Out of high school, Clay Rapada bounced around to different colleges. He was never drafted, and he only signed with the Cubs after pitching in a summer league in 2002. The next year, Chicago suggested that he ditch his three-quarters delivery and drop down.
Rapada’s pitched that way ever since, groomed almost from the very beginning to be a lefty specialist.
“From their point of view, it was an opportunity to mess around,” he said. “I was an undrafted guy. Any type of risk or different look, it was pretty much a roll of the dice, and it just seemed to work out. As an undrafted guy, you don’t really have those expectations of, ‘I need to be in the big leagues in two years.’ It’s, ‘What can I do to stay in the game?’”
With his funky mechanics, Rapada climbed the minor league ladder step by step. He’s pitched parts of five seasons in the big leagues, held lefties to a .153/.252/.220 slash line, and this spring, he’s been the most impressive Yankees reliever not named Mariano Rivera.
“I came here knowing that there was an opportunity,” he said. “For guys like myself, you want to go where there’s an opportunity, where you can fight for a job. I don’t mind coming to camp and getting ready for a season, but having that extra chip on your shoulder to fight for a job is always a plus. It gives you that motivation to come in early in the morning and get your work in and work hard.”
Rapada has allowed two hits in 6.1 innings. He’s struck out nine, walked three and has yet to give up a run. His 0.79 WHIP is third on the team behind Rivera (who’s the greatest closer of all time) and George Kontos (who’s already in minor league camp after just two innings of work). He’s been especially good against left-handers, not afraid to work either side of the plate with his fastball/slider* combination.
With one spot open in the bullpen, Rapada’s making a convincing case.
“I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “I’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose, so it’s not going to hurt me when I throw everything at them.”
* Rapada’s slider is the exact same pitch that used to be a big, loopy curveball with his old mechanics. When his arm angle changed, the breaking ball — still held with a typical curveball grip —
Associated Press photo