English rewriting the script in San Jose
Giants lefty assumes leading role on a star-studded staff
If the San Jose Giants' pitching staff had been precast as a Hollywood movie, you'd have had these stock characters:
Tim Alderson: The fresh-faced 19-year-old phenom who went from first-round Draft pick in 2007 to the Class A Advanced rotation to open 2008.
Kevin Pucetas: The low-round pick out of a small school who came out of nowhere to lead all Minor League starters in ERA last season.
Clayton Tanner: The Australian southpaw whose plus command and smarts rank him among the Giants' top starting prospects at the age of 20.
Ben Snyder: The Midwestern kid who made his mark on the mound in 2007 with 16 wins and a 2.09 ERA at Augusta.
But how would Tinseltown have crafted southpaw Jesse English before the club broke from Arizona-based Spring Training? Perhaps like this:
Jesse English: A sixth-round pick in 2002 who had been sidelined by injuries for most of the last four years. Perhaps his role would be sidekick to the "fab four?"
But that's why pencils have erasers and computers have a backspace button.
Jesse English: A sixth-round pick in 2002 who rebounds from a series of injuries to help anchor one of the best rotations in Minor League baseball and emerge as one of the top pitchers in the California League.
The numbers of the San Jose staff are mind-boggling, both combined and individually. Alderson, Pucetas and Tanner currently rank first, third and seventh, respectively, in ERA, and Snyder led the league before his late-June promotion to Double-A Connecticut.
But looking back at the San Jose season -- a team that has already won the first half of the North Division race and is about to wrap up the second half as well -- where would they have been without English?
English has remained among the league leaders in the three Triple Crown categories all season, and with just a handful of games remaining, he currently ranks third in ERA (3.17), tied for second in wins (13) and second in strikeouts (1,350).
He has taken the mound every fifth day with a consistency and durability the team could have hoped for but could probably never had expected coming into 2008.
When English was drafted in the sixth round of 2002 out of high school in Southern California, he was a 17-year-old known for his changeup, low-90s fastball and curve who could control both sides of the plate.
Coming off of a 13-1 season at Rancho Buena Vista High School (the alma mater of San Francisco outfielder David Roberts), where he posted a 1.22 ERA, he excelled during his pro debut in the rookie-level Arizona League, going 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA and striking out 68 batters in 47 innings while walking 18. He capped the season by throwing 5 1/3 innings of shutout ball against the Cubs in the league championship game.
But things started to fall apart the next summer. Back in Arizona, he missed more than a month with elbow trouble, problems that continued to plague him throughout 2004 at Class A Hagerstown.
"I tried to work through them, but that didn't work out too well," recalled English. "I went down to rehab in Arizona right before the All-Star break, hoping I could avoid surgery and come back in 2005, but that next spring I couldn't throw at all."
English underwent ulnar surgery that spring, costing him all of 2005 and much of '06 as well. Four years out from his promising debut, he had still yet to make it through a full-season campaign.
Back with the Volcanoes in 2007, however, and finally feeling no pain, he helped anchor the bullpen of a team that went 57-19 and won MiLB.com's Minor League Team of the Year honors.
Setting up closer Daniel Otero, who is now the closer at San Jose, English posted an 0.69 ERA in 26 games, striking out 46 while walking just five in 26 innings. His .154 average against ranked third in the Northwest League, while his 15.92 strikeouts per nine innings ranked second among league relievers.
This spring, the decision was made to move English back into the rotation to give him the opportunity to make up for lost innings, and at age 23 he skipped past a repeat performance at Class A to make his Class A Advanced debut with San Jose, this time back in the rotation.
The goals English set for himself in '08 were simple.
"My main goal was to go the whole season without getting hurt," he said. "And to throw 100 innings."
It's probably late enough in the season for that superstition to be tossed aside, and it can be said that he accomplished that goal with room to spare. His 135 1/3 innings have been money as he's yet to miss a start, with 21 of his 26 starts going five or more innings despite a pitch count. And he's been quality, allowing more than three earned runs in a start four times all season.
Like most players in their first full season, English hit a bit of a wall shortly after the second half began, but his remarkable conditioning helped him to work through it.
"His conditioning is second to none on our team -- he's a physical specimen in terms of his body fat," marveled San Jose manager Steve Decker. "He's never thrown this many innings, so it's helping him grind this season out."
He is not a finished product by any means, especially not after all the time he lost, but he knows what he has to work on, primarily making all of his three solid pitches work concurrently.
"He has a potential Major League changeup and slider, but at this point the two rarely are both working at the same time," explained Decker, who was a big-league catcher. "When his arm angle is down, the changeup works but the slider is flat. When his arm angle is up, his slider is better and he has a quick fastball that carries well."
While consistency of command is also a work in progress, English's mound presence is impressive.
"He's a good competitor," Decker said. "His body language is low-key. He holds it in well without showing a lot of emotion. He's got a good poker face."
Decker, known as a savvy and no-nonsense presence, has been a good match for English, whose dad is a retired Marine.
"He knows what he's talking about, and he's real hardnosed," English said of Decker, who was also his manager in 2007 at Salem-Keizer. "Some people can't take it and crumble under pressure, but with my dad having been in the military, it's nothing new to me."
English has also taken on the role of "big brother" to some of the younger pitchers. Though at 23 he's not that much older than his rotation-mates, the fact that he's in his seventh pro season (counting the lost '05 campaign) gives him that right to seniority.
"I kind of gave myself the responsibility of being a leader because I'd been around the longest," said English, the youngest of three kids. "Some of them get upset after a bad outing, and I try to explain to them that it's a marathon and they're going to have good games and bad games."
Decker has enjoyed watching English develop, both on the field and off.
"I think he's matured a lot in the last couple of years," he said. "His focus to become a big leaguer has improved tenfold, and he's really become a prospect in this organization."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.