A little more than a year ago, Colton Lee figured his baseball career was closer to its end than a new beginning.
The Louisiana-Lafayette pitcher had been cut by his original junior college after an abysmal freshman season, and now his coaches at his new school — Pearl River Community College — were asking him to change everything. They wanted Lee, naturally an over-the-top thrower, to drop down and become a sidearmer.
“Right after Christmas break, three weeks before our season started, I started throwing sidearm,” Lee said. “I went home that next weekend and told my parents they better get ready to watch the last season that I play.”
Luckily for Lee, he turned out to be a better pitcher than a prophet.
A baseball career that was once on life support is now thriving. All it took was Lee learning to embrace his new, funky delivery, which he’s now using to flummox hitters for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
In four appearances spanning 10.1 innings this season, Lee has allowed one earned run while striking out 11, and opponents are hitting just .147 against him.
That’s a far cry from Lee’s freshman season at Southwest Mississippi Community College, where he allowed 22 hits and 21 runs in 17.1 innings. It’s taken a lot of time and an open mind for Lee, who did not pitch in high school, to get where he is now.
Lee said he had no idea where he would land when he was cut after his freshman year. He went to a couple tryouts, including one with the Mississippi Braves — the Atlanta Braves’ Double A affiliate — and found some interested parties. Pearl River was an easy choice, because it was located only about 15 minutes from Lee’s hometown.
This is where the fundamental change that altered the course of Lee’s career took shape. Lee was a converted infielder — he said he never pitched in high school — and the coaches saw an opportunity there. Innately, Lee would drop his arm angle when he played the field, slinging it toward first base from his side.
Why not translate that to the mound? Lee was skeptical.
“I didn’t really want to do it,” Lee said. “I was more focused on velocity, I just wanted to throw hard because I was an infielder on the mound. I started working and both coaches told me, ‘You don’t understand, you’re not losing any velocity. Why are you so down about it?’
“I finally got into it and was just like, ‘All right, let’s see what I can do.’ ”
He started the season with 12 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run, spanning 19.1 innings, and finished with a solid overall numbers. It was enough to spark some interest from the Cajuns coaching staff.
Cajuns coach Tony Robichaux loves Lee’s mentality on the mound. He considers Lee to be unshakably reliable when the game is on the line, calling him “seasoned in trouble.” But to chalk up Lee’s success to his mentality on the mound is to not get the full picture.
“It’s not only his mentality,” Robichaux said. “He pitches in the strike zone with run. That’s the ultimate goal of pitching.”
Lee gets natural movement on his pitches because of his delivery. But it took time for him to understand where in his new arm slot to release the ball in order for his pitches to find the strike zone.
His coach at Pearl River recognized this, and again harkened back to his infielder roots to get him in a strike-throwing groove.
“He had me do a certain drill, which was pretty much a shuffle and throw, just to work on throwing it where I needed to,” Lee said. “Just like I’m fielding a ground ball, shuffling to first, throwing to first.”
Lee still does that drill today when he’s warming up before he starts throwing from the rubber. And for someone who has only been throwing this way for a year, he’s developed a strong command of his three-pitch repertoire.
“This guy hasn’t been doing this for a very long time,” Robichaux said. “To have the control he has when he gets to the plate is amazing to me. He’s been very good.”
It’s still hard for Lee to visualize himself as a successful pitcher. He realizes the numbers he’s put up so far are excellent, but he still speaks in a self-depricating manner where he conveys himself as a novice who doesn’t quite belong.
He likes to pepper the phrase “if I were a real pitcher” into conversation, especially when describing his unorthodox-yet-lethal slider, the movement of which junior catcher Nick Thurman described as, “it’s almost like it’s got a battery in it.”
Lee just shrugs it off. He says he doesn’t really understand how he’s doing what he is right now — “It blows my mind sometimes,” Lee said — but that isn’t important. What is important is that he still gets to come to the park everyday with a glove and a uniform.
“It’s been awesome,” Lee said. “I just try to live every moment like it’s my last.”
And who really knows when that might be.