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SQ Featured Interview with Pitching Prospect Nolan Becker

fiveborosports.com

Nolan Becker is a promising 6 foot 6 lefty pitcher. He was selected in the 11th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds. Becker grew up in New York City, starring for Stuyvesant High School before matriculating to Yale University. He is currently completing his senior year at Yale and playing Minor League Baseball.

Below is the interview that I conducted with Becker

On Stuyvesant High School

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We went to Stuyvesant High School together, a school renowned far more for its academic prowess than its athletic stars. How do you think that impacted the recruiting process for you? Do you think it made it tougher for you to be recognized and scouted?

Stuyvesant athletics was a very interesting experience because academics were definitely the priority for everyone, and athletics were very much an afterthought. Being from New York City, however, probably had more of an impact on the recruiting process because very few D1 baseball players come out of the city. Basketball recruiting was much more prevalent during school seasons. I had to go to the big tournaments to get attention for baseball, but by senior year baseball scouts knew of me and came to my high school games before the draft.

You threw a perfect game for Stuyvesant against Manhattan Bridges High School. What was running through your mind? Did knowing that you were on the verge of a perfect game change your mindset– were you more nervous or determined? 

I remember being pretty determined to keep the perfect game and especially [trying to] make every out a strikeout because chances to have games like that are ridiculously rare. I’m not a very superstitious person for a baseball player, so I was thinking about the perfect game the whole game and I’d be lying to say there were no nerves setting in by the end. The fear of getting so close but not actually getting the “perfecto” is probably what kept me going.

At Stuyvesant, you were also the star of the basketball team. Did you have college hoops aspirations?

I miss basketball a ton because I had played my whole life. While I probably could have played in college, I knew I didnt have much shot at a career in it. So I’m definitely OK with my decision in retrospect.

On Yale University

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You are now a senior at Yale University, again an institution far better known for its academics than its sports teams. Why did you choose Yale?

Coming from a competitive academic high school, I knew I could handle a challenging academic school and would regret passing up the once in a lifetime opportunity to get a world-class education. So when it didn’t work out with Stanford I was pretty set on going to an Ivy. I chose Yale mostly because the baseball program had an impressive track record with getting players drafted, and I really appreciated the atmosphere of the campus every time I had visited. It didn’t hurt to be the perfect distance away from home.

It must be incredibly different juggling elite academics and athletics — how do you manage? Do you prioritize one over the other — let’s say you had time for a pitching session before an important game or a problem set due the next day, but not both. Which do you choose?

Yea the juggling act can be tough but I always felt like it came in waves. There would just be a couple of stretches every semester that smacked you in the face, but the rest of the time you could just normalize having a busy schedule. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made to get all of the necessary things done, but I don’t think I ever found myself in a situation like that where I had to choose, but hypothetically when you’re in-season athletics pretty much takes over.

Last season you went 2-4 as a starter, but ranked 34th in Division I with 9.94 strikeouts per nine innings. What was the season like for you? Was there a mentality shift from bullpen to starter? 

I really enjoyed last season because it was really my first full season of baseball since high school not being injured. Being on a team that lost a lot of close games was obviously very frustrating, and I definitely faced a learning curve early on, as again it was my first real college season, but by the end of the season I felt like I was finally putting it all together which was a very rewarding experience. I’ve always preferred starting to relieving, so it was a ton of fun to be back starting after being a reliever on my summer ball team, especially because I think my pitching mentality is more suited to the starter’s role.

Your stats were much improved in-conference, notably your 13.12 strikeouts per nine innings against Ivy League opponents. The Ivy League generally has a poor reputation when it comes to athletics — what are your thoughts on the league? Do you think you were extra pumped for conference games?

I think that there are some really good players in the Ivy League even though it may not be as deep talent wise as other conferences in the country due to the constraints that come with being an Ivy League school. But in addition to being in the Ivy League, Northeast baseball in general is less respected nationally so we have that working against us reputation-wise as well. The history attached to Ivy league rivalries and postseason implications definitely make you really get up for conference games, but at the same time I always felt pumped for non-conference games. I saw them as a chance to earn some respect for the program and the conference which is also pretty motivating.

On Injuries

You had Tommy John Surgery your freshman year at Yale. Have your skills fully come back to you? What has changed about your pitching since that surgery? Can you elaborate on the pain pitchers sometimes go through in order to keep pitching?

I believe my skills came back fully by the end of this [2011-2012] season, but I’ve learned a lot of things since my injury that make me a different pitcher now than I was. I’m definitely more mechanically sound than I was pre-injury, but the mental aspect of pitching, I think, is what really has changed the most since surgery, although a lot of that can also be attributed to just growing up and being more mature. Since pitching is such an unnatural motion for the body, pain and injury are such a huge part of pitching and you’re very rarely going to feel 100% before you go into a game. It’s a learning process to figure out how to listen to your body and respond to it, but it’s a very important part of pitching to know how to succeed when you aren’t physically at your best. Some injuries you know you can’t or shouldn’t try to pitch through, but if there’s something that won’t develop into a more serious injury then often guys pitch through pain. There’s really nothing worse than not being able to get out on the mound.

On Being Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds

You were selected in the 11th round of the 2012 MLB draft. Take us through that moment when your name was announced — what did that mean to you? Honestly, did you care what team you were drafted by? 

I was actually in a movie theater watching Men In Black 3 because I thought I was going to be taken earlier in the day and was stressing out at home. But once I found out I got drafted I was relieved, and proud to reach this milestone in my career that I couldn’t have made it to without a lot of hard work and struggle.

You played in the minors this past summer. What was that like? How does that level of competition compare to Division 1 competition?

Playing in the minors was an entirely different experience because it was the first environment I had been in in my life where everyone was focused on baseball at pretty much all times. That being said, there’s also the added level of responsibility that kicks in when baseball becomes not just your passion but also your line of work. In pro ball everyone has a ton of talent, and the types of players you see are different than in college because you mix in the high school draft picks and international players as well.

What are your plans going forward? You are currently back at Yale for the first semester of your Senior Year — do you plan to graduate? What does the future hold for Nolan Becker?

Going forward I’m incredibly excited for my first full season of pro ball and taking on the longer term challenge of climbing through the minor leagues to eventually make it to the bigs. It’s nice to be back at Yale for the semester and get closer to my degree, which I definitely plan on finishing up as soon as I get the chance. It is definitely a privilege to get to do what you love for a living and I plan on taking full advantage of the opportunity to do so for as long as I can.

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