Shipley gets a new start with Royals
It was another sunny spring day. Braden Shipley did what he’d done on so many of them. He nonchalantly flipped a baseball into the glove on his left hand, let it nestle, then toed the rubber slab creasing the pitcher’s mound.
When he went through the routine as a Medford schoolboy, thoughts of the big leagues swirled in his head.
As he did it this time, just a few weeks ago in Surprise, Arizona, similar thoughts surfaced.
MIke Matheny, the manager of the Kansas City Royals, lurked just behind Shipley. For the first time, the 28-year-old right-hander was in the major league camp of a team other than the Arizona Diamondbacks, who drafted him in the first round nearly seven years earlier.
It had been a long time since he needed to make a good first impression.
Pitchers and catchers reported to camp on Feb. 12. They went gleefully about their business, unaware the coronavirus would shut them down a month later.
Shipley, whose Scottsdale, Arizona, home is less than an hour from the Royals’ spring facility, had gotten in a couple quality bullpen sessions but didn’t read a lot into them.
“You don’t get too much out of them,” he said. “You’re just working on your stuff.”
But this spring day, when he stepped on the rubber for his first live batting practice, looking to his catcher, the skipper peering over his shoulder, Shipley recognized it as a pivotal moment.
“In my head,” said the 2010 North Medford High graduate, “I go, all right, here’s your opportunity to make an impression, and I threw a really good live batting practice. My command of the baseball was really good.”
Two days later, he had another live BP.
Again, Matheny shadowed him.
Again, Shipley shined, even more so than in the first outing.
The next morning, he was in the weight room — another good impression — when former Royals star Mike Sweeney, working as a special assistant for the team, approached. He asked Shipley if the coaches had said anything to him.
“I said, ‘Not really,’” said Shipley. “I’m just trying to keep my head down and go about my business and make that impression.”
Sweeney told him the staff talked about him in the coaches’ room the night before. Talked about his numbers. His mph on his fastball. Baseball people get giddy over velocity.
“He goes, ‘Dude, you were like 94 to 96,’” said Shipley. “‘It was the easiest 96 mph I’ve ever seen.’ And to hear it from a guy like that, who was a hell of a baseball player, was pretty special.
“After I heard that, it wasn’t like a pump-me-up thing for me because I knew I threw well. It was more of a motivator for me. It was like, hey, you can make this team. But you’ve gotta keep working. I took that into games.”
He pitched in four spring games before Major League Baseball suspended team activities on March 12 because of the virus.
Three of them went very well; one, thanks to a big swing by a former high school teammate, didn’t.
When the Royals disbanded, Shipley, like everyone, had questions, many of them virus related. Where did he stand in the pitching pecking order? When will the season resume? Will rosters grow as baseball tries to play as many games as possible in a condensed period? Will there be fans in the stands?
“There’s so much unknown,” said Shipley, “but I would say I put myself in one of the best possible situations I can. I think I’ve shown them what I can do. Honestly, I’m just really excited. Regardless of whether I make the team, I think I can help the Royals. That’s just exciting for me.”
A change of scenery can be an elixir, washing away a less-than-fruitful past and presenting a new opportunity. That’s how Shipley views his move from the Diamondbacks.
He appreciates the organization and what it did for him.
“They were always like family to me,” he said. “All those guys and coaches and everybody that works there.”
Shipley started well after being selected out of the University of Nevada, Reno, as the 15th overall choice in the 2013 draft. Through three seasons in Arizona’s lower minor leagues, he was among baseball’s 100 top prospects.
In the past four years, Shipley had three stints in the majors with the Diamondbacks. When he wasn’t in the show, he was in Class AAA Reno and the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League.
Shipley pitched 100 innings in the majors from 2016-18 and posted a 4-6 record with a 5.49 ERA. He started 14 of the 26 games he appeared in, including 11 starts during the 2016 season.
He spent all of last season in Reno. His record with the Aces was 4-5 with a 5.95 ERA. He pitched in 30 games and worked through a midseason shoulder ailment. In July, a line drive hit him on the elbow. He returned to pitching quickly, but a tweak in his delivery to compensate for the elbow left him with shoulder discomfort.
“It was the middle of the season, and I wanted to get back to pitching,” said Shipley. “I kind of got rushed back a little bit, and some of that was my fault.”
Although he finished the season with one of the best stretch’s of his career, he was granted free agency in November, setting him on a journey to find a new team.
“Free agency can be kind of nerve-racking,” said Shipley, “and it definitely was for me, too.”
Shipley and his agent, Paul Cobb of Apex Baseball, examined teams that would be a good fit, looking at their depth charts, their direction. Along with Kansas City, Pittsburgh was intriguing and would have landed Shipley were it not for his shoulder.
Arizona did not clear Shipley medically, he said, when the Diamondbacks cut him loose, and some of the wording regarding the condition of his shoulder scared off some teams.
Shipley and the Pirates had agreed to contract terms, and he was prepared to sign before they backed out.
Next up, Kansas City.
“I’m just grateful it worked out,” said Shipley.
He agreed to a deal in mid-December, signed just after the first of the year, was assigned to the Class AAA Omaha, Nebraska, Storm Chasers and headed to spring training as a nonroster invitee.
If he makes the big-league team, Shipley will earn $600,000, slightly more than the major-league minimum. If he goes to Omaha, he’ll earn $125,000.
Shipley visited the Royals’ Surprise facility well before the February reporting date to get a jump on meeting people.
“It was a process,” said Shipley, “but now everything’s comfortable and I can just focus on the baseball part of it. That was my whole goal.”
Spring in his step
There’s more to Shipley’s positive outlook than a new environment. Something much more substantive is at play.
While his overall stats in Reno last summer weren’t eye-popping, the numbers within the numbers — his performance in his last 10 appearances — showed marked improvement. He features four pitches, and the last couple years, his work on sequencing and executing them has paid off.
In the final 29 innings last season, his ERA was 2.48, and he allowed only 23 hits while striking out 24 and walking eight.
“I had some career numbers,” said Shipley, “stuff that I look at. I know it’s a small sample size, but it was a really good feeling going into the offseason knowing that I really learned some things from the last part of the season in how to use that four-pitch mix most effectively.”
Most people cite ERA as the go-to barometer for success. Having pitched in the hot climes and high altitude of the PCL with the lively balls Major League Baseball uses, Shipley largely eschews that stat.
Instead, his strikeouts to walks in that stretch were as good as he’s had, and his strikeouts per nine innings approached the level he had in 2014, said Shipley, when he threw his hardest.
“So those are promising things,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t care about strikeouts. I’m trying to get whatever out I can. That’s the name of the game. But when I see things like my strikeouts are up and my walks are down, obviously, my command is pretty good. That was a telltale sign that what I was doing was working.”
What he wants to avoid is being a pattern pitcher; or, throwing the same pitch in the same zone back-to-back.
Shipley’s pitches are a four-seam fastball, two-seam sinker, curveball and changeup. He’s recently adjusted the grip of his curve, and he’s focused on “tunneling” his delivery, making each pitch come out of the same slot and on the same plane so hitters can’t decipher what the pitch is based on arm motion.
The less time they have to react to its movement, the better.
“Hitters are good these days,” he said. “You have to find something that’s going to beat them every single time. So, if I can make my stuff look the same, it’s just gonna help me.”
When that recipe isn’t followed, a hitter might feast.
That’s happened in Shipley’s lone subpar outing in spring training.
Former North Medford teammate Seth Brown, who made his major league debut last summer with the Oakland A’s, hit a grand slam off Shipley in his third mound appearance. They were the only runs Shipley allowed in 51/3 innings over four spring appearances, and might have been avoided were it not for a fielding miscue or two.
Brown saw two straight fastballs in the middle of the plate and dug in on the second one. He also took Shipley deep in the PCL last summer.
“He kind of has my number a little bit the last couple years,” Shipley said with a laugh. “So I told him I’m going to have to figure something out, come up with a new formula to beat him.”
In Shipley’s final appearance before the virus postponement — just two weeks prior to the start of the regular season — he struck out five in two hitless innings.
Shipley credits his offseason workout regimen, adequate rest for his arm and increased bullpen work leading into the spring for his good start.
Shipley travels from his home to the Royals facility in Surprise several times a week to work out. The main building is closed, but baseballs and exercise equipment have been left out, and a dozen of his teammates are on hand. Three of them are catchers, making it easy for pitchers to get in mound work.
There are no staff or other coaches around, although Shipley communicates with pitching coach Cal Eldred regularly, and Matheny recently called him at home to see how things are going.
On the first day of spring camp, the Kansas City staff told players 13 pitchers would make the major-league roster — five starters and eight relievers.
The fifth-starter role is up for grabs, said Shipley. If that doesn’t pan out for him, he’d happily take a bullpen position.
“Early in camp, I think they were looking at me as a reliever,” he said. “Then as the camp went on, I think I showed them some of the versatility I have and that I’m able to throw multiple innings. I don’t really know what my role will be.”
Since Kansas City announced its pitching plans, there’s been talk of increasing roster sizes and playing doubleheaders to make up lost games. On Tuesday, it was reported MLB is exploring playing all games in Arizona. If games are played, fans aren’t expected to be able to attend for some time.
“It’s going to be weird in some of these cathedrals that we play in,” said Shipley. “No fans, it’ll be a little strange. But I’m looking forward to it. Like I keep telling all my friends and stuff, stay positive. We’ll get through this, and everything will get back to normal, eventually.”
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or firstname.lastname@example.org.