'Best I've ever felt': Pitching prospect Lacy ready to impress
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Last year around this time, Asa Lacy was getting ready for his first Spring Training as a professional baseball player. The Royals had invited him to big league camp, but a bout with COVID-19 and a winter ice storm delayed his arrival and his progression.
This year, there’s no big league camp yet with the lockout, but Lacy is participating in the Royals’ minicamp for prospects that started as scheduled this week at their facility in Surprise. And arriving on time to begin his buildup, as well as his familiarity with the complex and the people he’s working with, has made a difference.
“I’m feeling probably the best I’ve ever felt,” Lacy said.
The Royals’ top pitching prospect now, Lacy is eyeing a healthy and bounceback 2022 after a shaky debut and a shoulder injury shut him down midway through last season.
The 22-year-old lefty made 14 starts at High-A Quad Cities last season and posted a 5.19 ERA. His strikeout numbers were absurd -- he struck out 79 batters in 52 innings -- and the potential the Royals saw in the Texas A&M product when they drafted him No. 4 overall in 2020 was on display at times.
“I was at his first win with Quad Cities, and he could have pitched anywhere that night,” pitching coordinator Paul Gibson said, recalling Lacy’s May 19 start when he pitched five scoreless innings. “It was really special.”
But Lacy also struggled with wildness as he learned to command his pitches. He walked 41 batters for a 7.10 walks-per-nine-innings ratio.
Then in July, Lacy exited a start after 2 2/3 innings with an athletic trainer and didn’t return the rest of the year. A posterior shoulder injury ended his season, but the Royals weren’t overly concerned. Lacy was pitching his first professional season after an inconsistent and low-mileage 2020 season -- the only work he got after he was drafted was at the Royals’ alternate site camp -- so the organization treated his injury with caution.
Most of his rehab was rest, and Lacy was able to build back up in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, when he struck out 15, walked six and posted a 2.35 ERA in 7 2/3 innings.
“[The injury] was just nagging enough that it was prohibiting me from being myself,” Lacy said. “So it was an organizational decision to shut me down from there and build back up, and I just can’t thank the training staff enough, the strength coaches here, for getting me back. They all deserve credit. And I was very blessed to do the Fall League. It went really well.”
As he begins ramping up for the Minor League season, which will begin as scheduled, Lacy looks smoother in his delivery than before. Facing live hitters in game situations will be the test, but his side session on Thursday in Surprise showed repeatability in his big 6-foot-4 frame.
“No question,” Gibson said. “He had a lot of energy after he landed. And that will affect command because how you get into what I call landing post-leg, and how quickly and violent you get there, it creates a lot of torque on the body. If you watched him today, his head stays in line. He was throwing easy today. And it was flying out of his hand.”
Lacy also showed his four pitches, which are all above average and can be plus on some days. He doesn’t rely on his curveball as much as the other three -- which he will need to do as he faces more advanced hitters -- and he can morph his slider into a pitch with cutter action when it’s up in the zone.
Lacy is determined to put the struggles he went through in ’21 behind him, although he’s quick to say how much he learned from the season. He got used to a new routine and learned what it takes to control the nerves that came with his first professional season.
“Probably just trying to stay even-keel mentally was the biggest thing,” Lacy said. “Not get too high, not get too low. Be the same person every single day at the ballpark. That’s what your teammates want out of you and out of a starting pitcher. As far as the physical side of things go, just knowing when to back off. I’m a guy that likes to push the envelope a little bit. Just knowing when I can get after it and when I need to pull back a little bit.”
Now this season will be about staying healthy and improving his command enough that the doubt surrounding it disappears.
“Power pitchers like Asa, they’re going to have days where command is going to be shaky,” Gibson said. “Look at all the greats, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax. These great pitchers of all time, they had command issues early. This is not anything that hasn’t happened to a young guy before. But it’s how they manage it.
“Sometimes the expectation level is so high that they forget that hitters still have to execute against you. So be aggressive, trust your stuff.”