One warm afternoon late in spring training, just before the Reds packed up and headed home from Goodyear, Arizona, pitcher Tyler Mahle reclined in front of his locker, holding forth on a number of topics. Crowded around the 23-year old hurler was an odd assortment of reporters, fellow players, well-wishers, and hangers-on, all eager to soak in the latest bon mot from the California wunderkind.
After some discussion of his most recent outing, and where he planned to eat that evening—Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, as might be expected—Mahle was asked to comment on the fact that he had just been named to the Reds’ Opening Day starting rotation, even though he had been number eight on the eight-man list of pitchers in the competition when spring training began.
Mahle took a deep breath and shook his head slowly, almost imperceptibly. “Well, I look at it like this. I get no respect at all. Never have.
“Heck,” he continued. “When I was a kid, I lost my parents at the beach. I found a lifeguard, and frantically asked him to help me find my parents. The lifeguard looked at me and said ‘I dunno kid. There are so many places they could hide.’ I tell you, I get no respect.”
Wait a minute…let me check my notes. Oh. I’m sorry. That wasn’t Mahle at all; it was actually Rodney Dangerfield. It’s possible that everything above this paragraph is a complete fabrication. I’m sorry for the confusion.
But you can see how I could make that mistake. Mahle has gotten almost no respect from the day he was drafted in the seventh round back in 2013. There was some talk at the time that Mahle could have gone higher, but he had committed to UC-Santa Barbara and every team passed up on him at least six times before the Reds called his name.
Only 18 years old, Mahle quietly reported to Arizona and began doing what he does: throwing strikes and getting batters out. But for a long time, almost no one (outside the organization, anyway) seemed to notice. Mahle appeared on precisely zero Top 100 prospect lists anywhere until just before this season, when he barely made it onto the Baseball America Top 100 (at #90) and the MLB Pipeline 100 (#84).
Even now, after forcing himself onto the big league scene at age 22, praise for Mahle is always qualified. Take a look at some of the various scouting reports over the last year or so:
Eric Longenhagen, Fangraphs (2018): “His stuff is middling, spearheaded by a slightly above-average fastball/slider combination out of which Mahle squeezes every ounce of juice due to his ability to locate…. His stuff isn’t overwhelming, but his command should allow him to survive as an average big-league starter.”
John Sickels, Minor League Ball (2018): “[U]nderstands his craft; nothing left to prove in minors and should be a solid number three starter.”
MLB Pipeline (2017): “Mahle had gotten too cute at times and tried to be too fine when he got to Double-A, perhaps giving hitters in the more-advanced league too much credit. A smart pitcher on the mound, he clearly learned from the experience and is poised to reach his ceiling of a mid-rotation starter.”
Doug Gray, Reds Minor Leagues (2017): “There’s some debate about exactly what his upside is, though most scouts believe he could be a #3 caliber starter in the long run.”
Seems perilously close to damning with faint praise. Of course, saying that someone has a ceiling of “a solid #3 starter” isn’t exactly criticism, and I’m no scout, so I’m not going to delve into the reasoning behind some of the analysis linked above. But given what Mahle has accomplished thus far in his professional career, I just have to wonder: what it’s going to take for this kid to get a little respect?
After being drafted, Mahle posted a 2.36 ERA in rookie ball, striking out thirty hitters while walking only eight. He followed that up, as a 19-year old, by going 5-4 with a 3.87 ERA. Once again, his command was impeccable, striking out 71 and walking only 15 in 76.2 innings.
Before the 2015 season, however, Mahle was rated as just the #30 prospect in the Reds system. Read the names of pitchers who ranked ahead of Mahle on that prospect list: Ian Kahaloa, Wyatt Strahan, John Lamb, Jackson Stephens, Jon Moscot, Sal Romano, Tanner Rainey, Jonathan Crawford, Nick Howard, Tony Santillan, Nick Travieso, Rookie Davis, Cody Reed, Keury Mella, Amir Garrett, Robert Stephenson.
Fast forward three years and maybe one of those pitchers has had more success at the big league level than Mahle. And Mahle is younger than nearly all of them. Certainly the prospect business is an inexact science, but…Wyatt Strahan, for crying out loud!?!
Look at what Mahle has done in the interim. In 2015, he went 13-8 with a 2.43 ERA for Single-A Dayton, striking out 135 and walking just 25 (!) in 152 innings.
In 2016, he was dominant for High-A Daytona, posting an 8-3 record with a 2.50 ERA, and a 76/17 K/BB ratio in 79.1 innings. He also threw his first no-hitter in June before being promoted to Double-A Pensacola. He struggled a bit in his first taste of Double-A—if you can call 6-3, with a 4.92 ERA struggling—but remember, at age 21, he was more than three years younger than the average age in the Southern League.
The following season, Mahle was off the charts. Starting the year back at Pensacola, he threw a perfect game in April en route to a 7-3, 1.59 ERA performance (87 strikeouts, 17 walks) before being promoted to Triple-A. He didn’t skip a beat at Louisville, posting a 2.73 ERA and a 51/13 strikeout to walk ratio in 59.1 innings.
You know how the 2017 season ended, with Mahle making his big league debut in August and the prospect mavens finally starting to sit up and take notice. Kinda.
While everyone was focusing on Stephenson and Garrett and Finnegan and Reed, et al—and all are fine young pitchers; I’m not ready to give up on any of them—Tyler Mahle has been the most productive pitcher at every single level of the Reds minor leagues. No, he doesn’t have the stuff that Stephenson possesses. No, he doesn’t bring the flash and intensity that Garrett totes to the mound. No, he doesn’t have a World Series resume and a talented left arm like Finnegan. No, he doesn’t have the natural talent of a Cody Reed.
But Mahle has something that none of those guys can claim: consistent, outstanding results that actually show up in the box score. (Although, certainly Castillo, Romano, and to a certain extent, Garrett have demonstrated moments of brilliance and/or consistency.) Mahle has done nothing but throw strikes and get hitters out since the day he arrived in the Cincinnati Reds organization. At some point, results have to matter more than what the radar gun says.
We’ve seen those results in the minors, and now we’re seeing them in the big leagues too. In his three most recent starts with the Reds, Mahle is 1-1 (Cincinnati won two of the three games) with a 3.12 ERA, with 24 strikeouts and 8 walks. That includes one game in which Mahle took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, and another start in which he surrendered just one run in six and a third innings. You can almost see him learning and getting better every time he takes the mound.
Which brings me to the other thing Mahle has over all the other pitchers that have been in the mix for the Reds over the last two years, as the club sorts through and figures out which hurlers are likely to stick around as the team (hopefully) becomes competitive again: He’s the youngest of the group.
Mahle has been better every step of the way, he does nothing but get opposing hitters out…and he’s younger, with more room to grow. What’s not to like?
For some time now, I’ve allowed myself to be convinced by all the scouts and prospect gurus that Mahle was going to be a “Mike Leake-Lite,” a good enough starter who would be reliable but never do enough to wow you. If his results on the minor league level are any indication— combined with early returns as a big leaguer—isn’t it just possible that Mahle is actually going to be “Greg Maddux-Lite,” a pitcher who is so good at changing speeds and hitting locations that he becomes an elite pitcher?
No, I don’t really believe that Mahle is going to be the next Maddux. It’s silly to compare anyone to one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But I do believe there’s a good chance that he and Castillo can be a better one-two punch than any the Reds had at their disposal during the most recent playoff stretch (Johnny Cueto plus Mat Latos/Homer Bailey/Bronson Arroyo). And that’s something, right?
Whatever happens in the future, let’s start giving Mahle some respect. After all, unlike most of the kids we’ve seen on the Cincinnati mound the last couple of years, Mahle has unquestionably earned it.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.