Don’t quit for one more day.
The voice belonged to his father, crackling out of the speaker of his phone, although Nick Nastrini would later hear it in his head. When he walked five and threw two wild pitches in 2 1/3 innings against Loyola Marymount, it echoed in the dark recesses of his mind. When he issued the same number of free passes in one fewer inning in his next outing against Pepperdine, that mantra played on a loop. It was one of the only things that kept him hanging on.
Nastrini had begun the year with such high hopes. The 2021 season marked his junior campaign at UCLA, and he was a big right-hander with a big arm in a big program with big expectations. It was his platform year, the season he’d be eligible for the draft, and he had potential first-rounder written all over him. Fate seemed to be smiling in his direction. A week before the season began, his stuff suddenly jumped – a fastball now touching 97 mph, a curveball that had snap, a sharper slider. His first start of the year, he struck out 11. Over his next two, he allowed just two combined hits and fanned 16.
And then things fell apart. As quickly as his velocity had jumped, he lost all feel for the strike zone. Soon, he lost both his rotation spot and the confidence of Bruins head coach John Savage. On any given pitch, Nastrini seemed just as likely to hit the backstop or the dirt in front of the plate as he was the leather of his catcher’s mitt. In his last two outings of the season – spread apart by more than two weeks – he faced three batters and walked all of them, mixing in a couple of wild pitches for good measure.
It was a miserable season, hard for his teammates and coaches to watch and infinitely harder for him to live through. When Nastrini thinks back on it, words like “hell” and “catastrophe” come to his mind. A once-promising career was devolving into a smoldering wreck, and he felt the gawking eyes of rubberneckers every time he took the mound.
“I felt very alone for quite a long time,” Nastrini says. But after each debacle, there always would be his dad, pleading and counseling him from the other end of the phone. “Don’t quit for one more day,” he’d tell his son, and his son would steel his resolve and soldier on.
“I just didn’t quit,” Nastrini says, “for one more day, one more day, one more day.”
As Nastrini speaks, sitting in the shade of the visiting dugout at Day Air Ballpark in Dayton, Ohio, it has been more than a year since that crucible. His persistence has paid off. Despite seeming to implode on the launch pad, the 22-year-old has instead begun his ascent toward the majors. That summer, he left UCLA and his head began to clear. He performed well in summer ball and in workouts with big-league clubs. In July, the Dodgers spent a fourth-round draft pick to acquire him. Now, he is in High A with Great Lakes, spoken about by some scouts as a potential under-the-radar stud.
The Dodgers have had a few of them, especially pitchers. Tony Gonsolin, the team’s current rotation stalwart, was a ninth-round pick. The Dodgers have found top prospects in several others – Bobby Miller, Landon Knack, Ryan Pepiot – taken in the late first round and beyond. They are all products of a Los Angeles scouting and development machine that is one of the best in baseball. But none of those pitchers has come as far as Nastrini. None of them had the yips.
That’s a dirty word in baseball, as the righty is aware.
“I’ll probably get chastised for saying ‘yips,’ because no one really likes to call it that. It’s the forbidden phrase,” Nastrini says. “It’s like playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in a guitar shop. You just don’t do it.”
But now, nearly a year removed from his trying junior season, Nastrini feels like he’s earned the right to utter those unspeakable words.
He can say it because even when quitting seemed easier than throwing strikes, he kept going. He can say it because he rebuilt himself. He can say it because he’s here now, a college flop who turned himself into legitimate starting pitching prospect.
“I can say it because I went through it,” he says, “and got to the other end.”
The bullpens, John Savage says, “were elite.”
As he warmed up for games, Nastrini would feel invincible. He had big-time stuff and – at least with no batter standing in the box – the ability to put it where he wanted. He could dot the edges of the zone with a 97-mph fastball. His changeup dived and his slider darted just where he wanted it to. “I would feel like Jacob deGrom,” he says, a Category 5 hurricane ready to overwhelm anyone who dared step to the plate.
Then Nastrini would enter the game, stare down his first hitter and all that momentum would come “to a screeching halt,” Savage says. He yanked pitches to his glove side, as if the strike zone were hovering over the left-handed batter’s box. He’d lose other pitches up and in, making him a nerve-wracking at-bat for opposing righties. Amazingly, despite the 38 walks he issued in less than 32 innings that year, he hit only two batters.
Every time a batter reached on four consecutive balls, each of them uncompetitive, Nastrini slipped deeper into the cavern of his mind. Those hotshot bullpen sessions, located mere minutes in the past, seemed like ancient history once the game began. Most frustrating for Nastrini was that he couldn’t figure out what went wrong in the time it took to get from one to the other.
“I would go into the game and I would just lose it,” Nastrini says. “I had no clue why I would just lose it.”
A year later, Nastrini has had the chance to do a proper postmortem. Instead of a vortex sending opposing hitters spinning, Nastrini had created a perfect storm of failure – mechanical issues feeding mental issues, exacerbated by a high-pressure environment. That he struggled in his draft year strikes neither Nastrini nor Savage as a coincidence. “I’ve seen it before,” the coach says. “A lot of times it happens during their junior year.” COVID-19 had kept Nastrini off the field as a sophomore and surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome had stolen much of his freshman season in 2019. He needed 2021 to bolster his draft stock.
But that was only part of the problem. It all started, he feels, with a delivery issue. The Bruins wanted Nastrini to be quicker to the plate, and his strike-throwing issues seemed to surface when those changes were made.
“We tried making a few adjustments after my third or fourth start of the year,” Nastrini says. “I just don’t think I made the adjustments correctly. I’ll put the blame on myself for that.”
In a less-pressurized environment, or in a year with no draft stakes, he might have ironed himself out. But as his command struggles ballooned in magnitude, they took on a life of their own. “It started to become a mental thing,” he says.
Though Savage says UCLA prioritizes player development, an elite Division I program is far from the easiest place for a struggling pitcher to right himself. Opportunities to pitch in games dried up as Savage lost faith in him. “It was really one of the hardest things I had to watch as a head coach in my career,” Savage says, “a guy being that good struggling that much.” Nastrini appeared in only 12 games that year, and only six against Pac-12 foes. Though he praises Savage for giving him “30 years of pitching knowledge” while he rode the bench, the right-hander also felt cast adrift.
“I started spiraling out of control and I really wasn’t getting a whole lot of guidance about what I was doing wrong,” he says. “It was kind of left up to me to figure out.”
Savage calls Nastrini a tremendous worker and “unbelievable student of the game,” but also thinks the right-hander was “the poster child” for players who put too much stress on themselves. “It was all self-induced pressure, really,” the coach says. “There was no pressure from the staff.” To his eyes, Nastrini’s delivery “always looked fine.” His direction and weight transfer were good.
“He just had a really hard time repeating,” says Savage.
Nastrini quibbles with little of that. “I put myself through hell last year,” he says. But he also knows the clouds began to part the second he left campus after the season. “I don’t really know if I needed to get away from UCLA, just because I had such a negative thought process,” he says. He began to associate the school with his own failure, so he couldn’t help but show up to Jackie Robinson Stadium and expect only bad things to happen.
But away from that setting, a spark of optimism began to grow. “As soon as I removed myself from the situation, fireworks went off in my head,” Nastrini says. “I was able to think clearly.” And think boldly. The draft was a month away. He’d just finished a terrible season. Yet, against all available evidence, Nastrini knew that he’d be picked.
And made sure to leave little to chance.
When it comes to sifting through draft prospects, the X-factor is the interview. The stats are the stats and the exit velocities and pitch movement metrics don’t lie. But TrackMan’s cameras can’t see inside a player’s head. Having run the Dodgers’ drafts for nearly a decade, Billy Gasparino knows this as well as anyone.
Year after year, L.A.’s vice president of amateur scouting sits in on scores of pre-draft interviews with players who think they know more about the game than they do. They speak confidently about their approach at the plate or their philosophy on the mound, and they firmly assert the importance of this mechanical change or that swing tweak to their success. Many of them go on to become good players, but to a veteran scout, all that assuredness more often than not rings hollow.
“You have a lot of kids who say the right things,” Gasparino says, “but you’re like, ‘I don’t really think he knows or believes it.’”
Compared to the average potential draftee, Nastrini had a lot more for which to answer. Any team willing to risk a selection on him would have to be sure that he could turn things around. Nastrini began hitting the workout circuit as soon as his season ended – he credits his agents at Wasserman for hustling to get him looks, and for not dropping him as a client – and quickly he began to put his college campaign in the rearview. One strong performance for Blue Jays brass in Arizona merited a call home. “I did really, really well there,” Nastrini says. “I was like, ‘Mom, this is going to work out.’”
Nastrini performed just as admirably in a workout for the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium – “We were definitely wowed by the workout,” Gasparino says – but he executed even better in the interview. Dodgers evaluators wanted to know what went wrong at UCLA and why, and they were pleasantly surprised to find all of Nastrini’s answers satisfyingly thorough. “The way Nick articulated his struggles, the way he articulated his fixes, some of the mental skills work he did, it was all very believable,” Gasparino says. With several weeks until the draft, he resolved to have scouts follow Nastrini as he played summer ball.
Nastrini had spent the previous summer with the Santa Barbara Foresters of the California Collegiate League, and he’d shoved to the tune of a 1.71 ERA in seven starts. Under longtime head coach Bill Pintard, who also scouts part-time for the Yankees, the right-hander was in good hands. Pintard had watched Nastrini at UCLA as a scout and had hunted down video from when the young pitcher could put the ball on the plate. Contrasting past and present, he saw some obvious differences. “It was pretty basic. It wasn’t that radical,” Pintard says. In an effort to be quick to the plate and limit the run game, Nastrini was losing the strike zone. “He wasn’t separating,” says Pintard, “and he was just going to the plate too fast to get his arm in a position to throw.”
Pintard sent that info to Nastrini before the pitcher left UCLA, and by the time he showed up in Santa Barbara, he’d gotten a grip on his mechanics. Nastrini says that Pintard’s biggest contribution to his resurgence was less his diagnostic eye and more his knack for fostering a positive environment. “It wasn’t so much that he worked with me,” Nastrini says. “It was just his confidence in me.” In Santa Barbara, the right-hander went from anticipating his own failure to expecting success.
Nastrini made two starts for Santa Barbara, both of them scoreless. In eight innings, he allowed just one run and three walks while striking out 16. Dodgers scouts had been watching closely, but so had other teams. Given the volatility of Nastrini’s college career, it was nearly impossible to pin down his value. Los Angeles wanted him, but they also had a whole draft to manage. “It’s hard to know what other teams think,” Gasparino says. “You’re always trying to maximize your picks, like, ‘Can we wait one more? Can we wait one more?’” In the end, the Dodgers submitted his name in the fourth round “out of fear of losing him.”
They’d just spent their third-highest pick of that draft on a guy who’d walked 25 percent of his batters as a junior. “We knew we were taking on some risk,” Gasparino says. But they were also taking on significant upside.
And the Dodgers have long been comfortable with that.
Look throughout the Dodgers system and it’s not difficult to detect a pattern.
Gonsolin and Dustin May have already enjoyed success in the majors despite not being first-rounders. Pepiot and Knack are knocking on the door with similar pedigrees. Miller went from late first-rounder to Top 100 prospect in the span of one pro season, and Gavin Stone, a fifth-rounder in 2020 out of Division II Central Arkansas, is now dealing at Double-A Tulsa. The roster for High-A Great Lakes features another intriguing name in Emmett Sheehan, who was a low-90s right-hander at Boston College a year ago and now is flirting with triple digits as a Dodgers farmhand.
Nastrini fits comfortably into this blueprint, although he may have been the riskiest pick of the bunch. But risks like him are very much a part of the organization’s strategy. Their large payroll gives them cover to shoot for upside and their usual position at the back end of every round incentivizes big swings in the draft.
“We’re more willing to take on some risk than other teams because of some of those advantages,” Gasparino says.
They are also, to the annoyance of their competitors, really good at getting the most out of the high-upside players they select. As with any powerhouse organization – including the Giants, the Rays and the Yankees – that’s a twin victory of development and scouting. On the one hand, Gasparino says, “our scouts have a really good eye for identifying athletes who can make changes and can get better.” On the other, the Dodgers have a good idea of what about a player can be coached and changed and what cannot.
“We’re really good at understanding what we figured out we can develop, and the scouts target that,” says Great Lakes pitching coach Dave Anderson. “Nastrini is a prime example.”
To that end, the Dodgers have not wasted a lot of time trying to remake Nastrini’s arsenal or get him to throw with more spin or different movement. They picked him because his pitches already graded well in those areas. Instead, they have focused on helping the righty maximize his already ample skills. There have been small mechanical tweaks to help his command. There especially has been a lengthy and ongoing dialogue about how best to use his repertoire, both in terms of sequencing and location.
Nastrini is an eager and excited student. “He’s almost daily saying, ‘What if I do this? What if I do this?’” says Anderson. His 4.76 ERA may be mediocre, but signs of progress lie beneath the surface. His walk rate has trended downward as the season has worn on. Nastrini is striking out 36 percent of his batters. Over his last two starts entering Tuesday, he seemed to catch a tailwind, allowing two runs and striking out 17 in 8 2/3 innings.
What walks Nastrini has issued don’t appear to cause the Dodgers much alarm. Those aren’t the result of a faulty delivery or a fractured mind, he and his pitching coach say. They’re mere execution mistakes, throwing the wrong pitch at the wrong time in the wrong spot. “If you look at his track record with walks, obviously they’re high,” Anderson says. “If you watch him throw, you’d never know.” Nastrini is working to become more cognizant of what Anderson calls his “miss pattern” – essentially, knowing where his pitches wind up when they don’t hit their target, and then throwing them in areas where those misses won’t hurt him.
Though he has come a long way in a year’s time, Nastrini is hardly a proven commodity or even a universally admired prospect. Scouts range from doubtful of his future as a starter to intrigued by his stuff to downright impressed by the totality of his abilities. “Moxy and poise to be a big-league starter,” said one scout who has watched him recently. “A tough profile to bet on,” said another. Clearly, a half-season into his professional career, the right-hander has some convincing left to do.
But not with himself. No longer does he wake up and have to talk himself out of quitting. The reward sewn by his struggles is a far stronger mind. Toward the end of his time at UCLA, as his throwing problems got worse and worse, a team trainer set him up with a sports psychologist who suggested a coping mechanism. When things got tough, Nastrini should find a spot in the stadium to place his eyes, a visual cue to take a deep breath and relax.
Nastrini chose the center-field wall, as much for its ubiquity – there is one in every park, after all – as its name. It reminds him to remain centered. A year ago, a home run might have started his next spiral. A four-pitch walk may have signaled the return of the yips. These days, such speed bumps don’t derail him. They are moments of fleeting significance, consigned immediately to the past. When a batter takes his base or a slugger jogs around third, Nastrini no longer hangs his head. Instead, he retrieves the ball from his catcher and turns around.
“I just look back at the center-field wall,” he says, “collect myself and just make the next pitch.”
(Top photo: Elizabeth Getzinger/Great Lakes Loons)