FORT MYERS, Fla. — The first thought that pops to mind for Fort Myers Miracle left-hander Tyler Jay on the anniversary of signing his first pro contract is how much more comfortable he feels this season than last.
It’s hard to tell he’s in the midst of yet another major adjustment.
Jay, the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, has dazzled since converting from short reliever to starter, compiling a 2.97 ERA with 61 strikeouts against 18 walks in 11 starts for the Miracle this season. The performance was more than enough for him to become one of 10 members of his team selected to represent the South Division in Saturday’s Florida State League All-Star Game at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers.
“So far, it’s been pretty good,” Jay said. “Last year, after I signed I came here. It was kind of different, coming from college with the guys that you’d played with, and you had a really good run, to guys you don’t really know yet. So, you’re just kind of getting used to things.”
The All-Star Game takes place one day and one year after he signed with the Twins on a contract that included a bonus worth $3,889,500, the full slot value, MLB.com reported. The five players drafted before him last year received less than slot value.
Capable of consistently throwing 93-95 mph despite a relatively diminutive 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame, Jay has worked this year on his off-speed pitches, specifically his changeup and curve. It’s helped him throw at least six innings in five of his last seven starts after never having pitched more than an inning during any of his 19 appearances for the Miracle last year.
“At school, I always prepared to be a starter every season, even though I ended up back in the bullpen, so I kind of knew, sort of. I had a good idea of what I kind of needed to do (to start),” Jay said. “Once I was working with (pitching coach) Henry (Bonilla) here and just kind of going over things, and with (former pitching coach) Ivan (Arteaga) last year, I kind of learned what I’m going to have to do this year.”
The mental approach has been key for Jay, who cites his roommate, fellow Miracle starter and All-Star pitcher Stephen Gonsalves, as one of those who’ve helped him adjust his approach. The toughest part, Jay said, has been moving past rough outings.
“If you have a bad start, you’ve got five days to wait until you get your next chance to do better,” Jay said. “When you’re in the ‘pen and you have a rough outing, you’ve got maybe a day to think about it and then the next day you’re back out there. It’s a short-term memory.”
Jay had his worst start of the season in his final appearance before the All-Star break, coughing up six earned runs in three innings Tuesday against Lakeland. That makes him all the more eager to pitch Saturday.
A similar uneasy feeling sat with Jay after his final college game, when he was the losing pitcher in a 4-2 loss to Vanderbilt that eliminated Illinois from the 2015 NCAA tournament. Jay had built a reputation to that point as a polished prospect whom Baseball America cited as perhaps more capable of reaching the major leagues before the end of last season than any other 2015 draftee.
That didn’t happen, in part because of his mediocre 3.93 ERA with the Miracle last year. Ultimately, the organization’s plan all along was for Jay to become a starter. Only two of the many teams that spoke with him in the leadup to the draft didn’t make mention of a starting role, Jay said.
The Twins were the ones who picked him up, making him the 12th player they’ve drafted in the first round since 2009. Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton are the only three among them who’ve made the majors.
Alex Wimmers, who like Jay won a Big Ten Pitcher of the Year award, just reached Triple-A this year after having been drafted 21st overall out of Ohio State in 2010, while fellow Big Ten product Matt Bashore hasn’t played affiliated baseball since 2012, three years after the Twins took him at No. 46.
None of that history concerns Jay, who wasn’t even aware of it until a reporter told him Friday.
“For me, I think one of the reasons they drafted me is because I really don’t think about anything else but what I have to do,” Jay said. “I really don’t get too worried or flustered about much.”
Tuesday’s hiccup aside, the 22-year-old hasn’t had much to get upset about this year. Saturday is the latest opportunity for him to take a step toward bucking an organizational trend and not just reach the majors, but thrive once he gets there. The Twins, a major league-worst 20-47 entering Saturday, are banking on that taking place.