Overton turning heads after long road to bigs

September 16th, 2021

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have set a franchise record with 35 pitchers used in 2021, the most in a single season. By giving so many arms an opportunity to accumulate innings, they hope to land on a few who could help contribute in the coming years.

Connor Overton, the 35th pitcher, set the mark with his one-inning outing on Sunday. But he got a longer leash in his first MLB start on Thursday afternoon in a 1-0 loss to the Reds at PNC Park. Based on what he showed then and this season as a whole, he could be one of those future contributors.

Since his MLB debut with the Blue Jays on Aug. 12, he hasn’t allowed a run; the 28-year-old tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings with the Blue Jays before being claimed off waivers by the Pirates.

After his perfect inning on Sunday, Overton traversed a Reds lineup with a lot of power potential on Thursday with relative ease. Cincinnati collected a single, a double -- which came off a misplayed diving catch in left field -- and a walk, but Overton matched that with three strikeouts and needed only 42 pitches to complete three innings.

“I think he gave us all we could ask for and more,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We were hoping for two [innings], we got three, and he threw the ball really well.”

The key to the outing was a strong circle changeup that made a few hitters look foolish and kept Overton efficient. It’s a move away from an earlier split-finger changeup that he said put stress on his pitching elbow.

“I can manipulate it [to move] which way I want it to break based on my thumb placement,” Overton said. “That’s kind of new this year. I’ve been playing around with it a lot, and it’s been a huge part of my game this entire year.”

If you look at his numbers in Triple-A, it seems obvious that Overton would receive a callup this season. He posted a 2.03 ERA in 57 2/3 innings with the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo over 21 outings (seven starts) before he made his MLB debut.

But search beyond this season, and it becomes clearer that earning his first stint in the Majors is a testimony to his perseverance. 

Overton was drafted by the Marlins in the 15th round of the 2014 MLB Draft, and he wasn’t given much space to grow in his first few years. Before 2018, the most innings he’d thrown in a single pro season was 31 in 2015, when he was cut by the Nationals shortly after reaching Triple-A.

Then, a dominant first year of independent ball in 2016 led Overton to the Giants organization, but he tore his right UCL and had Tommy John surgery. He returned to the Giants for 2018 and 2019, but he was released midway through the season and went back to independent ball.

However, Overton felt like he’d laid the path to success during that period fighting back from Tommy John surgery, as he reinforced his mental game to complement his arsenal.

“I think that year, honestly, was the biggest year of my career, because I came back a completely different pitcher,” Overton said of his first season back from the elbow injury. “Maybe the numbers right away didn’t show it, but I knew how to attack guys and how to get guys out at a high level.”

The COVID-19 pandemic effectively ended his hope of getting any game action in 2020, but before the 2021 season began, he bet on himself. He tweeted that he was looking for an opportunity as a bullpen arm with a 95-97 mph fastball.

The Blue Jays picked him up, and he pitched his way into high-octane innings with a playoff contender.

The stint with Toronto didn’t last long, which isn’t unexpected. Teams in the playoff hunt value experience and reliability at the Major League level, and Overton didn’t have that yet.

But his success has earned him this opportunity with the Pirates. It likely won’t lead to many more starts; Overton’s stuff has played well out of the bullpen, especially his velocity. No matter what role he’s in, he plans to grasp this chance by doing what he’s done all season: Get outs, then get outs some more, by any means necessary.

“All I can control is focus on what I can control,” Overton said, “and that’s coming out here and trying to be the same guy every day and making quality pitches and keeping hitters off balance. That’s really it.”