GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- No one has a personality quite like lefty starter Doug Nikhazy.
Nikhazy is passionate on the mound, never bashful to let out an enormous roar after a big strikeout throughout his college career, yet he’ll tell you he’s a pacifist, which is why he never thought he was cut out for football or other contact sports. He’s serious about his craft, as he improved each year throughout college, but he's also the first to do something silly to lighten the tension in the room.
It's that perfect balance of conflicting characteristics that turned Nikhazy into a sensation at Ole Miss. His personality and antics on the field made it impossible for his teammates and fans not to embrace him. So much so that after his first collegiate start as a freshman, his roommate walked over to a nearby camera and yelled, "It’s Doug Day. It’s the happiest day of the week.”
From there, #DougDay was born.
A quick search of the hashtag on Twitter will load your feed with countless videos of Nikhazy being funny in the dugout or getting fired up on the rubber, along with highlight reels of his junior (and final collegiate) season. The #DougDay theme stayed with him throughout his college career and prompted T-shirts and hats to pop up in the crowd during his Friday night starts.
“It still remains,” Nikhazy said. “When it was Friday, I saw people tweeting at me like, ‘I miss Doug Day.’ So, it was a fun tradition.”
Now, it’s up to Nikhazy, the Guardians' No. 18 prospect per MLB Pipeline, to bring #DougDay to Cleveland.
The 22-year-old was one of the 19 hurlers that Cleveland took during the 2021 MLB Draft. The second-round pick joined the rest of his Draft class in Goodyear, Ariz., after signing with the club and worked there until the Arizona Fall League began.
“It was like my worst nightmare,” Nikhazy said, describing his Draft day. “Just because you wake up and everyone -- whether you're the guy that gets drafted 10th or you're the last guy in the Draft -- you still feel like Aaron Rodgers in that green room just waiting to get drafted no matter what's going on. So it's stressful for a little bit. But then when it happens, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
While it was a whirlwind of emotions for Nikhazy, there was no doubt he’d be an early selection. He established himself as one of the best hurlers in the Draft, owning a 2.93 ERA with 142 strikeouts and 31 walks in 92 frames in his junior season. The coaching staff at Ole Miss helped him transform from a traditional left-handed pitching mindset of getting crafty and finding non-traditional ways of retiring batters. Instead, he wanted to be on the attack from the mound -- something that the Cleveland Pitching Factory is helping him take to the next level.
“In college, I was kind of stepping across my body a little bit,” Nikhazy said. “When I got here with the awesome pitching team that they have, they're like, ‘Hey, why are we doing that? It’s just killing velocity.’ … So they just cleaned all that stuff up, and then immediately, I have a little bit more velocity.”
There are still plenty of things left for Nikhazy to improve upon, considering he has yet to pitch in his first Minor League game. Admittedly, one of the biggest transitions he’ll have is adjusting to calling his own game rather than relying on a coach to make pitch selections for him.
“It was nice in college,” Nikhazy said, “because [my coach] would just put down the sign and all I had to do was try and think about executing the pitch, not how I want to get ahead or out. Now you have to think about both those things at the same time while you're pitching, so it's a little bit harder.”
These types of hurdles are inevitable for every professional player early in their career. But it’s clear that Nikhazy has already shown the potential to make a quick rise through the Guaridans’ farm system. And maybe he can bring Doug Day to Northeast Ohio sooner than later.
“It's definitely Doug Day every day,” Guardians pitching coordinator Joel Mangrum said. “It was Doug Day once a week in Oxford. It's Doug Day every day here. Ultimate competitor.”