Jacob Rhame‘s tenure at the University of Oklahoma was a learning experience.
At 19-years-old and gifted with a low-to-mid 90s fastball, the right-hander struggled in his freshman year with the Sooners.
Appearing in just 10 innings, Rhame posted lopsided numbers to the tune of a 7.20 ERA and 1.70 WHIP. The velocity that had attracted the attention of the Sooners vanished, topping out at just 89 mph.
Struggling on the mound and with a significant weight gain, Rhame was cut from the team. Instead of moping, Rhame decided to take action and not let this disappointment be the lasting memory of his baseball career.
Rhame went on to pitch for the Alaskan Baseball League during the summer, before attending Grayson County College. He credits his time at both stops for getting his head back into the right frame of mind, which included eating better and training correctly. His diminished velocity soon returned to form, as he went on to post a 7-3 record with Grayson in 2013, with a 1.85 ERA over a team high 87.1 innings pitched.
The learning experience was vital for Rhame, as he used the lesson of being cut from the Sooners as a wake-up call for his career. After rebounding with a solid season at Grayson, the hard-throwing right-hander was selected in the sixth-round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Upon signing, the Dodgers converted Rhame to the bullpen, where he converted eight out of 10 saves and posted a 4.58 ERA over his first professional season with the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League.
In 2014, Rhame had a standout season, posting a strikeout rate of 34.4 percent and a 0.92 WHIP over 67.1 innings pitched with the Great Lakes Loons of the Midwest League.
By 2016, Rhame was pitching in Triple-A for the Oklahoma City Dodgers, just a short drive away from the team Rhame was once cut from. By now, Rhame was considered a top-20 prospect in the Dodgers organization, and just one level away from reaching his dream.
When the New York Mets decided to deal their impending free agent veterans in 2017, they looked to restock their minor league system with intriguing high-octane arms. In August, the Dodgers were looking to add a veteran outfielder who had postseason experience.
Curtis Granderson was entering his fourth and final season of the contract he had signed with the Mets back in the winter of 2013. The two teams agreed to a deal on August 19, with the Mets set to acquire a player-to-be-named-later or cash considerations. One day later, the Dodgers sent Rhame as the PTBNL to complete the trade.
Armed with a fastball that sits in the mid to upper 90s along with an improving changeup and slider, Rhame credits his longtime pitching coach back home in Georgia for helping him develop a new slider grip this off-season. The prospects of utilizing the newfound slider excites Rhame, who notes that it’s the best slider he’s had in the last several years.
Over the last few seasons Rhame has posted solid reverse splits against left-handed hitters, where he credits his changeup for fading away from the barrel of the bat. With the Oklahoma City Dodgers last year, Rhame posted a 2.79 ERA with 21 strikeouts to five walks in 19.1 innings pitched against left-handed hitters. One year prior, Rhame held lefty hitters to a .205 average, sporting a 2.22 ERA. Coupled with his success against left-handed hitters and his experience closing out games, Rhame has the chance to be utilized in the back end of the pen.
Rhame’s impressed Mets’ brass in his first spring training with the club, so much so that there’s a chance he earns a spot on the Opening Day roster. For the 25-year-old, not letting the early disappointment he encountered while at the University of Oklahoma bring him down now has him on the verge of contributing out of the pen for a team that has postseason aspirations.
I had the privilege of speaking to Rhame in mid-March, where we discussed his early love of the game, struggles in college, and learning of the trade that sent him to the Mets last season.
MMO: Growing up, who were some of your favorite players?
Rhame: Chipper Jones, no doubt. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz; I was a huge Braves fan as you can see. I was born out in Atlanta but they were always on TBS, so you could watch them all the time. I loved that whole team: Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal, Andruw Jones. That was who I grew up really liking and watching.
MMO: Who introduced you to the game at a young age?
Rhame: My dad took me to a game when I was younger and it kind of just stuck. It was one of those things as a kid you find something you like and kind of get obsessed with it.
MMO: At what age did you start primarily pitching?
Rhame: I’d say 16 (was when) I realized I was going to be a pitcher later in my career. I was still hitting in high school but on my summer team I was only pitching.
MMO: I read that you attended the University of Oklahoma and that after your first season you were cut from the baseball team after you displayed diminished velocity and having gained a significant amount of weight. Can you talk about that time and some of the struggles you were going through?
Rhame: I was 18-years-old, just getting onto a big Div. I campus. (During) football season I was having a lot of fun, probably more than I should have. Baseball kind of took a backseat for a little while and then I had that reality check and got me kicked back into gear, which is probably a good thing.
MMO: How much weight did you gain, if you don’t mind my asking?
Rhame: I think I got up to around 240. I’m at 210 right now. But none of it was muscle; I never really worked out much. I was just lucky enough to have a good arm, but that only takes you so far.
MMO: How much velocity did you lose your freshman year at Oklahoma?
Rhame: In high school I bumped it up to 93. I think that freshman year I wasn’t getting over 88-89, I believe. I only had 10 innings though, so that might’ve been a big part of it as well, not getting to throw much.
MMO: What would you attest your improved velocity and healthier lifestyle to?
Rhame: I went to Alaska (Alaskan Baseball League) after I got cut because they had scheduled me to go out there, so I still went. I decided I needed to get back into shape if I wanted to go anywhere. I knew I was going to go to Grayson (County College) and I didn’t want my career to end there, so I wanted to get back into shape and see if I could go somewhere after that.
When I was in Alaska I really got after it. There was a great group of guys while I was at Grayson and we all worked out together. I really got into fitness; eating right and taking care of my body. I found that part of the game and I didn’t know that was even part of it. I thought it was just go out there and play but you get older and you learn.
MMO: Prior to the 2013 MLB Draft, did you have any notion that the Dodgers were looking to take you in the sixth-round (184th overall)?
Rhame: Prior to that, no. They were one of the teams I hadn’t talked to, I believe they saw me in a pre-draft workout out in Oklahoma City. Calvin Jones – the guy who drafted me – I still talk to him, he gave me a call and I got another invite to one of their private workouts the day after, it was only the Dodgers. I got to go to that and he told me, “Hey, I’m going to try and draft you.” After that he did! It was the one guy that actually tells you, hey, I’m going to do something, and Calvin actually did it.
MMO: Was there a big transition for you going from starting pitcher to reliever your first season with the Dodgers?
Rhame: I think I was talking about this the other day. My first time coming out the bullpen was my first professional appearance, I think I threw 50 something pitches in the bullpen, just one after the other. I was used to getting a half hour to warm up and have a routine. I didn’t realize that you didn’t need a half hour to get ready. I remember that and I was throwing rapid fire, back and forth, but I got to learn and got used to it. Now it’s your 15-20 pitches and you’re good.
MMO: What were your initial reactions to hearing you were the player to be named later in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Dodgers?
Rhame: Man, honestly I had no idea I’d be the guy. I’ve just been with the one organization my whole career and a lot of guys have been that way. When you get to go somewhere else you’re kind of shocked. But I was excited to hear that my name was involved, which was nice. I was ready to go and see when I could get going.
MMO: What memories stick out for you from your major league debut on Sept. 2, 2017 against the Houston Astros?
Rhame: That I got out if it (laughs). It was one of those things, it’s your MLB debut and you’re thinking, alright, let’s get through it clean and let’s have a nice good inning so I can go to dinner with my family tonight and not be awkward (laughs).
I got in there and I felt good. I threw 1.1 innings and it was nice coming in and having to only get one out in your first inning. To have two outs and only have to get one to get the feet wet was nice. It gave me confidence to go out there and finish that second inning. It was fun, man, that’s what you play for your whole life.
MMO: There must’ve been some nerves involved, though.
Rhame: Oh absolutely, but me and Jamie Callahan were stocked. That was when the hurricane was going on so we actually didn’t get to fly to Houston, I think we flew into Dallas and then we had to take a car from Dallas to Houston that day.
MMO: One thing I’ve noticed when looking at your minor league numbers is you have great reverse splits, with tremendous numbers against left-handed hitters. Are you conscientious of that and do you have a specific game plan when attacking lefties?
Rhame: To be honest I didn’t know I had good numbers until someone told me. I just attack lefties as I do righties; just pound them with fastballs and try to throw a changeup here and there. I think the changeup is better to lefties throughout my career just because it fades away from the barrel. And the changeup is probably my better pitch compared to my slider. I’m starting to throw more to righties now but I think that’s why it played so good against lefties. I actually enjoyed when lefties would come up because I could use my changeup more.
MMO: You’ve impressed this spring, and in particular your changeup has shown a lot of improvements. Is that a pitch you’ve been consistently working on?
Rhame: I’ve thrown the same changeup I think since I was fifteen, so that’s always been a good one for me. The slider is what’s always given me trouble. I worked with my pitching coach that I’ve used since I was fourteen-fifteen-years-old this off-season. He got me back right with it. Just one of those guy’s that known you your whole pitching career, so it’s easy for him to see something and say, “Hey, that doesn’t look normal. Why are you doing that?” But that helped a lot.
My slider from last season to this season even I think is completely – I mean it’s a whole new grip, it’s way more comfortable, and I can throw it for a strike and throw it for a ball. I haven’t had that in three or four years, maybe, so it’s nice.
Rhame: They’re awesome. They’ve been really good, they’ve got a great feel going into the clubhouse. Everybody’s chipper, alive, and fun. It’s really a relaxed feel, you can really be yourself in there, it’s nice.
MMO: What does it mean to you that you’re name has come up in regards to making it on the 25-man Opening Day roster?
Rhame: I mean that would be awesome, of course (laughs)! What else would it be, you know? But it’s exciting, I mean, I’m just glad I’m throwing the ball well enough to be mentioned in the names of that. You really don’t think about that stuff, you just think about pitching. But yeah, it’s cool to be mentioned as a guy that has a chance.
MMO: Are they any particular relievers you look to emulate when on the mound?
Rhame: To be honest, no. I just kind of try to throw it hard in the zone and see what happens, you know what I mean? I hate throwing balls, I don’t want to walk anybody, that’s the worst thing in the world. Just attack them and get beat with your best stuff and not falling behind in the count.
MMO: Have any veterans taken you under their wing this spring?
Rhame: Everyone does. All of those veterans: Jerry Blevins, Jeurys Familia, AJ Ramos, everybody helps everybody, it’s pretty nice. It’s not like you have anybody that doesn’t want to tell you anything. The clubhouse feel right now is one of the better ones I’ve ever seen, for sure.
MMO: Between the Dodgers and the Mets, have you noticed any difference in pitching philosophies between the two organizations?
Rhame: No, I don’t think so. I feel like the more you’re attacking and the more you’re ahead of guys the easier it is to get them out. You fall behind to these hitters and they’re sitting on a fastball or they’re sitting on something they’re going to get you. They can look up stats and see your percentages of what does this guy throw 0-0, 0-1, 1-2.
Okay, 80 percent this, I’m going to sit on it. And they memorize it, every pitch, and once you fall into the trap I feel like it’s a hard way to get out, man. So once you’re ahead you can flip something in there they didn’t see in the scouting reports then they’re all screwed. But you’ve got to get ahead to do it, and it’s hard to get ahead when they hit so well, too.
MMO: Appreciate your time today, Jacob. I wish you all the best this coming season.
Rhame: I appreciate it, man. Thanks.
Follow Jacob Rhame on Twitter, @JRhame16