'The Viper': Lee's unusual path to MLB Draft

July 13th, 2021

When Chase Lee first stepped on the University of Alabama’s campus, the goal was simply to graduate. Baseball wasn’t in the equation. Lee didn’t have any offers out of high school, and the Crimson Tide wasn’t exactly looking for his services.

That was then. That was before the failed tryout, before the new pitching delivery, before the perfect timing and before the fun nickname. Lee was selected by the Rangers in the sixth round with the No. 164 overall pick on Tuesday in the MLB Draft.

“It’s really something you could make a movie about,” Alabama head coach Brad Bohannon said to MLB.com. “It’s just really, really neat and special and humbling and any word that you can think of to describe it. It’s an absolute feel-good story.”

When Lee stepped on campus as an academic freshman in 2018, the primary objective was to major in aerospace engineering. As he was handling academics, the ballfield called. Or rather, his parents called on him to return to the field.

Lee’s parents forced him to try out for the varsity club during his first year. Given that Lee didn’t have any offers out of high school, the expectations were, to put it nicely, tempered.

The tryout didn’t go well. Lee hovered around 80 mph in a bullpen session, and Bohannon didn’t have pleasant things to say about Lee’s arm. To the shock of few, Lee didn’t make the team.

“There was really nothing about him that screamed high-level Division I baseball player,” Bohannon recalled of the tryout. “Not really athleticism or physicality or even arm strength. The only thing that caught our eye was the looseness and wickedness of his arm action.”

Instead of leaving it at that, however, Lee innovated. Bohannon told Lee that the only way he could make the team is if Lee started pitching sidearm. So Lee got to work, converting from a standard delivery to the unconventional one.

Lee’s opportunity to test the new delivery came not with the varsity team, but with the school’s club team. Not much time was needed to see that Lee’s transition was worthwhile. Lee compiled a 7-0 record with a 0.21 ERA and was selected as a Rawlings National Club Baseball Association First Team All-American. It’s safe to say, Bohannon’s assessment was correct.

“It just speaks to the kind of person that he is,” Bohannon said of Lee’s transition to sidearm pitching. “He deserves all the success that he’s having. He's the one that put in the work -- just a very unusual level of determination and grit that is really rare these days, especially in young people.”

Lee’s resume was certainly more appealing when he reconnected with Bohannon. After putting on some additional strength following his year with the club squad, Lee cracked the varsity squad.

What ensued over the next three years almost feels too cliché, too storybook to be real: Lee became one of the best relievers the school had ever produced.

In his first season with the Crimson Tide, Lee allowed 2.67 ERA nine runs across 30 1/3 innings. After some excellent outings in 2020, prior to the cancellation of the season, Lee put together one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in Alabama history.

Across 40 2/3 innings, Lee allowed just six runs to the tune of a 1.33 ERA with 51 strikeouts. In three playoff games, Lee allowed two earned runs across 11 1/3 innings with 11 strikeouts. Bohannon, rightfully so, called him invaluable.

Lee departs Alabama with a 1.87 ERA across 82 career innings -- the lowest ERA by a reliever in program history with at least 50 innings pitched. Not that bad for someone with no baseball prospects just several years prior.

Oh, and Lee still ended up getting that degree in aerospace engineering with three straight Academic Honor Roll selections. Quite the combination.

Somewhere along the way, Lee earned a nickname: The Viper. The moniker was an homage to his sidearm delivery. Lee embraced it, and the team loved it.

At least, the team would grow to love it. Bohannon recalls that the team made fun of Lee’s nickname upon first hearing it. But as Lee kept on producing, the nickname became deserved.

“You need to be good to have a nickname,” Bohannon said. “You can’t be bad and have a nickname.”

Alabama never went as far as bringing in a real snake into the clubhouse -- Bohannon said that he’s petrified of snakes -- but the Crimson Tide was all in on “The Viper”. Bohannon even got in on the fun, saying that he’d hiss and flail his arms around like the slithery reptiles.

“Even me, I’m a 46-year-old man, and I’d be in the locker room and try [to act] like a cobra or snake,” Bohannon said with a laugh. “We had a lot of fun with it. I hope it sticks in pro ball.”

Even with all of Lee’s success, there was a real possibility that it could’ve never happened.

Lee arrived at a time when Alabama’s pitching depth was on the thinner side. It made sense for Bohannon to take a flier on Lee. But if Alabama had more depth at the time that Lee arrived, his baseball journey never would’ve been set into motion.

“It’s just crazy,” Bohannon said. “All of the variables that came into play and had to line up from a timing standpoint for this opportunity to even create itself.”

Luckily for Lee, Bohannon and Alabama, circumstance favored the sidearm. In the coming weeks, Lee will have the opportunity to show how his stuff plays at the professional level.

"It’s really, truly an awesome story,” Bohannon said. “Hopefully, he continues to make it an even better story.”