By: Brian Frank
Nate Pearson is well known throughout baseball for his blazing fastball. The 6'6" fireballer has always been impressive when throwing a baseball – even when he was a youngster.
“I think the earliest baseball memory I have is playing catch with my dad in the backyard,” Pearson said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “Just seeing how far I could throw it – and surprising him at how far I was able to throw it for how young I was. That’s probably the first baseball moment I remember.”
“I always wanted to be a pitcher, but I was big so I still hit and played the field,” he added about playing little league. “When I was probably around ten, I convinced my coaches to let me pitch – and they saw I had a good arm. Since then I’ve been pitching.”
Unleashing the heat. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
As with most elite athletes, he had a moment growing up when he realized that his natural skills could take him to a much higher level.
“I definitely realized it once I started throwing harder,” he said. “When I hit 90 mph for the first time (in high school), I realized I was throwing harder than a lot of my teammates. So I thought if I just kept working hard, maybe the velo would keep going, and put together a good arsenal and see where it goes.”
After graduating from Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School in Spring Hill, Florida, Pearson played one season of college baseball at Florida International University before transferring to the College of Central Florida. It was while he was at the College of Central Florida that he first reached the century mark on the radar gun.
“During my sophomore year in college I was throwing a bullpen for some scouts," he remembered. "When I got done, my pitching coach (Zach Bove) came up to me and asked me if I was feeling good, and I was like ‘Yeah, I feel pretty good.’ Then he told me I hit 100. It was a surprise. I didn’t believe it at first. Then we got confirmation. I remember telling my parents about it. They were ecstatic. It was a pretty fun time.”
After one season at the College of Central Florida, Pearson was selected by the Blue Jays with the twenty-eighth overall pick in the first round of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft.
“It was a dream come true,” he said of getting selected. “I didn’t know what team was going to draft me. I knew it was going to be somewhere in the first or second round. I was excited, ready to start a new chapter. Then I heard the Blue Jays drafted me and I’d get to stay at home during spring training, because they’re right down the road from where I live. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Pearson with the Herd in 2019. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Besides his blazing four-seam fastball, he’s added three other pitches to his arsenal – a curveball, slider, and changeup.
“My hands got bigger and now I throw a knuckle curve,” he said of how his curveball has evolved. “I really started throwing a lot more these past couple years. I’ve always been working on it, trying to figure out how to throw it a little bit harder, a little bit sharper. I think it’s in a good spot now. I’ve been getting a lot of swings and misses on it. So I'm just kind of focusing on that.”
His slider was developed under the tutelage of Zach Bove, his pitching coach at the College of Central Florida.
“My JUCO pitching coach helped me out a lot,” he said. “He’s now a pitching strategist with the Kansas City Royals. He’s a really good pitching coach and helped me out a lot that year.“
Since transitioning to the bullpen, he hasn’t used what he considers his fourth pitch.
“I do have a changeup,” he explained. “I haven’t been throwing one in a game lately, just because I’m a reliever now – so I just come out with my best three pitches and go from there.”
Pearson’s first season in the Blue Jays organization didn’t go as planned. After throwing just an inning and two-thirds for Dunedin, he was hit with a line drive in his throwing arm.
“I pitched well in my first spring training,” he remembered. “I went to High-A, and my first start there I took a line drive off my forearm. So I kind of had to overcome that injury the whole year – but it ended up turning into a great experience at the Arizona Fall League.”
He pitched for the Surprise Saguaros in the AZL, where his fastball was clocked at 104 mph. Other players on the Saguaros included Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Santiago Espinal.
“I got to meet a bunch of really good players that are in the big leagues now,” he recalled. “It was just a really cool experience.”
With the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2019. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
In 2019, Pearson rose rapidly through Toronto’s farm system. He started at High-A Dunedin, where he had a 0.86 ERA and had 35 strikeouts in 21 innings pitched, before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire, where he posted a 2.59 ERA and fanned 69 batters in 62 2/3 innings pitched. He finished the season in Buffalo, where he made three starts, had a 3.00 ERA, and collected 15 strikeouts in 18 innings pitched.
The highlight of his 2019 season was pitching in the All-Star Futures Game held at Cleveland’s Progressive Field during MLB’s All-Star Game festivities. He pitched one scoreless inning, striking out two batters, and mesmerizing the sell-out crowd with his fastball – which touched 101.7 mph.
“Ever since I got drafted and I learned what the Futures Game was I always wanted to play in it,” he said. “I just took that and made it a goal of mine. In 2019 I made it happen. It was super fun, it’s something I wanted to do for years. I got the chance and took the opportunity. I just tried to play my best there and it was a good outing. It was a lot of fun.”
He's used the fact that he’s been rated as one of the game’s top pitching prospects as motivation.
“It definitely drives you because everyone knows how good you are. You have to believe in yourself – and when you have that confidence that everyone else has in you, it helps out and you have more fun just knowing how good you are and knowing how other people see you.”
Pitching at Sahlen Field for the Blue Jays in 2020. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Pearson began the 2020 season in the major leagues. He made his big league debut starting a game against the Washington Nationals. The game was considered a home game for Toronto, but was played in Washington, since Buffalo’s Sahlen Field was still being renovated to prepare for the arrival of big league baseball. Adding to the excitement for Pearson was the fact that the pitcher he was opposing was three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer.
“It was a dream come true,” he said. “But it definitely wasn’t the way I had dreamt it up. You know, I kind of dreamed that my parents would be in the stands and I’d have everyone cheering me on – but they weren’t allowed to be there. It was still fun. I got to pitch against Max Scherzer. That was something that I could never even dream of – that he would be the first guy I faced. It went really well. Me and Max went toe to toe.”
The first batter Pearson faced in the big leagues was perennial All-Star Trea Turner, widely regarded as one of the best players in the game today.
“I ended up striking him out on a slider. It was pretty cool. I didn’t really realize it until it was all over that my first strikeout was Trea Turner, a guy that’s an All-Star shortstop. Pretty good for my first one.”
He ended up matching Scherzer pitch for pitch. The young right-hander fired five shutout innings, allowing two hits and two walks while fanning five batters, before giving way to the bullpen.
Pearson’s last few seasons have been interrupted by various injuries which have hampered his ability to stick in the big leagues.
“It’s definitely made me more mentally tough than I could ever imagine, having to go through that,” he said of overcoming the injuries. “Just one thing after the next and not knowing if I’m ever going to make it out of that. Having that doubt. But that’s (why it's important to have) a good family network and coaches and friends to help you grind through that and make it out. And when you are healthy, it’s worth every bit of it.”
“Just being put here right now, even though I’m in Triple-A and I want to be up in the big leagues – but just being healthy and being able to do day-to-day baseball activities, being able to play catch and get into games – it’s still a lot of fun.”
Pearson has struck out 45.7% of the batters he's faced this season. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Last offseason, he pitched for Licey in the Dominican Winter League, where he didn’t allow a run in 12 relief appearances, striking out 16 batters in 12 innings.
“I went because I needed to throw some more innings and I got to pitch down there in high leverage games,” he said. “The games down there are very intense. A lot of fans. It was very loud. It was very cool to be able to learn through that process and have success while doing it – and being their setup guy, an eighth inning, seventh inning guy.”
“The main thing was to try to get innings but I was working on all my pitches – the curveball a lot. Really just attacking hitters and limiting walks and just getting quick outs.”
This season, Pearson has been healthy and looking dominant coming out of the Bisons bullpen. He currently has a 2.16 ERA and has struck out 16 of the 35 batters he’s faced (45.7%).
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m pretty confident in my abilities right now. That’s the main thing, just going out there and feeling good, attacking the zone and getting quick outs are the things I’m really focused on. Getting quick outs and getting our guys back in the dugout to hit – limiting the time I’m out there and trying to make it as quick as possible.”
After his first career minor-league save this season. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles