“I’m always over-thinking,” the 20-year-old right hander says. “I’m very analytical. My favorite subject in school was math. I love sitting down and solving problems.”
In the baseball universe, however, May befuddles nearly everyone. His coaches, his teammates, and scouts, are all at a loss to explain May’s fall from grace, which recently culminated in a demotion from Clearwater in the Florida State League to Lakewood in the South Atlantic League. Coming into the season, May was ranked the fifth best prospect in the Phillies organization by Baseball America, following an impressive campaign with Lakewood in 2009, and begin 2010 in Advanced-A.
To say May struggled with his control in Clearwater would be an understatement. While he continued to strike out nearly a third of the hitters he faced (90 strikeouts in 70 innings), he also walked nearly one per frame (61).
When pressed on what adjustments May must make, Lakewood pitching coach Steve Schrenk spews some prototypical cliches: “We haven’t really done a whole lot mechanically. A lot of it has to do with just making pitches, being able to have some confidence. He lost a little bit of it and I know he will, given a little change of scenery, a little bit something different to look at, hopefully he’ll do last year what he did in this league.”
May, however, begs to differ. “No. Confidence is not an issue. I have all the confidence in the world,” he stresses in an almost sarcastic manner.
Schrenk is not the only one dumbfounded by May’s struggles. May is baseball’s ultimate enigma. He embodies the idiosyncrasies of Matt McCarthy and Brian Bannister, compounded by Nuke LaLoosh-esque talent. His repertoire starts with a four-seam fastball with sinking action, sitting from 91-94 mph. He has an 81-84 mph change-up and a 77-79 mph curveball, both of which flash plus potential.
Of course, May’s struggles in Clearwater can be attributed to practical factors. Scouts note how he sometimes struggles repeating his delivery. In Clearwater, the letter-high fastballs that helped May induce 95 strikeouts in just 77.1 innings with Lakewood in 2009 were instead taken for balls. Hitters in the Florida State League proved more disciplined and less aggressive, in part due to the pitcher-friendly confines of the FSL. Often, May left pitches up in the zone, and paid the price. As a result, he is now focusing on locating his fastball down in the zone consistently.
In certain respects, May believes, if anything, he is making strides. He says he is throwing his fastball at a higher velocity with less effort. While he remains mostly incapable of commanding his secondary stuff, he nevertheless feels he has a better feel for his curveball and change-up. “I have not lost anything. You look at the box score and might not think I’m improving,” he says. “But my secondary stuff has come a long way.”
First and foremost, May must improve his fastball command. The enormousness of this challenge was reflected in his second start for Lakewood against Delmarva on July 11. Blueclaws catcher Sebastian Valle made several trips to the mound early in the game. Valle called for the minimum amount of off-speed stuff. May, however, stubbornly refused to give in, comically shaking him off, forcing more than one mound visit.
After the first inning, with May seemingly unable to hit the broad side of a barn, Valle decided he is going to try something new. On Thursday and Friday that week, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was in town for a rehab stint in Lakewood. Ruiz gave Valle a short tutorial on catching with one-leg out; it was more an act of inspiration than a lesson. The rationale behind it is that it adds the illusion of a bigger target.
“Its’ a bit uncomfortable for him,” May says laughing. After surrendering three runs in the first, however, he threw four scoreless innings.
Yet these episodes are merely symptoms of the mental hurdles hounding May. “It’s something I have work on,” he says, alluding to his propensity to over-think.
“You have to almost be brain dead when you’re out there,” Blueclaws manager and longtime catcher Mark Parent is fond of saying. “A lot of people have been too smart for baseball. It’s a common sense sport. Being intelligent usually doesn’t pay off.”
While most of his teammates pass their time away from the ballpark watching movies and playing video games, May prefers reading and writing. “I know that’s kind of weird, around here, but that’s what I do.” He keeps a journal with him, logging what happens everyday and commenting on pitching. I ask him if he plans on writing a book, akin to Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four.
“I don’t think anyone would read it,” he responds. “It’s basically just me saying, Is my leg too high? Am I bringing my arm back the right way. I hope I don’t walk this guy.”
May’s latest literary obsession is Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling 2006 self-help book, The Secret. You can tell the book has struck a chord with him; he is absolutely stoked to share his reaction with the only person who will listen (me). May now hopes he can use his positive mindset on the mind (a central tenet of the book).
Make no mistake, May is hardly any introvert. His gregariousness stands out among his teammates, most of whom are guarded during interviews. He elaborates on every point. How he abhors the sweltering heat in Clearwater, where it rains every day at four and throws in 100 degrees at seven. He talks to me about several of the prospects in the Futures Game, which is playing in the clubhouse while I am talking to him, particularly how much it sucks to be Domonic Brown, who injured his hamstring earlier in the ballgame. Talking with May is more a conversation than an interview, which really cannot be said of most ballplayers his age.
The Phillies will be patient with May, whom they were fortunate to sign out of Kelso High School, a Washington state baseball powerhouse. At his district championship game in 2008 a few weeks before the draft, May took the hill for the Hilanders. He had previously committed to the University of Washington, which was only a half-hour from his home. While apprehensive about leaving his family and friends behind, WU was not exactly a premier baseball program. “The three years I spent in college,” he said, “I figured I could be pitching in the big leagues by then.”
Scouts from numerous teams were in attendance that day, including the Phillies, Cubs, Athletics, Indians, Reds, Mariners and several other organizations. Except a funny thing happened along the way. May surrendered several runs in the first inning on a couple of hits and walks. Than, it started raining, and after an hour delay, only scouts from the Cubs and Phillies remained. May proceeded to finish the game without allowing another run in Kelso’s victory. On draft day, the Cubs and Phillies called him every round, and with its last pick in the fourth round, Philadelphia selected May.
Now, May is hoping he can rebound similarly. “I wish I could be like everyone else and just go out there and not think about it. All I gotta do is live in the moment, and stop worrying.”