One rule of thumb that I try to maintain when I head to the ballpark is never be dismissive of a prospect, especially at the Low-A level here in Fort Wayne. Players who have made it here are simply too talented and/or hardworking to warrant being written off without much of a chance.
But sometimes I make mistakes.
It was April 10 when lefty MacKenize Gore made his much anticipated debut for the TinCaps, striking out four and allowing two earned runs on a surprisingly frigid day. Like many in the stadium, I was captivated by every pitch, beginning with the eccentric high-knee raise and reaching completion with a loud thud as it met the catcher’s glove. It wasn’t a perfect day by any stretch of the imagination, but there was no question Gore was every bit as tantalizing as advertised.
After three innings, Travis Radke took the mound and proceeded to give up a lead-off home run and a double. Gone were the cracking mitts and the energy of the night, so I checked out for a few minutes on the concourse before returning to my seat behind the charting pitchers, waiting for the TinCaps turn to bat.
Then something unexpected happened- Radke struck out four of the next five hitters. Perhaps, the most impressive part of it all was that nine of the 12 strikes came on whiffs as the Lansing hitters were suddenly baffled by a guy throwing in the high 80’s. “Do you see how many different looks [Radke] is creating with just the fastball alone,” one of the charting pitchers echoed. “The fastball isn’t overpowering, but they look completely lost.”
Radke went on to strike out another pair of hitters in the sixth before exiting the game midway through the sixth, and over his next 33.2 innings, the 6’4” southpaw would strike out 49 hitters and allow a mere six earned runs en route to a Midwest League All Star selection, leaving a rather unexpected and lasting impression.
A Slow Transition to the Pen
Travis Radke, a starter at the University of Portland, was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 25th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball Draft. His raw stuff didn’t render him a highly coveted prospect, but given his nice frame at six-foot-four and 230 pounds – and that he excelled in collegiate baseball to the tune of a 2.75 ERA and a 10.5 K/9, he was certainly an intriguing college arm to gamble on with a late round pick.
Early on, Radke had some modest success at Fort Wayne but seemingly hit a wall in 2015 at Lake Elsinore, carrying an 8.10 ERA over seven starts before undergoing Tommy John Surgery.
In somewhat surprising fashion, the California native returned from surgery much smoother than expected. “I would actually say that my command is a lot better than it was prior to surgery,” Radke shared. “I still remember just going through the whole process of Tommy John and rehab and coming out in my first couple of pens… it was my first pen with 25 pitches off the mound, and I was pretty much hitting every single spot. 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.”
While things were finally looking up again for Radke, he had to adjust to more than just rehabbing from injury as the organization elected to transition him to a bullpen role. “I think for me after my season in 2015, the best way for me to stay healthy and be as successful as possible was in the bullpen,” Radke shared. “So while I didn’t have a say necessarily, I think I would have chosen the bullpen.
“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. 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. As a starter, I felt myself fatiguing and getting tired out as the year progressed, 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.”
At age 24 already, there was certainly pressure for Radke to acclimate to the new role quickly, and he didn’t disappoint, dominating the competition at short season ball with a 1.80 ERA and 27 strikeouts in twenty innings.
Yet, despite the success, Travis Radke didn’t break spring training with a full season assignment, only joining the TinCaps after a disastrous showing by their bullpen over the first week.
Finding His Niche in Fort Wayne
While Radke may have had an inauspicious debut, he has been absolutely lights out as the cornerstone of Fort Wayne’s bullpen. His 1.88 ERA over 52.2 innings ranks in the top five in the Midwest League (50 IP min.); his 11.96 K/9 trails only top 100 prospect Matt Manning; and his 17.5% swinging strike rate leads everyone in the league.
Though the 94.7 average fastball velocity for relievers in the big leagues is well higher than Radke sits, the stellar numbers are simply too dominant to ignore at this point. Topping out at 91-92 mph is respectable for a southpaw that displays a superb ability to keep hitters off balance, something Radke is very intentional about in his attack.
“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,” Radke said.
“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 too contact in the 8th and 9th 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.”
There’s been no indication of a promotion at this point, but one has to suspect a promotion is coming sooner or later for the 25 year old who is clearly under-matched at the Low-A level. Regardless of that timeline, expect Radke to continue to leave a mark by thriving under the pressure of being an older minor league player who makes the most of every outing.
“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, so the pressure was up every single outing period,” Radke said. “I knew that all it might take was one bad outing, and if that ended up being the course of where things were going to be, then that was how it was going to go.
“But I hope that the biggest strength I have that they might see or want in this organization is that I can be someone they know what to expect out of every time my name is called. Because there are guys out there with amazing stuff but blow up here and there.”
Because he was gracious enough to share plenty of insight into his journey, you can find our extended Q & A with Travis Radke here.