Apr 9, 2011

Feature Interview with Josh Spence - Part Two

Following on from Part One of my chat with Josh Spence comes Part Two, in which he talks about the differences between minor league ball and college ball, and what he hopes to get out of season 2011.

You have been through the Draft a couple of times - and it seems unusual for an Aussie baseballer to go through it, most get signed as free agents. Do you think this makes much difference?

Players are only eligible for the draft if they're either American or play college baseball. The draft is a very exciting time when you get to see your hard work pay off – literally, for some players who make millions by signing one contract. But then there’s the other side of the story. The draft doesn't dictate what type of player you are or what type of player you're going to be (nor does what you sign for money-wise).

I will say this, Major League Baseball is a business and with every business there are investments which need to be looked after – the players. At the end of the day it doesn't matter if you're a Free Agent or picked in the draft, it comes down to performing on the field and the truth is you're going to make your money in big leagues. My perspective is not about making as much money as you can upfront (by chancing a big bonus) but being as ready as you could possibly be. Those players are the ones who have long successful careers.  

You obviously have a lot of fans in Arizona, which is shown by the fact coach Pat Murphy said you were 'possibly the most special kid [he's] ever been around'. That is a pretty big wrap from a guy who has been around the game more than 20 years. What do you put that down to? How would you describe your approach to the game and to people?

Coach Murphy has experienced many things in the baseball realm and without his guidance I wouldn't be the player I am today. He's a remarkable coach and you will not meet a man more relentless in the game as a player or a coach. He pushed me to be something I only dreamed about being and gave me the tools to push myself. I wish I could tell you [what this can be put down to] but maybe that’s something you'd have to ask him. 

I wish there was a complex answer to my approach towards baseball and life in general, but I think the best way to describe it would be just to take things one pitch (/step) at a time. You can’t let things consume you, because the reality is you can do anything. As cheesy as that sounds, I do believe it. It’s all about setting small goals to reach a bigger picture.

You had a few obstacles or challenges over the past year or two - being hit by a line drive, a finger injury, and issues with a nerve in your arm. Were there any times when you doubted your ability to develop your career? How did you cope in those times?

The best way to describe these past two years would be that as ‘a humbling experience’. I've never doubted my ability to develop my career but obviously I sacrificed a lot by turning down the third round, and it was heart breaking to watch my last season of college baseball unfold in front of me and not be able to contribute to the team.

Coach Murphy had this quote; he would say "Its not about where you're going, but who you're bringing" and I know that got me through some tough times.   
After signing with the Padres in mid-2010, you appeared in a handful of minor league games, across a couple of levels - how did you find that? Was there much difference to your college experience? What did you learn? 

It was a great experience last year, I was very fortunate to get my feet wet in preparation for a full season this year. It all started while I was rehabbing my elbow in the Cape Cod league when I received a call from the Padres explaining that they had picked me in the 9th round. After further discussion, and several innings under my belt, I signed.

My journey started in Rookie Ball in Peoria, Arizona. I threw one inning and then was called up to Short Season in Eugene, Oregon. After two starts I was called up to single A for my final stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana (the mid-West League). In 3 weeks I went from the East coast, down South, up North and finally the mid-West. Even though it was a little overwhelming, that’s what pro-baseball is about and something I will not have a problem getting used to. 

The differences between pro-ball and college are very subtle. College ball you swing metal bats, have three to five games a week and - I hate to say it - the strike zone was a pinch bigger. Pro-ball the zone is smaller, you play every day and you better know how to communicate somewhat in Spanish. The biggest difference (and by no means am I trying to deter anyone) is that once you sign, baseball becomes your job.

When you sign, you need to be prepared for the obstacles you will face and honestly the players you will be facing are more than 22 years of age. Nobody tells you that 60% or more of the players who are playing pro-baseball came through college, and that these are young men not just boys, That’s one very important thing I’ve learnt about Minor League baseball that they just don't tell you in Australia.

What are you focusing on during training at the moment? Any particular pitches you are working on?

If I told you I would have to kill you...

All jokes aside there’s no particular area I’m focusing on. I’m really just trying to push the envelope and compete every day. 

What are your hopes for the season - are you expecting to start, or to work in the bullpen?  What level are you hoping to reach?

My biggest hope is the be healthy for the year. I think that’s a hope shared by everyone who plays sport at a high level.

I've been a starter not only my whole college career but essentially my whole life. Right now the Padres plan would have me relieving. As for what level I am hoping to reach, the truth is I’m just happy to have my name above a locker somewhere. But I would be lying if I said I wouldn't want to be moved up if I am succeeding. 

Did you follow the ABL? What did you think of it? Did you consider playing in it? Will you play in future?

I followed the ABL very closely and I think it’s awesome that we have a national league back up. I really hope it’s here to stay! I think it’s a great opportunity for the Aussie talent to be seen on a bigger stage and promoting baseball can only be a good thing for the country.

At the end of the day, Aussie athletes are going to play Australian sports but it’s something you do need to try!

I would love to play in the ABL, I remember watching it in the late 90's out at Altona where the Melbourne Monarchs used to play. But that being said, it falls in a time when I need to be resting and preparing for my long season ahead so unfortunately I don't see myself playing in it anytime soon.  

Finally, can you give us the inside scoop on some of your teammates in the Padres camp....who should we be watching this year?

If i was to give you a handful of names of future big leaguers (2-3 years), I'd start with:
Jason Hagerty (switch hitting catcher)
Anthony Rizzo (1st Baseman)
Jedd Gyorko (3rd Baseman)
Matt Lollis (RHP) 
Miles Mikolas (RHP)

Josh is obviously a very balanced, mature and dedicated bloke, and I found many of his insights to the College system, and his experiences to be very interesting. He is certainly a real up-and-comer in the Aussie baseball ranks and definitely someone we will be keeping a close watch on! We wish you all the best Josh!

You can follow Josh on twitter @joshspence and facebook.  

Apr 2, 2011

Feature Interview with Aussie prospect Josh Spence - Part One

In June 2010, Geelong born Josh Spence was picked up as a 9th round draft pick by the San Diego Padres. Spence has a lot of experience playing baseball in the College system, and went to the College World Series. He battled some issues with an inflamed nerve in his elbow last year, and while he didn’t require surgery, he did take some time off. Spence has won quite a few accolades through the College system. He found Arizona State University’s program on the internet and flew to the States to take part in a baseball camp - this led to him being put into a junior college, where he was dominant. Over 2007 and 2008 he pitched in 27 games in junior college (starting 33), with an ERA of 1.40. He struck out 327 hitters over 270 innings, and had a remarkable WHIP of 0.88. 

In 2009 he moved to Arizona State and again put up some serious numbers, although had a few obstacles to overcome. He was struck in the face by a line drive, and also suffered a finger injury. In the end he compiled a 10-1 record over 18 appearances, with an ERA of 2.37. He went on to pick up a win in the College Word Series, striking out 16 hitters over 14 innings of work. He earned a lot of respect in Arizona, with Arizona State coach Pat Murphy noting ‘The most important thing about Spence is that in my 22 years in Division I baseball, he's possibly the most special kid I've ever been around’. ‘He's delightful, sensitive, caring, an extraordinary teammate and he comes over and plays with my son. It just seems like sometimes this kid is too good to be true. He's the type of guy I'm going to get emotional about when he finally leaves campus.’

After signing with the Padres in mid-2010, Spence appeared in 10 games through Rookie ball up to Class A. He compiled a record of 2-2, an ERA of 3.00 and struck out 42 hitters in 24 innings while walking just 7(!).

Josh is an avid user of both Twitter and Facebook, and actively takes the time to interact with fans over the internet. Recently he was kind enough to answer a few questions for OzMLBplayers.

Josh, you have a lot of experience playing baseball in the College system, and you went to the College World Series. Most Aussie baseball fans probably don't know a whole lot about College baseball. How would you describe it?

It’s very unfortunate that the baseball community in Australia is unaware of the world of college athletics, in particular baseball. It is a massive industry that has an incredible following not only by its alumni, but people who are passionate about their sport. I feel that people in Australia not only do not understand the jump from baseball back home (playing 2-3 times a week) to playing professionally (playing everyday); but also that what they're about to enter is a business. College baseball is the perfect stepping stone, not only to mature as an adult - both on and off the field - but to get used to being away from home and living in America.

I always thought that the best players just go ahead and play professionally as soon as they get their opportunity, but what I've come to realize is that’s not the case at all. In fact it’s the opposite; the player should go when they're ready. I feel people in Australia need to give college baseball a closer look. Now I understand not everyone has the luxury to enter professional baseball when they're ready because there isn't much of an audience – either scouts, or media coverage - in Australia. That’s the beautiful thing about college baseball, not only is your game under constant scrutiny, but you get a few more years to grow into the player you want to be. I could have signed as a young 17 year old who pitched once a week in his local state competition, but I signed as an experienced 22 year old who knew his strengths and weakness, had proven success against the same players who I will ultimately play through the ranks of professional baseball. And, I now have a college degree to fall back on in case baseball doesn't work out.

I’m very thankful that I took the college route and have been blessed to play at two very prestigious programs. I can’t help feel that college baseball is looked down upon in Australia, but its perception over here in the States couldn't be greater. After I turned down the draft for the first time, a scout came up to me and said ‘you can’t make the majors in a [Arizona State University] Sun Devil uniform’. What he forgot to mention is that only 1% of people who sign professional contracts actually make it to the major leagues.

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of signing [directly] but you need to be prepared when you enter pro-ball. So the best way to describe College is that it’s a place that will allow you to grow. For me it was more than getting my degree and playing baseball at a very high level; I learnt time management, how to budget and what I need to do to play baseball every day. I made contacts all over America and have talked baseball with people who I never thought I’d meet. I've seen a lot of America and have been very fortunate to play on some big stages in my collegiate career. I wouldn't have had these opportunities if I didn't take the leap of faith and go to college.

Tell us about the season in a college program. How long is the season? Do you spend a lot of time on the road?

The season is around 56 games and depending on where you're geographically located this could mean 15-20 games on the road or 30+ games away from home.

Being in Arizona (around the nice weather) we didn't need to travel much. I played two years at Central Arizona Community College (CAC) and two years at Arizona State (although my last year i didn't pitch due to injury). At CAC it is a state wide conference but we did play teams outside Arizona - but they would come to us to play. At Arizona State we played in the PAC10 (PAC meaning Pacific) and we played teams all up the West coast from California, Washington and even Oregon. At ASU we would fly to all our away games stay in big hotels and get treated like superstars, only to wind up back in class on Monday feeling like a regular Joe. We would pull more than 3,000 people every game and when playoffs came around those home crowds would get to around 5,000.  

When you're playing bad it feels like a long season but when you're on fire it couldn't be going any quicker. At CAC you're playing in a smaller conference with very little following, however I wouldn't have had an opportunity to play at ASU if I didn't go there first.

Do college players build much a profile or fanbase?

Most players are busy with school and honestly don't feel the necessity to be public figures in the community, but in my case I wanted to keep all my windows open and was highly involved in little league baseball camps. I was also involved in a few other things, including Sparky's Tour - Sparky is ASU's mascot and his tour involved talking with high school students about going to college

Tune in to OzMLBplayers.com for the second instalment in Josh's interview