In recent years, the Braves had gone heavily into the high school ranks to find talent in the MLB Draft and have been quite successful in doing so. However, in 2018, there was a marked shift towards prioritizing college players with their picks. One such pick was the 11th round selection of Clemson LHP Jake Higginbotham.
Hailing from Buford, GA before heading to college, Higginbotham was a highly regarded prospect out of high school before he decided to college. He relies fairly heavily on a fastball/curveball/changeup mix along with a deceptive delivery. For more information on his arsenal and some general background on him, take a look at the scouting report we posted after the Braves picked him. Jake had a strong year for Clemson in 2018 in posting a 3.47 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 80 innings of work in Clemson’s rotation.
Since being drafted, Higginbotham has been excellent in rookie ball for the Danville Braves. He has yet to give up an earned run in four appearances (9.2 innings so far) and has struck out 12 batters against four walks over that time period.
Jake was kind enough to take the time to chat with me about his amateur career, overcoming a couple of injuries, and what his adjustment to pro ball has been like. If you like stories of perseverance and proving doubters wrong, Jake’s story is one you will want to read. Also, make sure to give Jake a follow on Twitter at @jake_higg. In addition to being a good player, he is good people and incredibly gracious.
A lot of players have a point where they realize that playing baseball professionally is a real option. At what point did you realize that playing pro ball was a realistic option for you?
Realistically, it was the summer going into my senior year of high school. I had gained some velocity on my fastball and started to get some attention from some scouts when I played for the East Cobb Yankees. Going into that spring, we had a catcher on our team Joey Bart, who was the #2 overall pick this year, and he brought a lot of attention to all of our high school games. With all of those scouts there, I caught their eye, too. I was actually drafted out of high school in the 27th round. I opted to go to college, but it was my senior year where I knew it was a realistic goal to make this my job and play professional baseball.
That leads me to my next question because you WERE drafted out of high school and you were rated pretty highly as a prospect as well at the time. What made you decide that college was the right route for you?
So, I was definitely considering going out of high school to play professional baseball just because I am a little bit older (I was 19 when I graduated high school). We definitely saw it as a viable option, but the money needed to be right being that I was a high schooler and I didn’t have any college under my belt. I had some calls from the earlier rounds in the draft. I had a call in the 4th round and I even got a call from the Braves in the 17th round. Eventually, I was drafted in the 27th more as a courtesy pick by the Mets than anything. We just thought that, coming out of high school, the money was going to have to be life-altering. There was a chance that I would have gotten that money, but I do think that my size hurt me a little bit. We just ended up thinking that getting some college under my belt would be best for me and looking at the offers, it was best for me to do that before I decided to go pro.
I made friendships that are going to last a lifetime at Clemson. My baseball IQ definitely grew. I learned how to prepare for upcoming starts and upcoming appearances and I grew into my body a little bit. I went to college at 150 pounds and I left college at 184 pounds, so I gained 34 pounds in three years. I got stronger, more mature, and obviously I got some classes under my belt so that when I go back to finish my degree, it won’t be as strenuous. I’m doing Biomaterials Engineering, which is big because going from high school to pro ball and then deciding what to do after baseball would have been daunting had I chosen to go out of high school. I had a great experience at Clemson.
The college game is a little bit of a different game in that its all about team-first whereas in pro ball, it is about your development and mastering your craft. College is more a team game, it is about winning, its about growing relationships with your teammates, and becoming close as we are pursuing that national championship. Obviously, we didn’t reach that point, but we had three really, really good seasons at my time in Clemson.
Lets talk about your time in college, because it wasn’t without its struggles. You had some issues with some injuries your first couple of years at Clemson. What was your rehab process like and what did you have to do to get back on track to become a professional?
So, my elbow injury….that was a hard experience because I knew for a long time it wasn’t healthy. I think it was September of my freshman year when I started feeling the pain and they shut me down for the fall and we tried to rehab it and everything else and it just didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. My last start I believe was against Western Carolina and I had to come out of the game with elbow pain. There were a lot of mornings where I would wake up and I wouldn’t have 90 degrees of rotation in it and I couldn’t extend it all the way. Finding the injury in my elbow and having surgery on it at first was a relief, because I was like “Finally, the pain will be away”, but the rehab process took longer than I expected and I missed the following fall of school ball which I had intended on participating in. It was very stressful and there were a lot of sleepless nights and frustration there. I had a great support system behind me to keep me going and keep me motivated and positive.
I tried to get back really, really fast after being cleared to throw to start my sophomore year because I was draft eligible and I knew it was a big year for me. I was in the weight room doing straight bar squats when the left side of my back tightened up. I tried to throw through it and I ended up tearing my lat. That was extremely frustrating because I had worked so hard to get back from my elbow and to have my season taken away from me two days before it was about to start, that definitely took the wind out of me a little bit. We didn’t do any surgery on my back or anything like that, we just let it rest and recover and I was able to recover enough to be back for my junior fall. I learned how to deal with adversity for really the first time and coming back my junior year, I already had my doubters telling me that I don’t have the right size, I am too old at this point, and that I can’t come back from these injuries. Just using that as motivation to be ready for the spring and put away some of those doubts if I was going to be the same guy that I was out of high school. I use that every day as motivation. It was a trying experience, but I am glad I went through it because I wouldn’t be as mentally tough as I am today.
So lets actually talk some baseball now that folks have gotten to know you a bit now. If I asked you what your best pitch is right now, what would it be and why?
I think its my fastball, because I am able to command it. You know, when my stuff isn’t working the way that I want it to, I try to pitch hard and inside. That has been a strength since I came back from my injury. Before my injury, I think my curveball was probably my best pitch, but the command on it isn’t quite where I want it to be since I got back fully healthy...but that is a work in progress. I think it has to do with the extension of my arm and I think that probably is a little bit of it. I’m not really sure what it is, it may be more of a mental thing, but the only thing I would be able to point to would be the extension in my arm. It is a work in progress and I have played around with different grips and releases and I have found some things that have been working.
Getting into pro ball and being able to solely focus on my craft and what I am doing has given me more time to just learn new things and tweak the way I throw different pitches and improve them, I can only see my curveball getting better from here on out.
The draft process for everyone is different, but it is always fascinating to me. You had been through the draft process before. What was the process like for you this year and when did you know that the Braves were interested in you?
Well, first I want to thank the Braves for giving me the opportunity, because obviously this is a dream come true for me. This is something that I have been about since I was 4 years old. Its awesome to be drafted by my hometown team and kind of go through that experience with the Braves. As far as the draft process goes this year, it was a little different process than I expected it to be. I was graded out as a 3rd-6th rounder based on what I had done this past season. Obviously, there was the injury background and concerns with size and everything else, you know “Can he stay healthy?”, “He’s 22 years old as a junior?” and all of those things played into it. Because of that, although I threw really well for Clemson this year...the draft didn’t really go the way I was expecting it to.
I knew the Braves had interest in me after Day Two. My area scout called me and was just checking in and making sure that I was still ready to go. He told me to keep my head up and stay positive and stay in it. So, I didn’t really know when I was going to go on Day Three….I had no clue and I had no expectation based on how Day Two went. I was more than ecstatic when my name got called that early on Day Three. There was relief mixed with joy mixed with a bunch of other stuff leading up to that point….I got pretty emotional. There were some times during my injury process where I didn’t think it was going to happen anymore...that my chance had come and gone. To be able to get back healthy and have that second chance to do something that you love and something that you’ve dreamed about for so long was huge for me.
Lets talk about pro ball for a minute. You’ve made a few appearances in pro ball now. Just from your limited look at hitters in pro ball, what are the biggest differences pitching against college hitters versus the guys in pro ball that you are facing now and what adjustments have you made so far as a result?
The biggest difference is that you can’t get away with mistakes at this level. If you leave a fastball over the heart of the plate, it is going to get hit. It might not get hit for a home run, but it will get hit in a gap somewhere or absolutely smoked for a single. You can’t make mistakes and if you do, they are going to get hit. You can’t expect to get away with them. With that being said, I’ve learned you want to make more quality misses. When you miss pitches, you don’t want to miss over the plate….you want to miss further out or in than you were intending on going.
Another adjustment I have had to make is that we are throwing a lot more fastballs than in college. In college, it is more of a breaking ball game...you throw a lot of breaking balls and try to prevent the single, because in college it is all about getting to first base for a hitter...it isn’t about hitting doubles or home runs. There are less big swings in college so you can’t get away with as many fastballs, but in pro ball they are taking bigger swings so you can throw more fastballs and still be successful.
Just learning to call my own game has been the biggest adjustment, though. I have been sitting next to the pitching coach a lot just learning different sequences, how to analyze hitters, preparing yourself before your outing, and you need to watch guys in BP and how they take swings in games. That has been the biggest thing...sequencing, calling my own game, and learning what I want to throw in what counts has been the biggest adjustment for me.
One last question before I let you get back to it. You have played with a lot of really good players in your career. Who is the player that you have played with or against that has impressed you the most and why?
Obviously, Joey (Bart) is a great player and he was fun to throw to for four years. I learned a lot from him and his baseball IQ is unbelievable. The guy that has impressed me the most is Chase Pinder. He is an undersized guy, but again his baseball IQ is tremendous. He has all five tools, plays hard, and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He has a lot of pop in his bat for a guy his size and just the way he plays the game. He brings it every day, he is a great teammate and a leader. I learned a lot from him and he went through an injury at Clemson, too. He was one of the guys I looked to and the success he had post surgery. It was fun to be his teammate for two years and I learned a lot from him. We are kind of cut from the same mold as far as guys who are a little bit undersized who has to play with a chip on their shoulder, so he was an impressive guy to be around for sure.