As baseball fans, most of us love it when the sleepers pan out. A good recent case in point: Shawn Tolleson of the Texas Rangers, one of the bright spots in Texas this year with 29 saves, a 2.90 ERA and a 68/17 K/BB in 62 innings. Tolleson was not a spectacular prospect when he came into pro ball but he's done nothing but get people out since being drafted.
A college pitcher at Baylor University, Tolleson did not thrive statistically in the Big 12 ranks, posting a 4.95 ERA over three seasons (2008-2010) with a 188/93 K/BB in 209 innings with 234 hits allowed. He was used almost exclusively as a starter despite struggling with injuries, command, and general inconsistency. Scouts didn't like his herky-jerky mechanics though they recognized that he had arm strength.
Drafted in the 30th round as a redshirt junior in '10 by the Dodgers, he was moved to the bullpen in the Pioneer League and blew the competition away, posting a 0.63 ERA with a 39/5 K/BB in 29 innings. I filed this report for the 2011 Baseball Prospect Book based on the early numbers and from seeing him pitch for Baylor.
Shawn Tolleson was a 30th round pick last year, out of Baylor. He was inconsistent as a starter in college, but the Dodgers moved him to the bullpen, with stunning results in the Pioneer League, including excellent K/BB, K/IP, and H/IP ratios and a 2.29 GO/AO mark. Stuff has never been the problem: he works at 90-92 MPH with sinking action, and mixes in a very good slider. He had injury issues in college, but in the bullpen he should be more durable and able to maintain his peak velocity more readily. He’s already 23 so he needs to move fast, but I think Tolleson is a bullpen guy to watch. Grade C.
Move fast he did: he spent most of 2011 in Double-A, posting a 1.62 ERA with a 55/11 K/BB in 44 innings, saving 12 games. His velocity was up a bit and his command remained very sharp. The report entering 2012:
The Dodgers drafted Shawn Tolleson in the 30th round out of Baylor in 2010, following an erratic and injury-plagued college career. He moved to the bullpen in pro ball and has been extremely effective, zipping through A-ball and handling Double-A without problems last year. He has a 90-93 MPH fastball, a very good slider, and a vicious cutter that helped him hold right-handed hitters to a .176 average for Chattanooga. His deceptive delivery also crosses right-handers up, but lefties see him better and hit .342 against him. Tolleson has a good shot at being a solid middle reliever, and could even close games at some point if he finds a way to shut down lefties. Grade C+.
Tolleson spent most of 2012 in the Dodgers bullpen, posting a 4.30 ERA with a 39/20 K/BB in 38 innings. It wasn't a great year but it was credible enough to keep him in the relief picture. Unfortunately he missed almost the entire 2013 season with a herniated disc and hip problems.
The Dodgers tried to get him through waivers that fall but the Rangers claimed him. Healthy in 2014, he was a highly effective middle reliever then moved into the closer role this year after Neftali Feliz lost the job. In Texas he has a career 2.82 ERA with a 137/45 in 134 innings.
As noted in the scouting reports, Tolleson needed to prove he could handle left-handed hitters. He's done a decent job of that this year, holding them to a .242/.296/.394 line while still dominating right-handers at .208/274/.320. He used to be mostly a fastball/cutter/slider pitcher but this year he's been using his change-up much more often than in the past. As surmised back in 2011, he holds his peak velocity better in the bullpen and hits 95 now.
It remains to be seen how long he'll hold the job, but even if Tolleson never saves another game, he is a success story, going from the 30th round to major league closer. Never waste a draft pick.