Quick change: Thanks to tips from pitching coach Matt Zaleski, Stiever had a second half for the ages. (Tiffany Wintz/South Side Hit Pen)
On Feb. 17, 2017, 19-year-old Indiana University starting pitcher Jonathan Stiever flashed a glimpse of the future as he was locked in a pitcher’s duel with Oregon State’s Luke Heimlich.
The powerhouse Oregon State lineup featured four future MLB first round draft picks: Nick Madrigal, Trevor Larnach, Cadyn Grenier, and Adley Rutchsman. For good measure a fifth Oregon hitter, KJ Harrison, would be selected in the third round of his prospective draft class. Although the Hoosiers came away on the losing end of a heartbreaking 1-0 game, these five batsmen were absolutely stymied by Stiever and his relief mate Pauly Milto (who like Stiever would also end up being a future White Sox farmhand). The Beaver’s Murderers Row ended up going 1-for-14 with two walks and three strikeouts. Stiever’s first brush with stardom saw him pass with flying colors.
The rest of Stiever’s sophomore campaign was somewhat uneven, as he went 4-4 on the season with a 4.31 ERA. However, per IU baseball’s website, he finished 11th in the nation with 1.05 walks per nine innings and 14th in strikeouts per walk (6.33).
Stiever’s junior season featured a statistical rebound, as the righty finished 5-6 with a 3.41 ERA while striking out a Big 10-leading 97 hitters. Upon completion of his 2018 college season, the Hoosiers’ Friday night starter heard his name called on Day 2 of the draft, as the White Sox scooped up the 6´2´´, 220-pound hurler with the 138th overall pick. MLB Pipeline had him ranked as the 88th-best prospect from his draft class, while Baseball America had him 125th, making him quite the bargain for the South Siders.
Stiever had caught the eye of White Sox scout Justin Wechsler, telling South Side Hit Pen “What I liked about [Stiever] was his competitiveness, the way he challenged hitters and that he never backed down, he just pounded the zone.”
Stiever’s signing bonus matched the assigned slot value of the pick ($386,800). After reporting to the White Sox advanced rookie league affiliate in Great Falls, Stiever continued to fill up the strike zone (70% strike rate) while missing bats at an impressive rate (12.5 K per 9 IP), opposing hitters were able to muster a meager .221 batting average against him.
Expectations were high as Stiever reported to the Low-A Kannapolis Intimidators for his first full-season assignment in 2019, where he served as the Opening Day starter. From a statistical standpoint, Stiever’s 14 Kannapolis starts were very misleading. He was rock-solid in 10 of his outings, but the other four can best be described as clunkers.
Stiever feels that his overall statistics in Kannapolis were probably a little skewed by a couple of bad innings in which things got a little ugly and his opponents put a few “crooked numbers” on the scoreboard. Taking a deeper dive into his game logs illuminates that in his four poor starts, Stiever combined to throw just 16 innings allowing 35 hits and 24 earned runs (13.50 ERA) while surrendering seven homers. In his other Kannapolis work, Stiever fashioned an impressive 58 innings, allowing 53 hits and 15 earned runs (2.33 ERA) while yielding only three long balls. His 4.74 ERA didn’t prevent the perceptive White Sox player development staff from believing that Stiever was ready for a promotion to the A+ Winston-Salem Dash.
At Winston-Salem the proverbial lightbulb clicked on for Stiever, as he began working with pitching coach Matt Zaleski (who he credits for much of his developmental evolution).
“[Zaleski] explains why and gives you the data to backup what he’s telling you,” Stiever says. “He gives you feedback when you explain your thoughts about the things you are feeling out there. In Winston I felt that I was better able to sequence pitches and understand my stuff.”
This newfound confidence led to immediate success, as Stiever went seven strong innings in his debut with the Dash, allowing five hits and one earned run while striking out seven. His side work with Zaleski which focused on removing a crossfire throwing action also yielded a spike in velocity that he began carrying from start to start. In Kannapolis, Stiever worked mostly in the low nineties while occasionally touching 95, and — in the same season, as the dog days approached — suddenly he was consistently sitting in the mid-nineties and flashing 97-98. With Zaleski’s guidance, Stiever also began working in the top half of the strike zone and played off of that with his second-best pitch, the curveball.
On the bump, Stiever works from a three-quarters arm slot, and his 80-83 mph curve displays 12:6 shape and hard bite. Additionally, his arsenal possesses a slider thrown 84-86 that also flashes plus, but occasionally eludes him, and a changeup that maintains 10-12 mph separation from his four-seam fastball.
Stiever takes the mound like a bulldog, with a simple approach: “Throwing strikes and getting ahead in the count makes it so much easier. If I can get ahead 0-2 or 1-2 and get guys on four or five pitches, it allows me to be able to go deep in starts.”
Battery mate Evan Skoug adds, “He showed signs of stardom last year because he learned to hit his spots at will. He had days where I didn’t have to move my mitt.”
Just to put the elite level in which Stiever threw strikes last season into context, it is important to note that Justin Verlander led all qualifying MLB pitchers in strike percentage last season, throwing 68.3% of his pitches for strikes. Stiever threw 69% of his pitches for strikes. Only one of the top 10 right-handed pitching prospects in the game, Sixto Sánchez, was able to edge Stiever in strike throwing prowess (70%).
The Winston-Salem numbers for Stiever were nothing short of dominant, in 12 starts he went 6-4 with a 2.15 ERA. Stiever pitched 71 innings allowing 56 hits while walking 13 and striking out 77. Although his strikeout, walk, and innings pitched totals nearly mirrored his Kannapolis numbers, opposing batsmen at High-A only managed a paltry .215 batting average against the newly unleashed ace.
When asked to explain the difference in competition between the two Class A assignments Stiever offers, “It’s not that noticeable, but the elite hitters in High-A are a little better than A-ball. With better approaches and more takes, they are less likely to chase. I would say the difference is incremental, but I was pitching much better in Winston so I also think I had a lot more confidence.”
Thus far, Stiever’s developmental arc has been quite similar to Philadelphia Phillies farmhand Spencer Howard. The two pitchers share a nearly identical build, have gained fastball velocity and displayed marked improvement as they have advanced. Howard is currently a Top 100 prospect and ranks ninth overall among right-handed pitchers. If Stiever can continue to make strides like he did last year at Winston-Salem, a similar ascension through the prospect ranks will be not only possible, but inevitable. He just needs to continue to refine his slider and changeup to give him a reliable plus third pitch.
Have any doubts Stiever will find that refined slider and changeup? Don’t. The powerful pitcher has a track record of multifaceted athletic ability, dating back to Cedarburg High (Wis.), where Stiever was an All-State football player (defensive back and wide receiver) and also played varsity basketball through his sophomore year.
With his athleticism, competitive nature, high-octane heater and hammer curve coupled with pinpoint control, Stiever offers a very high floor for the South Siders. Look for him to advance to Double-A Birmingham in 2020 and continue to build off of the progress he made last season.
Stiever’s outlook for 2020? You can imagine, it’s straightforward, and aggressive.
“I want to stay healthy and get the ball every fifth day,” he says. “I want to be able to be at or near my best every start, and I’d like to be one of the guys in the organization that throws the most innings. I was glad that I finished strong [in 2019], and I really want to continue that trend.”
As the fastest-rising starter in the White Sox system, there’s little doubt Stiever is going to leave it all out on the mound all summer long.
Scout’s Eye: Justin Wechsler
Fastball 60 (now)/65 (future)
Curveball: Fringy but flashed plus
Slider: Also fringy but showed promise to be an average pitch, flashed plus at times (50).
Command 55 (now)/60 (future)
“He’s athletic and strong, I figured he’d get more strikeouts once he learned to harness his stuff,” Wechsler says. “Being a kid from the Midwest he obviously had less experience [than kids from warm-weather states]. I saw a lot of upside and room for growth. He’s a competitor and threw a ton of strikes — that skill will play anywhere.”