Year One – Jordan Stephens

Originally published 12/22/15 on FutureSox.com

Year One - Jordan Stephens
Pitcher Jordan Stephens, AZL White Sox (Kim Contreras / Future Sox)

***This article is the first of a three-part series, covering a full year’s journey for three players drafted and signed in 2015 by the White Sox.***

This time last year, Jordan Stephens was a red-shirt junior at Rice University; shut down after suffering a setback in his first bullpen followingTommy John surgery. Today, he’s the newest addition to MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 30 White Sox prospects. It’s been an arsenal and a roadmap that has made the difference in the past twelve months; the same as he’s used throughout his young life. An arsenal of pitches – fastball, slider, change-up, and his devastating curveball and two-seamer duo.

Jordan’s path to success starts at his feet: firmly planted in a foundation of family, focus, and hard work. It travels to his heart, where champions are made. And it finally arrives at the control center from which all success is achieved: his mind.

I’m going to take a deep look at how 2015 unfolded for this 23-year-old right-handed pitcher from Alvin, Texas, but first let’s provide some background.

Alvin High School

Jordan Shane Stephens turned 23 on September 12th. He carries his athletic frame (6’1”, 190lbs) and graduated from Alvin High School in 2011 – where he played his home games on the field named after another Alvin native, Nolan Ryan.

According to Mike Rogers, former long time varsity coach for the Alvin Yellowjackets, the Jordan Stephens we see today is very much the same as he was in high school.

“Jordan was that quiet, confident player; always very focused. His teammates relied on him and his ability to be relaxed and focused, to be “the guy” in big moments of the game. He was the starter of our must-win games.”

On the mound his senior year, Stephens gave up 57 hits, including 6 doubles and 2 home runs, issued a measly 18 walks while striking out an even 100 – all in 65.4 innings. When he wasn’t toeing the rubber for Coach Rogers, Jordan also played shortstop or second base. His average was just below .300, with 11 hits, including a double and a home run, and he walked 5 times. On the base paths, he was a perfect 3 for 3 in stolen bases, swiping more bags as a baserunner than he allowed as a pitcher (1).

In his final prep season, Jordan’s fastball was 88-92 but, Rogers says, “he really enjoyed throwing his breaking pitches to rack up high strike out numbers.” Clearly, it worked: 100 of the 197 outs of his senior season came by strike out.

Coach Rogers also shares that when Jordan was younger, he worked with Brian Alexander from Alvin Community College, and Davis Pierce, former Rice Assistant coach. “He always knew he wanted to be a major leaguer. I couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishments and look forward to following his career.”

Rice Owls

Houston is 30 minutes or so northwest of Alvin, which made it easy for friends and family to support Stephens when he took the mound for coachWayne Graham and the Rice Owls. During his solid freshman season in 2012, he started 8 of his 14 games and struck out 40 batters in his 39 innings pitched.

In 2013, behind tournament MVP Stephens, the Rice Owls defeated the host Oregon Ducks in Eugene, before falling to North Carolina State in the Raleigh Super-Regionals. The Owls were knocked out of contention when they fell 5-4 to the Wolfpack in the longest game in tournament history – 17 innings. Jordan was the starting pitcher, allowed only one run and dazzled the NC State lineup (future teammates Jake Fincher and Brett Austin) for the first 6 1/3 innings. Ten innings later, Rice’s season was done. But momentum heading into 2014 was in the right direction.

This was also when White Sox Area Scout, Chris Walker, first saw the strike-throwing right-hander from Alvin. At the time, his arsenal included his fastball, velo up a bit to 90 – 93, and touched 95 at times; a two-seamer with good life at 89 – 92; his out pitch, as in high school, was his 11-5 curve ball; along with a slider and change-up to round things out.

About that first time seeing Stephens, Walker remembers: “He didn’t have his best stuff that day but be he mentally beat the team he was pitching against. At that point, I knew I wanted him to be in our organization.”

February 28, 2014

Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, was also the site of the weekend tournament Houston College Classic in 2014. Game 1 for Rice was against the rival Texas Longhorns. Stephens, the Friday night starter, was looking to extend his record to 3-0, all the better to be against Texas. In the first inning, he got the first batter to ground out, then a walk, a hit, a strike out looking and a whiff to end the 1st. Emotions were high but as usual, their starter was in control.

Bottom of the 2nd: Stephens looks to be in control… is he? I’ll let Jordan explain from here:

“I was already in so much pain, taking aspirin before and after every outing since fall ball. Earlier in the year (2013) I took off for winter, but when it was time for the season to start, I had to start with the aspirin. I was sore after every outing. Sore. But especially this game. When I came out for the 2nd inning, it was hurting. A lot. My velo was dropping but thankful to have gotten the first 2 batters out. Count was 2-2 to the 3rd batter, I threw what was supposed to be a fastball, and I felt the “pop”; felt like I just hyperextended my arm. It hurt a lot, but I didn’t grab my arm or anything. I had to get out of the inning. I just lobbed it up there, at like 68 miles an hour, and it was lined out to third base, thankfully. We walked back to the dugout. The catcher already said something to the coach about something not being right. Coach greeted me and I just said, ‘My arm’s done.’”

I asked if he had any doubt about what the “pop” was.

“No,” He responded, “it wasn’t attached anymore. It was hanging down here. I’m pretty sure I pitched all those games [in the fall and the 2 starts in February] with it torn.”

Hanging there. This is him showing me what that meant:

Jordan Stephens - UCL

 

In his typical, humble, understated yet ultra-competitive way, he knew that he would do whatever it took to return to the team and to continue playing the game he loves.

When Dr. Patrick McCulloch performed the surgery on March 6, 2014, Jordan said it felt as if he were in a unique situation; being so young and having this procedure. Within a month, though, thanks to fellow top draft prospects like ECU’s Jeff Hoffman, and of course the discussion about Brady Aiken’s arm health (one year before he had his UCL replaced) he learned how many of his contemporaries were joining him in the rapidly growing fraternity of Tommy John veterans.

Jordan is a smart, introspective young man. I asked him if he thought one of the reasons for UCLs needing to be replaced at an alarming rate and with decreasing longevity had anything to do with the 50 week baseball season (which is capturing the attention of middle school aged ball players and up now), without any hesitation he said, ”Yes.”

“Everyone nowadays is playing too much Select Ball. Never taking a break.” Kudos to Jordan for understanding.

I asked if he ever thought about playing football, to mix things up a bit. He said, “No. In high school, I never wanted to play football. I didn’t want to get hurt or be taken off-course. I had one goal, and that was it.” That last sentence, “I had one goal, and that was it” sums up this young man’s focus and drive to be better than the best he can be.

The details of his surgery prove that his maturity is not just mental. Here’s why: typically, the Palmaris longus tendon is harvested from the forearm and grafted in place of the old UCL. Because it is a redundant tendon, meaning it’s not used and as we humans evolve, some are born without one. Case in point: Jordan Stephens. Instead, his surgeons harvested Jordan’s Gracilis from the inside of his leg. This too is a less-than-necessary connector. The Gracilis, coming from the leg, is thicker and more durable than the Palmaris longus, which even to a layperson would sound like better, more durable option.

Instead of having one extremity to rehabilitate, Jordan was charged with both his right arm and his right leg. All conditions worked in his favor, though. It is common to experience a setback or two while rehabbing from this procedure. Jordan’s one and only setback took place last December – 9 months after surgery and just as he prepared to throw his first bullpen session. He was immediately shut down until the new year. When he returned to the program, all went as planned.

In fact, Jordan’s rehab progressed so well, and so quickly, he returned to game action in only 49 weeks. That’s 11 months, 1 week from surgery. Rehab guidelines and timetables vary by person, but a full return to game action, at the level where the patient was playing when he was hurt, on the most optimistic of time frames, start at 12 months. Is this one more example of how evolved Stephens is? Possibly. But one person who was not surprised by the efficient return was Coach Rogers:

“He’s always had an outstanding work ethic, so it did not surprise me at all that he was able to come back from Tommy John surgery in 11 months. His mechanics were always very simple and solid.”

Jordan’s signing-scout, Walker, however, wasn’t initially as certain as Rogers: “The quick return did concern me at first but after watching Jordan pitch for a few outings all concerns went away.”

Jordan vs the Longhorns – Take 2

February 15, 2015. The Texas Longhorns traveled to Houston to face the Rice Owls. Jordan Stephens wanted … no, he needed to get in this game and avenge his last outing almost a year ago.

Fast forward to the top of the 9th. The game is tied at 3, bases are loaded and no outs. Coach Wayne Graham makes his call to the pen and brings in the righty. For the first time in almost a year after major surgery, Stephens returns to the mound in competitive action, against the rival Longhorns, in a pressure-packed moment. So many emotions, so much adrenaline! Each factor alone is enough to try even the best of us. Not Jordan Stephens, though. Well…he may have felt the pressure, but it didn’t show and it didn’t impact his execution.

How did he perform? It took all of 12 pitches to end the inning. The drama doesn’t get much more intense. Then, to enter the game with bases loaded and, on TWELVE pitches, gets out of the jam and no one scores. This is a movie in the making! Even though Texas scored in the top of the 10th and won the game, the story of that day, was the emotional, dominant return of Jordan Stephens. He, again followed his roadmap to success.

Including his return outing, Jordan appeared in 17 games, for a total of 59.2 carefully monitored innings in his 2015 college season, most (11) as the starter. He gave up 51 hits, 30 runs (21 earned), 1 home run, allowed 17 walks, and claimed 75 strike outs. This was all completed within 15 months post-op.

MLB DRAFT

As the June draft approached, Stephens didn’t know where or by whom he would be drafted. Chris Walker did. As he decided the first time he saw Stephens pitch, Walker lobbied in the White Sox “war room” and the team grabbed him their 5th round selection (142nd overall), actually the team’s third pick of the draft (the club didn’t have 2nd or 3rd round picks this year). The Houston-area native signed for under the $380K slot, as is common practice in cases such as his, and he was now officially a South Sider.

“Jordan has to be one of the most mentally strong individuals I’ve ever met. He’s the true definition of a bulldog on the mound. If he doesn’t have his best stuff that day. He’ll just out-compete you.” said Walker.

When asked for an MLB comp, Walker readily admits the 5th rounder reminds him of former White Sox RHP Jake Peavy. “Both have great movement to their pitches and both are huge competitors.” When it comes to their personal lives, both pitchers are said to be humble and very family-oriented.

Walker concludes, “I’m looking forward to watching him progress throughout his career.”

AZL

The Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) is usually where young high school draft picks, later round college players, Latin American players in their first state-side look, and those who have strict outing limits are assigned. Stephens was most definitely on an innings limit. After his 59.2 innings at Rice; 14.2 in the AZL; 3 in the Pioneer League; and 1 during Fall Instructs. 76.4 post-Tommy John innings is enough for his first year.

I had the pleasure of seeing 5 of his 9 appearances in Arizona, as well as his single outing at Instructs. The first thing I noticed about Jordan was his impeccable posture as he comes set on the mound. The next thing I noticed was all the ground ball outs his induces. After a little research, given the small sample size, it turns out it didn’t take anything special to notice what a ground ball inducing machine he was.

For his professional debut, Stephens faced the offensive powerhouse known as the AZL Brewers on July 16th. His one inning came as the starter and when he got Milwaukee’s lead-off batter and 1st round pick, Trent Clarkto strike out swinging, Stephens was in the books. Outing number two was against the Athletics. He faced one over the minimum with 2 ground outs and a strike out. Essentially, if you just copy and paste that performance 9 more times, you’ll have his rookie season in a nutshell. Aside from his debut, Jordan would follow starter Christopher Comito’s 5 innings with one and then two of his own.

In addition to his impressive stats and performance, Jordan Stephens is a tremendous teammate as well – a “helper” by nature. When White Sox 1st round pick Carson Fulmer reported to Glendale in preparation of his single outing debut, Jordan spent a little time with him, including giving a ride to the facility. Rave reviews all around.

There is a small circle of the elite leaders in player development. The White Sox Director of Player Development, Nick Capra, is in that select group. His honest and insightful assessment of the skill and make-up of those under his charge earns him respect from far and wide in the baseball world.

I distinctly remember watching Stephens’ one and only inning during Instructs with Capra. As Stephens walked off the mound, I asked Nick his thoughts about the former Rice Owl. In true form, Capra replied, “I put him right up there with Fulmer.”

After his last outing in the AZL on August 26th, Stephens was promoted to Great Falls of the Pioneer League. Wonderful for Jordan, except that the AZL White Sox, of which he was a vital member on and off the field, was blasting through their post-season opponents (and a nasty Mother Nature, as well) on their way to their first AZL title.

As manager Mike Gellinger and the AZL White Sox defeated the Mariners in the championship game, Jordan was following along in Great Falls, but he was with his teammates in Arizona in spirit. He was especially happy for his good friend Chris Comito, who was outstanding as the winning pitcher of record. It would have been nice to have Jordan celebrate with his teammates and coaching staff that night. When the team is awarded their rings during spring training, Jordan will receive one, too, of course.

I should note that each conversation I had with Jordan throughout the summer always included his praise of the AZL coaching staff, and especially for his first professional pitching coach, Felipe Lira.

The Offseason

October 1st meant his first professional season was in the books.

AZL totals: 9 games, 14.2 innings, 44 outs, 52 batters. – 22 GO / 3 AO / 18Ks / 2BBs / 1 ER. As I mentioned, though it’s a small sample size, Jordan’s two-seam fastball has magical, ground-ball-inducing powers. Half of the outs he got were on the ground. He also averaged 1.2 batters over the minimum.

Great Falls totals: 2 games, 3 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, BB, 3 strike outs.

Jordan returned home to his family in Alvin in early October. Time to rest, reconnect with friends and family, and reflect on all that happened in the past year. It was also time to make plans for the future. Just before Thanksgiving, Jordan asked his longtime girlfriend, Katie, to marry him. The ring on her finger, the smile on her face, and in her Instagram post confirmed that she said Yes. This too will be a busy year for Jordan, leading up to the couple’s big day on October 22, 2016.

Thinking ahead on Jordan’s behalf, given the timing of the world series, I believe the happy couple will be spending more than one anniversary in a big league ballpark somewhere. That will be a very good reason to postpone a celebration.

Just as Coach Mike Rogers, and scout Chris Walker both expressed, Jordan Stephens from Alvin, Texas has an incredibly bright future ahead of him, and I look forward to following every step of the way.

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