A year ago at this time, new Phillies pitcher Reggie McClain was driving for Uber in Arizona as he awaited Mariners spring training.
So much has changed since then for him, and in Clearwater with the Phils, he will have an opportunity to make a big-league team out of camp for the first time.
McClain knew going into 2019 that it would be a make-or-break year. If he didn't progress through the Seattle Mariners' system and prove his value, the likelihood was that he'd be out of baseball.
"My back was against the wall," he recalled this weekend as he made the two-day drive from Phoenix to Atlanta.
You don't find many 26-year-olds at High A, but that's where McClain's 2019 season began. He had spent the previous three years almost exclusively as a starting pitcher for the Modesto Nuts and the results were what they were — a 4.81 ERA in 64 appearances, 57 of which were starts.
Feeling that pressure, McClain had what he described as a strong offseason, and a switch to the bullpen in 2019 unlocked some abilities that resulted in his rise all the way from Single A to the majors in the span of just four months.
McClain dominated the same California League that had previously been a challenge, allowing one run in 16 innings with 18 strikeouts and just one walk. He was promoted to Double A and his success continued. At those two levels, he had a combined 0.85 ERA in 31⅔ innings when he was called up to Triple A to pitch in the Pacific Coast League.
The PCL is a notoriously difficult league for pitchers because of the high altitudes of stadiums and the hot conditions during the summer. Last season, the PCL was even more of a joke because it used the same juiced baseball as MLB. There were 3,312 home runs in the PCL in 2019 compared to 2,097 in 2018.
Yet McClain was still effective, posting a 3.29 ERA in 41 innings and allowing just three home runs. Still, he noticed the difference in the baseballs, particularly from Double A to Triple A. At Double A, he recalled, he could throw a hard fastball down the middle and live to tell about it. That wasn't the case in the PCL.
Last season was a good opportunity in Seattle for McClain, who was claimed off waivers by the Phillies on Friday. The Mariners used 42 different pitchers in 2019 and he was one of them, debuting on Aug. 2 in Houston.
In the days since the Phillies claimed McClain, much has been made on the internet of his performances in Houston compared to elsewhere. The Astros, who used a multi-layered system of espionage to steal signs from opponents and relay them to their players in real-time, do not have the benefit of the doubt, and there is increased focus on pitchers who experienced discrepancies in performance in Houston vs. everywhere else.
McClain made 14 appearances for the Mariners last season. In the three games in Houston, he allowed 11 runs in three innings. In the other 11 appearances, he allowed three runs in 18 innings.
Speaking with him this weekend, McClain did not want to go down that road, though he did acknowledge that it was a lesson about the importance of protecting signs.
We'll never know just how much the Astros' methods affected individual games or how many careers were ended as a result, but the players hurt most by it were pitchers like McClain clinging to their big-league dream.
Earlier this offseason, superstar Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said this about former teammate Kris Medlen:
"The biggest thing for me is, some of those guys that went into Houston — I think everyone knows Kris Medlen around here, one of my favorite teammates of all time. He worked hard to get back to the big leagues. Took him two years to get back in 2018 (with the Arizona Diamondbacks), and he had one start, and it was in Houston, and he gave up seven runs.
“Do I know, was it happening that game? You just don’t know. He retired about a week after that. So, that’s the hard stuff for me.”
Last week, an Astros fan revisited the 2017 season and went game by game, recording the number of trashcan bangs per night. The game that featured the most bangs took place on Aug. 4 and Mike Bolsinger, a right-hander, allowed four runs in one-third of an inning and never again pitched in the majors.
Those are the stories that are really sticking right now with baseball fans outside of Houston.
McClain overcame it. His final five innings last season were scoreless, but more importantly, the stuff was there.
"When I went to the bullpen, that's when the velocity picked up but without my pitches flattening out," he said.
In the majors, McClain's fastball and sinker averaged 94 mph and maxed out at 97. The Phillies noticed and late last week added him to the 40-man roster in place of Trevor Kelley, another reliever they had claimed from Boston earlier in the offseason.
The Phillies did not sign a single reliever to a guaranteed contract this offseason, instead bringing in guys like Francisco Liriano, Bud Norris and Drew Storen on minor-league deals, making waiver claims on McClain and Robert Stock and trading for Rays flamethrower Cristopher Sanchez.
The expensive route with relievers has not worked for the Phillies over the last three years. Perhaps this low-risk approach with potential breakout or bounce-back candidates will bear more fruit.