In his second stint with the Fort Wayne TinCaps, All Star Travis Radke is thriving in a bullpen role, leading the team in strikeouts per nine innings and leading the league in swinging strike rate.
In addition to the feature piece on his transition from starting to relieving, we wanted to share an extended Q & A with Radke, who was gracious enough to share some intriguing insight into both his transition to the bullpen and his continuing success.
MadFriars: Can you describe your all-star experience for us?
Travis Radke: It was incredible. I had a great time getting to meet a lot of the players from other teams and make some friendships in some different organizations. From an all-star experience in general, I hadn’t been on an all star-team since 2012 in college summer leagues, so for me, it brought back a lot of cool memories and was exciting to have that whole treatment of getting to represent the TinCaps and the Midwest League. I also thought Lansing did a great job of putting on a good show.
MadFriars: Coming back from Tommy John, is an all-star selection something you envisioned happening?
MadFriars: Definitely not… and certainly not in the Midwest League of all places. But as I have learned from surgery, you can’t really predict anything from there on out and about how the process goes and where you end up getting placed. For me, the main goal was to come back to a healthy place, and I feel like I have been able to do that. I have obviously had to reinvent myself a little bit in the way that I pitch , and there are still some things that I’m trying to get back to where they were before the surgery, but all in all, I am happy with how things have progressed so far.
MadFriars: Do you feel like you have returned a 100 percent?
Travis Radke: I would say that I am pretty close to 100 percent in terms of velocity, and I would actually say that my command is a lot better than it was prior to surgery. … I remember it was my first pen with 25 pitches off the mound, and I was pretty much hitting every single spot, and there were some people there who couldn’t believe that was my first pen in 13 months. So from there on out, I just minimized my delivery, worked on a couple of different things and learned how to have a higher focus in those bullpen sessions. And for some reason, the command just came back better than ever.
MadFriars: Did you have any say in the move from starter to bullpen or did the organization simply think it was best path?
Travis Radke: I don’t think I really had a say in it. I think normally, in most professional organizations – in the the little experience I have – when you go through Tommy John and you were a starter, depending on where you are ranked in the organization, I think for the most part, they kind of want everyone to be like a reliever when you’re first coming back because they want to control your innings and your pitch count.
Of course, you don’t want to get out there throwing an inning and have to call on your bullpen early in the game to bail you out. I think after my season in 2015 the best way for me to stay healthy and be as successful as possible was in the bullpen, so while I didn’t have a say necessarily, I think I would have chosen the bullpen. To be able to face a guy only once or twice in a game, let’s throw everything that I have at them and have a better chance of being successful.
Before surgery, they were working on me just throwing the fastball and changeup through the first three to four innings before I even brought the curveball into the mix, and while that played at short season and Fort Wayne, those two pitches during those innings didn’t really play when I moved up to Lake Elsinore. And as a starter, I felt myself fatiguing and getting tired out, pushing my fastball down to 83-84 mph by the end of the season, which I know wasn’t going to play…so being able to relieve and have my stuff in the upper 80’s gives me a chance to succeed at this level and hopefully the next couple of levels.
MadFriars: How have you begun to attack differently as a reliever?
Travis Radke: As a reliever, especially in the position I have been able to retain here in Fort Wayne, I will usually be pitching in the eighth or ninth inning when it is crunch time, so hitters are going up there at times with a different approach than they would be early in a game when they are feeling out a pitcher and looking for certain pitches. At that time later in the game, I feel like a lot of them are hunting for that big hit or trying to sit on one pitch and wait until they get it. For me, it is trying to figure out what they are looking for in my arsenal and trying to exploit that. When I am up pitching, it’s trying to keep them off balance as possible and throw as many swing and miss pitches that I can because you’re pitching as much to contact in the eighth and ninth inning as you are for swings and misses. But at the same time, you can’t be walking guys either because every runner counts in that situation, so it’s trying to find a way to attack them early with location and sequencing that causes more whiffs.
MadFriars: You are constantly altering your delivery as well as your fastball velocity. Has that always been a part of your game or is something that you have recently implemented?
Travis Radke: I think it certainly helps me as a guy who only throws in the upper 80’s, being able to quick pitch, being able to hesitate. In the last three years or so, I’ve developed more of quick pitch slide step that I thought really got a good jump up on hitters, but I didn’t have a hesitation until short season last year when one of our coaches suggest it. We were facing a pitcher who was just beating the crap out of our hitters and who was doing a hesitation a lot, and my coach said, ‘why don’t you do that? You already do all these other things.’ I was like “good idea, i’ll try that out.”
During the first week of spring training before everyone reported, I started working on it to find out how much of a leg kick I should really do to still maintain my composure, and my balance, and my load. The beauty is that a lot of guys only have one fastball, but for me, if I have a quick pitch and a hesitation, that basically creates three fastballs for me, so I can use those in conjunction, and when I feel like guys are starting to key in on every time he quick pitches, he is trying to blow a fastball by me, I’ve been working on doing the exact same thing and throwing a changeup and its really easy to get swings and misses because they try to speed everything up and they don’t even realize the ball is coming in slower.
MadFriars: Do you prefer to enter the game in high leverage situations?
Travis Radke: Obviously, everyone wants to come in during the big situations and get the win, and nobody wants to come into the situation and blow it for their team, so I still feel like I am growing into pitching in those sort of situations, especially in the ninth inning. I really enjoyed pitching in the fifth, sixth or seventh in short season last year because, normally it was because our pitcher got into a lot of trouble and there were a couple of runners on, and it was a big situation because I just had to to get that one guy out and then have a clean inning in the next inning. I really enjoyed that, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking that even if something goes wrong, we have two more innings to beat them.
So now, coming in the ninth inning knowing that whatever I do pretty much dictates the game … it is very stressful, but I am starting to embrace it more and enjoy it. I think the biggest thing is to just try and have as much confidence as is humanly possible because you really can’t go up there with fear. You have to go up there just a 100 percent attacking the hitter and trying to get ahead of him as soon as possible.
One of the things that stuck with me from spring training is that we had Craig Stammen come and talk to all us pitchers, and he told us something he learned from Trevor Hoffman. He said every step I take until I get to the mound I would be screaming in my head, “strike 1, strike 1, strike 1…and that was the most important thing for me to get started.” So I’ve started to do that, and it’s definitely helped.
MadFriars: How do you shake off the bad innings when they do come over the course of a season?
Travis Radke: It is very tricky. You can be the most confident pitcher in the world, but I think anyone is lying to themselves if they blow a game and they go “that’s not me, I’m fine’. It sticks with you a bit, and it takes a lot of mental tenacity to overcome that and put it away and remember all the good innings that give you the confidence to be successful the next time out. I think one of the good things as a reliever is that if you have that one bad outing, especially this season where I have had some back-to-back outings, I can come back out in a day or two and completely turn it around again. One of my least favorite parts of being a starter was that you were lucky enough to sit for the next six days and remember how terrible that start was before you got any chance to improve on it or set a new tone. So I enjoy being able to bounce back faster and you know it is going to happen whether its bad luck or you had a bad day, but that’s baseball.
MadFriars: As the “old guy” on the team, do you find young players coming to you for advice?
Travis Radke: I mostly just talk to those guys about trusting their process. I’ll have guys come to me who want to start hesitating or quick pitching and I’ll tell them that before we do that, let’s just work on your command and your sequencing because in reality, when you quick pitch or you hesitate, the odds are that you aren’t going to have that same command every time, so it is a little more of advanced approach towards hitters. I pretty much try to help them understand what the hitter is thinking.
My goal my an entire career has been to try and make a batter as uncomfortable as I possibly can and then have them walk back to the dugout asking guys ‘what just happened. … Suddenly I am out and have no idea why … he didn’t have a 97 mph fastball, or an 85 mph wipeout slider but somehow I just struck out.’ I try to talk to them about trying to understand the hitters, looking at their swing, knowing the situation and what their team philosophy is.
Every team is a little different …you will face guys like the Giants system, who draft a lot of power hitters, that are really good fastball hitters or the Mariners guys who will wait for those offspeed pitches and really get going the other way with it. You try to understand other organizations and what they are trying to do at the different levels and try to find a way to exploit it.
MadFriars: Did you anticipate being able to strikeout hitters at a high level this season?
Travis Radke: It is certainly something that I have been hopeful with. As a starter, I tried to completely change the way that I pitch because I was always a strikeout guy in college my first year in relief. As a starter, I would pitch to contact because when I was in college, I was throwing anywhere from 100-130 pitches in every single start just to get through 5 or 6 innings, and even if nobody was scoring…I was throwing a million pitches. When I got to pro ball and I was throwing 75 pitches to get through six innings like it was nothing, I was like, man, my college coaches would have loved that back in the day.
Now, coming back into a relief position, I hoped and envisioned that I would be striking guys out; though, I had not imagined it quite to this level, but I think it has just been getting the hitter at the right time and right point in the count. Also with different teams, like Bowling Green, I know that I won’t be striking out a lot of them, because for them, I know that they love to sit on offspeed and try and guess what I am throwing. I learned that the very first time I faced them when I blew a save, and they got to win a game off me. Every time I have faced them since then, I have thrown a lot more fastballs early in the count, and the more I throw fastballs early in the count, the more likely I am to not strike them out. In the majority of my strikeouts, I throw two fastballs or less to get to two strikes because when I have two strikes then I can try and raise the fastball or cut it in on the plate, and odds are, its going to be a ball or they’re going to swing and miss it and not put it in play.
MadFriars: As the season continues, what are some areas you are looking to sharpen?
Travis Radke: I think command is one thing. I’ve always found that I have been pretty good with command in the bullpen, but sometimes during games, you start trying to throw the ball harder and you start to see that command kind of wane. When I am out on the mound here, expectations are different for me based on my age and experience. I might go out there and get two popouts and a strikeout and still be really frustrated with the outing because I am telling myself that if this was Double-A, then those two pitches they fouled off are going to be hit for hits, and those two long fly ball are going to be out of the park.
So I am constantly trying to pitch to that Double-A competition and be successful even though I am here. I think the biggest thing I need as I move up is just getting experience against better hitters. You can pitch so long at a certain level and start to get comfortable and kind of pitch to your level and then when you move up, it is a big difference and you have a learning curve. With me and my stage in my professional career in the Padres’ system, I am not going to get that huge adjustment stage. If I have a couple of bad weeks, who knows what might happen? I have to be able to make that adjustment instantaneously, so for me, it is constantly trying to pitch to the hitters here like they would be at a higher level and hope to move up and face their experience up there.
MadFriars: As an older prospect, did you feel a lot of pressure prior to start of the season?
Travis Radke: Pretty much ever since I got cleared from rehab back in 2017, I knew that any single outing I pitched could be my last in the organization. The pressure was up every single outing period because I knew that all it might take was one bad outing and if that ended up being the course of how things were going to be, then that was how it was going to go.
Luckily, I was invited back to spring training in 2018, and I think the goal from there was to continue to pitch the way I did in Tri-City and basically show them what they already know about me. … I hope that the biggest strength I have that they might see or want in this organization that I can be someone they know what to expect every time my name is called because there are guys out there with amazing stuff but blow up here and there.
MadFriars: Has there been any indication that a promotion is imminent?
Travis Radke: I am completely and utterly in the dark there. I haven’t heard anything from anyone. I didn’t get to break with Fort Wayne, but I had a really good spring training and was hopeful to play at a number of levels but ended up at extended. I was only up there for a couple of days before things happened here that caused me to move up here. I think the thing to do is just make the most out of wherever you are at, as tough as that can be at times.
MadFriars: What is your mindset as you look towards finishing out the season?
Travis Radke: I was fortunate enough to start out at a 100 mph in the way that I was playing and the results that I was getting, but I think the important thing is to not peak. I think the thing to do is continue that crescendo all the way to the end of the season. I’ve said it to other people in the past, but the big thing in professional baseball is that it is a lot more important how you finish than how you start because that is where they are seeing where you are ending up.