We all are starting to know the names of the White Sox prospects as we spend more of our time looking to the minor leagues. However, rarely do we get the chance to understand the ballplayer on a deeper level than what we see in the box score. So, on Jordan Stephens' yearly "box score," we see a 2-5 record with a solid 2.58 ERA. But who is the real Jordan Stephens? As a fellow Jordan, I was honored to have the opportunity to take part in this interview with Stephens, who was extremely gracious in taking the time to answer these questions for all White Sox fans. As you will see in this interview, he is quite the hard-working and driven individual:
When did you start playing baseball?
I started playing baseball when you're first allowed to, so probably around 5-6. My brothers both played, although not in high school, so it's something that began to evolve in my family. By the time I was probably 10 or so, we dropped out of Little League and joined USSSA. My dad, a chemical engineer, was our head coach and a great strategist. My uncle, who would specialize in pitching as our coach, also helped me out. Together, they never played baseball at levels above high school, but they were able to use the internet and books to learn more than enough information. I've been pitching since they first allowed me to, and my success came pretty quick; I think a lot of that came from dropping out of the less competitive Little League.
When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of baseball, and what was the greatest sacrifice or risk you took by choosing this path?
I was that kid in grade school who always brought something baseball related to show and tells. I've always known what I wanted to do and I've always had a great family who backed that 100%. While my uncle and dad were my coaches (along with a couple other dads), my older brothers, Jacob and Joseph, were at every practice, helping in any way they could. When I was younger and in school, teachers would always give out these questionnaire forms in the beginning of the year, and I would always write "baseball player" as my future job. However, around 5-7th grade, the teachers began telling us that we couldn't write any type of sport on there, and to put a realistic job. Confused on why an educator would tell us what we should want to be, I began putting things like firefighter and police officer. However, by 8th grade and even into college, I re-established the idea that baseball player was the option for me. Believe it or not, even at Rice, we were often asked what we planned to do after college, and surrounded by die-hard academics, baseball player wasn't usually an answer taken seriously.
While at Rice, I chose to take the bare minimum of credits every semester with the plan of getting out of there after my junior season; Tommy John had a different plan. It was a risk doing this because if I didn't get drafted and didn't get the remaining college hours that I needed paid for, I would have to cover the remaining cost myself (around $50,000). It was a decision that some may not understand. You're there for four years, how can you not graduate? But when your goal is "baseball player," I put that first.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Rice University?
There were still plenty of great memories at Rice as well. While the academic side was just as tough as it's made to be, the athletic side was great. My favorite memory was my sophomore season when we made it to Super-Regionals against NC State and Carlos Rodon. After dominating the Oregon Regional and pulling off the upset, we were excited to have the opportunity to play NC State with hopes to do it again. Unfortunately, they were able to win both games in the late innings.
During your junior year, you had to get Tommy John Surgery. Can you tell me about that experience – what were your emotions like, and did your mindset change at all with the experience?
Tommy John surgery came at the beginning of my junior year, so right after my favorite college memory. Going into the season, I was dealing with some elbow and forearm soreness but made the decision to continue through it, because I knew how important this year would be for my career. A couple starts into the season, we were playing the University of Texas in Minute Maid Park. UT is basically a rival for everyone, especially in Texas, so I knew I wanted to pitch that game. I don't remember the inning, but I made a pitch and it felt like my elbow hyper-extended, and I immediately knew what happened. My next pitch was around 65 mph and resulted in the inning ending L5 that got me back into the dugout. My catcher immediately knew what happened and told the coaches to pull me, and when they asked me if I was hurt, I couldn't lie.
It didn't really hit me while I was in the dugout. Our trainer did some tests on my arm and couldn't tell if it was serious or not, but I knew what I felt. The pain was intense, even before it tore, but not being able to pitch against UT was what made it even worse. Within a few days, we got my test results back (UCL completely torn off the bone) and had surgery on March 6th.
The psychological aspect behind a surgery like this is the hardest part. You went from a part of the team to apart from the team. I was still at the practices and games for the most part, but you know you're not helping anything anymore. While disconnected from the team, something I never discussed with any teammates, I still had a lot to handle on the physical side, which became a great escape. Working hard has never been a problem for me and is something ingrained into me by my dad. I was only supposed to go to the rehab specialist twice a week, but we became close, so he let me come 3-5x a week. The remaining days were supposed to be done with our Rice trainer. Once the beginning rehab stages were done, I began pushing myself wherever I could. If I was supposed to do an exercise at 10lbs for 10 reps and 3 sets, I would do 12lbs for 11 reps and 3 sets. Every day I would do this. Rehab on something like this, something so critical to my career, was nerve wracking. You never know if you're doing something well enough, and you won't know until your first game back. However, I was going to do everything I could to be at my best when that day came.
Ironically, my timetable on my return matched me up with the series against the University of Texas. So I had my goal in sight, I knew how I was going to get there, and my results didn't disappoint.
What was it like getting the call from the White Sox, given everything you'd been through?
When draft day finally approached in 2015, I had a good idea of the rounds that were most likely for me. I knew I had slipped down a little from my 2013 year (sophomore season), but still felt I had a good shot at being in the top 5 rounds. My agents at the time did a great job of letting me know which teams were most interested, and despite giving me a list of about 8 teams, they pinpointed the White Sox as the most likely candidate. On Day 2 of the draft in the 5th round, I got a call from my agent telling me that the White Sox had made myself and two other players all the same offer, and whomever accepted first got the pick. I eagerly told my agent to accept the under-slot deal, and it was done. Having heard the multitude of stories like mine that didn't pan out, I knew there was still a good chance that I would be passed over. However, the White Sox were true to their word, and I was selected in the 5th round.
The feeling was unlike anything I had ever felt to that point in my life. With my entire life dedicated to one option, I had a lot of things riding on the draft. Not only for myself, but there were dozens and dozens of people who had helped me along the way, from USSA to college and every pitching lesson and support system throughout. With the whole process finally being over, I think relief was probably the biggest emotion felt. The White Sox only had 3 picks in the top 5 rounds of 2015, so it was special to be one of them. Within minutes of being drafted, the White Sox called me and told me that they wanted me to come to Chicago to see the facility, although the team was out of town. I was lucky enough to bring my brother Jacob, who is a lifelong baseball fan and die hard card collector. The two of us embarked on the trip and soaked in every second of it before I finally had to report to Arizona to begin my career.
Can you give any insights into daily life as a minor leaguer?
When you hear about the minor leagues, you always hear about it being such a grind… but the day it becomes a grind is the day I will quit. When I was being looked at in college, a scout told me something that remains in my mind today, "Professional baseball will do one of two things: you will either hate the game and realize it isn't for you, or you will embrace it and love it even more". Thankfully, I was the second option, and I've never experienced the "grind" of baseball, because every day to play it is such a blessing and I know it doesn't last forever. Having TJ surgery has this effect, because it shows you how quickly something can be taken away from you.
The average day for a minor league baseball player is this: wake up between 10am-noon, get to the field by 1:30pm, work out starts at 2 and you're on the field around 3:30. Then you come back in and eat before the game, and you'll be back outside by around 6:30pm for the 7:05 game. The games usually end around 10pm, and by the time you shower and eat, many of us aren't leaving the locker room until 11pm or later.
Baseball is a most nocturnal career choice. The majority of our day is spent working in the P.M. and many of us can't fall asleep until 2 or 3am.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren't playing baseball?
The question of career choices outside of baseball is an ironic one since I don't have anything planned. I believe that a backup plan means you're preparing to fail, and it's a weak mindset. However, I am still interested in law enforcement and wouldn't mind a career in that, even with the way the world currently views them. I think I would be more likely to go federal than at the local or state levels, but I'm not sure yet. My father-in-law is a Houston police officer and advised me to go federal if I ever decide to take that route. I believe my Rice degree would make more sense at a federal level, and a job in the FBI could be fun. Outside of my new career choice, if baseball didn't pan out, I'd be doing a lot more fishing and hunting year-round. Currently half of my year is full of that, and the other half is full of baseball.
What do you feel is your strongest asset-whether physical or mental-as a ballplayer?
One of my strongest assets is my ability to look at things on a deeper level and to be a strategic thinker, like my dad. I am very interested in the psychological aspects of life and have read many books on how humans think and why we think like that. I've read many reviews on myself, and the common perception is that I'm very competitive and relaxed on the mound. I think that comes from being able to assess a situation from a realistic perspective. I know my abilities, I know that the greatest hitters get hits 3/10 times, and I know that most hitters I face are less than that. So typically, there is about a 75% chance that if I toss the ball down the middle, the hitter will still get out. Then I take my own pitching abilities into account, and I expect that number to rise to around 80%+. So any situation I'm put in, I expect the hitter to fail 80% of the time or more, and that keeps me always in the position for success. Once a pitcher can not only understand that, but believe in it, I think they will gain a great amount of confidence. Then you just have to pay attention to a hitters reactions and use common sense to figure out what he wants to do and what you want him to do. Often times, a starting pitcher's job is to play puppet master. We are trying to throw a pitch to a certain spot to make that hitter do a certain thing, such as a double play. Starters, like myself, want to go as deep into games as possible, so early weak contact is our favorite thing.
When your career is over, is there a pitcher you'd like to be compared to or a milestone you'd like to reach?
Being from Alvin, TX, I always hear about Nolan Ryan, and having a career even close to his would be surreal. Another pitcher I admired growing up was Roger Clemens. Both of these guys knew that they were in charge 100% of the time, and confidence was never an issue. I loved the way they attacked hitters and had that bravado.
I don't have any particular milestones for my personal career other than to have a long and successful one. I'd like to help a team win multiple World Series titles, and I believe I'm in the right organization for that to happen soon.
Do you have any advice for young ballplayers hoping to be where you are some day?
For any young players that want to be a professional baseball player, my answers to the previous questions should help them out. Never let anyone tell you who or what you should be. If you want something bad enough, there is always a way to achieve it, because success is never far from failure. I'd advise kids to not only just watch baseball, but study it. If a game is on TV, you have a free pitching or hitting book right in front of you. Watch how different pitchers attack different styles of hitters and how they set up pitches. Be able to understand that everything works both ways. While a pitcher will set up a certain sequence of pitches on the first at bat for a hitter, that pitcher can usually remember what he did and be able to continue to work off of that. Likewise, as a hitter, you should know not only how you were pitched in your first at bat, but you should know why they did it and how you reacted to each pitch. A bad swing on a chase curveball in the dirt makes its reoccurrence likely in your second at bat. So if you find yourself 0-2, you can be confident that you know what's coming (Although a savvy pitcher may bust you in 0-2 before throwing the curve, because he knows that you know what happened last time).
Baseball is all about playing the odds. You take what you know, you guess what you don't, and you make the best decision you can based on that information. Baseball is a thinking man's game… that's why many people think it's boring. They don't realize that when a pitcher throws 100 pitches, that was 100 individual decisions that were thought out to comprise one big story (the game). One bad decision can change everything, and that's what makes baseball so great. I would tell every kid to analyze the game and not to just focus on the physical parts. Understand the game on a deeper meaning than just strikes and balls or hits and outs.
Jordan Stephens is the type of ballplayer you find it easy to root for. He's a grinder who refuses to give up, and I think no matter what type of life we live, we can all learn a lesson about perseverance from Stephens. On behalf of the entire team at Sox on 35th, I'd like to thank Jordan Stephens for taking the time to so thoughtfully answer these questions. I think I can speak for everyone when I say we hope to see him on the South Side soon.
You can follow Jordan Stephens on Twitter (@J_Stephens27) and Instagram (@j_stephens27). Also, follow the Birmingham Barons on Twitter (@BhamBarons) for updates on Stephens and other White Sox prospects.