By Ellen Terhune
After missing nearly all of the 2018 season, anticipation filled the 70-degree Scottsdale air as Riley Pint made his return to the mound for the Colorado Rockies first minor league class A spring training game of 2019.
But quickly, the anticipation dissolved as a disastrous start began to unfold for the Rockies former No. 1 overall prospect.
In just 1 2/3 innings, the 21-year-old gave up four earned runs, and there was no sign he could stop the barrage by the Diamondbacks. In just the bottom of the second inning, the Rockies ended the misery and relieved the Lenexa, Kansas native.
Pint went straight to the trainer’s table for a quick shoulder treatment and left the facility.
Then, he did what he always does after every outing — called his dad, Neil, a former pitcher at Iowa State.
“He was like, ‘I’m just not having fun,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, it’s baseball, it’s just a game. You have to get back to that kid who was always having fun.”
In his four years in the minor leagues, Pint’s 3-20 record and 5.92 ERA through 143 innings is a far cry from the fun that came with the success the right-handed pitcher was having prior to becoming the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft.
“Adjusting to this was so tough because I went from facing guys in Kansas class 5A high school baseball to the best college hitters who have seen my stuff before from different pitchers,” Pint said.
At the time of the 2016 draft, with Pint’s still growing 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, unparalleled athleticism, and a fastball consistently reaching triple digits, the Colorado Rockies saw a prospect with the complete weaponry of a major league ace when they selected him as their first pick.
And rightfully so.
In his senior season at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Lenexa, Kansas, the then LSU commit led the Saints to his second state title in three years, posting a 0.50 ERA, striking out 75 batters in 49 innings. He gave away just three earned runs and performed equally as impressive at the plate, batting .590 and recording 34 RBIs.
When the 2016 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year wasn’t on the mound, he was alternating positions in the infield.
“I loved playing him at second because he could turn a double play ball quicker than anybody,” Saint Thomas Aquinas baseball coach Lorne Parks said.
But most appealing to MLB teams, was the consistent streak of 102 mph lasers the then 18-year-old recorded on the radar guns of more than a dozen scouts who came to Kansas to watch the high school All-American two months before the draft.
“I got so nervous seeing him in front of all of the scouts and the radar guns,” Neil said. “I was overwhelmed and I couldn’t imagine what was going through his head in those moments, but he never flinched. It never phased him for a second.”
While Pint’s flame-throwing arm was enough to earn him a $4.8 million signing bonus with the Rockies, he would eventually come to the harsh realization that his fastball alone would not get him to the major league.
In his first season in the organization, Pint posted a 1-5 record with a 5.35 ERA in his 37 innings with the Rockies’ rookie affiliate in Grand Junction, Colorado. In a league where the players were an average 3.5 years older than the young prospect, the learning curve was steep.
“Seeing a 95 mph fastball is nothing to those guys he was facing,” Neil said. “For Riley to get that reality check, that was a huge shock to him. It was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have to do something different; I’m going to have to be a lot sharper.’”
Fastball command continued to be an issue for Pint in the 2017 season when he moved up to the Rockies’ A team affiliate, the Asheville, North Carolina, Tourists. There, Pint’s record plummeted to 2-11, with a 5.42 ERA in 93 innings.
‘It was still a huge adjustment for me, learning how to throw my stuff in the zone more. I had to be able to throw my off speed a lot more because if you throw too many fast balls, they’re going to hit it.”
And after playing just 8 1/3 innings in 2018 due to forearm stiffness and an oblique strain, Pint missed nearly all of his third season.
But after what may seem like a disappointing start to his 2019 campaign with the Asheville Tourists, Pint is finally beginning to realize that fastball command isn’t his biggest weakness after all.
Instead, it’s embracing failure.
“A big part of his problem is that he thought he was going to cruise through the minor leagues,” Neil said. “He never faced any adversity in high school and now that he has hit some, he has to learn how to handle it which has taken him a few years. I don’t think he handled it very well last year or the year before, but I think this year, he’s starting to.”
As an 18-year-old who knew nothing but success, Pint’s mom Missy said the pressure he placed on himself to immediately succeed at the next level was overwhelming.
“I always thought the mental part of the game was going to catch up to him. Riley had never failed like that before,” she said. And I would never say he’s failing now, he’s just not having the success that he was used to and wish he would have. He puts too much pressure on himself and he needs to realize he’s 21 years old and stop worrying about thinking he should be further along by now.”
With the age of a pitcher making his debut on the 40-man roster in the National League in 2019 averaging 24.5 years of age, Pint still has time, youth, athleticism and one of the most powerful arms in all of the MLB farm systems working in his favor.
But his ability to control it in order to become the big league starter the Rockies still see in him, is something he will need to continue to show strides toward in Asheville this season.
Neil knows his son is on the right path.
“He’s so much more confident now, every time I talk to him he’s upbeat and positive again. If we were talking about him now and he was 25, it would be a different story. He still has a lot of time to get to where he wants to be, and I think he’s going to do it.”
Editor’s note: This story was produced by students at the University of Kansas through its Spring Break Beat program.