Phillies' pitching prospect Nesseth: They call him Little Doc

Mike Nesseth was picked in 17th round after Tommy John surgery.
Mike Nesseth was picked in 17th round after Tommy John surgery. (PHOTO: University of Nebraska)
Posted: May 13, 2011

HE HASN'T PITCHED in his first professional game yet. The Phillies spent a 17th-round draft pick to select him out of the University of Nebraska in 2010 even though his career earned run average was 4.72, his mechanics were a mess and, oh yes, he had just had Tommy John elbow surgery.

Righthander Mike Nesseth, who has been working out ever since signing last summer, started an extended spring game earlier this week. As it happened, his catcher was Carlos Ruiz, playing himself back into shape after sitting out with lower back inflammation.

So, Chooch, does the 23-year-old remind you of anybody?

Ruiz grinned. "He surprised me. He has great stuff," he said. "And his body reminds me of Roy."

That would be Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in baseball. And while the comparison is grossly unfair, it's also one that's heard repeatedly around the Carpenter Complex these days. Little Doc, they call him.

The physical resemblance is unmistakable. Halladay is listed at 6-6, 230; Nesseth at 6-5, 210. They both have short, sandy colored hair. Their deliveries have much in common.

They're even both represented by the same agents at CAA Sports.

And then there's this: Like Halladay, Little Doc has also become known as a workout fiend. "He's outstanding, one of the best workers and competitors we have in our system," assistant general manager, player development and scouting Chuck LaMar said.

He would also like to nix the urge to use Halladay as a measuring stick. Not just for Nesseth. For anybody. "In most cases I would say, 'He's too young, let's not make those comparisons.' But Roy Halladay is so high on mine and everyone's list, we don't use his name with anyone," he said, laughing but deadly serious at the same time.

Nesseth shyly acknowledges that he's heard the chatter. "It's been a huge compliment. I take it very humbly. I try not to get a big head about it or anything," he said. "I've seen his work ethic. I've heard all about it. That's a great guy to want to be like, who you want to work like, who you want to pitch like. That's what I made my goal this whole offseason, this whole rehab. Just watching him pitch, I try to do everything like him. Fill up the strike zone like he does."

Because he stayed in Clearwater all winter and because Halladay lives nearby, it was inevitable that their paths would cross in the weight room. Nesseth remembers it vividly. The way the strength trainer casually mentioned that they'd be having a visitor. And then, Halladay appeared.

"I was so excited to see him," Nesseth said. "I was hoping to meet him and everything like that. I was pretty nervous at first, but he's a great guy. It's really sweet to see someone that dedicated and focused when they come into the weight room. I didn't bother him at all. I just met him quick. I didn't pick his brain but I picked his workout, just to see what he did. Just his intensity, the way he goes about his business. It's a job for him. That's how he treats it and that's what I try to do."

Now, Halladay has won a couple Cy Youngs. Nesseth hasn't even won a game at Class A yet. But it's nearly impossible to not consider the similarites when you watch him throw, see the movement on his pitches and notice how much they look alike.

Besides, who doesn't root for a good comeback story?

Nesseth first began experiencing discomfort in his elbow while pitching in the Cape Cod League in 2009. He was kind of nervous about it but, after resting, it seemed to heal. It flared up again the winter before his senior season and he eventually pitched 10 games before he finally broke down and had an examination.

"I was just kind of sick of the pain and said I had to get it checked out. That's when they said [the ligament] was torn pretty bad. It was almost a relief when I heard Tommy John because I was questioning my ability, questioning what was I doing wrong? Was it me, was it my pitching, was I getting worse? I found out I was actually injured pretty bad and it was a relief. And I just set my mind to let's get this fixed and move on."

If he goes on to have a stellar career, the legend will grow that the Phillies drafted him while he was still on the operating table. In fact, he had the procedure on April 15, 2010, nearly 2 months before the draft. Still, taking a pitcher whose business arm is in a sling still requires a leap of faith.

"Our scouting people took a shot at it because he was still coming off surgery. To their credit they took a gamble. And our player development people [including Carlos Arroyo and Gorman Heimueller] have done a phenomenal job of cleaning up a very rough delivery, which caused his arm problems," LaMar said.

Scouting director Marti Wolever saw Nesseth as a sophomore and thought at the time he might end up as a first- or second-round pick. "It's always going to be a gamble when you take a player coming off surgery," Wolever said. "We've done it before. You don't know what direction they're going to go."

If all goes well, he probably will report to short-season Williamsport when the Crosscutters season opens next month. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see him make it to Lakewood before the end of the year.

In the meantime, he works. Former Phillies head athletic trainer Jeff Cooper, now a rehab consultant for the team, has spent time with him. A few months ago he presented Nesseth with two regulation major league baseballs - yes, they're slightly different than the ones the lower minors get - and told him to keep one in his hand at all times.

"I've got one in my pickup and one in my room," Nesseth said. "So wherever I drive to, I'm holding a ball all the time. Or if I'm just laying around, there's one next to my bed. I listened to him. And it's really helped. It's just those couple grips. I wasn't used to throwing the four-seam fastball a lot and it's all I'm throwing now. Just being able to get your changeup grips and hold it and walk around with it, it really does help."

He may not end up having the same kind of success Halladay has had. Very few pitchers do. But it won't be for lack of trying.

AROUND THE BASES

 * A GUINNESS, PLEASE: The Angels are in first place of the AL West. And now they're in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people wearing masks at one time. The red wrestling masks, homage to WWE superstar Rey Mysterio, were handed out to fans as they entered the stadium. In the top of the fifth they were asked to put them on for 10 minutes, the time necessary to qualify, according to the Guinness record authenticator who was on site to make sure all proper procedures were followed. The announced crowd was 39,151, the old record was 250.

One more time: We couldn't make this stuff up.

* QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Red Sox manager Terry Francona, on why he wasn't worried about being suspended after making physical contact with umpire Joe West during an argument: "If anything, I think Joe should have fouled out after I took the charge."

* THE WRIGHT STUFF: The Detroit News reports that the Tigers are expected to make a strong push to acquire third baseman David Wright from the Mets.

It's an interesting thought. Moving Wright and/or shortstop Jose Reyes would make some sense for the financially strapped team. But the Mets presumably also want to sell tickets and dumping two of their biggest stars isn't going to cause lines to form at the Citi Field box offices no matter how many hot prospects they get in return.

Interestingly, general manager Sandy Alderson didn't rule out dealing either player. He told the Wall Street Journal only that it's a little early. "I don't think you really approach [potential trades] in a serious fashion until early June," he said. "[And] the probabilities will increase until the end of July."

* CLIP AND SAVE: Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is convinced the faltering Red Sox are going to turn things around. "We'll play better. I guarantee you that," he said. "We're not going to end this season being [horsemeat] like we are. Guys are going to figure it out."

* SCANDAL OF THE WEEK: Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols are apparently friends. But when they exchanged a man-hug behind the cage at Wrigley Field this week it touched off a torrent of commentary, since Pujols figures to be one of the most sought-after free agents in recent memory at the end of the season and the Cubs are rumored to be one of the few teams that could afford to bid on him if he left St. Louis.

PHAIR & PHOUL

 * MINOR UPDATE I: When we last checked in on Jonathan Singleton during spring training, the hitter deemed the second-best prospect in the Phillies system by Baseball America was beginning his first full season as a leftfielder, having been moved from first base to remove Ryan Howard as an obstacle between him and the major leagues.

Chuck LaMar said the transition is going well, and Singleton agreed. "As I play the outfield every day it gets easier and easier. At the beginning of the year, if line drives were hit right at me, I was definitely having trouble with them," he said. "With experience, it definitely gets easier."

* MINOR UPDATE II: When we last checked in on Joe Savery during spring training, the former Phillies No. 1 draft choice as a pitcher out of Rice was beginning an experiment to see if his future is as a hitter. The early results have been impressive. He was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Month for April and was still hitting .379 after last night's Threshers' win.

Savery laughed when asked if he now wished he'd made the switch sooner. "It's easy to look in the rearview mirror and there's still a long way to go. The jury is still out," he said, adding that he believes he could have made it as a pitcher but that circumstances, including the fact that he's now 25 and that the organization is loaded with pitchers, left him little choice.

"Outside of middle relievers, you're not going to see many guys in the minor leagues getting a shot. And I get that," he said. "Some guys were passing me by. I just tried to stay out in front of what I feared . . . I just feared that, stuff-wise, I wasn't going to be able to compete. I was pitching with below-average stuff and there are probably several reasons for that. And I couldn't wait any longer. If I'd tried that next year, it might have been a little bit too late."

* PLAYING TO THE LEVEL: The Phillies are 18-7 against teams with losing records this season, all of which are either last or next-to-last in their division. They're 6-5 against the two teams with winning records they've played so far, Atlanta and Florida.

* HAWAIIAN 1-2 PUNCH: In Shane Victorino and Dane Sardinha, the Phillies have two native Hawaiians on their active roster. But that's not as unusual as you might think. It's not the first time it's happened. It's not even the first time this season it's happened. Kila Ka'aihue and Kanekoa Texeira were both on Kansas City's Opening Day roster.

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