Nationals’ Evan Lee making progress as a starting pitcher


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Evan Lee felt his best shot at making the majors was as a pitcher. So when he went into pre-draft meetings with teams ahead of the 2018 MLB draft, that’s exactly what he told teams.

The only problem was that he didn’t have much pitching experience.

Lee was a raw, two-way prospect out of the University of Arkansas who had thrown only 33 innings at the college level — he had made just two starts and primarily faced left-handed batters. He also played outfield.

His versatility earned him looks at both spots, yet Washington Nationals scouts saw untapped potential as a pitcher. They drafted him in the 15th round, and Lee initially struggled.

“I can remember just being very, very wild,” Lee said. “Just not being able to repeat many things and not having the smoothest of deliveries by any means. So to go through the years, developing and just striving to get better, and having the leadership to be able to bounce ideas and things off of was huge. I’m a testament to the Nationals’ development.”

He made massive strides, particularly in 2021, and the Nationals valued him enough to place him on the 40-man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft. Lee made his major league debut Wednesday against the New York Mets after just 30 minor league starts.

“It’s a testament [to] all the collective work from the pitching coaches, the [pitching] coordinators, the strength coaches,” Mark Scialabba, assistant general manager of player personnel, said. “Some of our [research and development] guys who really dig into the numbers and show where we can maximize his ability as well.”

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When Lee was a freshman, his coaches debated where to play him. Wes Johnson, the Razorbacks’ pitching coach at the time, had been following Lee’s baseball journey since Lee was 13 years old, and he saw him play at a camp while he was a coach at the University of Central Arkansas. He’s now the pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins.

“When you first saw him, you’re like, ‘Okay, he can run, he can throw, he can hit, he can hit for power,’” Johnson said. “Your very first thought is: You didn’t know which way to go with him. Didn’t know which one he was going to be better at. But time kind of played that out.”

Arkansas’ 2018 roster was loaded with talent — it included current prospects Jackson Rutledge and Matt Cronin. But Nationals scouts saw Lee and identified his fastball and curveball as pitches that could become great down the line.

During his first year of pro ball, Lee said, “I had to accept failure, and I accepted it a lot.” The coronavirus pandemic shut down the season in 2020, so many minor league players lost a year of crucial development. But for Lee, that offseason was a turning point.

He had a checklist of tweaks for his delivery after watching slow motion video with the player development staff. He wanted to eliminate reaching his glove too far out in front of him, which would pull his front off to his glove side. He also wasn’t staying on his back side enough either, causing his pitches to miss high in the zone. He sent videos of his progress to Scialabba to get feedback during the shutdown.

“[I] was able to have time to really work on it and to get better at those things without repercussions, without a hitter in the box so you could work on those things and, failure or success, you were able to test things out,” Lee said. “Coming out of the pandemic, I was a completely different pitcher and those months in a time where there wasn’t baseball gave me the opportunity to catch up on things that I was lacking in.”

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Still, nothing can make up for live baseball. And Lee struggled early in 2021 when got to High-A Wilmington. There, he worked with pitching coach Justin Lord — now Class AA Harrisburg’s coach — and strength coach Shane Hill.

“Evan is a really strong guy,” Lord said. “And it was more of refining his delivery to get his strength to work the best for him within his delivery … sometimes less is more with guys, especially guys that are strong.”

Lord wanted Lee to attack the strike zone so he stressed keeping Lee’s head still so that he’d stay in line with the plate. He also worked with Lee on landing firmly on his front leg to generate more rotation toward the plate.

Those delivery changes — coupled with his ability to control his emotions and make adjustments on the mound — helped Lee flip a switch. Lord said it took time for Lee to learn how to refocus when he make mistakes, but said he’d never seen him look as calm as he did for his major league debut.

“If you don’t learn that principle and then you get to the big leagues and you’re in front of 30,000 fans … that’s when you start becoming somebody you’re not,” Lord said about staying composed. “It’s very hard to control that situation then with your thoughts if you haven’t implemented that at a lower level.”

So what’s next in his development? His coaches and those in player development say he needs to work on commanding his fastball. He also has two more pitches — a cutter and a change-up — that the team believes could give him a stronger arsenal.

“Because of his athleticism, because of the work ethic that he has, his aptitude, he made strides year after year,” Scialabba said. “I still think that he’s got much more in the tank still with his development, and we haven’t come close yet to the ceiling for him.”


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