The making of Montes de Oca
It’s been a winding road of a career for Missouri pitcher Bryce Montes de Oca, and it’s just getting started.
May. 11, 2018
Often times in baseball, the most athletic person on the field is the shortstop.
It takes a great deal of skill to do what shortstops do. For example, keeping oneself under enough control to cut off a ground ball heading up the middle and, all while still on the move, making a clean, running throw to first base.
Oddly enough, that’s something Missouri starting pitcher Bryce Montes de Oca can execute perfectly. He’s had about a season’s worth of experience doing it.
When Patrick Hallmark, baseball coach at University of the Incarnate Word, showed up to Columbia in July 2016 as the new Missouri pitching coach, he had no idea what he was in store for.
“I had heard a lot about Bryce,” Hallmark said. “Coach Bieser [Missouri coach Steve Bieser] filled me in that we had a guy that was somewhat untapped and had some injuries in the past, hadn’t been on the mound a whole lot, so I just assumed he wasn’t a great athlete because of his size. But that assumption wasn’t correct. He’s a good athlete. So I just kind of said, ‘Hey, let’s play a lot of positions. Have fun with this and just don’t get so stressed out at 60 feet, six inches.’”
Hallmark had Montes de Oca take the field instead of the mound at practice to field ground balls from shortstop.
“I think some of the other guys on the team thought it was odd because Bryce is out there, 6-foot-7, 261 pounds playing shortstop with me, the pitching coach,” Hallmark said. “But he took to it. He played all over. Short, he played third, played second. I actually put him at catcher to make that throw.”
Hallmark said after Montes de Oca would take routine grounders and throw to first, he would field ground balls up the middle then work on turning double plays.
“Pretty soon you’re making a lot of throws with different arm paths and arm angles and you’re just gaining experience,” Hallmark said.
Montes de Oca’s journey through the ranks of college baseball has been similar to his old pitching coach’s methods: unorthodox.
From being the 19th-best right-handed high school pitcher in the nation to dominating summer leagues, from pinpointing command of a 100 mile an hour fastball to battling an injury bug since a young age, Montes de Oca has been down a winding road toward becoming a notable fixture in the Missouri pitching staff.
High school heat
Before he ever suited up for the Tigers, Montes de Oca played high school baseball in Lawrence, Kansas. Between his imposing frame and 90 mile per hour fastball, he quickly became one of the more notable high school prospects in the nation.
PerfectGame.org ranked him as the No. 56 recruit in America and the best high school prospect in the state of Kansas. The site also named him a high school All-American in both 2013 and 2014. From a young age, he captured the attention of one Missouri coach in particular.
“First time I saw him, we had a camp,” former Missouri skipper Tim Jamieson said. “A lot of our best prospects would come in. His warm up pitches weren’t even close to the plate and it was really, really firm, so my first view of him was: ‘He’s going to kill somebody.’ It really felt that way. And a batter got in the box and he carved that guy up, [like he was] a completely different guy.”
Jamieson said Montes de Oca was flying “a little under the radar” at the time of the camp, which was late in the summer before his junior season, as he was still recovering from an injury. Then in April of that junior season, Montes de Oca underwent Tommy John Surgery.
But at age 16, Montes de Oca decided to view the surgery in as positive a light as possible.
“You’ve just got to look at it more as an opportunity than a setback and use that time to focus on other things, which I did,” Montes de Oca said. “You can’t make it bigger than it is, can’t make it like, ‘Oh, I’m never going to come back.’ Everything always falls into place.”
He was back to full health within a year, able to pitch by the start of senior year.
“Even though his pitch counts were low coming off surgery, he still was very effective for us,” Brad Stoll, Montes de Oca’s Lawrence High coach, said. “He started off being able to go like 45 pitches, and then we’d add five to 10 per outing. His final outing, I think he was able to go about 80-85.”
The blend of size and high velocity was something that professional scouts also took to and watched closely.
“Pretty much every outing his senior year, there were anywhere from five to 20 [Major League scouts],” Stoll said. “There was a night we played Lee’s Summit West, who had Monte Harrison — the Brewers took him in the second round. There was 68 scouts at that game.”
Although Montes de Oca gave up four runs in the the second inning of that game, the spotlight shined on him when he struck out Harrison -- formerly a top-25 prospect, currently with the Miami Marlins AA affiliate Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
For Montes de Oca, all the surrounding buzz was new and exciting.
“For somebody in my situation who hadn’t really thrown a lot and had a lot of hype around him, there was just a lot of unknown at that time,” Montes de Oca said. “It was a really good time to just enjoy it all and see the whole picture.”
After his senior year, Montes de Oca was drafted in the 14th round by the Chicago White Sox. However, even after all of the hype amidst his rebound from surgery, Montes de Oca was considered a longshot to sign with the organization.
He opted for the college route; specifically, the University of Missouri. Playing college ball there was a decision Montes de Oca initially made his sophomore year of high school.
In fact, when the MLB’s deadline to sign a rookie contract passed the summer after he was drafted, he was already enrolled and taking classes at MU. Through all Montes de Oca’s ups and downs in high school, Jamieson’s impression of the young ace from that camp had stuck.
“His velocity was in the 90s, so I mean, it was kind of a no-brainer for us,” Jamieson said. “We just stuck with him because the surgery has such a good track record, but also the ceiling that Bryce had at that time was just incredible. For us, it was a risk worth taking.”
Missouri felt like the right place for Montes de Oca, more than anything, because of potential for future success.
“Early in my high school career schools would send stuff out, but even early on when I was hurt, Mizzou would still talk to me and I’d make sure I’d reach out to them and talk and keep my foot in the door,” Montes de Oca said. “Then I ended up coming here, and I saw the transition into the SEC and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Commanding the Cape
He grew up in northeastern Kansas and played the majority of his baseball in the Midwest up until college, but Montes de Oca’s most transformative summers of baseball took place not in the Great Plains, but on the southern edge of Cape Cod, just off Buzzards Bay in Falmouth, Massachusetts.
For two summers, Montes de Oca pitched for the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod League, an amateur baseball league which will be entering its 133rd season in 2018.
The Cape Cod League, sponsored by MLB, has had over 1,100 alumni play in the big leagues. That total is 306 since 1995, including Chase Utley, Ryan Braun, Jackie Bradley Jr., Sean Manaea and Kris Bryant.
“They were the best summers I’ve had in my life,” Montes de Oca said. “It’s a beautiful place and I got the privilege to play with a lot of my teammates. There wasn’t much more I could’ve asked for out of those summers. You see a lot of different things every single time you go out there and throw. It was a lot of learning, a lot of fun, a lot of great experiences. I wish I could go back.”
According to his Falmouth pitching coach Mike Landry, coaching a then-undeveloped Montes de Oca at Cape Cod was a lot less about the physical work of getting better and more a constant conversation between coach and player.
“My first impression [of Montes de Oca] was that this guy was a giant,” Landry said. “And then, getting to talk to him, he’s just very quiet and approachable. I would really call Bryce a student of the game because he’s always thinking and he’s so thoughtful and immersed in it. It made it very easy to coach him. He was constantly looking for new information.”
In Montes de Oca’s first season in Falmouth, he pitched 36.0 innings in seven starts for the Commodores, striking out 30 with an earned run average of 2.00 and an opponent batting average of .186.
“I don’t even know if there were necessarily specific things that we worked on, as much as it was just an ongoing conversation,” said Landry. “Bryce was such a cerebral player. He was always coming to me with questions and I’d honestly just do my best to answer the question. It was just an ongoing thing.”
Said Montes de Oca, “[Landry] just invested time, it’s that simple. I came in really, really raw and I was always eager to listen and find things out. I got more innings that summer than I’ve gotten in basically the last year and half.”
When the budding ace returned from the Cape, Tim Jamieson noticed a striking difference in one area.
The promotion of Montes de Oca as a big man with a bigger arm after high school fostered an understatement regarding one of the best tools in his arsenal: his brain.
“The culmination of talent, brains and quality person is the best I’ve ever seen of those three things,” Patrick Hallmark said. “I’ve coached other really talented guys, coached other really smart guys and I’ve coached a whole lot of quality individuals. Put all three of them together in one package and you get Bryce.
The Lawrence High School class of ‘14 valedictorian has always presented an intimidating figure on the mound, but his approach to the game of baseball is less about doing and more about thinking. Hallmark, who spent 15 total seasons at Rice University both as player and coach, said Montes de Oca is as smart as anyone he’s ever coached.
“At Rice, there were a lot of smart, highly intelligent individuals, so Bryce kind of fits that mold,” Hallmark said. “Frankly, he’s smarter than I am. As a coach, you’d better be able to explain what you’re after when you coach him. If you’re kind of worth your salt, you ought to be able to explain what you’re doing so the ballplayer can kind of see the big picture.”
Even with the “enjoyable challenge” of coaching Montes de Oca, Hallmark’s biggest difficulty wasn’t explaining his own thinking; it was urging Montes de Oca to think less. It was part of the reason Hallmark integrated such off-the-wall exercises to the pitcher’s practice routine.
“I was kind of skeptical at first,” Montes de Oca said, “but in the end I kind of figured it out. I’d just become a slow pitcher. Being athletic, getting some feel and just kind of tying everything together with my body, I think that was a huge key for me. Now it’s just kind of keeping all of that stuff and making it simpler and simpler. The work that Hallmark did put me on a really good path to success.”
His junior season, Montes de Oca finished the year 4-5 over 12 starts. In his 15 total appearances for Missouri, he tallied 61 strikeouts and an opponent batting average of .205. At that point in his career, 88.3 percent of Montes de Oca’s innings pitched came in that season alone. It was a testament to his determination in fighting off an injury prone past.
And now this season, Montes de Oca is on pace to finish the year with a career best in wins, strikeouts and opponents’ batting average.
“The big difference from this year to last year is just the mental approach to things and executing pitches and building,” Montes de Oca said. “Having a foundation for myself as a pitcher that I can always go back to when I may be struggling.”
Jamieson noted that, for all the roadblocks faced and pit stops taken, Montes de Oca’s success rate has been on an upward trend for a long time.
“He’s already proven so much,” Jamieson said. “He’s come so far in the time he’s been in the program, but there’s still room for improvement and that’s what’s cool about him. Here’s a guy that’s as big as he is, throwing as hard as he does and his best days are still ahead of him.”
Edited by Bennett Durando | firstname.lastname@example.org