Here’s a fun game for you kids to play at home: Go to Fangraphs’ minor league leaderboards. Go to the pitching tab, click on AAA in the League dropdown menu, set minimum innings to 20 (don’t want any small sample size here!), and sort by strikeout percentage.
All right, do you have it? Or, if you didn’t even try because that seems like a lot of effort and are waiting for me to link the answer, which I definitely will, can you pretend for a little bit longer?
Great. What you’re looking at is this.
Sitting in first place is left-handed River Cats reliever Sam Selman.
It’s unlikely that you’ve heard much about Selman. He’s never made the majors and he wasn’t invited to big league camp this year; he hasn’t made a prospect list in years, and as a 28 year old, he’s probably not going to make one this year
But what he can do is strike people out. He’s currently striking out more than 45% of opposing batters in AAA — not a typo — and even when he was having trouble with walks before coming to the Giants, that stuff was always there.
“I’ve been able to strike out guys for pretty much my whole career,” Selman said on Saturday, and glancing at his stat sheet shows that’s true. Even before he came to the Giants, his K/9 rates were consistently around 12 or 13, gaudy numbers that would make anyone salivate.
But the walks were always a killer. Before this year, Selman hadn’t had a BB/9 below 4 since rookie ball.
“Sometimes my delivery would just get out of whack, and that was the walks that’d be the biggest issue,” Selman said. “I’d just get behind in counts and wasn’t throwing enough pitches for strikes. That was the biggest thing that held me back. I felt like my stuff was always good. It was just if I could figure out some way to tone down the walks and throw more strikes, that was gonna take me over the edge.”
Selman was originally drafted by the Royals. Kansas City took him out of Vanderbilt in the second round of the 2012 draft. Vanderbilt was a great experience for him — he’s not on Twitter much, but he does make sure to celebrate his fellow Commodores — and one that was very different from his high school.
“I came from a small private school. We had 14 kids on our whole team, so I’d never really thrown in that big of an environment before,” Selman said. “I think the biggest thing I took away was basically learning how to work hard, and go about stuff the right way. Basically learning how to pitch again.”
But it was a struggle for him in the minors. Things never seemed to go as well as they should, and Selman was never quite able to push through and get that big league opportunity he wanted. He seemed to be stuck in place a little bit, breaking camp with AA Northwest Arkansas for five straight seasons — “I could’ve finished up grad school there, I guess,” he noted.
So after an up and down season in 2018, where he wasn’t bad in AAA but he also wasn’t forcing the issue on being called up, Selman sought out help. His friend Kyle Zimmer, still with the Royals, recommended the Driveline Baseball facility to help figure out how he could improve. And Driveline had ideas.
“They threw everything on me, the electrodes and looked at me from the analytical perspective right out of the gate,” Selman said. “The big thing is I wasn’t using my lower half and that I was cutting the baseball a lot. So my hand placement wasn’t allowing me to get enough backspin and rotation on the baseball and create true effective spin, and so basically I took that from there, the seven days up there, and I went home.”
Selman’s mechanics have always been funky — watch him pitch and his limbs seem to go flying just a little bit more than most pitchers’ do — which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, the deception in his delivery means hitters have trouble picking the ball up out of his hand. On the minus side, all those moving parts make it very difficult to repeat his delivery. That’s one more aspect of his game that Driveline helped with.
“The biggest thing I needed to work on was getting the timing figured out,” he said. “Sometimes my body would leak forward a little too much. Sometimes my arm would hang back. I could never get the same timing of when my foot planted and landed, that I could get everything on time and throw the fastball and slider from the same position every time to get a repeatable delivery and repeatable mechanics.”
Driveline is also where the Giants come in. The Giants saw Selman pitch at Driveline’s pro day and offered him a minor league deal. Being the first team to call, they already had a big advantage, but there was one more thing that made it a little cooler.
“I was actually really excited about that because my dad is kind of a big Giants fan, believe it or not,” Selman said, adding that his dad was a big fan of Jeff Kent back when Kent was one of the team’s stars. “I called him and said the Giants want me to sign on. He said, ‘Absolutely, sign right away.’”
So far, the results have been as good as he and his dad could have hoped for. Selman has a 2.10 ERA in Sacramento, and he’s struck out 45 of the 98 batters he’s faced. If you ask him, it’s because he has both his fastball and slider working together in a way that they never did while he was with the Royals.
“The biggest thing is I’m throwing strikes with both pitches,” he said. “In the past, it used to be one or the other. I’d have some days where the fastball was on point and the slider wasn’t or vice versa. What I think now is that I’ve been able to get the mechanics going and been able to get everything timed up at the same time, so I’m going out there and I’m throwing both pitches for strikes.”
And after all that time he’s put in in the minors, Sam Selman is now knocking on the door in the majors. The Giants are widely expected to trade a significant number of pieces from their bullpen, which will create openings that could be filled by, say, a left-hander with good velocity, a killer slider, newfound control, and the best strikeout rate in AAA.
It’s been a long ride for Selman, and not an easy one. “It’s tough and it’s a grind,” he said. “Some days you absolutely don’t want to do it because you miss your family and your friends and you want to go home and go do that. Other times, it’s the best game in the world and you love every minute of it ... Positive attitude’s the best thing you can do.”
If he does get that call, he’d be excited not just for himself, but for his parents. He had a great season in 2017, with a 2.66 ERA across AA and AAA, but started out 2018 in AA anyway. In his first game, with his mom in the crowd, he gave up 6 runs in a third of an inning.
“Luckily, my mom took me out to a nice dinner,” Selman said. “She said, ‘You know what, it’s not the end of the world. You got six more months of baseball.’
“It’s people like that that grind with you. They’re along for the ride more than you know. Everyone watches your games on MILB.com and they follow your career. it’d be a cool thing, as much for me, just for them to say that I made it with a major league team.”