Last June, Matt Swarmer and A.J. Alexy began their professional baseball journeys.
Fifteen months later, the two former Berks pitching standouts appear to be on satisfying and successful paths.
Swarmer and Alexy each completed their second Minor League seasons last week, and both did plenty to brush up their pro mound resumes.
The 23-year-old Swarmer, a Governor Mifflin High and Kutztown University product, enjoyed an odyssey that saw him perform at three different levels (Single-A to Triple-A), highlighted by a highly-successful debut for the Class AAA Iowa Cubs.
The 19-year-old Alexy, meanwhile, racked up an impressive 113 strikeouts over a combined 94.1 innings for two Class A squads.
* * *After being drafted in the 19th round by the Chicago Cubs last year following a season in which he was named to the All PSAC-East first team, Swarmer spent the summer doing some “post-grad” work of sorts in the Arizona Rookie League. The 6-foot-5, 175-pound right-hander posted an 0-1 mark and 3.38 ERA with 23 strikeouts over 18.2 innings.
“I basically had to learn how to pitch better,” said Swarmer, who throws a low-90s four-and two-seam fastball to go along with a slider and change-up. “In college, I knew I could get away with most of my stuff, and I was pretty efficient with my pitches.
“Moving to professional baseball, you have to learn how to set up your pitches, and each one has a purpose. You definitely need to throw strikes and get ahead in the count. If you don’t, the hitters are just going to sit on a fastball and make you pay.”
Swarmer started out this season at Single-A South Bend (Indiana), where he was primarily used as a long-relief man out of the bullpen. Two months into the season, he was sent to short-season Eugene (Oregon) to stretch out into a starter, and his pitch count gradually increased as the season progressed.
After returning to South Bend, Swarmer figured he’d just finish out the season there. But in the wee hours of Aug. 19, with South Bend in a series at Lansing, Michigan, Swarmer was awakened by a phone call from manager Jimmy Gonzalez, informing him he was being sent up to Triple-A Iowa – and had to make a 6 a.m. flight to Nashville, where the Cubs were facing the Sounds.
“I had no idea,” Swarmer recalled. “When I got the call, I just figured they had an open roster spot that I was going to fill.”
Little did Swarmer know he was going to be starting for Iowa on the mound later that night.
“They didn’t tell me until like 3 or 4 (p.m.),” Swarmer said. “I was pretty excited. I just wanted to see how my stuff held up against those hitters. It’s a big jump. At Single- and Double-A, hitters are really aggressive and will go up there hacking. At Triple-A they’ll take pitches and just wait for you to make a mistake.”
Suffice it to say Swarmer didn’t make too many mistakes in his Triple-A debut. He struck out a season-best eight and fired a season-high seven innings of five-hit shutout ball, allowing just one walk in an 84-pitch stint that spearheaded a 4-0 Iowa win.
Though Swarmer was sent back down to South Bend a few days later, he was more than satisfied with a season that saw him finish up the final two weeks at Double-A Tennessee. He finished a combined 7-5 with 105 strikeouts over 101.1 innings and a 4.71 ERA that was somewhat inflated by a rough final outing for Tennessee.
“It felt like I was all over the place,” Swarmer joked of his travels. “And moving from Single-A to Triple-A in a year, even if it was only a spot start, was a great feeling.”
Now Swarmer hopes to take the next step in his progression through the system of the defending World Series champions.
“I’d like to improve as far as throwing more inside and working both sides of the plate,” he said. “I’ve also been working on an inside fastball to try to develop another out pitch. My weight’s close to 180. I’m trying to eventually get to 205, and maybe that can help with my velocity. And I’d like to get quicker outs, maybe pitch to contact more and not always try to strike guys out.”
* * *Alexy’s pro apprenticeship came in the summer of 2016 after he was taken in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 6-4, 195-pound righty went 1-0 with a 4.61 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 13.2 innings in Arizona Rookie ball before beginning the ‘17 campaign with the Single-A Great Lakes Loons.
Featuring a live fastball complemented by a curve and change, Alexy entered this season ranked the 17th-best prospect in the Dodgers organization by mlb.com. He fanned 86 batters over 73.2 innings while posting a 3.67 ERA and deceiving 2-6 mark before being sent to Texas as part of the Yu Darvish trade in late-July.
Alexy adapted to his new surroundings just fine, notching a 1-1 mark with a 3.05 ERA and 27 strikeouts over 20.2 innings for the Hickory Crawdads of the Single-A South Atlantic League. He finished the season with a flourish, striking out eight over five innings of one-hit shutout ball in absorbing a no-decision in a 2-0 loss to Charleston Aug. 30. Opponents hit just a combined .180 against Alexy this season.
At Twin Valley, Alexy was a first-team All-USA Today selection as a senior, when he went 6-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 71 strikeouts over 48.2 innings in helping the Raiders win the Berks Conference Division 2 title and advance to league semifinals and District 3-AAA quarterfinals.
* * *Two other former local star pitchers – Boyertown grad A.J. Bogucki and Wilson grad Andy Ravel – also recently closed out their second professional seasons.
The 22-year-old Bogucki, a two-time Mercury Area Player of the Year, posted a 4-2 mark with a 3.56 ERA, one save and 50 strikeouts in 55.2 innings for Class A Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Bogucki was taken in the eighth round of the 2016 draft out of North Carolina by Washington.
Ravel, a 22-year-old who played collegiately at Kent State and was taken in the seventh round of the ‘16 draft by the Blue Jays, went 6-9 with a 7.56 ERA and 75 strikeouts over 114.1 innings for the Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts of the Class A Midwest League.
Former Oley Valley and Kutztown University product Nate Reed, a 29-year-old left-hander, posted a 3-2 mark over 52 innings for the Richmond Flying Squirrels of the Double-A Eastern League.
Twin Valley grad Jared Price went 1-0 with a 3.50 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 18 innings for the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League. Price was taken in the 37th round by the Marlins in this year’s draft but released before playing a game.