Scottsdale, Ariz. -- It's hard to imagine worse statistics than what Colorado Rockies prospect Mike Nikorak put up in his first summer of professional baseball with the rookie-level Grand Junction Rockies. In eight starts, Nikorak went 0-4 with an 11.72 ERA, allowing 26 hits (13.2 H/9) and 32 walks (16.3 BB/9) against just 14 strikeouts (7.1 K/9) in less than 18 innings.
Sure, Nikorak was just 18 years old, more than three years younger than the average Pioneer Leaguer that summer. And sure, a high school product is bound to struggle a little bit along the way in the minor leagues. But those stats, finals numbers like that... surely that must affect a guy, right?
Not Nikorak, apparently.
"I’m not results oriented, and I don’t really think anybody in the organization from a pitching standpoint is results oriented," Nikorak told Purple Row at spring training, reacting to his debut last year. "Once I hit the glove it’s one thought at a time. It’s not 'what’s going to happen after I throw this pitch,' it’s more 'how do I make this pitch.'"
"I would rather have struggled in my first year with the organization than breeze by and get hit with it when I’m up with better competition at a higher level," Nikorak added. "It’s something that I’ve taken a lot from, and I need to improve a lot. This isn’t high school. This is pro ball, and I need to step up and keep doing what I’m doing."
As he discussed what he's doing, Nikorak shared that he came out to the Rockies' Scottsdale facility at the end of last summer and stayed in Arizona all winter, working out with teammates and learning from veterans. Big league reliever Scott Oberg, Nikorak revealed, was particularly helpful in taking the teenager under his wing and showing him the ropes of professional baseball.
Nikorak took quite a bit from Oberg and teammates all winter, and this spring he has cultivated a cleaner, simpler mental outlook that he believes will serve him well.
"I’m not out there thinking about what I’m doing, or what’s going to happen, or what I have after practice, or what I did before practice," Nikorak noted. "When I’m on the mound, it’s me, my catcher, and the guy in the box."
"And the guy in the box," he added, "I don’t really see him. I just pick up the catcher and the target, and his set up, and figure out what pitch I’m going to be throwing."
Those pitches, some of which you can see above filmed as part of one of Nikorak's spring training intrasquad appearances, include a breaking ball, fastball, and changeup—pretty conventional and expected for a young pitcher not even a full year out of high school. Equally conventional is Nikorak's relative unfamiliarity with that changeup, having never really used the pitch while blowing hitters away back home in Pennsylvania.
"I definitely didn’t need it in high school, but it’s something I work on every single day," Nikorak said. "I try to get myself in situations where I can drop a changeup over the plate, or hit my spot with it. Even with the curveball, it’s something that throughout my process in the organization I am going to learn more and have a feel for more."
Nikorak didn't appear to have the feel for his curve on the day we saw him throw (in the video, above), but the teenager wasn't pressing too hard about it when he analyzed his performance after the fact.
"There are a lot of focus points that I’m going through," Nikorak said when asked if the curve was a focal point for him right now. "Once I establish my fastball, which I feel like I’ve done today and throughout camp, my curve ball is going to follow. I had good feel for my changeup today, good feel for my sinker, so I think it’s just something that’s going to follow, and I’m not too worried about it right now."
One thing Nikorak did have in a very strong way during his intrasquad appearance was a hard, moving two-seam fastball. The pitch, which looked to have good depth to it, ran hard—and late—back to his arm side, reminiscent of Parker French's stuff and showing life that gave hitters trouble. Because the pitch has such natural movement to it, Nikorak said he feels like he doesn't have to be too fine with command.
"I pick up my target right when I’m on the mound, and I don’t really worry about where the ball is going to run or what’s going to happen," he admitted. "I just go for my target, and if I miss my spot I want to miss somewhere around my target. If I throw it to my target, the batter is going to see it come towards my target, and then the minute it moves, that’s just a bonus."
Probably ticketed for short-season Boise this summer, or even a re-route back to Grand Junction, Nikorak's future is as bright as his emotional outlook joking around with teammates after the intrasquad outing at Salt River Fields. His refreshing, laid back and surprisingly mature mental outlook ought to serve him well this summer and beyond; as he develops his stuff satisfactorily to start climbing levels, he'll likely be ahead of the curve in the Rockies' system, and an exciting prospect to follow the next few years.