Interview: Taylor Widener makes transition to the rotation

Back in 2016, the New York Yankees selected right-hander Taylor Widener out of South Carolina in the 12th Round of the MLB Draft. Over the last two seasons, he has risen all the way up to Double-A Trenton and has helped the Yankees organization in multiple roles.

After finishing the 2016 season in the Staten Island and Charleston bullpens, Widener made the transition into becoming a starter with Tampa in 2017. In 27 starts, he went 7-8 with a 3.37 ERA over the course of 119.1 innings.

While the win-loss record is sub .500, Widener’s 129 strikeouts were 45 more than any other pitcher in the Tampa rotation and the third most of any pitcher in the Florida State League. But, he did have 50 walks as well, which was the fourth most in the FSL.

Widener got a chance to be a part of history during the Eastern League playoffs with the Trenton Thunder. He was the reliever that combined to throw a no-hitter with Justus Sheffield against the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.

As Widener continues to develop as a starting pitcher, he does have a strong fastball to go with his secondary pitches, which he used more in that transition into the rotation. Of course, he still has the strikeout stuff when you go off of the fact he had 59 strikeouts in 13 games as a reliever in 2016 and struck out seven on three different occasions.

Last week, I got the chance to talk to Taylor about some of the highlights of last season, his transition to becoming a starter, and much more. Here is the full interview:

Ricky: You were selected by the Yankess in the 12th Round back in 2016. What was that experience like for you and what were you doing when you found out that the Yankees were going to draft you?

Taylor: It was right before a game during Super Regionals against Oklahoma State. One of my buddies that’s actually from New York came up to me and was like dude, you just got selected by the Yankees. I was like that’s awesome. Every little kid’s dream is to put on the pinstripes. It was a pretty surreal experience, that’s for sure.

R: Were the Yankees your favorite team when you grew up watching baseball?

T: I actually grew up a Braves fan. In South Carolina, we didn’t have a professional team. The Braves were the closest thing to us.

R: Did you have any favorite pitchers that you liked to watch as you were developing as a pitcher?
T: Not really. My idol was Chipper Jones, but I took a different route than him.

R: For someone who hasn’t seen you pitch, how would you describe your pitch arsenal and how you go about it when you are on the mound?

T: I would definitely say that I am very aggressive on the mound. Most of the time I am going to go right at people. I feel like that’s my main weapon is just that I am always in attack mode.

R: What kind of pitches do you throw?

T: I throw a fastball, curveball, and a changeup.

R: In college, at South Carolina, how did pitching in the SEC and the Super Regional help prepare you for professional baseball?

T: I think it prepared me a lot because it was high-pressure situations that I threw in. Every time you faced a SEC lineup, it was a bunch of good hitters. The majority of the guys in a SEC lineup go on to professional baseball, so it was a good caliber of baseball and it really helped me get ready.

R: Last season, you got the chance to be a starter with Tampa. What was the toughest part about making that transition to the rotation?

T: Just being able to start off a game, but you just have to have a better stamina and be able to pitch moreso than when you are coming out of the bullpen, you just really get to go at guys because you are most likely going to face the lineup maybe once. You have to learn how to pitch to certain guys and pitch backwards and be able to throw like a changeup in a 0-0 count or a 1-0 count.

R: Did doing both roles in college help you ease into the transition with the Yankees?

T: Yeah, I think so. In high school, I was throwing seven innings a week. In college, I was always back-and-forth. It helped me get some experience.

R: Over your final 14 starts with Tampa, you had a 2.64 ERA. What was the key to your second half success?

T: I just started to learn how to pitch. The thing that we kept harping on last season was throwing the changeup. I started getting more and more comfortable throwing that changeup and that made a huge difference for me. I was throwing it to both righties and lefties and I felt comfortable throwing it in almost any count.

R: Back on August 13, you were taking on Port St. Lucie. You left the game after five no-hit innings. What is that atmosphere like when you leave the game with a no-hitter in progress?

T: Everybody knows the superstition in baseball, so nobody really says anything throughout the game. I feel like everyone treats you the same, whether you are pitching good or pitching bad.

R: Back in September, you got the chance to pitch for Trenton and you and Justus Sheffield combined to throw a no-hitter in the postseason. What was it like to be part of that experience?

T: It was a pretty good experience. I actually had no clue that we had a no-hitter going on. When I came into the game, I saw that there was one hit on the scoreboard. I guess they overruled it, so I had absolutely no clue. Everybody came running out on the field and I was like what in the world is going on? It was a good experience.

R: You get to Trenton for the postseason. How quickly do you adjust to getting to know your teammates right in the middle of a postseason push?

T: I feel like I’m a pretty easygoing guy. I make friends with a lot of people pretty easily. I’ve never really had trouble with going to an area and making friends. I’ve never really looked at it that way. We are all a team and seeing the majority of the guys in spring training, you get to hang out with a lot of those guys. I think that makes it a lot easier.

R: When you were at Tampa, Jay Bell was your manager. What was he like as a manager? Now that he’s going up to Double-A, what can Yankees fans know about him?

T: He’s about as good of a guy as you are going to get. His passion for the game is unreal. The knowledge that he has on the game that he’s played for so long. He makes you want to just go out and get better every day.

R: Back in 2014, you got to be on the same pitching staff as Jordan Montgomery. What impressed you about Jordan when you were his teammate and have you talked to him since you were drafted?

T: The thing that’s always impressed me about Jordan is his composure. Whether he’s throwing a great game or he’s struggling a little bit, he’s always got a good composure. He’s not going to change up his philosophy if something is going wrong. He’s always been a relaxed, laid back pitcher who knows how to pitch. Last year, in spring training, I got to room with Jordan, so I talked to him a good bit.

R: What was that experience like?

T: It was fun. We had completely different time schedules with the big league games going on at night and ours were in the morning. Once we started spring training after Captain’s Camp, we didn’t see each other that much.

R: This past June, the Yankees selected Clarke Schmidt in the 1st round, another one of your teammates. Did you give any advice to Clarke? While Yankees fans haven’t seen him pitch professionally yet, what can Yankees fans expect from him?

T: They can expect another bulldog, honestly. He’s another guy that will go right at people. He’s got a really good fastball with movement and an incredible slider that he likes to put away people with. He’s another really good guy.

R: You’ve pitched in the Super Regionals and postseason minor league baseball. What are the similarities and differences between the two?

T: I would have to say they are both pretty similar. There’s on the line for both of them. I don’t really look at it as postseason. I go game-by-game. You can’t really put too much pressure on yourself and be like oh, this is a postseason game.

R: Looking back at last season, what did you take away from it as you head into this year?

T: How much I have to work on the consistency of all my pitches and how big of a difference that is. That’s what separates the minor league guys from the major league guys are how much more consistent they are and how they can throw whatever they want, whenever they want for a strike. I have to keep working on that.

R: Looking back at your career so far, what is the advice that has stuck out to you from any of the coaches that you have had?

T: Everybody’s always saying you just got to go out there and be yourself. You can’t try to do something that somebody else does. You just have to go out there and be yourself. You got selected and we are in our situation right now from stuff we have done in the past and stuff that made us successful. They don’t really try and change up too much on you. They just fine tune you. They want you to go out there and be yourself.

R: If you hadn’t become a professional baseball player, what would’ve been your second career choice?

T: I was studying criminal justice at South Carolina. I would’ve tried to do something in the FBI or something in that realm of things.

R: Did you have a favorite crime TV show?

T: Yeah, I watched NCIS a lot.

R: As you guys were going about your season this past year, how much attention did you guys pay to the big league club?

T: We always had when their games were going on and we were playing, we always had their games on the in the clubhouse, so we were watching a good bit.

R: You guys had one of the better records in the Florida State League in the 2nd half. I talked to one of your teammates, Brian Keller, about this. What is it like as you guys put up great outing after great outing, the pressure to follow each other up after you guys performed as well as you guys did?

T: I don’t think any of us really look at it that way. We just have to go out there and do our own thing. As long as we keep us in the game, we are doing our job. There’s not really a competition to put up the same numbers. Certain days, you will hit better than other days. You just have to go out there and keep it a close ballgame.

R: The Florida State League is usually a pitcher’s friendly environment. What was it like to pitch in that league as opposed to getting that experience in the New York-Penn League and South Atlantic League in 2016?

T: It was definitely a good experience. Every time you move up, the caliber of baseball goes up. You can start seeing hitters have a better approach and you can definitely see the pitcher’s league at the beginning of the year when everyone is down there for every game and someone out of the bullpen throwing 100. It’s just crazy to see how many people can actually do that.

R: Any message that you have for Yankees fans listening to/reading this interview?

T: Stick with us. Keep pulling for us. If someone has a bad game, don’t get down on them. It happens to us.

R: How does it feel being in the organization when you see the team go out there and trade for Giancarlo Stanton?

T: It makes me feel better that possibly in the future that I don’t have to pitch to him.

We would like to thank Taylor for taking the time to talking to us and we wish him all the best during the 2018 season.

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