A 33rd round pick in 2015 by the Los Angeles Angels from Cal State Dominguez Hills, left-handed pitcher Winston Lavendier is taking a somewhat-indirect path up the ladder of professional baseball.
After early success in the Arizona League (1.65 ERA in 27 1/3 IP), continuing on to the Midwest League’s Burlington Bees (3.16 ERA in 42 2/3 IP, 45 K), the 2017 season went completely sideways for the then-24-year old hurler (6.16 ERA in 57 IP).
A dominating Spring Training performance in 2018 somehow didn’t keep him in the Angels organization, and he was released near the end of March. However, a previous call in search of information on winter leagues drew attention from the Mexican League and led to a chance for Lavendier to reestablish himself as a prospect.
CR: Take me back to when you got drafted, back in 2015. What was that process like, for you? Were you just sort of waiting around to see when your name was called? How did it feel, sitting through that process, dealing with the anticipation?
WL: It was pretty nerve-wracking, because I knew a week before the draft that the Angels had said they were drafting me. They just never told me when they were picking me. I was like, “Am I going to get picked?” So, I had to wait 33 rounds. I was happy and excited, ready to see when I was going to get picked, and then I had to do stuff to distract myself from the draft. And then my name gets called.
Actually, I didn’t hear it. My little brother did, and he started freaking out, and I obviously knew what that meant. It was a pretty cool experience. So I started freaking out. My dad started freaking out. My grandpa, as well. So it was pretty cool.
CR: What did you feel your biggest strengths were, heading into professional baseball?
WL: Definitely the mental game. I studied psychology. I felt like I had a big advantage, in terms of the mental game. I would say that would be my strength. Also, having a funky delivery helps out a lot with the adjustment, because in the beginning I wasn’t a hard thrower. I’ve since built that up.
CR: Was there a particular adjustment that you made? Anything that really clicked for you, or was it just simple fundamental things that you worked on?
WL: Well, I decided to do DriveLine without letting the team know, because I didn’t know how they felt about it.
I was kind of hiding it, and I was just afraid that they were going to tell me no, so I just did that without telling them. And then once I did get the velocity jump in the middle of the season when I started it, they called me from the front office and said, “We know you’ve been doing weighted ball (exercises). We have no problem with it, but tell us what you did to get the velocity.”
I’ve heard a lot of mixed feelings about working with weighted balls, and it seems like people are either pro or con. I’ve seen both sides because I’m on Twitter. I follow a lot of people that are way against DriveLine. I’ve just personally seen my velocity jump, my arm bounces back very well, very well. I’ve never really had a problem in my shoulder or elbow, anything like that.
So yeah, it helps. I mean, I am big on having the right mechanics, and I study other pitchers’ mechanics. I had my own pitching coach at home (Kyle Brown). I’m big on mechanics, and I’m big on (lower half) drive.
CR: That was something that I wanted to ask you about. I’ve always had a real interest in the guys who can fill multiple roles in a bullpen; short man, long reliever, spot starter. Being able to do that and do it well is a huge advantage to any team. So you’ve never had any serious arm trouble, ever?
WL: When I was in high school, I had a little elbow trouble. But I had an x-ray and MRI, and it showed that there was nothing wrong with my arm. The doctor said it was tendinitis, and I needed to take maybe two weeks off.
Other than that I’ve never really had any issues with it. I feel like I take my arm care very seriously. And back to the mechanics part: my pitching coach is the one who taught me how to use my legs when I pitch. I feel like that’s a big thing, because most pitchers don’t know how to use their legs, they don’t get their legs involved much.
CR: That’s a huge deal.
WL: Yeah. I feel like it goes hand-in-hand with me being able to bounce back, as well. If I’m going to be sore the next day, it’s going to be my hamstring and my hip. That’s fine.
CR: Tell me about your first year in pro ball. Did you have any sort of preconceived notions about what you were up against? Had you heard any stories from anybody, any friends who had been in minor league ball before you, or did you just go into it with an open mind and take things as they came?
WL: I kind of went in blind, I guess, other than talking to my coaches and stuff like that. I mean, I just kind of kept doing what I did in college. Nothing different. It’s the same game. It’s just a higher level.
CR: Were there any particular experiences in that first year (2015) that really stuck out for you? Any particular moments?
WL: It was a pretty big shock I guess, because I used to go to the field a hour and a half before the game started, and then I’d warm up and it was pretty much time to go. Then in rookie ball, for a 7 o’clock game, it was practice in 110-degree heat. Arizona weather. Yeah. And then having to shag every round. It was a relief that I didn’t have to go into the game early, because of that. And so I’m out there five hours, six hours before the game, and working myself to exhaustion, then had to be ready to pitch by 9:30 because that’s when you came in, in rookie ball. I came in around the eighth or ninth inning.
It was a shock. It wasn’t like it was a lot harder, or anything. It was just completely different than what I was used to.
So I would say Arizona is no joke, with that heat.
CR: It seems like you cruised through that first season. Must not have been much of a challenge for you.
WL: It was all about having my routine. I already had that set before I went into the pros. So I just kept that routine. I do a good job of disconnecting after ballgames, when I need to, sometimes playing video games in my hotel room. I think that was a big help that I kind of got away from in the couple of years after that. I guess video games, for me, are a good way to reset my brain.
CR: Did you feel like it was a pretty big jump coming into 2016, going to Class-A ball, then High-A, playing with Inland Empire? Did it feel like the competition was measurably tougher?
WL: I feel like you could get away with more stuff (in Low-A). I went from the Midwest League to the California League. In the Midwest League, if you leave a fastball down the middle of the plate, they hit it pretty hard most of the time but they won’t get out of the yard. Then I go to the California League. They swing with their (expletive) out. So I guess, in that sense, you can’t get away with as much in Cali.
CR: When you were back in Inland Empire in 2017, what happened there? Did you have some adjustment issues? Any sort of minor injuries?
WL: No, I think it was a combination of a couple of things. I’ve never had any sort of injury issues. It was more mental.
Last year, I went through that spring training without giving up a single hit. The whole spring training. And I threw quite a few innings for the Triple-A squad. So I wasn’t facing rookie-ball guys. At the end of training I’m thinking, “Okay, for sure, I’m going up”.
I guess it rattled my cage when I went to High-A. I felt like I deserved to get called up.
But I think that kind of played into it. I was angry at the situation, and felt the way I was going to get to Double-A was to throw harder. I feel like I tried to focus too much on throwing hard instead of doing what I did my first two years in pro ball, when I was just pitching to my strengths. I’m not an upper-nineties thrower.
So I think instead of pitching, I was a thrower, and I think that’s what kind of messed me up. And then, also, I relied way too much on my fastball. I kind of got away from my out pitches, my curveball.
CR: When I called your agent, he said the Angels had released you a couple of days before the end of Spring Training. He also said that the GM of Acereros de Monclova in the Mexican League had been calling about you. Was this move out of the blue, for you? Did you expect somebody from the Mexican League to be calling about you?
WL: I got their number from one of my buddies a year prior, because I was trying to play winter ball, and so I had talked to the GM. I told them that I’m half-Mexican, it would be an easy transition. He said that he wasn’t involved in the winter league, but he would like me to play for him in the Spring. Both teams are here in Mexico, so he said he would stay in touch with me.
So when I got released, I told my agent (Derek Marques, of Lakeridge Sports Management) right away and he immediately called the GM in Mexico. It was that night that I had an offer from Mexico.
It’s pretty different from the US. My mom’s fluent in English and Spanish. She’s from Mexico. Whenever she would get mad at us, she’d yell at us in Spanish (laughs). I understood pretty much everything in Spanish. My mom’s mom, she spoke only Spanish. So if I wanted to have a conversation with her, I had to speak the language. I was never really top-notch. I took Spanish for three years in high school. Since I’ve come here, it’s become a lot better. That’s for sure.
Culturally here, it’s very different here. For example, the cops here carry around assault rifles, and every cop out here is wearing full battle gear. The kind you would see with SWAT teams, and it’s pretty crazy. And they all wear face masks, so you can’t see their eyes.
CR: Doesn’t it had something to do with keeping their identity secret? So they won’t be targeted by gangs?
WL: Yeah, exactly.
And the fans...the fans at the game are actually into (the game). I think there’s a drum line in every stadium, and they get there early and hang out throughout the whole game. But I notice that a lot of the fans in the States are on their phones during the game; they’re just completely distracted from the game. So I feel like the fans out here in Mexico, they get their money’s worth because they’re into every pitch. They’re banging on their drums. Just having a ton of fun getting into the game.
CR: One of the things I always liked about the Mexican League is that there are dozens of former MLB players on the rosters. They’re scattered all over the league.
WL: My throwing partner ended up being Phil Coke. It was pretty sweet, at the time, having Coke as my throwing partner, because we’re both lefties, and obviously he pitched something like nine years in the big leagues, so he knew what he was doing on every throw and all that. I give him credit to how well I’ve done so far this season, too, because every single day he’d be on me if I made a bad throw. He’d tell me I was throwing my shoulder open too soon, for example. He also helped me with my curveball a lot, because in the beginning I was losing it up and outside a lot. He made an impression on me in terms of the mental side of the game, too. He’s a fireball.
CR: Well, he always seemed to have that closer mentality, to me, and maintained that aggressive approach in any role in which he was used.
WL: Exactly. And he has that mentality on and off the field, as well. He did a lot to make sure that I had that same approach, and I feel like that’s helped me a great deal.
CR: So far, you’ve been pretty much lights-out. You’ve done very well (13 appearances, 12 IP, 9 H, 6 BB, 13 K, 0.00 ERA). I’d imagine that you might be thinking of a call from the States, somewhere in the back of your mind.
WL: It’s definitely something that’s on my mind. One of the things that motivates me to pitch well out here is to make it back to the States. I mean, it’s been my lifelong goal.
I grew up, you know, just a 45-minute drive from Dodger Stadium. So I went to a bunch of games when I was younger. Now I’m seeing a bunch of my former teammates that are getting called up right now, and you know, they’re doing well and I’m thinking, “Wow, I should be there.” And that gives me more motivation to not only meet my goals, but also to be up there with them.
I feel like I’ve just got to get back to doing what I did in my first year of pro ball. I need to really just have fun doing what I do, again. But I think it’s good that I made that jump from High-A to Triple-A. I guess I feel like it’s good for my resume and it just shows teams what I can do. And I feel like I’ve shown that I can fill any role a team needs me to fill.
CR: If I’m a GM in the States, I know there are a lot of guys down there who have tons of experience, guys who I can slot into higher levels in the minors or just sign and add to the 40-man, if necessary. But I wonder if some guys might lose focus because they might not have the same visibility that some players here in the US have, and wonder if they’re getting any attention. Do you think some players feel like they’re just going through the motions, sometimes?
WL: Yeah, some players will just tell you, “I’m just here to make money”, or “I’m just going to enjoy it all while I can.” And I think there are some players that have that mentality, that they feel they’re not going to make it back.
CR: Is there a story you’d like to share about your time in Mexico, so far?
WL: We were on a road trip, was about a five-hour bus ride to Laredo, Texas. Once you get out of Monclova, you pretty much lose your cell signal, and that lasts about three hours. We’re probably at the halfway point in the bus ride. We get stopped at a checkpoint. It’s a Marine checkpoint.
So these guys are not only fully armed, like the cops in Mexico, but on the back of a pickup truck there is a mounted 50-caliber machine gun pointed at our bus.
Now, our bus is unique because it has our logo on it, and you know that we’re a ball team. So one of the Marines comes up to the driver’s window and says, “Hey, we need to search your bus.” So he says “OK.” A Marine comes up the steps in our bus with a gun, and we’re thinking we’re pretty much ready to go ahead and tape anything that happens.
He tells us in Spanish that everyone needs to get off the bus, with their passports, and he says, “We’re going to search your bus,” so everyone just slowly gets up and gets off the bus. Then we waited for about 15 minutes for them to search our bus, and for some of the guys who brought their backpacks with them to get off the bus, and we all got in a single file line and we’re getting checked out by the Marines. They’re asking us each about our address, and so on, just to make sure we weren’t lying.
Then we get back on the bus, one by one, and the whole time they’ve got this 50-cal trained on us. It’s definitely something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure.