I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Nick Wooley, a long-time friend of the Sombrero and former teammate who now pitches in the Kansas City Royals’ organization. I got to know Nick in the summer of 2008 when we were teammates on the Alton Indians of the St. Louis Metro Collegiate League; a team that also featured the Sombrero’s own Ryan Harris and Robbie Unsell. That summer, Wooley’s dominance on the mound lead the Indians’ to a Metro Collegiate League Championship, 3rd place finish at the NABF World Series in Toledo, OH., and an overall record of 30-6.
Wooley, 22, was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 12th round (362nd overall selection) of the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft following a stellar junior season at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri – watch his official MLB Draft video. The 6-foot-2 right-hander earned America Midwest Conference co-pitcher of the year and newcomer of the year honors, after going 8-1 with a 3.31 ERA and hurling four complete games in 12 starts. In 70 2/3 innings, Wooley allowed 60 hits, walked 27, and struck out 89 for the Owls.
Nick spent all of 2009, his first full minor league season, pitching for Idaho Falls, the Royals’ rookie affiliate in the Pioneer League. Appearing in 13 games for the Chukars – nine of which he started – Wooley was 3-2 with a 4.78 ERA, and racked up 40 strikeouts while walking only 10 hitters in 49 IP.
Prior to the 2010 season he was promoted to Low-A Burlington – now the Kane County Cougars – of the Midwest League where he struggled to find rhythm, and battled through some issues with his command.
Although he didn’t have the success at Burlington that he’d hoped, Wooley is anything but discouraged headed into his third professional season. The offseason brought the news that he will become a father in June – news that has allowed him to consider his life and career in a new light. The right-hander enters the 2011 season with distinct goals as both a pitcher and a father, and is optimistic that he’ll turn a major corner in his young career.
Mike: What were you doing when you received the call that you had been drafted by the Royals?
Nick: I was sitting at home with my mom, talking and following the draft coverage. With each name that was called she became more and more antsy, so when we finally heard my name, she burst with excitement. Afterward my phone was blowing up with text messages and calls from friends and family…a great feeling.
Mike: What are the lasting memories of your first Spring Training in 2009?
Nick: After being drafted I was sent to short season, so I thought that I would be used to the whole pro-ball thing by the next season. My first Spring Training was actually not what I expected, and pretty strange at first. You’re on such a tight schedule but everything goes so smoothly. I don’t know if it’s like that everywhere, but in the Royals’ camp the transitions were smooth given how many guys were there. Besides that, I really enjoyed how friendly and talkative everybody was; all of the players were real down to earth guys and the coaches were always around to help.
Mike: Towards the end of the 2010 season you tweaked your elbow, took some time off, and ultimately finished your season on a rehab assignment with the AZL Royals. So…how’s it feeling?
Nick: It’s feeling good…no pain at all. I’d never had any issues with my elbow, so I was a little freaked out when it happened. Luckily, it just needed some rest. I chose to do the three week rehab stint at the end of the year to show the Royals that I was healthy and that I’d be at 100% come Spring Training.
Mike: Considering that you’ve now pitched at two levels (Rookie and Low-A), what have you learned about minor league hitters? What have you learned about yourself?
Nick: At William Woods I faced a lot of really good hitters, but there’s such a difference between those guys and the guys in the minors. The transition to wood bats has definitely helped, but you still have to spot-up, and more importantly, be consistent with all of your pitches. There are so many more hitters who are able to lay off pitches just out of the zone, and just as many who are able to check their swing.
Having to face more advanced hitters has taught me the importance of being able to locate all my pitches in any given count. That’s why I spent so much time last year, and also during this past offseason, working on my offspeed pitches. At this level, you need to be a pitcher and not a thrower.
Mike: Are there any specific coaches or instructors who have really helped you improve?
Nick: Hmmm, it really hasn’t been so much one person as it has been everybody. Anytime I’ve ever had a question, it’s been answered – usually by several different people. That’s what I like – hearing something new from each person is such a privilege. Everyone within the Royals’ organization, as well as the organization as a whole, treat their players right.
Mike: So, how’s the curveball these days? As nasty as ever?
Nick: (Laughter) Yeah, it’s still nasty. In college there were lots of guys who would chase it in the dirt, or take a last-minute, desperation swing. Now hitters have a great eye and take those pitches, which is why I’ve been working on locating it with more consistency.
Mike: As you enter Spring Training, what have you done this offseason to prepare for the 2011 season?
Nick: During my first offseason I didn’t really know what to expect, you know? Should I be focusing on conditioning or should I spend time developing my pitches? I just was never really sure. This year I knew what I needed to do to get baseball ready. Like I said, I’ve worked on consistently throwing my curve for a strike, and also really worked on my changeup. Throughout high school and college I was able to get by with a good fastball/curve combination, but at this level you really need a third pitch, especially as a starting pitcher.
I began throwing my changeup a lot more last year and it’s definitely come around. It’s just such a feel pitch; the toughest part has been slowing it down without changing my arm speed. I usually sit 89-91 mph, and can touch about 93-94 mph, so throwing something significantly slower has been a challenge.
Mike: Do you have any specific goals for 2011?
Nick: My biggest goal for 2011 is to be consistent. If I’m consistent with how I approach each start, as well as with locating my pitches, good things will happen. Throwing all three of my pitches for strikes and walking fewer guys will help bring down my ERA. Other than that, I obviously would like to keep moving up within the organization, and would love to be playing for High-A or Double-A by the end of this season…basically move up one level per year.
Mike: As a pitcher in what is considered to be baseball’s best farm system, what’s the mood like around camp this year?
Nick: Every single guy is here because they can potentially make the Royals a better team…the goal is for everyone to get better. The coaches understand all of the talent here and are complimentary, but at the same time keep us modest. One thing they’ve always said that I like is, “You’re here for a reason…for us to see you play in the major leagues.”
Mike: Considering that you’ve played on the same team as guys like Chris Dwyer, John Lamb, and Wil Myers, who has impressed you the most within the organization?
Nick: Wil is an amazing hitter; he’s got a really quick bat. As for Dwyer and Lamb, both are really cool guys, and obviously really good. Actually, all the guys that I’ve played with are really cool…there definitely aren’t any jerks.
Mike: We are all familiar with the grueling life of the minor league ballplayer. So, how do you spend your free time? What do you do to keep things light?
Nick: I spend a lot of time talking to my girlfriend…she’s pregnant with our baby girl who’s due in June. Other than that, all of the guys on the team play a ton of Xbox 360, so much so that we usually bog down the wifi of whatever hotel we’re staying at. Usually we strictly play Black Ops, but since arriving at camp it’s been MLB 2K11 because of the wireless problems.
Most nights the games end around 10 pm, and then I just want to go home and relax. As a ballplayer, you fall into a daily routine and go about your business in a certain way.
Mike: What are you most looking forward to for this upcoming season?
Nick: The fact that I’m going to be a father in June gives me something to play for…not that I wasn’t already playing for something, it’s just that I’m inspired in a completely new way. Because I won’t be around much surrounding her birth, I’ve decided that I’m going to get her a onesie of every team and stadium that we play at. I’m also excited that my friends and family will have an opportunity to see me pitch more if I’m playing for Kane County (Low-A). I’m just ready to get this season underway…it’s going to be memorable for so many different reasons.
*Once again, thanks to Nick for taking time out of his busy Spring Training schedule to talk with us. Everyone at The Golden Sombrero, as well as its readers, wish him the best of luck in the 2011 season.