By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Shawn Tolleson last pitched in Waco as a member of the 2010 Baylor Baseball team. He threw 76 2/3 innings, recorded 84 strikeouts for the Bears and earned All Big 12 Honorable Mention his junior season before being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 30th round that summer.
Now a member of the Texas Rangers, Tolleson returned to Waco on Thursday and participated in the Texas Rangers Winter Caravan event at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Fellow Texas Ranger relief pitchers Matt Bush and Chris Martin joined Tolleson. Tom Grieve, a former Major League player for the Washington Senators, Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals and current Rangers’ TV Analyst, moderated the event.
The event focused on the ever-revolving game of baseball, particularly surrounding the use of relief pitchers. Grieve also highlighted how young players like Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first baseman Cody Bellinger and shortstop Corey Seager have found success so quickly, especially in the 2017 World Series.
“The last 10 years the number of strikeouts has gone up every year. Last year around 100 batters in MLB struck out over 100 times. Pitchers are better than now then they have been,” Grieve said. “Most every pitcher in every bullpen throws 95 miles an hour. Starters have a wide assortment of pitches and one of the reasons there are so many strikeouts are the pitchers are just so good.”
Grieve added that another changing trend in baseball is that starting pitchers aren’t throwing as many innings before, evidenced by the decreased number of complete games thrown. This means that there is a higher emphasis on the bullpen than ever before.
When healthy, one of those key pieces in the Rangers’ bullpen will be Tolleson. Tolleson played a huge role for the 2015 American League West champion Rangers, tossing 72 1/3 innings, posting a 6-4 record with 35 saves in 37 opportunities while holding opposing hitters to a .239 average.
Tolleson has missed the larger part of the last two seasons because of Tommy John surgery, a procedure where the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow is replaced. Despite, having this surgery done for the second time in his life, he said he feels good about returning soon.
“I’m coming off a two-year period where I’m just trying to get back to where I once was in baseball,” Tolleson said. “I’m in the middle of rehab. I just started throwing again, which feels great. I’ve got about roughly five to six more months before you guys see me in any type of action.”
During his time away from baseball and getting his body right again for competition, Tolleson wasn’t sitting around feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he put his time to use and returned to Baylor to finish his degree.
“When I was drafted by the Dodgers, I was this close to getting my degree from Baylor. I lacked about seven hours and two classes,” Tolleson said. “This was the first real opportunity I had to do it. I finished in December. I had to take cell physiology and second-year physics and physics lab. I knocked it out and finally got my degree.”
Tolleson’s teammates Bush and Martin also shared their stories of career setbacks. Bush, when first called up, transitioned from shortstop to pitcher and dealt with off the field issues. Martin was out of baseball for five years and played in Japan in order to revive his career before coming back to the MLB.
Tolleson credits a lot of his success and ability to overcome obstacles to the coaches that invested him, especially at Baylor.
“I had a great time at Baylor. Coach [Steve] Johnigan, he’s a huge reason why. He was an excellent coach and a great role model,” Tolleson said. “That’s one of the most valuable things we have at Baylor, is how much time they invested into us as people. That’s especially neat when you jump into professional baseball where it’s a much different atmosphere.”
Tolleson, Bush and Martin will report for Spring Training beginning Feb. 14 with their first Spring Training came coming on Feb. 24 against the Chicago Cubs. The Rangers open the 2018 regular season against the Astros on March 29.