Name: Dalton Sawyer
Height/Weight: 6’5’’, 210
How Acquired: Selected in the 9th round of the 2016 MLB draft.
In his first full professional season, Dalton Sawyer pitched at three levels and finished third in the organization in strike-outs? Will Sawyer force his way into big league discussions in the near future?
The A’s 2016 ninth-round pick came to professional baseball with a reputation for versatility. The left-hander began his career at the University of Minnesota pitching out of the bullpen, and he was impressive in that role. However, as a junior, the Gophers needed Sawyer in the rotation to start the year. He put together some impressive performances as a starter, including throwing the first seven innings of a combined no-hitter.
Midway through the season, the Gophers had Sawyer go back into the bullpen, where he had pitched his first two seasons in the program. He made seven relief appearances before returning to the rotation to finish out the year.
After turning down a chance to sign with the Twins as a 27th-round pick in 2015, Sawyer returned for his senior season and he stayed in the Minnesota rotation all season. He threw a career-high 94.2 innings, posting an ERA of 3.33 and striking out 112. Sawyer moved up 17 spots in the draft when he went to the A’s in the 9th round.
Because Sawyer had thrown so many innings as a senior with Minnesota, he returned to the bullpen in his pro debut season with Vermont to limit his innings. He racked up 18.2 innings for the Lake Monsters and struck-out 26 while walking 10.
In 2017, the A’s stuck Sawyer in the starting rotation and left him there. Pitching as part of a rotation tandem for most of the year, Sawyer began the season with Low-A Beloit and dominated the Midwest League for the first half of the season. In 56 innings, he posted a 2.25 ERA and a 64:21 K:BB. Opposing batters hit only .178 against him.
On June 10, the A’s needed a spot starter in Triple-A, and they called on Sawyer despite his lack of experience. He more than held his own in that start, allowing three runs in six innings. After that start, Sawyer earned a more permanent promotion to High-A Stockton.
Sawyer continued to find success with the Ports during the second half of the year. In 66 innings, the left-hander had a 3.68 ERA and a 74:20 K:BB. He also made one more start for Nashville, although his second outing with the Sounds was a struggle (eight runs allowed in 2.2 innings). On the season, Sawyer finished with a 3.58 ERA and a 140:47 K:BB in 130.2 innings.
Sawyer’s success was even more impressive considering he was working on mechanical changes the second half of the season. A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson saw a lot of Chris Sale in Sawyer’s tall left-handed frame and three-quarters release. Patterson and Stockton pitching coach Steve Connelly worked with Sawyer towards the end of the season on a tweak to make Sawyer’s motion even closer to Sale’s.
A’s director of player development Keith Lieppman was impressed with how Sawyer dealt with the changes to his delivery and his three different minor league stops in 2017.
“He’s a real sharp kid,” Lieppman said. “To be able to handle going to Triple-A and move around is admirable and has also helped him. It’s given him a view of a lot of different levels. I think that sometimes it helps a mature guy who can handle it. It’s more information that can help him as he progresses. He handled it very well.”
Sawyer continued to work on the changes to his delivery during the A’s fall Instructional League. The changes involve Sawyer hiding the ball a bit longer by throwing across his body, and adding extension on his landing leg. Patterson was pleased with the progress Sawyer made.
“There are still some growing pains. Not that anyone is ever going to be able to pitch quite like Chris Sale, but his delivery was already similar and the pitches that he threw were similar, so it hasn’t been a real difficult transition,” Patterson said. “That’s not a bad guy to copy, but it also doesn’t have to be exactly like Sale. I think the combination of Dalton’s ability and what he can do and what Chris Sale has been able to do with his delivery, we are trying to get them similar. For the most part, it’s worked pretty well, especially with the fastball and change-up. If you would say, is there one pitch that is still a work-in-progress, I’d say it’s probably the breaking ball. But it is showing good signs, as well.”
Sawyer throws a hybrid breaking ball that could be called a slider or a curveball. It’s a big bender that also moves from one side of the plate to the other. The pitch is inconsistent, but it is an effective swing-and-miss pitch when Sawyer is throwing it well.
As a starter, Sawyer’s fastball sits in the 88-92 MPH range, but he has been clocked as high as 94 MPH as a reliever. He hides the ball well and his fastball tends to get on hitters quicker than most pitchers who throw it in a similar velocity range. Sawyer’s change-up sits in the low-80s and has downward action. He was far more effective versus left-handers than he was against right-handers in 2017 (lefties hit .111 versus Sawyer, while righties hit .266 against him).
How Sawyer’s breaking ball develops will go a long way towards determining whether he stays in the rotation or moves into a left-handed relief specialist role out of the bullpen. Sawyer was a 22 when he signed with the A’s and will be 24 throughout the 2018 season, so he was pitching older than his level with Beloit. However, if he starts the year with Double-A Midland, age won’t be a big factor in his development.
Although Sawyer came to pro ball with only one full year of experience as a starter, he proved durable in 2017. He should get every opportunity to remain a starter in 2018, but if he struggles in that role, he is well suited to move into a relief role. With the lack of left-handers in the upper-levels of the A’s system, Sawyer could move quickly as a reliever.
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