San Bernardino, California —— This wasn’t supposed to be how things ended in High-A for Garrett Nuss this year, not a final appearance with the Inland Empire 66ers where he got just two outs and allowed six runs on eight hits, including a home run by one of the California League’s hottest hitters, in what was mop-up work in a blowout, anyways.
But baseball isn’t fair, and the hard-throwing Los Angeles Angels reliever—who otherwise put up respectable work in his first full year coming out of the bullpen—saw his numbers inflate thanks to that particularly bad outing at exactly the wrong time during the season’s second-to-last road trip to Rancho Cucamonga.
“Oh no, man, you saw that?” Nuss joked, shaking his head and laughing when asked about bouncing back from his August 25 blow-up that inflated his season ERA by more than a full run.
And while bad outings are inevitable, it’s the follow-up that’s so interesting. Or, in Nuss’ case, the lack of follow-up, as—aside from a last minute transfer to Double-A Mobile for the season’s final game—he’ll have to wait six months to pitch in another meaningful contest to get the taste out of his mouth. How does a reliever do that, anyways? How does one mentally hurdle an ugly outing and pitch the next day, or the next week, or, in this case, the next year? Finding the answer proved to be an exercise in diving into the career transition of Garrett Nuss, and his belief that there’s a bullpen future for him in the big leagues one day, one bad outing be damned.
“Once I wake up the next morning, it’s over and done with,” Nuss told Baseball Census a few days after that outing at Rancho Cucamonga. “By that point, I’ve thought about it, processed it, and learned from it, and then it suddenly becomes about the next outing. Everybody is going to get hit, no matter how good you are. Can you be successful the next time? That’s how you’re judged, especially as a reliever, so that’s how I kind of take it. I think about it for twelve hours, and by the time I wake up the next morning, it’s a new day.”
Commendable from a practical standpoint, there’s also a survival component in being a relief pitcher almost in the same way that it works for a defensive back in football: you’d better learn to have a short memory. If Garrett Nuss takes this bad outing into the offseason, or into next summer, he won’t be with the Los Angeles Angels for very long. But if the prospect can pull what he needs to from an off night and discard the rest before it takes hold in his head, he’s done his job. Now a few years into his career, even as 2017 marked his first season exclusively as a reliever, the righty has figured that out.
“There are negatives in this game, and nobody is perfect, but the difference between an amateur and a professional is understanding what you did wrong, being able to analyze it, and being able to truthfully evaluate yourself,” Nuss explained. “Watch a big league guy throw a bullpen. They throw one bad breaking ball, but the next one is perfect. They try to execute the fastball in and they miss glove-side, but the next pitch is perfect. That’s the step you have to take. You have to tell yourself, ‘I wasn’t the best on this pitch, but I’m going to be the best on the next one.’ And then you have to replicate that again and again, outing after outing.”
That’s learned behavior required for every professional pitcher, no matter if you throw your fastball in the upper 90s—where Nuss often works—or the upper 80s. But it takes a few years to get to that point; watch a rookie ball pitcher miss in the same spot all night long, versus a High-A hurler who can make an inning-to-inning adjustment, or a big leaguer who’s able to immediately change what’s necessary on the very next pitch. On that spectrum, Nuss’ bad outing against Rancho Cucamonga is all in relative terms, because he’s already light years beyond the pitcher that first entered pro ball with the Los Angeles Angels at rookie-level Orem.
“I remember my first outing pretty well, actually,” Nuss recalled, laughing. “It was on the road in Ogden [in the Pioneer League], definitely in a hitter’s league. Man you know what? Now that I’m thinking back to that day, and where my misses were, I didn’t even know what a ‘good miss’ was at the time. I was just worried about getting the ball over the plate.”
Nuss paused again, looking down and shaking his head.
“Wow, man, that’s crazy to think about,” he said. “You really brought me back to everything on that one. Puts this [outing] in perspective.”
Having him look back on the blissful ignorance of rookie ball was more a happy accident than the point of the initial query, but it still serves a purpose: even through bad outings, Garrett Nuss has come a long way to refine his game to get to this point. Such is the point of player development, after all, but maybe the rest of us don’t think about it enough as it relates to failure rather than the successes where it’s banked. Maybe we ought to consider the growth that comes from the bad outings even more so than improvement through the good times.
There’s another component to the Garrett Nuss story at Inland Empire this summer, independent of how good or bad his final night there on the mound may have been: after starting his entire life from amateur ball through 2016, the Los Angeles Angels moved Nuss to the bullpen this year to take advantage of his impressive arm strength and power arsenal. He’s made the adjustment well enough on paper (56 strikeouts against 19 walks in 54.2 innings pitched), but it’s the more nuanced mental growth he’s gone through that might one day point him to a big league bullpen.
“Coming out of the ‘pen, you don’t have the time to feel out the strike zone, or to feel out what the hitters are looking for up there,” he noted about the reality of his new job. “You have to go out and attack, and I found the way I can be successful in this relief role: I have to be able to execute the fastball in, and miss in, on purpose. The difference for me between good and not so good is that I need to go in hard.”
“That’s the big thing I’ve learned this year, and it keeps coming up when I have bad outings,” he continued, admitting his blow-up in Rancho saw too many pitches up over the plate and not enough hard stuff backing hitters off it. “I didn’t execute the fastball in on them, and if I’m not doing that, the hitters are way too comfortable at the plate.”
And so, there’s something for Garrett Nuss to work on this winter as Inland Empire’s season wraps up on Monday. The Florida native has a deeper arsenal than most relievers, and he’s proven an ability to miss bats that’ll make for an interesting future bullpen candidate. But he must continue to develop—and quickly, considering he’s already 24 years old—if he’s to find a legitimate path to the big leagues. The stuff is there, though, and the knowledge of how to access it clearly follows close behind. To that end, this conversion to the bullpen isn’t so bad at all.
“It’s different from the role I’ve had my whole life, but at the end of the day, you still have to beat a guy,” Nuss concluded. “He’s got a stick, and I’ve got a ball, and I have to beat him. Thinking of it like that is the easiest way I’ve found to take it, and some days you don’t feel good, and you also pitched the day before, but you get out there and you just have to beat the other guy. There are no excuses if you don’t.”
There are far, far bigger redemption stories out there than that of a middle reliever who followed up a season-ending blow-up with a good opening day outing six months later, so let’s not anoint Nuss with heroic perseverance quite yet. But the inevitable motivation that’ll come over the winter in wanting to wash out the bad taste from his mouth at Rancho Cucamonga ought to drive the Los Angeles Angels prospect forward for months to come. By April, yet another opportunity will be there that exists for every reliever after every bad outing: yeah, he got hit around on August 25, but can Garrett Nuss be successful the next time out?