I’ve been working really hard, because right now, I think I have a shot,” he said. “All of us, if we’re here, we all have a shot. It comes down to how much work we put in, how confident we are, and then going out and grinding it out. Every single day.”
If we remove the emotion, wipe out the context of his draft position, his underdog profile, and all that mushy redemption stuff, Herb’s reinvention has been simple. He has a big, strong frame. He’s intelligent, and offers a forthright interview about the intricacies of pitching. He throws hard—working in the low 90s with an electric, sinking two-seam fastball—and he’s developing a very good slider. He’s aggressive with that repertoire, and all summer hitters have pounded his sinker straight into the ground.
“I stood in [the batters’ box] for a couple of his bullpens to get some timing down at the start of the year, and his stuff was moving all over the place, man,” Blaze outfielder Austin Wilson says, almost in amazement, when I asked about Herb. “I was like ‘OK, wow, this is why they can’t get hits.'”
“With a guy like that you can’t miss your pitch,” Wilson adds, shaking his head. “Once he gets you with two strikes, you’re in trouble.”
“I want you to hit this,” Herb offered about his game. “Let’s see how far you can hit this. Let’s go pitch by pitch, let’s be in it one pitch at a time, and whatever happens, happens.”
Whatever the level of competition, that mentality gets you to an All-Star Game. It’s also the mentality that makes a pitcher popular with his teammates.
“Playing defense behind a guy like that is always spectacular,” Wilson said. “He makes pitches and he gets guys out, and that helps our momentum on offense. And if you give him a lead, he can take it from there.”
“He’s got nasty stuff this year,” Blaze catcher Tyler Marlette added about Herb’s reinvention in 2016. “He was probably one of my tougher guys to catch, honestly. His two-seam runs so much, it’s just electric.”
Marlette smirked, looking the way one does when he has a secret.
“It’s fun to catch him because I get to come out and play with the hitters’ minds,” he said. “With Tyler, I just make it up as I go sometimes, and it always works out.”
What a difference a year makes, right?
Which Tyler Herb are we seeing? Is he a flash in the pan, a pitcher who now has one special year under his belt, only to fade back into oblivion next summer? Or are we watching Tyler Herb’s coming-out party—the moment an overlooked underdog becomes part of the Mariners’ future?
The better question: Does it matter what we think? This isn’t the first time Herb has overachieved.
“I went to a school with 80 kids, and that’s public school,” he said of his upbringing in Wiconisco, Pennsylvania, a 921-person town in a rural, east-central part of the state. “It’s been this way my whole life. When I went to college, it was like, ‘Oh, he’s going D-1, I don’t know if he can make it.’ And it’s the same thing here.”
To say Herb has a chip on his shoulder, then, is an understatement, but maybe that’s the difference this year—even more so than the offseason preparation, or the nasty sinking fastball. Refining that controlled, aggressive attitude has flipped Herb’s career into overdrive.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it’s on you to have some arrogance and some confidence,” he said. “Once you get to this level, the physical tools are very even, so it becomes about what mentality you bring, and what kind of confidence you have when you get out there.”
The measurable results, the tangible tools, the intangible mentality—all of it keeps coming back to the offseason.
“I didn’t just walk into spring training this year and go, ‘Oh, well, I’m this good because of God-given talent,'” Herb said. “I’m here because I worked hard. If I continue do to that…”
Herb’s voice trailed off.
“Look, the game knows. If you’re not going to work all week, you won’t be rewarded when you pitch. It’s that simple.”
What a ride it’s been, through the California League and on to Double-A with an All-Star Game selection, an electric sinker, and a hard slider in tow. Maybe there’s a spot in the Mariners’ future plans for him, too. Oh, and add a cherry on top: The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are national champions.
Yeah, it’s been a hell of a year for Tyler Herb.