At first glance, Blane Abeyta fits the mold of a pitcher. It could be his 6-foot-3-inch frame, or his velocity-packed fastball, or how he points to the sky before each appearance.
From every angle on the diamond, Abeyta looks comfortable as soon as he digs his cleats into the dirt.
That wasn’t always the case. It took years of hard work and dedication for Abeyta to truly shine on the mound. He found a love for catching at 9 years old and saw himself behind the plate in the major leagues.
For Abeyta to achieve his life goal, it took some convincing from fellow coaches throughout his career to realize his potential.
“I never envisioned becoming a pitcher in my life,” he said. “I always hated it. I played outfield in Little League. I ended up moving to catcher and I loved it. I didn’t fully commit to pitching and didn’t take it seriously for a very long time. I needed some convincing from others along the way.”
The opportunity of playing in the big leagues has arrived, but not how Abeyta envisioned it. After three years of experimenting at both positions as a two-way prospect, he put down the catcher’s mask for good to commit to pitching.
His decision paid off. Abeyta signed with the New York Yankees as an undrafted free agent on June 19 and has a chance to rise up the minor league ranks.
Abeyta battled through the obstacles of high school, junior college and Division I college baseball. His journey is full of perseverance, sacrifice and dedication toward his craft. He came away from it all with a valuable lesson.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from or how big or small you are,” he said. “You can work hard and get to where you want to be in order to succeed.”
Two-way development at Ceres High School
Abeyta attended Ceres High School, a traditional public school just four miles away from his hometown of Modesto, Calif. His two-way potential at the plate and on the mound was on full display in two seasons.
In his junior season, Abeyta primarily stuck behind the plate and let his bat speak for itself. He hit .286 with one home run, seven doubles and 26 RBIs in 93 plate appearances.
Along with his offensive prominence at catcher, Abeyta’s arm strength caught the attention of head coach Clinton Goblirsch. He was eager to see if Abeyta could develop as a pitcher.
“He was a talented kid. Simple as that,” Goblirsch said. “The ability behind the plate was there with his arm strength and hit tool. We wanted to try him out as a pitcher, and we slowly groomed him into getting comfortable at both positions.”
Abeyta appeared in just three games as a pitcher that same season, sporting a 2.33 ERA with three strikeouts in three innings. The small sample size marked the beginning of his ability to impact the game at both positions.
“Going from a catcher to a pitcher can be a transition,” Goblirsch said. “We knew he had the arm for it, and his mentality gave him that edge on the mound. So, we wanted to try and see how it goes and it ended up working out.”
Abeyta had a league-best .354 batting average to go along with four home runs, 10 doubles and 38 RBIs. He was named first-team All-League and won Most Valuable Player his senior year, but his dominance on the mound caught the eyes of local scouts and junior colleges.
The right-hander showcased his talent in what he describes as his most memorable high school moment. Ceres faced rival high school Central Valley on senior night. Goblirsch gave Abeyta the starting nod the day of the game.
“I’ll always remember him asking how my arm was feeling,” Abeyta said. “I walked by his office and he told me I had the start that night. … From that moment on during school I had my headphones in to get into the zone. Nobody talked to me, I didn’t even acknowledge anybody.”
Abeyta pitched a gem to help the Bulldogs seal a 4-0 victory over the Hawks. He surrendered one hit and struck out 13 batters in 5.2 innings. At the plate, he went 1-for-3 with an RBI double.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played that well in my life,” he said. “It was just a special moment to do it against that team at that stage.”
By the end of his senior season, Abeyta had a 4-0 record and 3.84 ERA in six starts and nine total appearances. His two-way potential generated buzz around the area, which translated to the next chapter of his career.
“I wanted him to pitch more for us heading into his senior year and he really showed out,” Goblirsch said. “It didn’t matter where he was position-wise because he’s just a ball player. Wherever he was, I was confident he could get the job done.”
Resilience at Modesto Junior College
Abeyta’s raw ability was quite captivating to Zeb Brayton, head baseball coach at Modesto Junior College. But there was plenty of improvement needed in order to maximize Abeyta’s full potential.
Brayton heavily recruited Abeyta out of high school. His fastball was reaching the high-80s with limited practice, but he struggled with his command.
From the moment Brayton saw Abeyta on the mound, he knew he stumbled upon a special talent.
“I saw him pitch his senior year in high school and he was every bit of the high-80s,” Brayton said. “He was just all over the place and was up there throwing his arm out. So, we had the feeling he was something special from that moment on.”
Abeyta joined Modesto Junior College in the fall of 2017. His freshman season was full of obstacles as a catcher. He batted just .200 with two hits in 10 at-bats and couldn’t find any rhythm at the plate.
Searching for a remedy, Abeyta spent countless hours tinkering with his swing. The thought of switching to pitching full-time didn’t occur to him as he continued to fulfill his childhood dream of catching.
“I struggled with the hitting aspect and kept putting in those hours at the cage,” he said. “I didn’t think much about pitching until coaches and scouts really wanted to see me on the mound. I still wanted to stay at catcher more than anything.”
Brayton noticed Abeyta’s offensive struggles and sent him to a bullpen session. Once again, Abeyta flashed his effective fastball and two quality off-speed pitches in a slider and curveball. It opened everyone’s eyes on the coaching staff.
“When we put him on the mound during that session, we just said ‘wow,’” Brayton said. We knew we were gonna develop him as a two-way talent that can keep growing.”
By the end of his freshman year, Abeyta transitioned to the Pirates’ closer. His fastball velocity ticked up to the low-90s and he finished the season with a 1.62 ERA and five saves in 16.2 innings pitched.
Heading into his sophomore year, Abeyta wanted to build upon his two-way ability. That idea came to an end during a meeting with coach Brayton before the season. To establish himself as a potential big leaguer, Brayton convinced the young flame-thrower to stick to pitching.
“He had been adamant about catching and wanting to still hit and pitch. But I let him know that his future was on the mound,” Brayton said. “There was some resistance at first, but we agreed and it worked out for the best.”
Abeyta’s dream of catching came to an abrupt ending, but he entered the new year with a fresh perspective.
“That moment I knew he believed in me,” Abeyta said. “We’ve been through a lot together on and off the field. … He still let me catch and hit my freshman year, but that conversation made me realize my future was pitching.”
Injuries thrusted Abeyta to the starting rotation during the early portion of the 2018-19 season. As a full-time pitcher, he was a dominant force for Modesto. He had a 5-4 record with 60 strikeouts in 10 starts and 65.1 innings.
His fastball was reaching 93 mph throughout the year, and his off-speed pitches proved to be effective offerings against opposing batters. Brayton still remembers Abeyta touching 94 mph by the eighth inning of his final start.
“The velocity just kept increasing and we kept finding ways to get him on the mound more,” Brayton said. “It was going to be tough to figure out which position was best for him, but we quickly found out he had a special arm.”
In just one season of full preparation, Abeyta was a proven commodity on the hill. It helped set the stage for a change of scenery heading into his junior year.
Successful season at Nevada
Abeyta broke away from his local roots and signed with Nevada for his junior season. With two years as a junior college prospect, Division I college baseball offered new challenges for Abeyta’s future.
“That was the first time I felt a bit scared pitching on the mound,” he said. “This wasn’t JUCO anymore, it’s Division I level baseball. These hitters were gonna be very good. I felt intimidated by the whole thing.”
The right-hander settled into a closer role with the Wolf Pack. He struck out the first batter he faced in his first appearance against Portland on Feb. 16. Abeyta got his first taste of Division I competition during his next two outings against Oregon.
Abeyta surrendered three earned runs with three walks in 1.2 innings. The Ducks swept the Wolf Pack in three games, which gave him time to reflect on his performance on the bus ride back to Reno, Nev.
“I knew I had to pick myself up and keep working,” he said. “That’s all I could do at that moment, looking back would’ve been a huge mistake.”
Following his struggles, Abeyta didn’t give up a single run over his next four outings. He earned his first two career saves with the Wolf Pack against California Baptist on March 6-7, securing their first two wins of the season.
As things were looking up, Nevada’s season was canceled after 14 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Abeyta’s impressive progress was suddenly taken away.
“It was tough to see it end soon, but I wanted to establish my name there and play at that level,” he said. “I knew I had what it takes to compete and it was a great experience.”
Despite the shortened season, Abeyta’s repertoire garnered the attention of the New York Yankees. He has a chance to accomplish his lifelong goal, but he must prove himself in the minor leagues.
Future in pinstripes
As Major League Baseball gears for a potential return, Abeyta’s moment to suit up for one of the New York Yankees minor-league affiliates will have to wait until next season.
Minor League Baseball officially canceled its season June 30, leaving hundreds of prospects without a chance to play professional baseball for their respective organization. Abeyta was originally scheduled to play for the Tampa Bay Tarpons, Single-A Advanced affiliate for the Yankees.
Despite the cancellation, Abeyta still reflects on the moment of joining a major league organization.
“It was crazy in my mind to think something like that could happen,” he said. “It still doesn’t feel real. … I’m ready to compete and can’t wait to get started.”
In order to make it to the big leagues, Abeyta must advance through the Yankees’ minor league farm system. The minors are broken down into six classes, from Rookie to Triple-A.
The journey isn’t easy, and it takes years of development and improvement to advance through each minor league level. Luckily for Abeyta, he has the faith of his fellow coaches at his side.
Coach Goblirsch noticed Abeyta’s bright potential on the mound as a junior in high school. He is confident Abeyta can keep adding to his skillset at the next level.
“He’s really putting it together,” Goblirsch said. “In terms of his competitiveness, he’ll keep working to improve to get to the big leagues. He’s got the potential to take his talent wherever it takes him.”
Coach Brayton told Abeyta that his future was best suited as a pitcher, not a catcher. That decision to commit to pitching has earned him a golden opportunity.
“He has what it takes to make it at that level,” Brayton said. “Blane can develop and work his way through whatever his future holds. He’s got a chance to go through the system, and I have all the faith in him.”
Abeyta is on the brink of his childhood dream. There is room for growth that can develop in New York’s farm system; he began pitching full-time just a year and a half ago. His fastball has plenty of velocity and there’s untapped potential in his two off-speed pitches.
Whether it is starting or coming out of the bullpen, Abeyta wants an opportunity to showcase his ability. From what his former coaches witnessed over the years, he will make the most of every opportunity.
“I just want the ball whether it’s starting or relieving,” he said. “As long as I can play and show myself, I know I can pitch at this level.”
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.