Left-handed pitchers are baseball’s security blankets. Even torn, tattered and frayed, they aren’t discarded. When you find a good one, you tend to keep it for a long time.
That’s why it’s surprising that Al Yevoli is back with the Wild Things this season and not playing in the Atlanta Braves’ minor-league system.
A hard-throwing lefty relief pitcher out of Palm Coast, Fla., Yevoli put up lights-out numbers over the second half of last season with Washington. He was scored upon in only one of his last 17 outings in the Frontier League, racking up 24 strikeouts and only two walks over his final 19 innings.
Yevoli’s numbers were eye-popping, not only on the statistics sheet but on the radar gun as well. By season’s end, his fastball was hitting 94 mph on Consol Energy Park’s pitch speed gun.
The Braves signed Yevoli in the offseason, and he seemed destined to join Vidal Nuno (Washington in 2011), Tom Cochran (2006-07) and Alan Williams (2011) as former Wild Things lefties who have gone on to productive careers with major league organizations.
It just didn’t go according to plan in spring training for Yevoli, who was released during the final round of cuts.
“If I could have thrown just a little bit better, I’d probably still be with them,” Yevoli said. “The Braves told me it was a numbers thing. They actually signed a bunch of pitchers just before camp broke.”
Yevoli believes those extra pitchers the Braves signed to minor-league deals in late March cost him a spot with one of their Class A teams. He was pitching with the high-Class A Lynchburg (Va.) team during the spring, and doing quite well, though not up to his considerable expectations.
“It wasn’t that I was throwing badly,” Yevoli said. “I was hitting 90 or 91 (mph). But it wasn’t where I was last year. I wasn’t in midseason form. I wasn’t as good as I could have been, and that’s why I’m disappointed but not frustrated.”
What Yevoli learned from his one-month stay in minor-league camp is that next time – and those with the Wild Things expect there to be a next time – he must be better than the competition, not just on even par with the other relief pitchers.
“I realized too late that you have to come in and be lights-out, be better than other guys. Coming from an independent league, you have to be better than the guys the organization has more money invested in than you,” Yevoli said. “The Braves probably expected me to be throwing 94 not 91.”
Yevoli has opted to return to Washington for a second season. The Wild Things signed Yevoli last June after he helped Tennessee Wesleyan win the NAIA national championship. With Washington, Yevoli had a 1-2 record and 2.62 ERA in 28 relief appearances. He struck out 34 batters in 34 1/3 innings. Those are impressive numbers for a rookie, so what can Yevoli do to top last season?
“Everything can be improved,” he said. “I learned so much here. As good as last year was, I’m still not where I want to be. I feel like I should be (with the Braves). This year is all about getting picked back up by an affiliated team.”
With Yevoli and Orlando Santos (1-1, 1.21, 11 saves) back, the Wild Things have the makings of what should be a solid back end of the bullpen.
“You’re never happy to see a guy come back after they’ve been picked up. I feel for those kids,” said new Wild Things manager Bart Zeller, who saw Yevoli up close late last season when the former was manager of the Joliet Slammers.
“What I have to do is make sure he’s in the right frame of mind. He has the arm; there’s no doubt about that. He has electric stuff. I’ll be surprised if he’s here all year. What I have to do is make sure he’s in the right frame of mind. I told him that whenever he steps on the mound, whether it’s during a game or just throwing a bullpen session, to have a plan. Throw every pitch with a purpose, to hit a spot, to get better.”