Legacy of St. Paul Saints Dustin Crenshaw Grows with Each Outing
Just 28 games into the 2015 American Association season, Dustin Crenshaw is quickly establishing himself as the ace of a St. Paul Saints staff that is full of aces. With the league’s best ERA, most wins, best WHIP and second best opponent batting average, this is a formidable staff with quality arms, and maybe none is more formidable than Crenshaw himself.
The big right-hander is 6-5, 245 pounds but, by the way he has been pitching this season, he must look like he is 11-feet tall to opponents. In his six starts this year, Crenshaw has gone 4-1 with a 1.67 ERA. He has allowed 29 hits in 43 innings pitched, and just one walk. He’s not just keeping teams from scoring; he is rarely giving them the chance to even do so.
There was no greater evidence of this fact than his start on June 6th. Crenshaw allowed just two hits against Sioux Falls, but both were wiped out on double-plays, and the righty went on to retire the minimum number of batters he could face in the complete game shutout. It took him just 88 pitches to go the distance, and he threw 61 of those for strikes. In an age when many pitchers have thrown 88 pitches by the sixth inning, it was a true testament to the brilliant strategies that Crenshaw employs.
For those who have not been following the St. Paul Saints actively this season, they may be unaware of how this team operates. With one notable exception, this is not a fiery team. This is not a club that is going to be dawning rally caps, and crowding around every runner that comes into score like he just crossed the plate with the winning run in the deciding game of the World Series.
Instead, this is a team that takes a very unemotional, business-like approach to the game. It is one where there is great passion to win, but it is not one where excessive displays of emotion are going to be seen. It is a team that is epitomized by Crenshaw himself.
Let’s get something straight from the start. The Saints starter is not without fire or passion for the game. He goes out there looking to win every game he starts, and takes losing quite personal. “Baseball is fun when you are winning. When you are losing baseball sucks. I know I hate to lose. I think I hate it more than anything else.”
What makes the statement all the more profound is that it is said without any emotion to it at all. This isn’t a guy foaming at the mouth about his hatred for being on the losing side of a game. Instead, Crenshaw is a cold-blooded assassin when he takes the hill. He’s Dominic Toretto in The Fast and the Furious or Robert McCall in The Equalizer; a guy that people like and love to be around, but who also understand that when it’s go time…watch out. A guy who pitches like he’s 11-feet tall.
What makes Dustin quite unique from most other players you will come across is that this is not a guy who went to all the best baseball academies growing up, or who had individual lessons from renowned pitching coaches throughout his youth. At an early age, the big right-hander was told by his father, his first little league coach, that if he was going to have success in baseball he was going to have to figure out how to make that success happen on his own. An opportunity he feels blessed to have been given.
“My dad was my little league coach. Granted he didn’t know much about baseball, and that was probably the best thing that he did. He told me at a young age, ‘You’re a better baseball player than I ever was. I can’t really help you. You are going to have to do this on your own for the most part.’ Basically he was telling me that I had to figure it out on my own, which has really helped me, because when you’re out there learning the game there isn’t a lot of guys who teach you, and when you are out on the mound in games you have to learn to make adjustments yourself.”
This was probably the best lesson Crenshaw could have learned as a youth. The righty did not participate in some of the best baseball programs that California had to offer, and so he was forced to learn how to improve his own skill set, and also when to be realistic about what his true skills actually were.
“I didn’t play too much competitive baseball when I was little. I played on a travel team before high school, but it was nowhere near what other guys were playing. What a lot of guys saw for velocity in high school I didn’t see until I got to college. That made me realize that I could not hit. I just couldn’t hit when I got to high school.”
When he graduated from high school, Dustin headed to South Alabama to attend college and quickly found that he was going to have to figure it out there as well. “To be honest, you aren’t taught a lot about what to do once you reach a certain age. Even in college I wasn’t really taught how to pitch or throw pitches. They figure by that time you know what you are supposed to do, and that has been true professionally as well. They expect you to know what you need to do and, if you don’t, they will find somebody else. There is just so many players that it seems like there are not a lot of guys that are coaching anymore.”
There are many who, when given the opportunity to learn for themselves, abjectly fail, but that simply isn’t the Dustin Crenshaw way. This is a guy who embraces the challenges of figuring things out on his own. “One of the things I love about pitching is that you have to figure things out as you go along. It’s a chess match and the game’s constantly changing, and the more you can make the right adjustments, the more success you are going to have.”
That mindset played a pivotal role in April of 2009 when Dustin was required to have Tommy John surgery. While this surgery seems quite routine now, it is one of the most intensive options a pitcher can choose, and requires a lot of personal will to get back out onto the field. It also requires the right mindset to see small steps as big victories; a mindset that makes the St. Paul Saints starter a head above the rest.
“After the surgery you get random pains in your arm, and you know why but you don’t really know why. You go through therapy and you see that there is progress, just in plain flexibility, not in strength, but you can bend your arm again. So you see the progress, and you get anxious and you want to get out there. The big picture in front of you keeps you moving toward making those small steps toward getting healthy.”
While winning the small battles is what Dustin does with every game, every at-bat, every pitch, it is also the big goal that helps him to move his game to another level. This was one of the motives he credits for his successful return from the surgery.
“There is nothing better than getting the ball and going to the mound in the first inning. There is nothing that can compete with that, and just knowing that it was possibly the last time I was ever going to do that, I just wasn’t ready for that and I knew I had more in the tank. It was just getting my body prepared to do so that I had to focus on.”
Amazingly, Crenshaw relays all of this information with very little emotion to it. Most share their stories of the challenges they have had to endure with a certain angst and jubilation at succeeding, but Dustin tells them matter-of-factly. There is a clear understanding when he speaks that he just does what he has to do to make it. He isn’t looking to be patted on the back for his success or be labeled a “hero.” His mindset is one of simply doing what needs to be done to reach the goals he wants. No fanfare. No adulation. No hoopla. Just a passion to reach that goal, and the mindset to make it happen.
Once he successfully recovered from the surgery, Crenshaw decided that a professional career was the next step he wanted for himself. With the goal in mind, the plan developed quickly on how to make that a reality.
“I wound up going to an open tryout in San Rafael. I was working at a Toyota dealership at the time, and saw the tryout was coming, so I quit my job to and started training for it. The tryout got rained out, so I got delayed a little bit. When I finally got to tryout it went really well. I got put on their “B” team, the Sonoma Grapes in the North American League. I didn’t get paid, but I got to go to Hawaii for six weeks out the year, so you can’t argue with that.”
To hear Dustin tell the story was one of the most unique experiences. In four or five sentences he explained how he quit his job to follow his dream, trained hard to make that dream a reality, saw that dream become reality, and he explained it all with as much passion as a person explaining how they picked ten items off of the shelf at the grocery store. Call it humbleness or an incredible work ethic, or both, but what is easily recognizable is that his mindset takes opportunities and hits home runs with them.
In 2013, the right-hander appeared in 12 games for Sonoma, where he was 5-4 with an outstanding 2.17 ERA. Later that season, the Quebec Capitales of the Can-Am League came calling, signing Crenshaw for the stretch run. He made three starts, winning two of them, and helped the team claim the league title. The following season he returned to Quebec and was 9-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 22 appearances, 15 of them starts. Again the team was Can-Am Champions.
In 2014, Dustin was traded from Quebec to the Gary Southshore RailCats where he excelled, going 9-8 with a 3.16 ERA. He walked just 22 batters in 148 innings pitched. His ERA ranked him fourth in the league, and his nine wins put him tied for eighth. He proved to be the workhorse of the league as well, leading the American Association in innings pitched.
This past off-season the right-hander found himself traded to the St. Paul Saints, a move he is happy to have seen occur. “I was really excited. I remember playing here and I loved the atmosphere. I remember my uncle asking me if I could play any place else in this league where would I want to go and I knew I wanted to play here. Instead of the fans yelling at me, they’d be yelling for me. That would be nice I thought,” he adds with a laugh.
St. Paul Saints fans are yelling for Dustin Crenshaw these days. His addition to the starting staff has given Saints manager George Tsamis a guy he can depend upon to throw at least seven innings every time he takes the mound. He can also depend on the fact that Crenshaw isn’t going to beat himself. He studies, creates and implements game plans about as well as any starter you are going to meet. It is very reminiscent of one of baseball’s best starters of all time – Greg Maddux.
His dedication to perfecting his craft has created a passionate work ethic that sees him getting to the ballpark as early as he can, especially on days he’s pitching. “I get bored at the house, so I come here early. Ed has great bagels so that always starts the day off right. I just want to pitch, so if I’m sitting at the house watching TV, I’m just staring at my watch wanting to know if I can leave yet without being made fun of for showing up too early,” he explains comically.
Crenshaw throws strikes, doesn’t hurt himself with walks or home runs, and is very intelligent about the way he approaches the game. He also is much alike to Maddux in the way that he gathers with the other starters to discuss strategies and game plans.
“Kramer (Sneed), Pedro (Hernandez) and I talk a lot and share what we know and we learn from each other. We just throw out what we think about how that hitter goes. It also helps with the comradery as well. When you tell a guy you can get a hitter out if you keep that pitch down, and then he strikes out that hitter with that pitch, you go ‘Hey dude, I got that strike out.’ It’s his strikeout but you are just as happy for the guy as if you struck out the hitter yourself.”
Crenshaw credits Sneed and Hernandez, in particular, as guys that have really helped him to have great success this season. “I room with Kramer so we talk about hitters a lot. He and Pedro have seen a lot of these guys in affiliate ball and I remember some of these hitters from last season, so we bounce ideas off of each other a lot. We have to go multiple times through a lineup, so we have to know some faults in the hitters. Those guys have really helped me to develop great game plans to attack those faults.”
Dustin Crenshaw shows a very unemotional, business-like demeanor in most areas of the game, but that is not true of the people that got him where he is. He credits his two families for helping to make his dream come true. First, his parents. “My parents gave me the opportunity to get where I am, and have been so supportive. I am thankful they taught me to dream big.”
His other family is Matt and Kim Percy, the host family that allowed him to stay with them while he played professional baseball in Australia this past winter (well, summer down under). “I got really brought into the family. I was there for Christmas and they made me feel really welcome with all of their family over. I was part of a dinner of 27, so I got to meet the whole fam.”
He also has great passion for the friendships he has built with his teammates. He has still maintained close friendships with many of those he knew from his days at South Alabama, and Crenshaw takes very seriously the way he acts and conducts himself in the clubhouse.
“I want to be a good clubhouse guy. I love being with the guys. It is really easy to show up when you come to the clubhouse with guys you really want to see. The relationships I have are the best part of the game.”
Every organization needs key people to understand the economics of their business, and for the St. Paul Saints that is Dustin Crenshaw. He has quickly established himself as a key piece in their title run, and has ensured that when he takes the mound the club’s bullpen can expect a break. With his two championships, he has also brought a mindset that understands what it takes to win. In combining these two things he has become one of the most dominant starters in the American Association.
He has quickly created a mindset in opponents that says “We’ll gladly face anyone but that guy.” Sadly, for them, not only will they face him every fifth day, but, with the brilliant strategies he employs, they have to plan on Dustin Crenshaw being around for the whole contest. I think he just grew another inch.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA