Scottsdale, Ariz. -- When the Colorado Rockies selected right-handed pitcher Parker French in the fifth round of the MLB Draft last summer, they got a polished big-time college hurler fresh off a successful career at the University of Texas. In some ways, they also got a bona fide Texas baseball stereotype: French is hard-working, big, strong, and intense, and yet, polite and amiable.
When the Rockies assigned him to the hitter-friendly Pioneer League, and their rookie-level affiliate in Grand Junction, French didn't so much as bat an eye when it came time to start his pro career. Just as a major college kid fresh into rookie ball should, he did exactly what he was supposed to do last summer on the mound, starting ten games, and finishing with a 3.72 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and a .260 opponents' batting average.
Talk to French, though, and you find out there's one thing he really doesn't like, and it sounds like he might never be satisfied with that particular part of his performance.
"Honestly, the one thing I hate doing is walking guys. I don’t want to walk anybody all year," French tells me after throwing in an intrasquad scrimmage on the Rockies' minor league backfields at their complex in Scottsdale. "Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but I really want to try to just limit the walks, and make people beat me swinging the bat. That’s the one big goal. I’ve just learned from college that when you don’t give away free bases, it’s hard to score runs."
French is right about all that; few fans around baseball know more acutely the negative impact walks can have on a game as fans of the Rockies do. But there's one thing about walks that French doesn't mention, and it seems appropriate: he nearly accomplished his zero-walks-all-year goal last summer. Sure, it was in a short season league (French threw just 48 innings in his ten starts) but he walked... two hitters.
That's music to Rockies' fans ears, and even more so when they learn why he's already so focused on throwing strikes at all times.
"Somewhere like Coors Field, that gets magnified," French admits about free passes. "That turns a solo home run into a two, three-run shot, and those are the kill shots. That’s why they preach so much about working down in the zone, throwing strikes first pitch, and getting in good pitchers' counts."
French has an impressive college pedigree and could move quickly, but he still hasn't yet thrown even 50 professional innings. Isn't it maybe a little premature for him to be thinking about Coors Field?
"It’s funny, my first day in Grand Junction, Doug Linton and I talked about that," French tells me, laughing. "How all the parks in the organization are more hitter-friendly. But why have it any other way, if the ultimate goal is to get to Coors Field where it’s an offensive park? It prepares you. It forces you to work down in the zone."
"You’re not going to get any cheap outs," he adds. "It’s not like the Florida State League, where you can throw a belt high fastball and they can hit it 400 feet for an out. You’ve really got to work for them."
Work is something to which French is no stranger; in four years at the University of Texas, the big righty tossed 340 innings across 70 games (54 starts), and including his rookie ball slate last summer, ended up hurling nearly 150 innings in 2015—a major workload for a kid not yet one year removed from college. But with his strike-throwing attitude and obvious work ethic, French is ready for more, and Asheville may well be his destination next month.
"It’s something I can’t really control, so I don’t worry about it," he says of what the next few weeks hold for him as camp wraps up. "I’m just out there trying to execute pitches. I want to do that 100 times a game, and whatever happens after that happens."
Those pitches French references are notable, too; obviously a fifth round draft pick doesn't get selected without having some type of powerful offering, and for French, that stuff comes in the form of a two-seam fastball that at once runs hard to his arm-side, while showing good depth to hitters as it crosses the plate.
But with a two-seamer that moves as much as French's does, the learning curve didn't come easy—and now, the Texas product feels like he's in a good spot to let his hard fastball bore in on right-handed hitters.
"I didn’t really have a good feel for breaking balls, so I just started throwing [the two-seam fastball] and it had really good sink and run, so I just decided to throw that all the time," French admits of his use of the heavy fastball. "I just developed that, and it grew, and I just kinda kept it going here."
"Now, I'm just throwing it right to the mitt," he adds, explaining the tricky nature of aiming a running pitch at a stationary target. "I can aim to the mitt and it’s going to work towards it. Earlier on I’d have to aim for parts of the catcher, because it’s a sinker. But now I just aim to the mitt and I know how it will sink into it."
On this day, I capture French's intrasquad work on video (below), and it's a marvel to watch his two-seamer tie up right-handed hitters. The big hurler is in many ways the quintessential Texas pitcher on the mound, too; he works very fast, and he bounces around after every ball put in play, making it evident how much of an asset he hopes to be in fielding his own position. (And no, he didn't walk anybody during the intrasquad scrimmage.)
Here's a look at French facing other Rockies' minor leaguers on the Salt River backfields during an intrasquad scrimmage (and while you watch, subscribe to our new YouTube channel):
It's impossible to watch French without taking note of his long arm action after he breaks his hands and drives towards the plate. Not that long arm action is bad; far from it, in fact. But that arm action will always make it difficult for French to hide the ball—especially from lefties—and coupled with the two-seam run that inevitably moves down and away from opposite-handed hitters, he's as susceptible to taking punishment from batters on the left side as he is to handing it out to batters on the right side. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate that damage.
"The slider now is pretty good, but the big pitch I was working on in Grand Junction was a changeup," French admits, when I ask him what he's throwing to keep lefties from sitting out over the plate. "I threw a few [in the scrimmage], too. I am working on that because lefties usually see me pretty well. They see all righty sinker ballers pretty well. So I’ve got to use something to attack them down and in there."
Among several other factors, simply by virtue of the pitches French throws and his arm action in delivering them, this more or less will be the crux of his success (or failure) in pro baseball. French will always be tough on right-handed hitters if he can locate that hard fastball that bores down and in on them; he's going to break quite a few bats before his career is through.
But it's that glove side offering—especially to lefties—that will dictate whether he becomes a middling hurler, or a bona fide starter who can go through a lineup multiple times. Whether it's a two-seam fastball that starts on a left-handed hitter's hip and runs back over the inside corner, or a slider that starts on the plate and breaks to a lefty batter's back foot, it's imperative French operate with as much authority on his glove side as he does with his natural movement on the arm side.
That'll keep lefties from diving out over the plate and keying in on fastballs running away from them and into the barrel of their bats, and it'll leave them unbalanced enough to need to remain honest to both halves of the plate, regardless of how well they see the ball out of French's hand.
And although he has shown very good velocity, French is still a sinkerballer at heart. That means, ultimately, he would do well to pitch to contact in many situations. Fortunately, he already seems to understand that.
"It’s more about how the ball is moving, how it’s coming out of my hand, based on the kind of swings that they are taking," French tells me when I ask if he's worried about velocity this early in the spring. "If they are taking defensive hacks, and the ball is getting in on them, then I know there is enough on the fastball and I don’t need to do anything more."
That idea of not needing to do anything more is something French already knows well by virtue of his experience in big-time college baseball. After all, though it may be his first spring training as a professional athlete, he's been there, done that when it comes to high pressure situations on the diamond.
"I usedall my experiences to help me prepare for my first spring training, because I don’t really know what I’m getting into here," French admits. "But coming from pitching in a lot of really big environments, a College World Series type of environment, it’s easy to just fit in here."
Maybe so. Then again, short-season or not, when you go an entire summer and walk only two batters, something tells me you can fit in just about anywhere in this organization.