The White Sox have reached an interesting point in their rebuild. They are in a position where they can not only continue bolstering their major league roster for contention, but also stay ahead of the curve by adding to their organizational depth for the so called “next wave” of prospects.
On Wednesday night, first-year scouting director Mike Shirley and Co. continued the trend of going the college route by taking a southpaw with a lot of upside in Garrett Crochet. The Tennessee Volunteer helps fill a major need in the system – left-handed pitching – while also having good enough stuff to appear out of the bullpen as soon as this season. Though he doesn’t necessarily boast the same track record as other starting pitchers at his level, there is no question that Crochet has the tools and potential to make him successful professionally. In order to get a deeper understanding of this year’s first-rounder, who better to turn to than those who know him best – Tennessee’s head coach Tony Vitello and pitching coach Frank Anderson.
Crochet made a name for himself during his time at Ocean Springs High School in Mississippi. He was rated the state’s best prep pitching prospect, and went on to be selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 34th round (1014th overall) of the 2017 draft. Not quite ready for the pros, he opted to attend college locally in the fall, despite not having a Division-1 commitment. Given his success, appearances at summer showcases, and the Vols’ two newest coaches scrambling to complete their roster after arriving in Knoxville during June 2017, there was a lot of interest.
Head coach Vitello stressed the importance of bringing a winning culture to Tennessee immediately, which led to him and Anderson building their roster with a focus on the fall. Once word of Crochet got around, they found themselves the perfect player who could be a part of their long-term future. “It was already late June and Frank has Texas ties, he won a national championship with them,” Tony explained. “I coached at TCU, and recruited in Texas non-stop, so we saw Garrett at this event in Houston at a complex called the Houston Premier.”
“He was pitching for a guy that we both had a connection with,” the head coach continued. “He said, ‘man I really like [Garrett] and right now, he is set to go to a junior college.’ Now, the draft had already taken place and the Brewers took him, so you knew what you were seeing with your eyes was legit, but he did look like your standard, skinny lefty. He was kind of raw but we recruited him and eventually the University of Texas got in the mix.”
The difference-maker throughout the entire process turned out to be the veteran Frank Anderson. The pitching coach reflected on recruiting the now 11th overall pick. “I thought he could pitch for us as a freshman. We really didn’t have…very many numbers that actually threw it from that side so we needed to get a left-handed pitcher and yeah, I tracked him down and went all over the country. We were very fortunate to get him and I’d be lying if I told you I knew he would end up like this. I thought he had a chance to be pretty good… but you never know for sure how this thing is going to play out, and honestly, he has one of the better arms I’ve ever had.”
The new coaching staff officially got their man just a few weeks after settling into their new digs. Garrett Crochet announced his commitment to the University of Tennessee in early July with this tweet.
The Early Years
Upon his arrival in Knoxville, Crochet was described by the Volunteers’ head coach as being like a “baby deer” given his tall and slim figure. He eventually grew more into his body and progressed as time went along. “He was playing catch in our football indoor one day in the winter and [Jeremy] Pruitt, our football coach, walked up and said, ‘I don’t know much but I’m willing to bet this is your best guy,” Vitello reminisced. “So it was pretty obvious what was there. The exciting thing is, you know – like [Jared] Kelley, if he would have showed up on a campus, [he] would have been, right away, like the man. Garrett came from that kind of infantile stage of pitching and physical development to what he was when coach Pruitt made that comment. He’s still kind of on that incline in a lot of different areas so he’s got a lot of potential.”
Elaborating further, Tony said, “He showed up as a guy with potential and towards the end of his tenure here, he developed into a guy that quite frankly, all of his teammates were in awe of. The cool thing about Garrett, being a humble kid off the field, is we joke behind his back that he’s the last one around here to figure out how good he really is and he’s starting to sense that. It’s a good thing because it’s bleeding into the confidence on the field, which is really important.”
As for his stats, both coaches made it clear that fans should not be discouraged by the lack of track record. “People shouldn’t pay attention to his numbers,” Tony said. “I don’t know if you’ve looked at them but they’re not like awe-inspiring, his ERA and things like that. And that’s our fault. When we first got here we weren’t any good, but we knew he was so we kind of almost asked too much of him with all these different roles that we put him in. He was a closer and a situational guy and a starter. There was never really any consistency because he was just a hybrid weapon for us.”
“When you use a guy like that, it means he’s in the biggest moments more than anybody, kind of like a closer,” said the skipper. “When it didn’t go well, he couldn’t care less about himself. He felt like he let his teammates down, and that’s where his negative emotions would come from. Then when he did well, which he did several times and got us to our first postseason win in 14 years, he was all about the team and didn’t want to do post-game interviews or get personal attention. That’s why he didn’t have a webcam during this whole thing. He just wanted as many teammates and coaches and family members as possible to be there and celebrate. He’s a neat kid and I think if he can perform the way is possible on the field, he’ll end up being a person in the community in Chicago too.”
One thing that Garrett has been known for is his toughness. That truly came on display in Tennessee’s 2019 NCAA regional game where the lefty pitched despite being hit in the face and breaking his jaw just two weeks earlier. Head coach Vitello remembers how things transpired after the incident. “Now that [Garrett] was off the field and in the dugout, he says to our trainer, ‘man that kind of hurt,'” Tony said. “He was kind of being smart-aleck and it was almost comical, but he wanted to get it assessed and I don’t think he really had his bearings. But he didn’t want to rule out that he was finished in the game and that was insane. He went back to the training room and I’m kind of nervous and like, why is this kid in the training room, we need to get him to the hospital.”
After going to the hospital, that’s when the severity of the injury set in for Crochet. Though, it wasn’t enough to stop him from wanting to compete. “I was more worried than ever about just the kid’s well-being as opposed to what was going to happen on the field,” Vitello continued. “He comes back, he’s not really eating, but he still wants to pitch and again, he didn’t want to let the team down. So he comes back two weeks later, gets us a win, and then pitches the next day too in relief and pitched well. What it means for fans, and no disrespect to the high school kids, but you really don’t know what you fully got there cause they haven’t been pressed like these college kids have. Not only was he in college and in the toughest league in the country, but he had all of these trials and tribulations and so it means he’s been fortified a little bit. It’s kind of like sharp and steel. By no means does he have it all figured out yet and he’s got some lessons to be learned, but I think he’s a stronger person and player because he’s dealt with a lot of those setbacks.”
These setbacks have Crochet’s coaches confident that he has built the toughness that is required to compete at the next level. “It is the big leagues and it is Chicago and I think he’s in a good position to handle stuff like that,” Vitello said, “whereas if you would have just drafted him out of junior college or high-school, I don’t know that we can say that.”
For both coaches, there was no question the pitches in his arsenal were really special. “As far as the stuff, I’ve had a bunch of high-level draft guys and a bunch of first-rounders and his stuff is by far the best I’ve ever had,” Anderson said. “My son (Brett Anderson), I think he’s going on his 12th year in the big leagues, didn’t have this type of stuff. He had a little better slider, but he didn’t have this type of velocity.”
One thing that’s helped Crochet get the attention of scouts this past fall was his fastball in practices. After it clocked in around the mid-90s during the spring of 2019, it had suddenly gained some velocity to sit between 96-100 mph. Anderson attributes that change to the lefty’s improved work ethic among other things. “We made a couple mechanical adjustments but the main thing was he dedicated himself to the weight room, his diet, and the process of getting better on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Vitello echoed the same sentiments by saying, “I think it starts with the modifications and the work with Frank, but where it really took off is when he kind of binded himself and formed a strong relationship with our strength coach Quentin Eberhardt.”
The White Sox first-rounder decided to put in the extra work this past summer after suffering the jaw injury, which also led to his decision to prioritize his future over a chance to play for Team USA. Anderson credits that as being the catalyst for his major change: “It became a day-to-day process of things that you got to do to be successful. I mean, he had a good arm before. He was up to 95, maybe touching 96. But now his changeup is 88-91, it’s faster than his fastball was when he got here.”
Vitello recalls the weight he put on and even compared his build to another Major League pitcher. “I believe he put on 11 pounds of muscle from the time he recovered from his jaw till now. You’ve seen video of him as a freshman. He looks like a baby deer. Now, he looks like Jeff Samardzija did, if not more physical. He looks like an NFL wide receiver.”
As for his collection of offspeed pitches, the Volunteer is known for his nasty slider, which he modeled after former White Sox first-rounder Chris Sale. However, it’s the changeup that has the pitching coach’s attention moving forward. “He’s got a good slider and the changeup is the one for me that has the chance to be an above-average secondary pitch,” Anderson said. “It has depth to it, it takes off, it’s got some run late before it gets to the plate, and it’s firm. I mean, it’s not a huge difference in the velocity but the fact that it comes out like his fastball, it almost works like a really good two-seam fastball. Then you have an 85 to 87, 88 mph slider and a curveball that is a workable pitch that he can throw for a strike. To me it’s his fourth best pitch, but it’s still a workable pitch.”
“On the field, he’s very competitive and he likes to have the ball in his hands in the big part of the game.” the pitching coach said. “He’s not afraid. Our first year here as a coaching staff and the first SEC game of our careers and his career also, we throw him out there and start him at Ole Miss in the state he’s from, which probably is not fair to him. And he beats Ole Miss on Friday night as a freshman. So, the competitiveness is there. Sometimes he can get over-competitive and you have to be able to control your emotions, but I’d a lot rather it be that way than try to light a fire under somebody.”
In addition, Anderson also praised Garret for his love of the game. “He likes to be at the yard, and there’s a lot to be said for that. I’ve watched this thing with my own son, and I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but 162 games is a grind and you got to enjoy coming to the yard, being part of a team, and enjoy your teammates. He likes to be there, he’s a good teammate. The guys like to be around him, they gravitate towards him, but he’s also got some humility about him. I think it’s a good fit.”
Crochet’s head coach described him as having a “big league locker room personality” while in Knoxville. “He’s a goofball. He makes funny comments. He’s not afraid to laugh at himself, but on the field, it’s almost like he’s become a different person,” Vitello said. “[His teammates] all say the guy’s a dog now and that’s a big compliment from a young guy to another young guy. So they talked about him being a dog on the field or a warrior on the field.”
Tony also described his relationship with Garrett as being a little different than the one he developed with Anderson. “My personal relationship has been pretty cool getting to know him because Frank’s the one that really grinds away with him on the field, baseball-wise. I have more of a personal relationship and he’s really a kind-hearted kid.”
“He’s very aware of what other people are thinking and feeling and he’s incredibly respectful. You’ve already heard the ‘yes sirs’ and ‘no sirs’ out of his mouth. His family has done a really good job with him. All in all, I think that coaches, teammates, and everyone that works with him at the school would see him as someone who’s really matured. I mean, he started out in a good spot, but again, a goofy lefty that’s a young kid from a small town, he’s come a long ways for someone who’s matured.”
One thing that has been a concern expressed by many White Sox fans is Crochet’s shoulder. With reports saying he experienced “soreness” this past spring, many have irrationally jumped to conclusions and assumed the worst with his injury. However, that’s not the case. Coach Vitello helped to clear the air and described the situation in detail.
“There was never an injury,” he said. “There was one pitch that didn’t feel good and if anything, Chicago fans should take refuge or have confidence in the fact that he can pitch in cold weather. It was like 40 degrees out, but we [have] to get him out there one more time. This is the last scrimmage before the season starts.”
“It’s in the third inning and the pitch was actually 95 miles an hour on the radar gun – the pitch he referred to that didn’t feel great,” said Tony. “Well, I actually talked to the Cubs trainer and other trainers too that point. He said, ‘I’m willing to bet here’s what happened. It’s like if you ground out to third in 40 degree weather and you run to first, there’s a pretty good chance your ankle or your quad or your hammy doesn’t feel as good as it normally does cause it’s 40 degrees out.’ But the fact that we’re talking millions and millions of dollars on the line kind of got into Garrett’s head a little bit, so all of a sudden, he is self-diagnosing himself as being injured.”
“Our trainer Woody,” he continued, “comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, he’s fine, I’m just telling you he’s fine.’ Well, if our best player feels like he needs to be looked at, we’re going to look at him. He gets looked at by the doctors and he hasn’t thrown for a couple days. Now, he’s got to do some things to increase flexibility and all this stuff before he can throw again. Well, the season just started so now it’s kind of turned into a, there’s no point in rushing this kid, there are millions of dollars on the line and we need to make our money in the SEC, not in non-conference play. So therein lies the overly cautious coach who also dealt with Max Scherzer and his draft year… and then also Matt Purke. I was fortunate enough to be in those two bad situations, and I think it helped with this one.”
“The doctor, when [Garrett] met with him, said you’ve put on all this extra muscle and added this velo, there’s a lot of stuff going on in your body when you throw baseball. It’s going to be normal to be sore for something to not feel well. Literally, what we had was one pitch kind of set off an alarm of, ‘man I hope my future is not jeopardized by this.’ And, who could fault a kid. I don’t care if you’re 24 or 17, who could fault a kid for feeling that way when we’re talking about the first round.”
“We went with the cautious thing and Garrett soon after that day, who didn’t feel great, realizes he feels fine and he’s like, ‘I want to pitch, I want to pitch.’ From those other two experiences, we went with the overly cautious approach. We did it because we didn’t know the virus was coming. We wanted to him to start that first SEC weekend at South Carolina and we never got on that bus.”
The MLB Draft
The two coaches are no strangers to having players not only drafted, but drafted high in the first-round. Vitello shared what the special moment was like to hear one of his guys’ named called. “Your energy instinctively just all goes into the family cause it’s life-changing. When you’re a first-rounder, that means it’s life-changing money but it’s also a life-changing opportunity. Call it what it is, a kid in the 10th round is not going to get the opportunity and attention from a big league club that a first rounder will, and that’s just the way that it should be and the way that it is.”
“There were times where Garrett, like other kids, almost felt the burden of ‘don’t you realize how good you can be, how much money you can get,’ you know. It’s a good thing because we all want to be in that situation but be careful what you ask for. When you’re in that person’s shoes, it’s got to be pretty freaking stressful so there’s also a sense of relief cause with some of these questions about the way I handled, and it’s my fault, but the way I handled the “soreness,” you never know. He could have slid later but Mike Shirley, credit to him, man. First year, and he’s throwing his stones out there on the table and saying I believe this is the guy and I love that about how the Sox went about it.”
When asked about Shirley further, Vitello shared that he knew of him since he started coaching at Missouri and talked about the Chicago scouting director’s persistence leading up to the first-round. “He was a scout that was well-positioned in baseball and he was kind to me out in California when I first met him. We had that relationship a little bit there but he was relentless with this situation. I was on the phone with him at 11:30 on the night before the draft and he was doing his job. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say he wore me out with this whole thing. I’m a big believer in hard work and Garrett got himself into this position with hard work, but also I think Mike Shirley got the White Sox the pick they did because he worked his butt off and so that makes me feel like it will work out.”
When it comes to Garret Crochet’s future, some believe that he could be better suited for a late-innings role given he split time with the Vols as a reliever and starter. However, Tennessee’s pitching coach doesn’t believe the bullpen should be his starting point. “He got a little bit of a bad rap because  was our third year here and when we got here, we basically had to try to do some things to get some wins,” Anderson said. “We were replacing the staff and doing a lot of different things so he started some and relieved some. We used him where we had to, to try to win some games. Then last year as we got better, we finally could just throw him into the starter’s role and then he got hit in the mouth and so he relieved for us.”
“I think he can be a starter,” continued Anderson. “Like I said, I’ve seen him with some other guys that I’ve had and at that level, you can kind of get by with two pitches, kind of. You really need three pitches to be a starter at the big league level and then have command of them. I think he can, but I also think that with the new rules on having to face more than one hitter, and you have to stay out there a certain period of time and this or that, he can get both left and right-handers out. There’s a lot of different ways they can use him, but I would try him as a starter myself right off the bat.”
As for Vitello, he believes that Crochet can be an immediate bullpen piece if necessary, though also sees him testing the role of a starter long-term. “Any time you compare a guy to someone that’s been so successful (Chris Sale) it can put some harsh pressure on a kid but hey man, that’s Chicago Sports. I coached a kid named Brandon Finnegan when I was the pitching coach at TCU. ‘Finny’ was the first kid and the only kid to pitch in Omaha, the College World Series, and then the actual World Series with the Royals. I said to several scouts, including Mike Shirley, if Finnegan can do it, I know this kid can do it. If the White Sox had a special season going, he could be a little X-factor this year but it would probably have to be out of the bullpen. He’s still got to learn some things but eventually, he’s got the durable body, the athleticism, and the strike throwing ability to be a starter in my opinion.”
On behalf of the entire Sox On 35th crew, I would like to thank both Tony Vitello and Frank Anderson for their candidness in sharing their insight with us. Garrett Crochet has all of the ingredients to be a big piece of this White Sox team moving forward and should have many fans excited for what he brings to the table.
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Featured Photo: Tennessee Baseball/Twitter