Inside the Phillies’ plan for Noah Song, the Navy aviator and pitcher preparing to recapture his form
The Philadelphia Inquirer March 13, 2023
CLEARWATER, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — When Noah Song was training on a P-8 Poseidon aircraft in Jacksonville, Fla., preparing for a deployment to Japan, the Navy would put him in certain situations. Sitting in a cruise simulator, Song would have a different crew, a different flight and a different scenario almost every day.
“They’d throw World War III at you,” Song said. “The entire kitchen sink.”
It taught him something. In those moments of uncertainty, Song would take a step back, and lean on his preparation. He liked to keep it simple.
“You just do what you know how to do,” he said.
Song is taking the same approach in Phillies camp. Since being picked in the Rule 5 draft in early December, the 25-year-old right-hander is in a new organization, with a new coaching staff, and a new objective. When the Boston Red Sox drafted him in 2019, Song was sent to short-A Lowell. He had time to tinker. Three years of military commitment later, he does not have that same luxury. In fact, it’s just the opposite. As a Rule 5 pick, Song was given just five weeks to make the big league roster. Five weeks to make up for three years of missed time.
Now that he is recovering from back tightness, he has a little bit of wiggle room. He can be placed on the injured list to start the season. But Song can’t stay there forever. Rule 5 stipulations dictate that he will have to spend at least 90 days on the Phillies’ active roster in 2023.
It might not be World War III, but it is a lot to throw at the 25-year-old.
What’s made the stakes even higher is that there is some intrigue surrounding Song. Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was in the Boston draft room when the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round in 2019. He said back then that he thought Song was a potential “top of the rotation-type pitcher” and/or “star major leaguer.”
The question now is whether Song can still become that version of himself. When he first arrived in camp, in late February, after the Navy approved his petition to transfer from active status to reserve status, he was trying to do too much, too soon, and getting frustrated when he inevitably struggled. Velocity was the biggest source of frustration. According to a report by the Boston Globe, Song was in the mid-to-high-90s range at short-A Lowell, with a four-pitch mix (curveball, slider, changeup and four-seam fastball).
Pitching coach Caleb Cotham has tried to remind him that trying to be the pitcher the Red Sox drafted in 2019 won’t help him much. It’s better to focus on himself in the present.
“Especially in the early stages, I was trying to put in too much effort and it was a little uncomfortable,” Song said. “Obviously, the ball is not going as hard or where you want it to go. That’s a frustration. If you aren’t feeling 100% one day, that’s a frustration.”
Since then, Song has worked smarter, not harder, in his bullpen sessions. A few weeks ago, Cotham noticed that Song was moving fast at the beginning of his windup.
“You can’t throw hard before you get to the release point,” he told his pupil. “You can’t throw hard before you’re actually throwing.”
Song smiled, because it reminded him of something he used to hear all the time from his baseball coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bobby Applegate.
“Deliver it all at the end,” Applegate would say. “Give 90% of the effort at the end.”
It’s one small example, but that’s what this camp has been about for Song. Relearning what works for him, and what doesn’t. Remembering how different grips feel, and how his pitches are shaped. Remembering that his curveball is slower and deeper, and that his slider is tight. This doesn’t just happen in bullpens. Sometimes Song will be in catch-play, and pieces of his 2019 self will resurface on certain throws.
“Oh, that’s the one,” he’ll think to himself. “I should be doing more of that.”
And he files those thoughts away for next time. It’s a process, and Song is still at the beginning of it. That’s part of the reason why he hasn’t peeked at the radar gun yet, and why the Phillies have been hesitant to divulge Song’s velocity numbers. The other part is that teams — presumably the Red Sox — are watching Song closely, to make sure that the Phillies aren’t trying to slow play what they’re going to do with him.
“Without going into specifics, [his velocity] is about where you’d think it would be,” Cotham said. “I would say when he’s throwing, it’s more about intent and feeling connected for me, than a velocity number. But he’s about where you’d think he would be. He’s still building. I’m not focused on velocity and neither is he. I think he just needs the time to get to where he needs to be. Is that 95 at some point? Is that 100 at some point? I don’t know. But I do like how he’s moving. It looks like a guy that — it’s in there.”
Cotham says it’s hard to get a sense of where Song is in his bullpens. He’ll know more once Song is able to throw to hitters. Song said his back will be re-evaluated Tuesday. Whenever he does to return to the field, the Phillies will start ramping up the intensity in his bullpens to “95% effort,” according to Cotham.
Then, they’ll throw higher-volume bullpens. Instead of 15 pitches, Song will throw 30 or so, to simulate an actual game. The next step after that will be facing live hitters. But despite the dearth of information, Cotham is still excited about what Song could bring to the Phillies. He says he sees a pitcher who is not overwhelmed by the moment, which Song credits to his experience in the Navy.
“When he came in, I was trying to put myself in his shoes, and I would be nervous, but he didn’t seem nervous,” Cotham said. “He went out and threw a lot of strikes the first time. It’s been impressive. It’s a credit to everything he’s experienced. I know I would have been more nervous than he would.
“If he was who he was when he was drafted, he would be one of the more electric pitchers in minor league baseball, and in the big leagues. The ability to throw what he was throwing then — there still aren’t that many guys that can do that. I think the ceiling is a really electric pitcher.
“But you can tell he’s a competitor. We’ve got to get the body right, get the workload right, and when the lights turn on we’ll see more of who he is.”
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