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RHP Justin Shafer Benefiting from Moving into Starting Role

RHP Justin Shafer Benefiting from Moving into Starting Role

February 18, 2016

Justin Shafer

RHP Justin Shafer spent most of his time in college playing the outfield, but is now a starting pitcher. (Kyle Castle)

Progression is an important aspect of minor league development as improvements are necessary to reach each level of play. While every player’s journey varies due to the number of skills they need to master to reach the ultimate goal. Not many stories are as intriguing as that of right-handed pitcher Justin Shafer.

What sets Shafer apart is his determination to master a new position at the professional level. Primarily an outfielder growing up, the prospect was coveted more as a pitcher when he entered the 2014 MLB draft out of the University of Florida.

Pitching wasn’t completely a foreign concept to Shafer who logged 70 1/3 innings in college. But fans of the Gators were more familiar with watching the prospect roaming the outfield where he appeared in 144 games in his three year NCAA career.

Even though his time on the mound was limited in college. Blue Jays scouts saw all they needed from Shafer to take a legitimate chance on the rising star. While this move might have appeared to be a risk at the time. It has really worked out well so far.

Beginning his professional career in the Northwest League in 2014, Shafer dealt with a few growing pains as he was developing his game. Allowing 13 earned runs in 22 2/3 innings wasn’t the perfect start to his professional career. But it gave the prospect an idea of what professional baseball was going to be like moving forward.

Taking that concept to heart Shafer prepared himself for the possibility of playing on a full season club in 2015. His hard work paid off as he joined the Lansing Lugnuts in April. The Florida native was the club’s best pitcher throughout the first month of the season.

Carrying an impressive 0.92 WHIP and an opponent batting average of only .197 the organization knew Shafer needed a bigger challenge. Earning a promotion to the high-A Dunedin Blue Jays at the beginning of May gave the 23-year old an idea of what the next step looked like for future appearances.

Shafer had trouble with his command while pitching in the Florida State League. Walking 10 batters and allowing 20 earned runs was a tough way to begin a new level. Despite the slow start in the FSL the righty is turning this negative into a positive.

“I didn’t throw strikes in the Florida State League,” explained Shafer. “In the Midwest League I threw a lot more strikes and did a better job of getting ahead of hitters. My time in the Florida State League will serve as a learning experience that I need to get ahead of hitters especially the higher I go in the system.”

While he would’ve liked better results in the Florida State League, Shafer enjoyed his opportunity pitching closer to home as he grew up roughly 80 miles away from the Blue Jays high-A affiliate.

“It was definitely nice being able to see my family all the time,” said Shafer. “I wish I had more success when I was in Dunedin.”

Finishing up his 2015 season in Lansing Shafer continued to be dominant in the Midwest League. Ending his campaign with a 7-4 record and 42 strikeouts in 73 innings pitched. The young pitcher continued being tough on hitters as he maintained a 1.14 WHIP and opposing hitters only managed a .223 average against him.

Fans probably feel that Shafer’s strikeout numbers are low for the number of innings pitched. He is well aware of this fact and he explains why that’s the case as he has discovered the kind of pitcher he is developing into during his 2015 campaign.

“This season I learned a lot about the kind of pitcher I am,” explained Shafer. “I’ve realized I’m a sinker guy and getting ground balls is just as flashy for me as getting strikeouts. Improvement wise I’d like to better my command. I don’t feel I have an issue throwing strikes. But I would like to do a better job of locating pitches in certain spots. I want to be able to sink the ball anywhere I want anytime I want.”

Having the exclusive opportunity to take part in the prestigious Arizona Fall League after the regular season was a great way for Shafer to get some extra work in. Even though the righty spent his 2015 season as a starter, the Blue Jays used the young pitcher as a reliever with the Salt River Rafters.

Allowing seven earned runs in 9 innings wasn’t completely ideal. However Shafer had some definite positives, while facing better hitters. Shafer only gave up one run in 8 innings. Unfortunately two outings allowing three runs inflated his numbers quite a bit.

Some additional positives from his time in Arizona were Shafer’s 10 strikeouts in seven relief appearances. Another promising sign was his impressive 2.20 GO/AO which clearly shows that Shafer is developing his game in the right areas for continued success moving forward.

While he relieved in the AFL, Shafer admits that he enjoys starting more. Fans will definitely want to keep their eyes on Shafer’s role in future seasons.

“Transitioning to starting didn’t bother me,” stated Shafer. “When I relieved in college I was usually going four or five innings a game. When they asked me to be a starter I already had the long relief role down. I enjoy being a starter. I like having a schedule and coming here every day knowing exactly what I’m doing. I’ve benefited from the starting role more.”

Impressed with the progression that Shafer has made between his time in the Northwest League to his time in the Midwest League. Lansing Lugnuts pitching coach Jeff Ware has nothing but respect for the young pitcher’s drive to succeed.

“Justin Shafer has developed well to pitching,” stated Ware. “Justin didn’t throw too many innings at the University of Florida. When he joined us in Vancouver in 2014 it was mostly getting the routine setup. Justin needed to learn how to be a starter and how to pitch every fifth day. In Vancouver he spent a little time in the bullpen. But transitioning into this season we wanted him to be a full time starter so he needed to learn how to pitch at the professional level. Justin is learning to sink the ball. He’s also learning how to use his slider and changeup effectively. Justin is a bright kid and he’s definitely on the right track now.”

Shafer was appreciative for the chance to work with two former major leaguers as pitching coaches in 2015. The prospect sees some definite similarities and differences between Jeff Ware and Vince Horsman. But despite the differences, he knows that he can benefit from the knowledge that both of these men bring to the ballpark daily.

“Vince Horsman is a great guy,” stated Shafer. “Vince and Jeff have quite a different approach when it comes to handling people. Jeff is more likely to tell you what he wants. He’s a little more hands off. Vince is a little more hands on. Both of them are great pitching coaches. They both have a lot of experience to offer.”

Officially completed with his first full season of pitching, Shafer has noticed some different obstacles that he has to work through in terms of the way his body holds up after pitching compared to playing in the field.

“The transition to being a pitcher has been a lot harder when it comes to staying in a game,” explained Shafer. “I’m used to playing every day. Having four days off doing nothing instead of competing every day creates a different kind of soreness. I used to have more leg soreness when I played in the outfield. Now as a pitcher I have more soreness in my arms.”

Focused on getting bigger and stronger this off-season. The prospect is planning on returning to the University of Florida later this winter to condition his body for the continued challenges of pitching on a regular basis.

“In the off-season I’m planning on going back to Gainesville where I went to college to workout with other guys playing professional baseball,” said Shafer. “We all have separate workout schedules with the strength coach there. We all work out together looking to get stronger and getting in the best shape possible for next season.”

With a very good chance of getting another opportunity of showcasing his ability on the mound in the Florida State League next spring, fans in Florida will get a better chance of seeing the kind of talent Justin Shafer has in his repertoire.

Brian Crawford

Brian Crawford

Brian has covered professional baseball for eight seasons for numerous media outlets.
Brian Crawford