Mesa, Arizona —— Mitch Stophel shouldn’t be here—especially not as a pitcher.
A small-town boy from Bluff City, Tennessee, the righty who now pitches for money in rookie ball with the Chicago Cubs didn’t even step on a mound until his senior year of high school, and just then as an afterthought to get some more playing time. But even when the edges were rough, the broader potential was already there.
“In the fall of my senior year of high school I hit 84 mph, and then I hit 91 mph in the spring of my senior season, and I was like, ‘OK, what’s going on? This is weird,’” Stophel remembered in an interview with Baseball Census after an AZL Cubs game in Mesa last week. “We got a new coach my senior year, and he was like, ‘do you want to try pitching?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, sure, why not.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was walking like twelve guys per game. Walk twelve, and strike out eleven. It was crazy.”
Crazy enough to attract an offer from exactly one college: King University, an NCAA Division II program 15 minutes away from Stophel’s home up in Bristol, on the Virginia-Tennessee border. When you only get one college offer, you don’t have to go through the National Letter of Intent dance that you see big recruits navigate in televised events. There’s no picking-of-the-hat to announce college intentions on signing day. You don’t have to navigate through one, or two, or five official visits. Accept the offer from King, or your baseball career is over.
Suddenly, Mitch Stophel was a pitcher.
“I got there my freshman year and they had 27 seniors, so I wasn’t really supposed to play,” Stophel recalled, shaking his head as if even he’s still amazed at the hoops he’s jumped through to get to this point. “But nobody was doing that well at the time, so they gave me a chance, and I ran with it. I still didn’t do very well that first year, I think I had an 8.00 ERA, but they kept giving me opportunities, and I built every season after that. They even told me at one point they thought I had a chance to be a professional baseball player.”
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That’s really the story of Mitch Stophel; whether Wrigley Field and the big leagues are in his future or not, his story is a testament to making the most of whatever small opportunities have come his way. And even more than that, he’s proven time and again a knack for developing the specific skills necessary to pitch at higher and higher levels. It’s one thing to throw hard; it’s an entirely different thing to bounce back from a bad freshman year and pick up a wipeout power slider along the way.
“I learned [the slider] the summer after my freshman year,” Stophel recalled. “I had thrown a curveball before, but it was terrible. So I started working on the slider, and every year it’s just gotten better. It was OK my sophomore year, but it was more of a cutter, and junior year was sort of the same. But by this year, I told myself that I was just going to throw the crap out of it and see what happens, and it started moving more. Now, it’s starting to become something.”
As a mid- to upper-80s breaking ball with legitimate depth, Stophel’s slider is not a pitch you see everyday in the minor leagues. It should give him a shot to see time in full-season ball next year, and might be a precursor to even more fastball velocity coming soon, on account of the arm strength it takes to throw a slider 87 miles per hour. As the 2017 season begins to wind down as the calendar continues to flip through August, it would only make sense that Stophel returns to spring training in six months with a nastier slider—and a harder fastball.
“I’ve hit 95 [mph] a good amount of times already,” Stophel acknowledged. “Even at [King], I was 92-94 in that last year. Every year it keeps going up, so I’m hoping that after this offseason I’ll really be sitting 94 or 95.”
All that’s fine, but the on-field stuff only tells part of the story: the Chicago Cubs prospect has beaten all the odds—small town, small school, pitching as an afterthought, even his late-round draft selection—to now be a professional baseball player.
“It’s kind of crazy, though,” he said, grinning a little bit to acknowledge his underdog status as he looked around Mesa’s now-empty Sloan Park. “I go out [on the field] and think about how I came from nothing, and I can’t be scared out here. There’s nothing to be scared of. This is great. Being out here, this is what you dream of. I just have to go out there and do the best I can, and hope for the best.”
Mitch Stophel paused, and shrugged—an understated reaction considering he’s taking the first major step into a life he’s been dreaming of since before he ever even knew he was a pitcher.
“If it happens, it’s awesome, but I’m more thankful for the opportunity right now,” he summed up. “I want to see what I can make of this.”
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