Last June, the Detroit Tigers shocked the world — note the heavy sarcasm — with their selections in the 2016 amateur draft. To no one’s surprise, the Tigers took hard-throwing right-handed pitchers with their first four selections. At first glance, this may seem like a bad sign. It’s the same-old, same-old that we’ve seen fail time and time again.
However, a closer look at each of these selections will show that there were some sneaky picks woven in. One of those was of Mark Ecker, a right-handed relief pitcher taken out of Texas A&M.
Ecker served as the Aggies’ closer for some time when the Tigers selected him. He features an unusual profile for a closer, with the typical hard fastball, but also a changeup as his most advanced secondary pitch and very good control and command when compared to his peers. There was some talk of moving Ecker to the rotation, but that never came to fruition. It appears Detroit’s brass is utilizing his high floor and fast-tracking him to Comerica Park.
Ecker was kind enough to sit down with us here at Bless You Boys. Here’s what he said.
Bless You Boys: Have you always been a pitcher, or did you move from the field to the mound like some guys do?
Mark Ecker: Well, actually, I didn’t start pitching until my sophomore year in high school. They just needed another pitcher, and I always had a good arm from shortstop and the outfield, so I tried it out. After that I started doing all this travel ball and everything with the Banditos out of Houston and it just took off from there.
BYB: That’s certainly surprising, considering that your changeup is graded as one of your best pitches, and guys who start late rarely develop a good one.
ME: That? I gotta give all the credit to Childress for that, he’s a changeup guru over at Texas A&M. Honestly, I never had a changeup until last year, about two weeks into the season. We were playing against LSU and all of a sudden I threw a changeup for a strike, and it just clicked after that. I just threw it and it just felt like my best pitch, probably. I love it. [Changeups] really change the game, and it’s easily the best pitch in baseball.
BYB: Does that mean it’s the best pitch that you have?
ME: I don’t know. I really like throwing it, it’s just that I can throw it for a strike now.
BYB: Which pitch that you throw are you most confident in?
ME: My fastball, for sure. Having that hard fastball, it really sets up my changeup and now that I throw a sinker too, it’s really deceptive with the changeup.
BYB: You said in there that you throw a sinker, but I had never read that before. Will you please describe to me what your arsenal really is?
ME: I have a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a change up, and a slider.
BYB: Your slider is the farthest behind out of those four, right?
ME: Yeah, it is.
BYB: I was talking to one of the other guys who writes here on Bless You Boys about that, and we were curious, have you experimented with a cutter at all?
ME: I’ve been back and forth with it, but just recently in our bullpens, we’ve gotten to throw the slider for strikes. It’s actually a true slider now instead of the more hybrid breaking ball. I just decided that instead of throwing to the glove, I have to pick out a target, like the batter’s shoulder or something, and if I aim my slider in the right corner, it’ll be a strike more of the time. I’ve gotta change my plane. Ever since I’ve done that and worked on that, it’s worked pretty good.
BYB: What has been the Tigers’ main approach when it comes to teaching you and coaching you? Have they tried to tweak things yet or just allowed you to settle in and get used to the schedule?
ME: The rest of the season that I finished after I got drafted into pro ball, it was more just me getting introduced to pro ball and then I was just learning how to read swings and everything, that whole part. They wanted me to get into a routine. If I’m gonna be the closer over there or the seventh inning guy, then I need to have a routine each and every day, right when I get to the field or when I wake up, I get to have a routine. I just have to be ready every single day and then really impact the zone and throw a lot of strikes. There’s not many bad things that can happen when you’re throwing strikes.
BYB: What did you do to prep for the 2017 season?
ME: All offseason, I worked out with Alex Wilson, who is on the major league roster, and I also worked out with Boone Logan, who just signed with the Indians for a one year deal. Learning from them throughout workouts, I kinda figured out what it takes to pitch at the big league level, the work ethic that you need to [have]. I actually learned a lot. That’s actually where I learned my sinker pitch. It was from Boone Logan. We were just throwing one day out out the field and he said with my arm slot that if I changed up my two-seam grip a little bit, it would be a sinker for me and it worked out really good. I’ve been throwing it really good in bullpens.
BYB: Have the Tigers or either of those players spoken to you about spin rate?
ME: I haven’t done anything with spin rate yet, and I’m not sure we’ll ever do that, either. I know that’s a big thing in statistics now, though, especially with fastball spin rate, slider spin rate, curveball spin rate, and all that.
BYB: Another thing that has become popular among pitchers and analysts is weighted balls, like Driveline Baseball’s programs. I saw that you were at one point imitating some of Trevor Bauer’s warmups, which made me curious if you had looked into weighted balls.
ME: I know that’s a big thing. Yeah, ever since watching Trevor Bauer in the College World Series when I was a kid, I always wanted to optimize everything. I’ve really never been into the weighted balls that much, though. I use them sometimes, to just stretch my arm and get my arm moving a little bit, but I’ve never done a Driveline program or anything. I do a lot of band work, and a lot of shoulder programs, though.
BYB: Is that band work to maintain arm strength or improve flexibility?
ME: It’s kinda for both.
BYB: Anyone who is able to play baseball at your level obviously enjoys it. Who was your favorite player as a kid?
ME: I honestly really never had a favorite player. I lived out in the country, so I didn’t really get to watch much baseball. ... I guess Nolan Ryan, though, probably Nolan Ryan. He was a workhorse, and just attacked hitters. He was always fun to watch.
BYB: Is there anyone you try to model you game after?
ME: Not really. Well, who is it, Trevor Hoffman? Yeah. He just pretty much threw fastball/changeup. I just watched a little bit of video on him, and he kinda reminded me of myself because in college all I had todo was throw fastball/changeup and just mix it in really well.
BYB: What is the biggest difference between playing in college and playing in pro ball?
ME: Every day you’re going to have a game or something that night. You’ve gotta prepare yourself. In college, we had a nutritionist, and all these really healthy food buffets for athletics. In pro ball - in the minor leagues, especially - you’re on your own now. The hardest part is just staying healthy and keeping your body in shape, because when you get up every day, that’s what you rely on every day, especially through a long season. The key is just staying healthy. A lot of guys’ bodies just wear down from eating junk food, so even though it’s really hard to, you’ve just gotta do the best you can with what you’ve got.
BYB: What goals have you set for yourself for the 2017 season?
ME: For this season, I’m really just trying to stay healthy and... [while] my walk rates were really low, I want to work on commanding the zone, being able to go up and in on one batter just to set up my other pitches. It’s more commanding the zone than just [control]. Just being able to dot up, and be able to throw down and outside, up and in, and with my changeup especially, being able to locate that wherever I want. I feel like if I do that everything else will take care of itself.
BYB: My final question for you is this: what do you think is the most important thing to keep in focus in order to have a successful career?
ME: For me, it’s just staying healthy, for sure. If you’re not... able to go out there and pitch, you won’t be able to move up at all.