Blue Jays prospect Justin Maese nearly pursued a career in football out of high school, but has quickly emerged as one of Toronto’s highest-potential arms on the mound
In El Paso, Texas, football is King.
Entering his senior season at Ysleta High School, quarterback Justin Maese was drawing interest from college football programs. After throwing for 22 touchdowns and leading the Indians to a 7-4 record, however, scouts of a different cloth began flocking to Texas for a look at his right arm.
With his focus quickly shifted to the mound, Maese shot up draft boards in the spring of 2015 amid reports that he was hitting 96 miles per hour with his fastball. The Toronto Blue Jays selected the 6’3″, 190-pound pitcher in the third round, 91st overall, and the early returns have been extremely encouraging.
Now one of the top young right-handers in the thinned farm system of an organization that’s shown a tendency to fast-track pitching prospects, Maese is motivated take another leap forward after an excellent debut in 2015.
“The Jays definitely have confidence in Justin,” said Maese’s agent Kyle Dison of Society Baseball Group. “He should start the season in Lansing. Justin has shown above average stuff in all of his pitches. He can move through the system like Roberto Osuna.”
Maese (pronounced “My-ay-say”) looks to players like Osuna and Miguel Castro from 2015 as a blueprint for a path he could soon take up the ladder in Toronto. “That’s extra motivation to get up in the morning.”
Still just 19-years-old, Maese spent the majority of his offseason training at home before making the move to Florida nearly two weeks ago. A middle child with two older siblings and two younger, Maese was coached in baseball by his father Carlos for much of his career.
By the time the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft rolled around, a commitment to Texas Tech University, where Maese planned to play baseball on scholarship and study business, further complicated his late-rising draft stock.
When Maese signed his commitment to pitch for the Red Raiders, he says that he was very confident that would be the path he took. But as is often the case with pop-up High School prospects, the ability to turn pro as a high draft pick and begin the development process immediately was too much to pass up.
Maese says that the Blue Jays were “one of the two teams” that he thought were most likely to pick him leading up to the draft, adding that they were in contact with him very frequently. While he was not contacted by then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos, Maese does fit the prototype of a classic Anthopoulos pitching target in his last year guiding Toronto’s draft room.
Long, athletic, young, and projectable.
As far as debut seasons are concerned, the organization could not have asked for more. Pitching 35.2 innings in the Gulf Coast League, Maese recorded a 5-0 record with an excellent 1.01 ERA. While he struck out just 19 batters over that small sample size, it was his ability to keep the ball on the ground that jumped out most.
Scouts have questioned Maese’s ability to maintain the mid-90s velocity that he flashed late in his draft year, but at this point, the mature ex-quarterback (who still carries that mindset to the mound), is satisfied sacrificing radar gun numbers for outs.
“When I actually got those top speeds it was a four-seam fastball I was throwing,” Maese said, “so it was flat, but it was fast. And as I threw more bullpens and started to get to know myself, I changed to a sinker and I dropped down velocity, but the movement was unreal and that’s what really helped me throughout the season.
“So since then, about 75% of my pitches were sinkers. The velocity was lower, but the hitters, all they were hitting was ground balls so it was easy outs and I stuck to that. The velocity, I don’t really care about that. As long as I was getting those outs I kept throwing that sinker.”
That sinking action, similar to what many Blue Jays fans are familiar to seeing at the Major League level from Aaron Sanchez, earned Maese a ground out to air out ratio of 2.58 in 2015, which is significantly above average.
Maese credits his coaches with allowing him to work with what’s comfortable and what finds him the most success. “If it feels natural and right and you’re doing good, just stick to it. They don’t really have a specific way of how to do things. They’ve tweaked little things but no big changes.”
In fact, like many players entering the professional ranks, Maese found the adjustments to life off the field and away from his home, family, and Ysleta High to be one of the most difficult parts of this past year. Even after signing for an under-slot bonus of $300,000, though, Maese has remained humble.
“I always said that, if I could, I wanted to give back.” In September of last year, Maese ran a social media campaign promising to donate two dollars for every “like” he received to Socorro La Purisima Church, where he attended with his family just four miles from his high school.
He also enjoyed a warm homecoming at Ysleta, where Maese’s high school honoured him in a ceremony where they retired his baseball jersey number.
Entering his sophomore season in the Blue Jays, which he’ll remain a 19-year-old for the entirety of, Maese is looking to keep a steady approach to his craft.
“Being consistent. That’s my big thing. I don’t change anything between games.” As his agent alluded to, the Lansing Lugnuts appear to be the likely landing spot for Maese in 2016. “There’s not a “for sure”, but they [the organization] said I have a great chance at starting there as long as I keep doing good, then it’s more than likely I start there.”
He also expressed optimism that his ability to focus on baseball year-round will help to propel his game. Living in Texas, his high school baseball season began in February and lasted “a little over two months, then it was all back to football.”
A strong sophomore season could push Maese to the level currently occupied by pitching prospects such as Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene, who reached hi-A and double-A in 2015 respectfully and now find themselves creeping into the upper-minors as highly-regarded 20-year-olds.
Coming off a strong first step, the path ahead of him is clear entering 2016 and beyond. It’s been a whirlwind 12 months for the young right-hander, but give him just a few more, and Blue Jays fans may have no choice but to know the name Justin Maese.