LAKE ELSINORE – In 2009, James Needy seemed to have the world by the tail. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound right-handed pitcher out of Santana High School had just been drafted by the hometown Padres and had a full ride to the University of San Diego.
“I’m looking forward to playing baseball for San Diego or San Diego,” Needy told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time
“I have a lot of thinking to do, but I don’t think I can make a wrong decision here.”
Needy, who was also a gifted prep quarterback for the Santana Sultans, chose the Padres. He signed for a bonus over MLB’s recommended amount to begin his pro career.
“I think back to those days and it just blows my mind to [word dropped? Otherwise, delete to] what I was thinking when I was drafted,” said Needy during a break from his workout four years later.
“I had all the confidence in the world. I was 18 and thought I would be in the big leagues by 21 or 22. You don’t really understand professional baseball until you start experiencing it, and I hadn’t experienced it yet.”
On the third day of his first spring training in 2010, Needy slipped during an infield drill. What originally seemed to be a simple knee strain turned into a season ending injury.
As he worked to get his arm back in shape the next season, Needy had back problems. He threw only 53 innings in the short season Arizona and Northwest Leagues.
“I hadn’t struggled in anything up to that time in my life so it was hard to fathom struggling.”
“Now at 22, I realize it’s a struggle every day.”
Last year things began to turn around. After spending some time in the bullpens of Triple-A Tucson and Double-A San Antonio, the Padres sent Needy back to Low-A Fort Wayne where he went 6-3 with a 1.75 ERA. Most impressively, he returned to the starting rotation at the end of the year and responded with a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings.
“I always knew that I projected as a starting pitcher. I don’t throw the 95 [MPH] and up that most relievers do. A couple of our guys in the big leagues do, like [Luke] Gregerson and Houston Street. But they have been around for a while and have amazing control.”
“I think I was put in the bullpen to work on mechanical issues and simplify mechanics. Being a bigger bodied guy, there are a lot of things to control and simplifying things really helped me. By about mid-season, I finally had gotten back on track after surgery and struggling last year.”
In 2013 Needy was the Storm’s best starting pitcher, leading the team in wins, innings pitched and posting a 3.76 ERA, which easily led all of Lake Elsinore’s starters. Despite his size, he is a classic sinkerball/slider pitcher who relies upon getting outs early in the count as opposed to strikeouts.
He will throw his four-seam fastball, which is faster and straighter, on the inside portion of the plate and count on his two-seamer, or sinker, to drop in the zone. Throw in a solid change-up and slider and it’s a not a pleasant at-bat for the hitter.
For Needy, a lifelong Padres’ fan, a big benefit for his development was getting the opportunity to work with Storm pitching coach Brian Lawrence, who pitched for San Diego between 2001 and 2005.
“It really helps me out because he is the same type of pitcher. It is big thing learning from him and how he did it. We are different bodies but we are the same type of pitcher – sinkers, sliders and change-ups.
“The mentality and the approach that he used was helpful. He wasn’t going to strike many people out and I’m not going to strike many people out.”
Lawrence dismisses the notion that he is creating a larger “Mini-Me” version of himself and instead believes the focus should be on a more common theme in minor league development, consistency.
“I really try to not push myself on anyone,” Lawrence said of the comparison. “I try to take the positives that they have and work on making them better with correcting the negatives. I try to leave myself out of it the best that I can.”
“With James, it starts with consistency. Being able to change speeds and keep the ball down has really helped to keep the hitters off balance.
Being healthy this year was a big part of Needy’s development. But equally important was the mental growth that he has experienced in the past year and a half.”
“Knowing your identity is a big step in your career,” Needy said on his improvement as a pitcher since he was drafted.
“Finding how I get outs was really important. I get outs on the ground and early in the count. Knowing that helped me to understand my strengths on the mound in a game.”