In American Association Daily, Robert Pannier features Sioux Falls Canaries right-hander Jake Esch. The civil engineering graduate has turned his season around since arriving in Sioux Falls, looking to construct a pathway destined to lead him back to the Major Leagues.
Introducing Jake Esch
One thing that separates baseball from most other sports is that this is a game where what is going on between your ears is often far more important than your physical abilities. It’s why Hall of Famer Yogi Berra famously quipped that “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the rest is physical.”
It is not that baseball does not require physical skill. It takes incredible ability to throw 95 mph or to hit a 2.9 inch diameter ball with a 2.25 inch diameter bat, but it takes a lot more mental ability to be successful in the game. After all, this is a sport where you are successful when you fail 70 percent of the time and the mental toughness needed to continue to perform at a high level is something that maybe only a few thousand really know how to achieve.
Because baseball is such a cerebral game, it is a big advantage when you have a lot going on upstairs already. Where you have not only learned how to navigate the challenges of life, but have used your wisdom and knowledge to help you to embrace the struggles as another opportunity to mature. That is what has helped to make Sioux Falls Canaries right-hander Jake Esch so successful.
A Hell of an Engineer
Jake Esch loved the game of baseball from as early as he could remember. He had been throwing a baseball around since the time he was two-years-old, and it was only natural that he would continue to play the sport through college.
Jake graduated from Minnesota baseball powerhouse Cretin-Derham High School and had numerous opportunities to attend Division-I schools to not only pursue his academic dreams but his baseball ones as well. Georgia Tech wound up becoming the perfect option for the right-hander.
“I went on my visit there and I visited a couple of other places and I just trust my gut a lot. I had a good gut instinct feeling that I was in the right place, so it wasn’t a difficult decision. As far as the schools I was choosing, they were pretty high academically, so that was not a concern. It was just about which was best for me to pursue my baseball career.”
Most highly touted athletes attend a school where they can help to turn their collegiate career into a professional one, with academics being almost a secondary consideration. Not for Jake. Esch wanted to become an engineer and knew that Georgia Tech provided him with the best opportunity to pursue his academic goals. Although, he does admit that he did take the “easier” route.
“I was looking at civil, aeronautics, and biomed (engineering) and I kind of realized that between the other two it might’ve been a little bit of a stretch for me academically. It would’ve been a little bit of a stretch with the course load, so I would joke with my coach that I took the easy degree (civil). He just thought that was hilarious because there’s no easy engineering degree.”
While he was earning the degree for later in life, Jake was excelling on the baseball diamond as well. It was his immediate future that was foremost in his mind, which led him to thrive in a Yellow Jackets’ uniform. The 6-3, 200 pound righty not only starred on the mound, but also was one of the most outstanding shortstops in all of college baseball, earning a nomination for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop Award in 2011.
He had performed so well in the field that it concerned him that he would not be given a shot to pitch should he get drafted.
“I was also a hitter in college and I wasn’t really sure if I was in a get an opportunity to pitch. Whenever scouts had come to watch me it was always on days when I was in the field, and I was wondering if I would get a shot as a pitcher. I just had to kind of wait around and see if someone was willing to take a risk.”
Hooked into a Professional Baseball Career
The wait did not last long. In 2011, the then Florida Marlins selected Jake Esch in the 11th round of the MLB amateur draft. The right-hander was excited about the opportunity, but was a little frustrated with the waiting game.
“I was just anxious to get started. I had to wait about six weeks before they signed me. I was pretty annoyed that I was not able to play summer ball. I just wanted to go play.”
His opportunity finally arose when he was sent to the Marlins rookie league club where he would make just four appearances, posting a 2-0 record with a 1.29 ERA. That was good enough to promote him to Low-A Jamestown where he appeared in eight games, posting a 1-1 record with a 4.63 earned run average.
The climb up the ranks was a rapid one for the right-hander. He began 2012 at Jamestown, but would be at High-A Jupiter by the start of the next season. In 2015 we started in AA-Jacksonville, where he was 6-5 with a 3.48 ERA, but would make six appearances at AAA-New Orleans.
It only seemed natural that his trajectory was to reach the Major Leagues, and 2016 saw that become reality. Jake began the season at Jacksonville, but would make three appearances for the Miami Marlins as well as four in New Orleans. Overall, the righty posted a 12-10 record with a 4.31 ERA, reaching a single-season high with 142.0 innings pitched.
At the end of Spring Training in 2017 the Marlins opted to release Esch, but he did not remain on the market for long. He eventually wound up with the San Diego Padres, where he appeared at five different levels, including with the Padres themselves. A shoulder injury wiped out much of his season, as he appeared in only 15 games, and at the end of 2017 he was back on the free-agent market.
Getting His Independence
Looking to prove that his injury was healed, Jake Esch opted to sign with St. Paul Saints in the American Association. The right-hander had an up-and-down start to his independent career, allowing five earned runs in 1.2 innings pitched in his first start, but rebounding three starts later to toss seven scoreless innings against the Wichita Wingnuts, striking out 10.
He would make seven starts in St. Paul, but never seemed to achieve the consistency level that the Saints coaching staff was looking for. This led to his release after his June 21 start.
Looking for another opportunity, the Sioux Falls Canaries came calling, signing the right-hander to anchor their pitching staff. While the results have been mixed, even by his own admission, Jake has shown the same signs that made him a hotshot prospect in the Marlins organization. In his eight starts, the right-hander is 3-3 with a 4.24 ERA, allowing just four earned runs in his last 11 innings pitched.
A Mind Built for Success
What many don’t understand is that baseball is as tough off the field as it is on. Just as a hurler can throw the perfect pitch that winds up turning into a little flair driving in two, costing him the game, advancing through a system can be just as tough. One bad outing or an untimely injury can change the trajectory of a baseball player’s career, and that is something that has not been lost on Jake Esch.
“It’s not just about on the field, there’s also politics that go on in how breaks go your way or how things go on. I got hurt at the wrong time last year and the opportunities that would’ve been there were no longer there and it’s kind of a slow, torturous spiral downward. It’s just trusting that you’re going to be all right in the end. If you don’t figure this thing out and fight your way through it, it’s hard because deep down the game chews you up and spits you out.
“You have to come in with an approach of wanting to take in everything you can to be successful. At a very young age, four years old, people asked me what I wanted to do and I told them I wanted to be a baseball player. If that’s your Plan A, you have to be all in for Plan A. You have to enjoy yourself while you’re out there, but you have to take it seriously.”
However, baseball separates itself from other sports is that emotion is not necessarily beneficial. A football or hockey player who is more emotional will likely perform better on the field or ice because of their aggression, but that does not translate well in baseball. In this sport, one must be emotionless, and this has been an area where Jake has excelled.
“I think it’s very natural for me. I’m a very fairly even keel guy. I think it comes from playing every day. I couldn’t go 0 for 4 and then turn around and mope about it. I had to be ready to play the next day. As far as doing that on the mound I think it’s very easy to transition. I think it’s huge when a team can’t tell that you’re down.”
While being stone-faced and emotionless on the mound is essential, one must also learn to contain their frustration once they leave the field. There are continuously people who want to share their insights and ideas on how a player can improve his game or how he can get to the next level, and it takes a certain kind of intellect to filter what is good from what could ultimately be detrimental.
“You can’t care what anybody else says. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you think is going to get you the best result. You got to be open, you’ve got to listen to every coach, but that doesn’t mean you have to apply everything they say. You can try it to see if it works but, if it doesn’t, you can move on. You’ve got to figure it out. Whether somebody tells you you’re really good or not that great, you put that aside. It doesn’t matter whether somebody tells you that you should be here, you should be in the Majors, you just got to keep moving forward.”
Fortunately for Esch, there have been a group of people in his corner who have helped him to not only battle through the struggles, but to block out the things that can get inside a player’s head.
“My family has always been very supportive. They’re proud of me, they’d never let me get down on myself. They make it very easy to not care what other people are saying.”
Making a Difference While Hoping to Get Noticed
This season has been one of great opportunity for Jake Esch. It has given him the chance to use that vast knowledge and wisdom he has attained to help him to get back on the track that will hopefully lead to his return to the Major Leagues. It has also been an opportunity for him to demonstrate what it takes to be successful to those around him, especially to the younger players on the team.
“I’ve been nicknamed ‘Dad.’ I’m an older guy. I’ve always had an older, more mature demeanor, but I will pick on people, crack jokes. I just try to keep it fun and loose, easy. Just try to help the young guys to learn the right way. I don’t try to run anybody’s life or tell them what to do, but I will give them some ideas, take them or leave them. If you ask me questions, I’ll provide you with information.”
It’s also an opportunity for him to display the special kind of appreciation that he has developed for the game of baseball. Maybe the one thing that really separates him from virtually any other player you will meet.
“You got to think that everybody’s the man. You don’t have to make this all about you. On every team there are guys who can do things just as well as you. It’s seeing how other guys handle themselves which helps everybody else out. Everybody is important and everybody is the guy at some point.
“All of us have a story, and it’s not that all of us want to be heard, but we still all have a story. You don’t end up in Indy ball without some sort of history to get here. The best rotations I have ever been on were when we pitched way better than what we were able to and how we did that was that every night we challenged each other. We challenge the guy after us and we expected the starter who was pitching that night to be ‘the guy.’”
With a little less than a month in the season, the Sioux Falls Canaries are, for all intents and purposes, out of the playoff race. However, they will have a lot of opportunity to impact the playoffs, as 19 of their remaining games are against potential playoff teams.
Jake Esch is going to get a lot of opportunity to impact that race as well, as he will likely make at least four starts, if not five down the stretch. That will also give him the opportunity to showcase his talents for affiliates looking for a pitcher for next season. It will also give fans the opportunity to see a true artist in action. Maybe the Canaries should post a sign: “Genius at Work.”
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA