Originally posted to the Mobile BayBear's website.
RHP Kaleb Fleck's 2014 Has Defied all Odds
SCOTTSDALE, AZ - Life is about numbers. Ball players get 18 years from the moment they're born to perfect their craft on the field. Batting average, earned run average, fielding percent, on-base percent… everything you do is a statistic to be reported and scrutinized by hundreds of people you don't know and have never met.
If you're talented enough to make a high school team, you're one of over 400,000 lucky student athletes. Make it to an NCAA program? You've become one of nearly 25,000. Drafted? You're in 10% of the statistics. Odds to make it to the Bigs? After the 21st round, you're looking at less than 7%. For Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Kaleb Fleck, statistics are nothing to be defined by.
Fleck started playing baseball when he was eight, unlike most little leaguers, he took the time to enjoy the game for what it could be versus what he could do.
"I started pitching in t-ball, it just ended up being the position I played and I stuck with it. I did it to be with my friends, I wasn't particularly passionate about any of it, I didn't do stuff in the offseason I just played."
Through high school, the righty took command of his form, becoming a starter at Hollidaysburg before transferring to Claysburg-Kimmel, a notably smaller high school just down the road. Fleck started garnering attention from schools but admits for the most part, he hadn't planned on a career past his high school days in Pennsylvania.
"The thing is, until my senior year I just planned on going to Penn State and not even playing a sport. I was going to go to school with my friends and enjoy it. At the time I underestimated what I could do with baseball and then realized it could help pay for school. By my senior year I started taking it seriously and making visits. I couldn't tell you the top five Division-I baseball schools, that's how much I underestimated it."
Fleck made the decision his senior year and signed with Division-II Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
"They had my major which played a big part. The pitching coach, Rick Roberts, did offseason lessons with me my junior and senior year so I already had an established relationship with him. He was young and really smart and I knew he would take care of me. Plus I was close to home and had an additional academic scholarship, it was a good option."
The righty remained a starter through college, noting with Division-II that all games are 7-inning double headers versus a traditional 3-game, 9-inning series. This format allowed a starter to have a significant number of appearances without a high amount of innings pitched. The unique system could not prevent Fleck being shut down for Tommy John surgery his junior year. Ironically, the system allowed him to claim a medical red shirt if he chose, despite nearly finishing the season because he had only pitched an average of 70 innings.
"I could have been a fifth year senior and only a red shirt junior on the field, so it was an option. Had I waited for the draft though, I'd have been 23 years old. Signing as a free agent during instructional league rather as a free agent in spring training changes the odds, I'm one of 70 guys in instructional league versus being brand new and one of hundreds at spring training."
To the normal human, 23 is young. Most 23-year-olds have recently graduated college and are starting their lives, there's another 30 years to work towards a career goal. A 23-year-old brand new in professional baseball is old, behind, attempting to compete with 18-year-olds who started at the same time but with more energy and potential. The younger a signee is, the higher the odds that he can be taught, developed and utilized for his team. This isn't even factoring probability of injury and the likeliness of older players attempting to balance and support family life. Fleck needed to make a decision before another birthday.
"At the time I had several free agent offers. There were a lot of different paths teams wanted me to take. The people I talked to in Arizona's organization, Ray Montgomery and the scout who was looking at me, were so nice. I heard nothing but good things about the organization and my agent was really positive about it. Arizona allowed me to come to instructional league and that was a big factor. It was the best fit."
Proving his arm was healthy post-Tommy John, Arizona made the decision to transition Fleck into a bullpen role. Initially, the goal was to monitor his innings, a key component of competitors making a return from baseball's most notorious procedure. There was still a little talk about bringing him back to a starting role eventually but he seized the opportunity to play a new role.
"I went in the bullpen and hit the ground running, I did well at it. Once I got used to the transition I really enjoyed it and I've stuck with it. I think it's paid off. I'm glad I stayed in this role, being a starter is definitely a different routine and has its pro's and con's but I'm definitely enjoying what I'm doing now."
While some struggle with transitions from starter to bullpen and vice versa, Kaleb took every opportunity to study the role and develop his performance. Note: his studiousness maintained an above 3.0 grade point average while working on a pre-med degree at Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
"As a reliever you're up every night, you don't know if you're in or not because it depends on the score. I have to keep my mind in the game every single night and be prepared. Your mentality as a reliever is to come in guns blazing and that was something for me that I had to try to wrap my head around."
The closer certainly wrapped his head around it. In 2014 Fleck began his season with Arizona's AA-affiliate Mobile, throwing for 63.1 innings, 79 strikeouts and 17 saves. Following the conclusion of Mobile's playoff run he was called up to AAA-affiliate Reno where he made appearances for 2 innings, recording 3 strikeouts.
"I'm in for one inning, my job is to get three outs. You have to do whatever you can to get those three outs, there's no establishing a fast ball anymore as a reliever, you have to come in working to attack. Once I adjusted to that it's been smooth sailing."
Fleck has sailed into the Arizona Fall League, appearing in 8.2 innings with 2 saves and 12 strikeouts. His command and velocity have kept him on radars for writers, scouts and Diamondback officials alike.
"Its surreal how things have changed in the last three years. To see your name in an article, it's definitely humbling. It's exciting, it doesn't mean anything going into the future because I still have to perform well but it keeps you optimistic and makes you want to work harder. To reach the big leagues is the ultimate goal so it's exciting. Everything happens for a reason. It's been one of the best experiences of my life."
An unknown entering 2014, Fleck will be on everybody's radar next summer. A far cry from where he thought he'd be just a few years earlier.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.