Matt Esparza is quickly turning into a diamond in the rough.
The 22-year-old right-hander didn’t even switch to pitching full-time until his senior year of high school in Redondo Beach, California. He earned a scholarship to play at Tennessee, but a lack of opportunities pushed him to junior college his sophomore year before he broke out his junior year at D1 UC Irvine.
Even then, Esparza was a 14th round draft pick in 2015.
After spending most of his time with Mahoning Valley as a reliever, Esparza broke out in 2016 as a full-time starter for Lake County, leading the entire Cleveland Indians minor league organization in strikeouts with 141 and earning a late season promotion to High-A Lynchburg.
Esparza began the 2017 with Lynchburg again, and he’s been dealing, currently seventh in the Carolina League in ERA at 2.32, he was the opening day starter on a team that featured top prospect Triston McKenzie.
The talented Californian spoke with Let’s Go Tribe about golfing, his “developmental arm” and his LGT fan club in this exclusive interview:
Brian Hemminger (Let’s Go Tribe): In your free time back home in California, you liked to spend it on the beach, but Lynchburg is over 100 miles from the ocean and Ohio isn’t exactly known for its beaches. So what do you do for fun out here?
Matt Esparza: Mostly, I hang out with teammates on off days. We like to go golfing. Thomas Pannone is really good, Billy Strode is pretty good as well. We’ve got a handful of pretty good golfers.
Brian Hemminger: Are you able to hold your own with them?
Matt Esparza: (laughs) I’m not very good. I enjoy it, it’s a good time, but I’m definitely not winning any rounds.
Brian Hemminger: I’ve also heard several of the guys are pretty good at video games when they need to blow off some steam. What are your go-to games out there?
Matt Esparza: Yeah, I play MLB The Show every now and then. I’ll also play some Call of Duty when I’m in the mood.
Brian Hemminger: Speaking with Juan Hillman, he mentioned that Triston McKenzie is by far the best at Call of Duty, but that was last year. Is he still the guy to beat?
Matt Esparza: Yeah, Triston is really good. We’ve played The Show a couples times together both on the same team and also against each other. He’s really good at Call of Duty too.
Brian Hemminger: I know you were a fan of the Oakland Athletics growing up, but I noticed that you repeatedly brought up some filthy pitches by Cleveland Indians pitchers on your twitter feed even before you got drafted by the Indians. Were they a team that was on your radar heading into the 2015 draft?
Matt Esparza: I don’t know if I thought that deeply into it. I knew they were known for having a great pitching staff and I appreciate just watching those guys even before I was in pro ball, just seeing how good they were and everything. I don’t know if I thought about myself becoming a Cleveland Indians, but it was more appreciating what they were doing.
Brian Hemminger: When you were initially drafted, you hadn’t been a pitcher for a very long time and you were kind of defined as an “arm with a lot of developmental potential.” Have you noticed any major areas of development now that you’re working with professional trainers and coaches every day?
Matt Esparza: Yeah, I feel like I have. Just getting the experience, getting the teaching and all that stuff has been a tremendous help to me. I can feel myself gradually getting more and more comfortable as a pitcher and when I’m on the mound, understanding game situations and everything. I think it has helped me.
Brian Hemminger: Do you see anything with your arm that you think has some untapped potential?
Matt Esparza: I think there is potential there. With the innings and the throwing programs, I think my arm will get stronger and in better shape. I think there’s definitely more in there before it hits its peak. I definitely feel that way.
Brian Hemminger: Is there any part of you that misses hitting? I was reading an article from your high school days about you nearly pitching a shutout and going 3-4 at the plate with two home runs. I think they called it the “Matt Esparza show.”
Matt Esparza: Yeah, I got over that. It took me a while to get over it, because I was a position player most of my life in baseball and I was a pretty good hitter, but with time I did. I honestly don’t think about it much anymore now that I know pitching is my path.
Brian Hemminger: The Indians are known for their developmental programs and for being experimental and diverse with their prospects. Is there a throwing program or some exercises that you’d never seen before but you felt you were getting results from?
Matt Esparza: We have our long toss programs and those are helpful for building arm strength and they have routines for shoulder strengthening and scap strengthening and stuff that all the pitchers do. I feel like those have been really helpful for not just me, but everyone.
Brian Hemminger: Your coach has been quoted saying he feels like he has five aces he can throw out there with your Lynchburg rotation. I know Thomas Pannone has moved up but now you have Shane Bieber coming in and he had a great first start. Do you guys feel like you have a healthy competition going between yourselves, with whoever is taking the mound each day?
Matt Esparza: Yeah, I think we do. I think there’s a good amount of confidence in each of the starters on the team and the bullpen as well. We’re always trying to one-up each other, or at least put up zeroes. I think the pitching staff is really confident and we go about our work and do our job the best we can.
Brian Hemminger: There aren’t a lot of young players who, in their first full season of professional ball, get to work with a guy like Steve McCatty, who is a former pro pitcher and had seven years of pitching coach experience at the Major League level. What did you take from that experience? I noticed Lake County’s pitching staff really improved by leaps and bounds last season while he was there.
Matt Esparza: Yeah, that was a really good experience. Obviously, someone like Cat who pitched in the Big Leagues and coached in the Big Leagues, it was a great opportunity for the guys in that pitching staff to learn from him and be around him and everything. He just had so much to share with everything he’s learned over the years. That was great, it was super beneficial for all of us.
Brian Hemminger: Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the first time you’ve ever had a chance to work with the same pitching coach in back-to-back seasons since you first starting pitching full-time. You didn’t start pitching until your senior year of high school, then you pitched for three different colleges, then it was Mahoning Valley in 2015, Lake County in 2016 and you were promoted to Lynchburg in the back half of 2016. Are you noticing any benefits to having some familiarity there for once?
Matt Esparza: Yeah, I definitely do. We’re able to build a rapport and have solid communication with each other. It’s been really good, it’s actually been great. I’ve really enjoyed working with Rigo [Beltran]. He knows me really well at this point and I think the little things are paying off when I’m out there on the mound.
Brian Hemminger: I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but on the Let’s Go Tribe website, you have a bit of a cult following among a few of our readers.
Matt Esparza: (laughs) Really?
Brian Hemminger: Yeah, for real. These guys love everything about you after you broke out a bit last year. Every time you do anything good, they write #TeamEsparza and they go nuts in our minor league recaps. Do you have anything you wanted to say to your loyal supporters out there that you might not have known existed?
Matt Esparza: (laughs) That’s great. I had no idea. I guess I just want you guys to know that I really appreciate everything you’re doing and thank you a ton for the support!
You can follow Matt on Twitter @mesparza27