Lakeland, Fla. – How’s this for self-induced pressure?
When reliever John Schreiber showed up in Lakeland last spring he was still 24, entering his age-25 season, and had been in the Tigers’ system all of three years. And yet, in his mind, it was do-or-die.
If I don’t make it to the big leagues this year, he told himself, I’m done. I am going to have to get on with the rest of my life.
“Yeah, it was a thought,” he said. “Age was a big factor for me. I’d just got married and thinking about my wife and trying to get our life started, potentially starting a family soon – all that kind of stuff. It was a big factor for me.”
Even though he was drafted in the 15th round in 2016 out of University of Northwestern Ohio (NAIA), the side-arming right-hander wasn’t exactly on a slow track.
He dominated at Low-A West Michigan in 2017, allowing three runs in 50 innings with 70 strikeouts. And he followed with a strong season at Double-A Erie, posting a 2.48 ERA with 18 saves. After starting last season at Erie, he moved up to Triple-A Toledo quickly and didn’t miss a beat, going 6-4 with a 2.28 ERA and a 1.0 WHIP with 70 strikeouts in 59.1 innings.
He probably wasn’t thinking much about getting out of the game then, and certainly not after he finally got the call to the Tigers on Aug. 8.
“It was such a great feeling for my family when they called me up last year,” Schreiber said. “I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was really excited about it. I actually teared up because it meant so much for me and to everybody else.”
So forgive him if he seems a tad more relaxed this year, even though he knows he’s in a major fight to keep the bullpen job he carved out late last season. But being on the roster bubble is a far different animal than pitching with your career in the balance.
“I mean I am still doing it, but years prior I really, really wanted to show them what I had,” he said. “I wanted to prove to everyone I had what it takes to pitch up here. Now that I finally got the opportunity to be up here, now it’s like, OK, put my nose to the grindstone and show them I can stay up here.”
Schreiber, downriver native who smartly bought a home in North Rockwood, almost equidistant between Detroit and Toledo, knows that whatever happens at the end of March, he’s going to be a professional baseball player and not going back to UNO to finish his accounting degree.
“But (leaving the game) was definitely in the back of my mind,” he said. “I have a year left to get my degree. I was thinking about that.”
Not now. His focus these days is on getting left-handed hitters out more efficiently. His sidearm delivery wreaks havoc on righties, but now, with baseball mandating that pitchers face a minimum of three batters an outing, there are no more specialist roles.
“Ever since I got to pro ball I’ve had to work on getting lefties out,” Schreiber said. “And when they put in the three-batter rule, now it’s like, here’s what I’ve learned over the years, let’s implement that and do the best I can do.”
Schreiber had no real issues with lefties in the minor leagues. Triple-A hitters batted .223 (righties .192) last season. At the big-league level, lefties were 7 for 23 against him, though righties did more damage (.516 slugging and the two home runs he gave up).
“I don’t worry about that with him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He seems to attack pretty much everybody. He’s submariner, that’s funky. He should be able to do some damage against some of those guys.”
Schreiber was one of the first pitchers in Lakeland this offseason and he said he thinks the extra work has helped him sharpen all of his pitches. The change-up, plus a back-door slider that is still a work in progress, could be his best antidote to lefties.
“I think I found my change-up, at last,” he said. “And I started throwing a two-seamer last year and I’m finally starting to see some command and good movement.”
He threw the change-up just 16 times in the big leagues, all to lefties. He threw 21 two-seamers last year, 14 to lefties. Only four were put in play, three for hits.
“He’s going to have to learn to pitch in to the lefties and not stay out over the plate and have everything running away,” Gardenhire said. “He does cut that pitch in on them every once in a while and I think he can pitch up high, too.”
Schreiber said he typically has no problem throwing fastballs up and in to lefties -- though obviously there is a small margin for error. When he does, though, it opens up the outside of the plate for his change-up and two-seamer.
“It’s just being smarter, in general,” he said. “It’s pitch selection and placement in the zone. I’ve been working on a back-door slider against lefties, too. I feel like I’ve made a bunch of improvements with my pitches. Now it’s about putting everything together and going out there and executing.”
So much more gratifying than sitting in an advanced accounting class, no?
Detroit News' Chris McCosky and Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire on Tigers first full squad workout at spring training in Lakeland on Feb. 17, 2020. The Detroit News