When native Tennessean Ethan Small stepped onto the campus of Mississippi State University in the fall of 2016, he did so as a highly-touted amateur pitching prospect with a blazing fastball and projectable frame. However, the lefthander’s first season as a Bulldog did not match the fanfare with which he arrived.
After only amassing 10 1/3 innings to begin his true freshman season, Small felt the pop in his elbow that signals one of the most devastating injuries any pitcher can experience.
The rising prospect underwent Tommy John surgery, putting him on the shelf for the remainder of his true freshman season as well as his entire true sophomore season. There was no certainty that Small would ever be able to regain premium velocity post-surgery, but that did not deter him from continuing to mature and develop as both a pitcher and person.
Small’s first action against live hitters since undergoing Tommy John surgery was in the fall of 2018. During that fall scrimmage season, his fastball lived in the mid- to high-80s, a far cry from the heat he was bringing two years prior as a lanky 18-year-old.
Despite the substantial dip in velocity, Small’s cleaner delivery and advanced changeup impressed his coaches and teammates enough that he was penciled in as the #2 starting pitcher on Mississippi State’s staff. This was a role he would maintain throughout a 2018 season that would include an improbable run to the College World Series.
Small went on to log 101 1/3 innings as a redshirt sophomore, recording 122 strikeouts and posting a very respectable 3.20 ERA in his first full season as a college pitcher. Small was selected in the 26th round of the 2018 MLB First Year Player Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks; he ultimately decided to put his professional career on hold and returned to Mississippi State for his redshirt junior year.
With former Mississippi State #1 starting pitcher Konnor Pilkington electing to begin his professional career after being selected in the 3rd round by the Chicago White Sox, Small entered the fall 2018 season as the presumed ace of the Bulldogs.
Throughout that fall season, Small routinely made quick work of his teammates – now brandishing a fastball that lived in the low-90s – and there was a palpable feeling in the clubhouse that he was primed to have a breakout season.
Small’s fall appearance proved to be no fluke. His final numbers for the season were staggering: a 1.93 ERA, 107 innings pitched, 176 strikeouts, and an opponent batting average of .164. In all, Small would strike out 42% of all batters he faced while only allowing walks to 8% of them.
Such a dominant season did not go unnoticed by both the amateur and professional baseball community: Small would be named the SEC and ABCA Pitcher of the Year and was selected in the 1st round (28th overall) of the 2019 MLB First Year Player Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
After Mississippi State concluded their second consecutive run to the College World Series, Small decided to begin his professional career and signed with the Brewers.
He would amass only 3 innings at the Brewers Arizona complex before making his affiliate debut for Single-A Wisconsin; Small would log 18 innings for the Timber Rattlers, giving up only 2 earned runs while striking out 31 hitters. Between his 2019 collegiate and professional seasons, Small amassed 128 innings, striking out 212 hitters while only walking 36.
While Small’s pitching ability has earned him plenty of praise and accolades, his willingness to adjust his game has been key to helping him stand out from his peers. Small’s delivery and timing adjustments became a regular feature on Rob Friedman’s @PitchingNinja Twitter account during his 2019 award-winning college season, much to the ire of opposing hitters.
Ethan agreed to sit down and chat with us about the origins of his delivery adjustments and how he uses reaction time to attack each hitter that steps in to face him.
1. You became a regular fixture on Rob Friedman’s Twitter account (@PitchingNinja) over the course of this past college baseball season, with many of your appearances highlighted by your use of different delivery looks and timing. When did you start experimenting with these different deliveries?
ES: My first time experimenting with the different aspects of timing and disruption came against Nick Madrigal in the 2018 College World Series. I remember looking up at the video board and seeing that he had only struck out five times all year. At that point, I was already thinking of what I could do to gain an edge. As a pitcher who favors the punch out, my go-to at the point was to try and create a hitch in his swing. Even the slightest flinch would be enough to throw him off and maybe get the ball by him. End of the at bat comes and boom, strike out number 6.
2. When you first started varying your deliveries, what was the feedback you received from your coaches and teammates?
ES: Initially, I think everyone kind of thought, “did he just do that?” I’ll admit now that when I first started to play with it that I wasn’t that great at it. But with all things, practice makes perfect.
3. What was the motivation behind adjusting your looks and deliveries?
ES: A lot of things contributed to the decision to implement different deliveries. The biggest being that any edge I could create for myself, even if it was slight, would pay out big over the course of a season. Also, I love to strike people out. So that’s a phenomenal form of positive reinforcement.
4. Every pitcher has their own routine when it comes to their deliveries. Did using different timings take some getting used to, or did it come naturally?
ES: It is definitely something that takes time to master, and I will admit that even still I can be better at it. When choosing to use different deliveries there is another aspect that many don’t think about. For example, you have to be able to throw every pitch from every wind up consistently for a strike. If I wasn’t able to do that then it would be blatantly obvious to the hitter what pitch was coming. If I was only able to throw my fastball out of those delivery variations then my stat line would definitely not show its effectiveness.
5. Warren Spahn had a great quote about the differences between hitting and pitching: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” As a pitcher who employs different timing in their deliveries, what is your mindset behind using hitters’ minimal time to react against them?
ES: For me it comes down to this: What is going to help be as successful as I can be today? If I can create the slightest bit of doubt in a hitter’s mind, then I’ve already won. If messing with hitter’s timing is an efficient way to do that, then everyone would be crazy to not experiment with it. In a game that is so rapidly falling in love with the long ball we as pitchers can still create specific advantages that work for us individually, and that is what I like to call pitch-ability.
All images courtesy of Kelly Donoho & Mississippi State Athletics.