American Association Daily provides insights and features on the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions from around the league. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier profiles St. Paul Saints right-hander Vinny Nittoli, who is proving to be a Saint off the field and a bulldog on.
Introducing Vinny Nittoli
Whether you are a person of faith or not, one thing that stands out about the life of Jesus is that he endured some rather extreme conditions. During the summer days, temperatures regularly reach in the high 80s and it can get in the low 40s at night. It is hot and arid in many locations (this is desert after all), and the only way He could move from one city to another was by foot. Sandals became His primary mode of transportation.
One could easily describe Jesus as a Bulldog, a person who faced a challenge head on. While Jesus spoke of being meek, He was as tough as it came. High winds, rugged terrain, and drastic temperature changes made the life of most a real testament to durability and toughness. That does not even include the fact that He often stood up against the powers that be, not afraid to speak boldly for what He believed.
It is quite ironic that nearly 2000 years later another young man has taken on the persona of a saint, a St. Paul Saint to be specific, who is taking the same approach in the way he lives life. A kind man who always has an encouraging word for a struggling teammate, but a force of nature whenever he takes the field – a bulldog. That is Vinny Nittoli.
Built to Succeed
At 6-1, 2015, Vinny Nittoli has the look of a power-pitcher, and he has been every bit of that for the St. Paul Saints. However, it is more than just his size that has helped to make the right-hander a warrior on the hill. Vinny is the son of Mike Nittoli, who earned his own way into professional baseball, playing three seasons in the minors, reaching Mid-A San Jose (California League) in 1984 and 1985.
Mike Nittoli eventually became a coach, and being around the ballpark watching his dad became a great source of inspiration for Vinny.
“My dad played and coached in the minor leagues. Growing up I always had a ball and a bat in my hand. Playing in the front yard or the backyard with my dad, I just grew to love to play the game. When he would take me to his old minor league stadiums in San Jose, where we used to play, I just grew to love the game.”
While thriving in baseball, it was football that was the first passion for Nittoli. He starred in both sports at Pine Richland High School (Gibsonia, PA), and actually saw himself going onto college to play football. However, a leg injury ended his senior season on the gridiron and gave him second thoughts about playing football again.
“The way that I came back from that injury I had lost speed and there was just kind of a little fear that could happen again. Baseball just seemed like a little bit safer choice. I’ve always enjoyed playing baseball and it just seemed like the right decision.”
He Has Seen Great Wonders
As graduation from high school was approaching, Vinny Nittoli was looking for the perfect place to continue his academic and athletic career. It did not take him long to realize that Xavier University was the perfect location for both.
“I came on campus for my official visit on crutches. That says a lot about their character right there, bringing me on, a guy with a broken leg. I just kind of fell in love with the campus when they were giving me a tour. The guys I played with were awesome. Three Big East championships since I was there.”
Vinny had a great deal of success in high school, earning varsity letter honors in his final three years in both baseball and football. He was the Pitcher of the Year in Pennsylvania his senior season and earned all-state honors in football as well.
That quickly carried over into his collegiate career. In his freshman season, the right-hander went 7-1 in 13 starts and was named to the Atlantic-10 All-Rookie team. He posted a 3.75 ERA, allowing 54 hits in 69.2 innings pitched while striking out 48. He even added a solid .219 opponent batting average.
In his sophomore season, Vinny played both ways. On the mound, he was 4-5 with a 3.94 ERA in 14 starts. Solid numbers that continued onto the field, where he had .258 in 26 games with 7 runs scored and 13 RBI.
In his junior season, Nittoli began to establish himself more on the field than on the hill. He hit .281 in 56 games with 6-homers and 41 RBI, both of which led Xavier. He also scored 31 runs and led the team in doubles with 17. On the hill, Vinny was 2-2 in 12 appearances with a 4.73 ERA.
While having success as an outfielder, it was on the mound where he knew he was going to be able to continue to pursue his baseball career. In 2014, Vinny made 14 starts for the Musketeers, leading the team with a 2.38 ERA while going 6-4. He set a career-high with 87.0 innings pitched, striking out 66 while only allowing 73 hits. He still had .273 in 31 games with 4-homers and 19 RBI. His performance earned him All Big East First Team Honors as well as College Sports Madness Big East All-Conference First-Team Honors as a pitcher.
Following in His Dad’s Footsteps
After such a successful senior campaign, Vinny Nittoli was selected in the 25th round of the 2014 draft by the Seattle Mariners. It was a big moment, but one he wasn’t even sure was going to occur.
“I was doing a little senior trip with some of my buddies. I was on the beach in Florida and I was just kind of scrolling through Twitter just kind of checking. I wasn’t really sure if I was going to go but I saw that my name popped up and I got a phone call from my mom.”
Vinny was sent to Everett (low-A) in the Northwest League, where he made 12 appearances, going 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA. It was a solid start to his career, and within two seasons he would reach High-A Bakersfield (California League).
In 2016, the right-hander split time between Mid-A Clinton and Bakersfield, where he was 5-5 with 6 saves in 40 appearances. Vinny posted a 3.88 ERA, striking out 74 in 65.0 innings pitched while allowing just 56 hits and 23 walks.
Another Non-Sensical Move by an MLB Organization
Despite showing incredible progress, Vinny Nittoli was released at the end of the season. The right-hander had proven that he can have success in the professional game, but wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with himself. That is when a friend of his father opened the door for him becoming a St. Paul Saint.
“When I got released from the Mariners I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. My dad had a buddy named Harry, who had a connection. He had played with (Saints Manager) George (Tsamis), coached George a while back and told me that the Saints had a spot to pitch.”
It did not take long for Vinny to realize that St. Paul would be a great location for him to continue his career. After one phone call with Saints Manager George Tsamis, Vinny was ready to become a Saint.
“I talked to George on the phone; we had a great conversation. He said you could come in, we need a backend bullpen guy. We really want you to play here. He said we have 10,000 fans here every night, it’s a great place to play. All that really appealed to me. When I got here, everything he told me was true. I’ve enjoyed it ever since I got here.”
In 2017, Vinny was used exclusively out of the bullpen, making 34 appearances. He posted a 2-3 record with 3-saves and a 3.52 ERA. In 46.0 innings pitched, Vinny struck out 55, allowing the Saints Manager to use him and a variety of rules because of his durability and bulldog mentality.
Let’s Start the Show
While Vinny Nittoli had success out of the bullpen in his career, he truly knew that he wanted to start. He had been a starter for the vast majority of his college career, and knew that if he was given the opportunity to return to the starting rotation it would not only give him a better chance to help the St. Paul Saints, but give him a better opportunity to return to affiliate ball.
“It’s kind of what I’ve done my whole life. Until I got to pro ball I had never pitched out of the bullpen before. I talked to my agent and my family over the off-season and I told him them I thought starting is a better fit for me based on routine.”
Vinny had proven that he had the stuff to be a dominant late inning guy, but it was the mentality of starting that really appealed to him. It was the opportunity to draw on his strengths that led him to approach Tsamis about starting for St. Paul.
“It’s kind of natural for me to be a starter. I’m just kind of a routine guy, so it kind of drags you down if you’re in the bullpen if you’re a routine guy. You don’t know when you’re going in, you’re preparing the same way every day to get into games, but sometimes you don’t get into them. I kind of thought that that was dragging on me and I didn’t think that allowed me to be as effective as I could be as a starter.”
Because of his preparation and approach to the game, starting seemed to be the perfect fit for him. It allowed Vinny to get prepared for every aspect of the start knowing exactly when he was going to be heading to the mound.
“I’m pretty strict with my conditioning and working out in the weight room. I’ve got it down to doing pretty much exactly what I want to do at certain times of the day, especially eating, too. I’ve got it down to where I’m feeling the best that I can before my start.”
While the right-hander loved the opportunity to get into his routine, starting also allowed him to better prepare the command of his pitches. Instead of just having a few pitches to prepare before going in, he knew that he had the opportunity to has the very command possible.
“I’m a big feel guy. So, I like to feel all my pitches. As a starter you can feel pitches out differently. It’s not like you have to come in a tight situation with guys on base and you have to have your best stuff out of the pen. For me, getting the feel of my stuff and then working through it in the first and second inning kind of allows me to have my better stuff later on in the game.”
The Approach of a Bulldog
While getting the opportunity to start has helped Vinny Nittoli to get into his routine, He is also finding baseball more enjoyable because of his approach to the game overall. His passion for football has not always proven to be beneficial, and has been something that has had to adjust over the years.
“It’s definitely been tough to contain my emotions at times, because football is ingrained in me. It’s hard to get out of you once it’s inside of you. It’s just part of that mental preparation that it’s about the next pitch, the next pitch. Just breathe and relax and that will actually help you more. When I was first starting in pro ball, I wanted to just go out there and play harder. I wanted to throw harder, but that’s just not how it works in baseball.”
While having to harness his passion, it is his football mentality, the drive of a bulldog that has helped him to succeed. He has taken the approach that every pitch matters, not only for himself but for his team.
“I’m a guy who’s going to give you everything he’s got on every single pitch. I’m not taking a pitch off ever. It’s my last pitch every time I’m throwing. That’s how I feel, that’s how I take my approach to the game. I want to be a bulldog, I’m giving you everything I’ve got on every single pitch.”
Trusting in His Faith, the Lessons Learned
Yet, no one should believe that the game is overwhelming. Thanks to the coaching that Vinny Nittoli received at Xavier coupled with his faith and the teachings of his parents, the right-hander has made sure that his approach to his teammates in the locker room is just as important as the way that he handles himself on the mound.
“I feel like you can’t take this game too seriously. I’m just kind of trying to find the moment where I can get a laugh out of the guys. If someone needs a laugh and they’re feeling a little bit down, I’ll try to get a little laugh out of them. Maybe I picked up something on their throwing, so I’ll just mention that to them.”
A lot of the credit for how he approaches the game, and to life in general, he gives to his parents, but his personal faith has also played a significant role in his approach to the sport he so loves.
“When I throw a ball, nothings in my control after that. I feel like God is in control of all of it. I know he’s got a plan for me. It may not be how I wanted to do it, but there’s definitely a plan and me becoming a starter I feel like that was the plan the whole time. Now I’m just following it. I’m not going against the grain anymore, I’m just following it.”
The Proof Is in the Pudding
While it has only been four starts into the season, Vinny Nittoli is proving that that decision to move to the starting rotation was a wise one. In the first three starts of his professional career, the right-hander is 2-1 with a 2.07 ERA, ranked fifth in the American Association. That included blanking the Chicago Dogs through six innings in the very first start of his professional career, allowing just 2-hits while striking out a single game-high 10.
Overall, Vinny has allowed 14 hits and 4-walks in 17.1 innings pitched, while striking out 24. His strikeout total is tied for fifth in the league and he leads the American Association in strikeouts per 9 innings (12.5).
It is those kinds of numbers that have helped to catapult the St. Paul Saints to the top of the North Division in the American Association. This was a rotation that many questioned when the season began, but the right-hander has helped to make it one of the best in the league.
There is not doubt that Vinny Nittoli has been a blessing to the Saints, but that blessing may be a curse of sorts. With a 94 mph fastball and great command, it probably won’t be long before he is on his way back to affiliate ball, a place where he belonged from the start. Some organization will be smart enough to realize that if they want a guy brings toughness and talent, then Vinny Nittoli is the guy for them. They will realize, they need a bulldog.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA