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An Interview with top Braves pitching prospect Kolby Allard

Kolby Allard took some time out from his busy schedule to talk about his time in the minors including his surprise promotion to Double-A, his outlook for 2018, and much more.

Kolby Allard doing his thing for Rome
(David Schofield/Rome Braves)

When the Braves drafted Kolby Allard with the 14th overall pick in the 2015 draft, the team felt as though they had received a gift. Allard was considered to be in contention for the first overall pick in the draft before a stress fracture in his back hit his draft stock. The Braves still believed that Allard was one of the best pitchers in the draft and possessed the best breaking ball in the class, so they stayed in touch despite his strong attraction to honoring his college commitment to UCLA. Their faith was rewarded as he did fall to, and sign with, the team. It is safe to say that the Braves are pleased that everything fell into place.

After an abbreviated stint in Rookie ball after the draft and a late start to his season at Rome in 2016, where he showed a bit of rust following a clean-up procedure on his back, Allard has been on a roll ever since. Using a low to mid-90s fastball that he commands exceedingly well, a plus curveball, and a changeup that has made big strides and plays off his fastball well, Allard posted a 2.98 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 16 starts (60 13 innings) in 2016. His results and the improvement he showed in Spring Training in 2017 earned him a very aggressive promotion to Double-A despite being the tender age of 19.

One would think that after an aggressive promotion, Allard would struggle a bit given his age and experience level. However, Allard rose to the challenge and exceeded expectations with a 3.18 ERA while striking out 129 batters in a career-high 150 innings of work. Allard now ranks among the best left-handed pitching prospects in all of baseball and is a mainstay in the upper echelons of top 100 prospect rankings. I managed to catch up with Allard after a workout (can’t stop, won’t stop) to talk about his career up until this point and his thought process going into 2018. Enjoy!

First off, Kolby, how early on did you get into baseball and when did you settle into being a pitcher?

I started playing baseball when I was super young… whenever tee ball started I was playing baseball. Growing up, I played basketball and a little bit of soccer. I actually played basketball all the way up until high school. I was pretty close with my high school baseball coach and he kind of told me that if I came out for just baseball and focused on it that I could make varsity my freshman year. In the grand scheme of things, that probably didn’t matter, but back then, making varsity was the greatest thing in the world so I dropped basketball and started only playing baseball my freshman year of high school.

At what point in your amateur career did you start realizing that turning pro was a realistic possibility and how did that change your approach to playing baseball?

To be honest with you, I was a solid ball player when I was younger and I always threw strikes and threw the ball where I wanted to more or less, but I never really had the velocity until I grew into my body, and I was always a little bit younger. I didn’t really know that I was any good or [that I could] make a career out of baseball until probably my junior year of high school. Some scouts started sniffing around and things started happening then. That summer before my senior year, I went on to play with Team USA and I started learning then. I was the oldest kid in my family, so I didn’t know too much about the whole draft process so I had to get informed on that stuff pretty quick.

The draft for you was a bit different for you because you were injured that spring and it was entirely possible that you were going to go to school. What went into your decision to sign with the Braves and not head to college?

It was really frustrating because I put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that offseason and going into the year. To get hurt, go down, and not really be able to do your favorite thing to do as a pitcher and go out and compete... it was awful not being able to do that. Obviously, I was very interested in going to UCLA because it is a very good school and has a really good baseball program.

Growing through everything beforehand, I had a really good relationship with one of the Braves’ national guys, Tom Battista, and after I got hurt teams were still really interested in me. I was sitting down with General Managers and stuff like that, but the Braves took a special interest in how I was doing and how I was recovering. It seemed like they cared on a personal level. They started to get pretty close with my family and as things went on, we liked the direction the Braves were going. Obviously from 2015 to present, there has been a lot more to revamp the organization and revamp the farm system, but even in 2015 you could see that plan was in place. It wasn’t just all talk, you could see the plan taking shape. I felt like I was mature enough to go off on my own and live by myself. I liked what the Braves had planned for me, liked what they had going on in the organization, and as of right now it is looking like we made the right decision so I couldn’t be more happy.

You didn’t play much in Rookie ball and you got a later start to the 2016 season because of some lingering effects from your back injury, but once you knocked the rust, off you were dominant in Low-A. What was the most difficult part of your game to get back in the wake of that injury?

I mean, I pitched a little bit before the draft building up and I pitched a little bit in Rookie ball, but it was almost like I didn’t pitch consistently for over a year and a half. There is no excuse really to “shake the rust off” because I have pretty high expectations for myself, so it was pretty frustrating because my first two starts in Rome were not very good, but I learned from them and put them behind me. The hardest thing for me was just getting back into the swing of things every five days. No bullpen or live BP can really get you ready. Obviously, they can get your arm in shape, but it can’t get you ready to make that pitch and drop that ball off the plate and stuff like that. You can’t recreate that in live BP. I would say that just getting some more reps under my belt was the biggest thing.

That brings us to spring 2017 and by all accounts you, along with Max Fried and Mike Soroka, had outstanding springs and that helped you get jumped all the way to Double-A. How did you find out about that decision and what was your reaction?

Yeah, myself, Mike, and Max came out and had a pretty good spring, but the way we found out was that Mike and I were out doing early work bunting probably at like 8 am one day. It was just him and me out there waiting for the rest of the guys and we were out there a bit early and Dom Chiti, our pitching coordinator at the time, came up to us and said, “So do you guys know what is going on?” We were like, “Well yeah, we were going out for early bunting… not really.” He said, “You guys are going to Double-A. Figure your blank out.” Mike and I look at each other and were like, “Alright, let’s do it.” Mike and I are very similar, we have very different pitching styles and the way we pitch, but in our heads we think ahead and we think the same way about how to go about things. We were on the same page… screw it we are 19 in Double-A, but baseball is baseball. The guys are going to be a little bit better, but if we go out and execute our pitches we can get anybody out. Obviously you are going to go through your ups and downs, I’m not trying to be cocky about it. Whoever you are facing though, whether it is Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or whoever, if you execute your pitches... yeah, they are going to get you sometimes, but if you do that continuously you are going to get your outs.

I have talked a few guys who have said that pitching in Double-A is almost easier in the sense that you have a clear expectation of a batter’s approach and can plan accordingly. Do you agree with that and even if you do, what has been the hardest adjustment to make pitching in Double-A as opposed to the lower levels?

I would definitely say that is true. Mike, Derrick Lewis (our pitching coach), and I talked almost every day about that kind of stuff. Sometimes in Rome, you would make a really good pitch and you would be like “Why is that guy swinging at that? What is he doing? What is he trying to do?” Sometimes, and this is no knock on them, but they did not have as advanced an approach as a guy who went to college and has 1,000 more at-bats in their lives. Guys are a little more advanced and have more of an idea of what they are trying to do. Let’s say we know [a hitter] just pounds balls over the plate, if you throw a fastball in... more often than not he isn’t going to swing at it because he isn’t looking for it. However, maybe in Rome something like that happens and he just twists on in and hits it 500 feet down the left field line. It is a little bit more a chess match at the higher levels, or at least what I have seen at Mississippi. If you go out with your game plan and you execute it, more often than not you are going to have success because you have a plan, you know what they are going to try and do and what you are going to do, and after that it comes down to who executes better especially when you have faced guys 10-15 times in a season.

The biggest adjustment for Double-A was... well, I went through my bumps. I started the year off really well, had a couple of bad starts in the middle, and then finished strong. It was almost like I had to ride the highs and lows. This was my first season making every single start and I learned that just because you have a couple of bad days, don’t try to change anything because you are not good enough to get the guys out. It’s more “you didn’t execute here” or “you didn’t set him up well here or throw the correct pitch off of that pitch.” It is more of a chess match and now that we have more scouting reports on guys and they have scouting reports on you, you just have to go out and execute. That was the biggest thing.

Lets talk about your fastball, as a lot of who you are as a pitcher plays off of it. When do you like to throw it as more of a true fastball and when do you like to put more of a cutter-type movement on it?

I think my biggest strength is my fastball and my fastball command. You obviously aren’t going to throw it exactly where you want it every start... in 27 starts, sometimes you are going to have your stuff and sometimes you are not, but I would say more often than not I can locate that ball down and in, down and away, both sides of the plate, and even this year I thought I did a pretty good job of commanding the fastball up. Hitters these days… so many guys are looking for the ball down. A fastball up and in can be just as effective even when it’s a ball. This is something Soroka and I both worked on this year. Just because you throw a fastball for a ball does not mean it is a bad pitch. I got a lot of guys out this year on, let’s say it’s 0-2, I go fastball for two balls in off the plate... I’m purposefully throwing it for a ball and then go right back in on the inner third and bam it will freeze them. You can kind of manipulate things and pitch to your strengths and one of mine is fastball command. If it is a competitive ball, it can be almost as good as throwing a strike. Another thing I learned this year is that you don’t have to be afraid to fall behind a guy. I have enough confidence in myself that I can throw strikes in any count, but walking a guy isn’t always the end of the world. There are times when you want to pitch around a guy and if you walk him, it isn’t that big of a deal. It isn’t that big of a deal if it is a 1-1 count, throw a fastball in and maybe it will miss a little in, but it will set up that 2-1 changeup and get a quick, easy out. It is about thinking one pitch ahead and using one of my biggest strengths and try to get quick outs.

One of the things that impressed me the most was how well you pitched even when you didn’t have your best stuff. Sometimes your curveball wasn’t its usual plus, sometimes you weren’t locating as well, and you still consistently battled to put up quality outings. When you don’t have your best stuff, is there anything in particular you lean on to make it through your starts?

I think this year my changeup made very big strides towards that. That was one of the big things going into the year. Our pitching coordinator and pitching coaches sat me down before the year were like “We don’t really care if you go out there and get hit. We want you by the end of this year that when you go into the big leagues next year that you can throw a 2-0 changeup and get an easy little ground ball out.” Now, there is a fine line between that you have go out and work on things and that competitive edge. Obviously, I want to go out there and stick it down the batter’s throat every single at-bat. Every pitcher wants to do that. You have to walk that tightrope of trying to develop your stuff as well as being that competitive guy and I did have trouble at times this year doing that. That said, if you can command your fastball and throw your changeup for a strike... look at the guys in the big leagues who command their fastball and have good changeups. Those are very good pitchers. That was a big thing for this year because even if you don’t have your A+ fastball command, if you can mix that changeup in there and slow down bats... it only makes your fastball that much better even if it isn’t that good on that day.

Whether it was as an amateur or as a pro, what was the best piece of coaching advice you have ever received?

I don’t think there was one thing where it was like BANG and it clicked for me. The most important thing for myself, and everyone is different, is just know who you are and try to perfect your craft. Soroka has a great sinking two-seam fastball and he can lean on it in any situation at any time. I can’t throw a sinker, I can’t throw a two-seam like that... that isn’t who I am. Some guys might have a couple of bad outings and will say, “Man, I need to throw a two-seamer or I need to do this or that.” It’s not that you are not good enough. I would say 75% of guys in Double-A have the “stuff” to play in the big leagues. The stuff isn’t what lets you play in the big leagues for a long time. What you have in your head and it’s whether or not you know how to use it and how you are going to approach things. Know who you are as a pitcher and perfect what you do. Don’t try to change yourself, just perfect yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else. I know it sounds cliche, but if you dig down deeper it is a very true statement. There are guys who are 95-100 with sliders from hell and throw strikes but, no knock on them, but it is almost like “Why can’t this guy get outs?” Maybe they are trying to do too much or change too much. For me, the most important this is perfecting what I do.

You finished the season really strong despite pitching the most innings you ever have as a pro. Now that you have had a little bit to reflect on it, what are you planning on working on this offseason going into 2018 (mechanically, strategically, or anything)?

I was very happy with how I closed out the year. People talk about hitting the wall or whatever the terms are. I don’t really believe in that. I think if you take care of your body in the offseason, get yourself ready for that workload, you stick to your routine every five days which I think I did a great job with regardless of how the last start went, and yeah... you might lose a tick off your fastball because your arm is just naturally getting tired. That isn’t a weird thing... it isn’t like pitching is the most natural motion in the world. Even if you lose a tick off your fastball, like if you are normally 90-93 and instead you are 89-92, you should still be able to go out and pitch. I think that is more something that could get in guys’ heads and I don’t really believe in. Taking care is what I am going to touch on this offseason. I want to go out and put on a couple of more pounds and get in good shape. I have done a lot of interviews this offseason and people are asking me, “What is your main goal for 2018?” and to sum it up it is “pitching in October”. Obviously I want the Braves to make the playoffs and I want to be a part of it pitching every five days and winning ball games. A lot of people talk about getting to the big leagues and obviously that’s a goal. But for me, and I think I speak for Mike as well because we bounce these things off of each other and it’s great to go through this with someone like that, we look at getting to the big leagues as a stepping stone. It’s not like “Ooh, I made the big leagues… now what do I do?” We have our sights set a lot higher. We might make that debut and obviously that is a very, very special day but then it’s, “We have to win this game. We are trying to win a pennant here.” That’s how I look at things because I am a perfectionist and I have a winning mentality, but that is something I take pride in. This year, I wouldn’t say it was a bad year... it just sucks not winning. There is just no other way to put it. It isn’t fun going out there and losing ball games. So this season, I want to go out and get stronger, let my body mature a little bit more, put on some weight, and be able to handle 180, 190, 200 innings next year. That is my ultimate goal next year and hopefully I can get up to the big leagues somewhere in there and help the team win.

You have pitched with a lot of great pitchers between your time in Rome and now Mississippi. The important question here is who is the best hitter amongst the pitchers you have played with (you are welcome to vote for yourself here)?

Well, it is definitely not me... I will say that. I’ll be honest, I am not the hitting pitcher. I would probably have to go with Fried. As much as I hate to say it, the guy can swing it pretty freaking well. I got my hit in the second series of the year off a guy that got called up for the Cubs, but kinda cooled off with the bat and ended the year like 0 for 20... things didn’t go my way at the plate. As long as I run into a ball once a year and I get the bunts down, I’ll be happy haha.

One last question before I let you go. It seems difficult for young pitchers to have to adjust to different catchers and you have had to do that a good bit because that is just the nature of minor league promotions and player development. How hard is it to adjust to new faces behind the plate and, for you, what is the thing you look for the most from a catcher?

That’s a good question. Obviously, you have guys you like throwing to more than others and it might not necessarily be who the better catcher is. It could just be who know better and are on the same page with more. It can be tough because Kade [Scivicque] and I started to get in a solid groove to start the year and then he got called up and bang you can’t throw to him again. Stuff like that happens but I try not to harp on that too much. As much as you might want to throw to that guy, it is out of your control and you have to focus on what you can control. The biggest thing for me, I think, for a catcher is just pitch calling. Receiving, blocking, and the whole nine yards are all very important and you want a complete catcher back there and we have a lot of those guys in our organization. I like throwing to Kade, I like throwing to [Alex] Jackson, [Jonathan] Morales, and obviously Lucas Herbert... I like throwing to them all and they all do things differently. That said, especially in Double-A, pitch calling has become so much more important than before. I think Jackson and I did a very good job at the end of the year. We were really on the same page and going to games, we would sit down before games and go through the hitters, talk about what we were going to do, and keep a quick tempo out there. If you are shaking off and shaking off, it is hard to get in your rhythm. I finished the year strong and I think he was calling a very good game and then I just went out there and executed.

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