Garrett Crochet, it could be argued, shouldn't even be here right now.
The lanky lefty proved otherwise, of course, with a dazzling display during the final stages of last season, whipping 101 mile an hour fastballs by big league batters and giving the Chicago White Sox little choice but to include him as part of their bullpen in a season with World Series expectations.
But had the circumstances of the 2020 season been normal ones, Crochet might be on a more normal path. He might not have made the jump from first-round draft pick to major league reliever. He might have pitched more than one game during his junior season at the University of Tennessee. He might have found himself with a minor league affiliate and on the path to becoming a part of the White Sox rotation of the future.
Instead, with 2020 being anything but normal, Crochet was on a mound in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, coughing up a freshly earned lead in the White Sox fifth straight loss.
After Yasmani Grandal hit a clutch three-run homer in the top of the seventh, Crochet faced four batters in the bottom of the inning. All four singled. All four scored. The White Sox lost the game.
"I'm trying to come in and get better and win games just like everybody else," Crochet said Wednesday. "I'm not really necessarily treating it like the baby stages (of my career), but I do realize that I have a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow.
"(Pitching out of the major league bullpen is) a lot different than it was in college, with having a game the next night and not having to wait an entire week. So that's nice at least, being able to get back so quickly. But next time we get out there, won't be thinking about it.
"Just going to try to dominate from here on out."
Crochet's first full season in the majors has not been a bad one. As of two weeks ago, he had a 0.44 ERA and had never given up a home run. But much like his team as a whole, he's mired in a rough stretch, with at least one run allowed in each of his last three appearances. That's ballooned his ERA to 2.78.
Most notably, he's not throwing 101 miles an hour this year. And he's brushed that off as no big deal: "If 100 comes back, it comes back," he said in April. "As long as the arm’s feeling good, then I’m OK with whatever the velo board says."
His evolution as a pitcher seems to be the reason. To borrow an oft-used baseball cliche, he's moving from being a thrower to being a pitcher, and with refining that technique, the hope is, there's more effective pitching and less reliance on nothing but pure heat — even though the triple-digit readings on the radar gun get fans excited.
Crochet and the White Sox see his turn as a reliever as a positive as he continues developing at the big league level. The long-term plan is for Crochet to be a starting pitcher, and that could come as soon as next season, when he and fellow starter-in-waiting Michael Kopech could move out of the relief corps.
Until then, it's gathering lessons that could help him down the road.
"I think the experience in the major leagues itself is pretty invaluable," Crochet said. "Just to be out here getting reps with the big guys that we have here and just being able to take pieces from everybody, just learning and succeeding and failing at this level, I think is the biggest pro to being in the bullpen right now. I think being able to do that at this stage of my career will benefit me greatly long term."
"The best of the advantages is that he's feeling the pressure, the immediate pressure of coming in as a reliever," White Sox manager Tony La Russa said Wednesday. "There's nothing quite like that, thrown right in the middle of a key situation. It's a different kind of pressure when you're a starter. You have four days to prepare for it, you warm up, and you're going to have more than one inning or two innings to prove that you can contribute. So it's a really healthy dose of feeling the pressure and learning how to handle it."
While fans are left scratching their heads, wondering where the guy who was dominating the competition last year has gone, the White Sox see the long-term benefits being gained right now.
La Russa frequently brings up how more can be learned through failure than through success. And though Crochet's had plenty of success this year, too, it might be these learning experiences as a reliever in 2021 that turn him into a successful starting pitcher years down the road.
"There's no doubt that there's truth to that concept, it's been proven over and over again. There's a couple points to it, though," La Russa said. "One, you've got to have the coaching that helps you learn from the experience. And then you've got to have the mental toughness not to get discouraged and frustrated and start doubting, but understand that it's a learning process and everybody goes through it. And both those things are here.
"Garrett, he's very determined to be a great, special pitcher, and he's getting outstanding coaching. ... Adversity teaches you. You've got to make sure you use it properly, and that'll be done here."