Right-handed relief pitcher Steven Shell is now in his second season with the Rainiers. Drafted out of high school by the Angels in 2001, he averaged 7.8 strike outs per nine innings in his rookie year. Shell made his Major League debut in 2008 with the Washington Nationals. In addition to his pitching duties, he’s also learning how to be a great Dad to his 1-year old son.
Tacoma Weekly baseball writer Karen Westeen recently spent some time with Shell finding out about his career and some of the adventures he’s had as a pitcher.
TW: You grew up in Oklahoma. Do you still make your home there?
SS: My wife Kenna and our 1-year old son live in Yukon, Okla., which is about 15 miles west of Oklahoma City.
TW: Are they here with you?
SS: Yes. I’m very fortunate to have them here especially since I can see him growing. I played winter ball in Venezuela last year and when I came back he was a different kid.
TW: You were only 18 when you were drafted right out of high school and began your professional career in the Arizona rookie league. Then within a couple of weeks you got transferred to a team in Provo, Utah. What was that first year like?
SS: It was a big change. Moving a thousand miles away from home was tough. I had always been a family person and never lived away from home, but I was okay. I learned more that year than any other year of my career. The next year was probably the longest I had ever had, since it started with my first spring training. Now it’s not that big of a deal.
TW: I heard that you played with Casey Kotchman that first year.
SS: Yes, Casey’s dad Tom Kotchman was my manager in Provo, and Casey was on my rookie ball team. He was my buddy.
TW: In 2004 you had one of your best years, with personal bests of innings pitched (165.1), games started (28), wins (12) and complete games (two.) Your work with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga earned you minor-league pitcher of the year honors from the Angels organization.
SS: It was a big honor. We had so many good pitchers in the organization that year. Irvin Santana, Jake Woods, Joe Saunders – so many great guys just on our team. I was very fortunate that I got it, and very thankful.
TW: At the end of the 2007 season you went to Taiwan with Team USA. What was that like?
SS: Being in Taiwan was an eye-opener for sure. I became really close to my teammates because they were the only ones who spoke English. It was hard to order food. We had to point to what we wanted and watch what we ate and drank. My family watched the games really early in the morning on the Internet even though they were played at night.
TW: You did pretty well, didn’t you?
SS: I came in in the fifth inning of the gold medal game against Cuba, and I got the win. That was one of the highlights of my career. I was more of a long relief guy there. It’s set up so the team has to win every game to go on, or go home. I knew I had to go in and do well. I didn’t realize I had gotten the win until it was over. I got a gold medal and a ring. (In the championship game against Cuba, Shell pitched three innings, gave up two hits, one run and struck out three. The final score was 6-3.)
TW: In 2008 you were with a new organization, the Washington Nationals. How did you wind up signing with them?
SS: First of all that was my free-agent year. Usually free agents don’t get to play on Team USA because they prefer prospects. My coach on Team USA was Davey Johnson. He was an assistant to Jim Bowden, who was the GM of the Washington Nationals. I’m thankful I did get to play, even though I was a free agent because that’s how I met Johnson.
TW: You appeared in 39 games at Triple-A Columbus before getting your first major-league call-up June 22, 2008. Where did you make your first major league appearance?
SS: It was in an inter-league game against the Rangers in Washington, D.C. I was called up on Saturday night, so I called my family. My wife got a ticket and she waited for me at the airport. My family got there later. I only had three hours sleep. Of course it was a day game. I came in in the ninth inning, threw nine pitches and got three outs. I don’t remember who the first batter was that I faced, but I know that Ian Kinsler was one I faced. My pitching coach told me to throw strikes so that’s what I did the whole year.
(Shell’s rookie record with the Nationals was 2-2, with two saves and seven holds. His 2.16 ERA was best in the National League and third best in the majors among rookies who pitched at least 50 innings. His total innings pitched was 50.)
TW: You made the 2009 Opening Day roster with the Nationals but you were designated for assignment after only four games. What happened?
SS: Bowden resigned, there were a lot of changes made and I was part of it. When I was designated for assignment, I had to make a decision about being a free agent again or signing back with the Nationals. My wife and I talked about it and I decided to try free agency.
TW: How long was it before you signed with the Mariners?
SS: They called me within the first couple of days and said they had a spot for me in Triple-A. This has worked out well for me, but it was a little rough at first. My wife was a month from having our son, so we flew home to Oklahoma. Fortunately, the Rainiers were scheduled to play in Oklahoma City on May 16-18, right after I got here. Our son was due to be born as we were flying in so I look at that as a gift from God, that he was born at home. Brownie (former manager Daren Brown) pitched me the first game, then I spent four days there with the family.
TW: At the beginning of your career you were primarily a starter, but since 2008 you’ve been mostly a reliever. Why did you change?
SS: I was a starter for the Angels, then the Nationals saw me as someone who could come out of the pen, because National League teams use more pitchers. I went back to starting again here at the beginning of the year until my injury, which is why I’m back to relieving now. I’ve proven that I can do either. (Shell was on the disabled list all of June and July with an elbow injury.)
TW: Which do you prefer?
SS: There’s pluses and minuses to both but I look at it as the same anymore. I’m trying to get guys out. When the coach calls your name from the pen you start stretching. When you’re starting you can prepare your mind, and prepare for that particular start, throw a bullpen, take your time.
TW: Do you use the same pitches to get batters out doing both?
SS: My out-pitch pretty much depends on the batter. I’ve got four different pitches. I like my curve ball a lot. I throw it to both righties and lefties. I like to pitch to contact, throw strikes, not throw very many pitches. I like to let batters put the ball in play where the guys can field them. Strikeouts happen.
TW: When you’re in the bullpen for most of the game, do you watch the batters to see what they do?
SS: Mostly I like to watch the umpires, see how they’re calling the game. I’m always going to pitch to my strength, and I really don’t know the batters and their weaknesses. So I can see if the umpires have a tight strike zone, and then I know where to pitch to get strikes. If they call to one side or the other, I know where to throw it. You have to throw strikes when you come in in relief especially when runners are on base.
TW: You’ve had several minor injuries over the course of your career, but on July 26 last year you were hit in the face with a batted ball that fractured your right cheekbone. What do you remember about that?
SS: I don’t remember anything, just lying down on the ground. Not remembering what happened helped me to pitch again. Our trainer Tom Newburg came out and said, “Don’t move.” I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t move because I felt fine. My wife and two-month-old-son flew out, and my parents came to help her. It took a long time to recover. I still have some numbness in my cheek. The batter called me at the hospital, and three of my teammates came to see me and prayed for me.
After I recovered I told the Mariners I wanted to play winter ball, and I went to Venezuela. Our current pitching coach, Jaime Navarro, was my pitching coach there. It was a great experience to play in another country.
TW: You’re only 27 but have you given any thought to what you might want to do after your playing days are over?
SS: I want to stay in baseball. I’d like to scout, maybe work my way up through the ranks to be an assistant to a general manager. I’m close to a scout back home. He takes me with him in the winter, teaches me about other parts of the game besides playing. I just love baseball and I want to stay in it as long as I can.