SAN ANTONIO — Despite missing much of the first half of his 2017 season with a painful groin injury, right-hander Jake Nix emerged as one of the more dominant pitchers in the system.
He threw well in the Double-A Texas League playoffs and made his Triple-A debut with El Paso in the championship series, delivering one of his best performances of his short career, throwing six and two-thirds innings while giving up only a single run. His performance moved him up to number nine in our offseason rankings of top Padres prospects.
Then this spring, two days before he was supposed to arrive at his first major league camp, the groin injury flared again, and he was unable to pitch.
“To say I was devastated doesn’t fully capture how upset I was,” said Nix, 22, before a recent game in San Antonio.
“Coming in limping was not how I wanted to show up.”
The Padres and Nix went through a variety of options, including multiple cortisone shots before he was finally able to pitch without pain and begin the year. He made his first appearance on May 30 and seemingly didn’t miss a beat from last season. Nix gave up a grand total of one earned run in his first three starts and so far this season, he has produced a a 1.79 ERA and 33 strikeouts against only nine walks in 45.1 innings over eight starts.
“After his third start here, I told someone that if the Padres asked me who could make a spot start from here, I wouldn’t hesitate to say Jake Nix,” said his manager Phillip Wellman.
“He’s that close.”
At six-foot-four and a solid 235 pounds, Nix looks like the prototypical pitcher. For the past two years, he has had the highest average velocity of any starter in the Padres’ system to go along with a very good changeup and curve.
“His changeup is great, he commands his fastball,” said Wellman. “But Jake is somewhat like Chris Paddack in that he really likes to compete out there.
“Nix is really funny off the field, great sense of humor. But when he toes that rubber, he is a different guy.”
His fastball sits in the mid-90s and he can dial it up to 98 to go along with a changeup that comes in around 80 to 82 and a curve that is 77 to 80.
“I have been toying around with a slider, and I like where it is going right now. I’m probably going to start to throw it in the next few starts.”
The Padres drafted in the third round of the 2015 draft after he spent a post-high school year at the IMG Academy when his deal with the Houston Astros, who selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, fell through.
With San Diego, he has steadily advanced up the system, but last year in Double-A was the first time that he ever struggled.
“Even though the numbers didn’t really show it, I got hit hard in a game against Frisco last year,” said Nix on a July outing when he gave up three earned runs in four innings. “Getting your head kicked in is part of the process. I think after that I didn’t give up more than an earned run in a game for the rest of the season.
“The big change was I just started becoming overly aggressive on the mound. In fact, I found myself making weird noises out there,” laughed Nix. “I was so amped up and angry out there. I’m just trying to shove it down everyone’s throat. I’m not trying to hurt anyone, but I’m also not afraid to throw up and in to get them off the plate. Sandy Kofax said that pitching is the art of instilling fear and no one wants to see 95 coming at their head.
“I try to keep that in mind when I’m on the mound.”
Talking with Nix, it becomes quickly apparent that he not only really likes to pitch but can go into as much detail as anyone on mechanics or the different approaches he takes to get hitters out.
While he is a big fan of the information that scouting reports provide, his most important feedback is what he can see in front of him.
“I prefer my live feedback, watching what a hitter is trying to do when I’m on the mound, over a scouting report,” Nix said about processing information. “I like to discuss with my catcher what we are trying to do to the guys we are facing, and we do rely on the scouting reports, but we also have to be aware of what is happening on the field.
“For example, if this guy can hit the inside pitch, then we go inside and we need to go up and in.”
With Nix, the talent has always been there, but he believes the biggest change this season has been his new attitude on the mound that occurred after he got “his head kicked in.”
“The biggest thing is maintaining that aggression on the mound and not being afraid to attack guys and go up and in. Last year I was a little timid when I first got here, but now I know I can do this because I’ve been here before and can bounce back from a bad start.”
The Padres’ organization believes the most important pitch to master is the fastball down and away. But as Triple-A El Paso pitching coach Bronswell Patrick will frequently point out, that also means pitchers must be able to command the inside portion of the plate to get that pitch. It’s a philosophy of which Nix is also an enthusiastic proponent.
“That is one thing that I really communicate with our catchers because we can get heavy with the fastball down and away. When I start seeing guys diving out over the plate and fouling off pitches that are clearly off of the plate, it really bothers me.
“The way I look at it, that means the next pitch is coming in at your chops, right under the chin.”