San Bernardino, California —— Art Warren is a completely different person from the pitcher I saw a year ago.
The Seattle Mariners farmhand, pitching now for the Modesto Nuts, was in the California League last year, too, with the Bakersfield Blaze. Warren was a starter then, with pedestrian velocity and average off-speed pitches. I had to bend over backwards in a scouting report last summer to find something about his repertoire that could translate to the big leagues. After all, small-school, late-round draft picks with an 88-90 mph and a lazy curveball don’t really elicit feelings of excitement from most prospect evaluators.
Good thing Art Warren isn’t a small-school, late-round draft pick with an 88-90 mph fastball any more.
Warren’s transition to relief has been documented in this space before; click here to read our analysis of the righty’s newfound bullpen role from a few weeks ago. His velocity has shot up, from 88-90 mph on the fastball in 2016 to 91-94 mph now, topping out at 95 mph while retaining command and late arm-side movement to the pitch. The big righty picked up a slider over the winter, too, and now has a repertoire with four average to above-average pitches (a decent changeup is Warren’s fourth offering).
Oh, and he ate a ton of spinach this winter.
“A lot of [the bullpen success] now has to do with what I did this offseason, I stayed down in Arizona and worked out all winter,” Warren told Baseball Census on Friday night in the first base dugout at San Manuel Stadium after earning a relief win on the road against Inland Empire, and moments before post-game fireworks. “I was eating right. I was eating chicken, veggies, and spinach every day. That got really monotonous, but that’s what I needed to do to get my body ready. And now I can let loose and throw a little bit harder. I don’t have to save myself for later in the game.”
There are a few different components to Art Warren’s relief transition, not the least of which is the viable path he now has to the big leagues. As a high-80s High-A starter last summer—especially at 23 years old—the Ashland University product had “organizational depth” written all over him. Throw well for a few years, eventually work up to Triple-A, and maybe you can get a cup of coffee in the big leagues one day, but only if somebody else gets injured and the baseball gods bless you with the right timing, an open 40-man roster spot, and the perseverance to stick it out until then.
But now, a year later and a different pitcher, Art Warren is in a new place: he’s still under the radar from media attention up north, but he’s got the raw stuff, strength, and attitude that could put him on the fast track to the Seattle Mariners.
He knows it, too.
“[The bullpen] is where I’m going to find my success, and this is my best opportunity to get to the big leagues,” Warren acknowledged. “It helps that I can throw all my pitches for strikes, and being able to come with 94, 95 [mph], I’m a power pitcher now. It fits me. It fits my personality. I like to be in the moment. I like to be hyped up and give everything I’ve got from the first pitch to the last.”
Maybe the bullpen is better for Warren’s personality, and it’s certainly the perfect place for his physical tools and raw strength (due thanks to all that spinach), but the bullpen is not usually a place for four-pitch guys. Increasingly, big league bullpen aces have two things: a blazing fastball in the upper 90s, and a hard slider in the upper 80s. Miss bats with both of those and you just don’t need much more. Can Art Warren distinguish himself with four pitches in short stints? Why not just scrap one, or two, and make the two remaining pitches really good?
“I plan to keep all four pitches, because I think that’s actually my biggest strength,” Warren replied. “I like throwing all my off-speed pitches. I think that’s been a big reason for my success, and I see myself being a two or three-inning guy in the big leagues. I’ve got all four pitches to work through a lineup and turn it over a couple times.”
“I’d also be up for a set-up role down the line, of course,” he added quickly. “But I think my path is working as a two- or three-inning guy who can throw strikes and eat up innings.”
That’s one way that baseball has changed in recent years; we’re talking about a future Seattle Mariners long reliever here, not some late-inning set-up ace, and yet Warren still touches 95 mph. Velocities have gone crazy across baseball to the point where mid-90s is strangely typical. And yes, Warren earned a late relief win against Inland Empire on Friday night, and then a save this afternoon, but his long-term future will be as the guy who comes in after a starter is run early. It’s a decidedly un-glamorous role that requires two, three, or four inning stints on occasion, with the express job of not letting a deficit get any bigger. But to be fair, Art Warren himself doesn’t quite see things so cut-and-dry.
“I’m a huge believer in betting on myself,” he said. “I have 100% confidence that I’m going to get to the big leagues soon, and I think there’s a lot more velocity coming. Once I polish all my mechanics, my goal is to hit 98 or 99 [mph], and work as a 94-97 [mph] guy, and I think that’s well within what I can get out of my body.”
Wait—throwing 99 mph is a different animal. Working in the low 90s with four pitches and a starter’s pedigree, sure, you might be a long reliever in modern day baseball. But flirting with triple digits? That’s a decidedly late-inning pursuit. Just how much spinach is Art Warren going to eat next winter?
“I’m going to add even more weight in the offseason, go back to more chicken and spinach,” Warren said, grinning. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get to the big leagues on this path.”
Come to think of it, Art Warren never stopped grinning through our entire interview, even on to the end as the ballpark lights went out, fans started counting down to the start of the fireworks show, and the loud booms began over our heads as we stood alone in the first base dugout after Friday’s game. The Seattle Mariners pitcher is right to grin, and not just because he’s having a nice season. It goes back to that one critical phrase he dropped so casually moments earlier: “I’m a huge believer in betting on myself.”
Consider the sacrifice he made to stay in Arizona all winter rather than going home to Ohio—the financial burden of finding a new place to live in Arizona, and the social burden of leaving behind friends and family to forge his own way out West. There’s a mental burden, too. Now 24 years old, Art Warren is in that weird middle ground a few years removed from college but a few years—and levels—away from the big leagues. Is this going to be just a few-year pursuit that’ll play itself out soon and leave Warren to go work his forever career? Years from now, maybe he can tell his grandkids stories of those couple seasons he spent under the sun in California? Or is baseball going to be Art Warren’s forever career?
The winter commitment to Arizona, the transformation of his body, the jump in fastball velocity with maybe more on the way, the added slider—even that damn spinach—it all tells the story: Art Warren really is betting on himself. In fact, he’s all in.
As the fans’ fireworks countdown dwindled to ten seconds, with the loud booms above us imminent, I posed one more question to the big Seattle Mariners prospect: had he considered that there just aren’t many late-round, small school players that make their way to the big leagues?
“I think about it every day,” he said as the fireworks started. “Every damn day. And I love it. It gives me an opportunity to show guys back home that you don’t have to go Division I, and you don’t have to be a high school first rounder, to have success in pro ball. If you’re good enough, if you’re determined enough, they will find you, and I hope I’m a good representative for that.”