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New pitcher Maldonado showing improvement in 1st pro season

Omar Maldonado was sitting in orientation for student-athletes last August at Cal-State Los Angeles when the Philadelphia Phillies called him. He was all-in on attending school to finish his Master’s Degree and playing one final season of college baseball, but the Phillies had other plans.

Maldonado had touched 97 mph at the Northwoods League’s Major League Dreams Showcase a couple weeks prior and it was enough to get the attention of a couple teams. The Phillies were the ones, though, who came through with an offer to play pro ball and Maldonado jumped at it.

The former college catcher had only began pitching full time last spring, and his numbers, other than that 97 mph fastball, weren’t exactly eye-popping in a good way. He had wanted to finish his college career as a catcher, a defensive-minded one who was an inconsistent hitter, at best.

His coach at Graceland University in Iowa had different ideas. He thought there was a future in pro baseball for Maldonado as a pitcher. The Phillies proved him right.

Maldonado made his professional debut for the Williamsport Crosscutters in the first game of a doubleheader Monday against West Virginia. In two innings, he allowed just one hit and struck out three.

“It felt really cool. I never thought I’d get here,” Maldonado said Tuesday. “I never thought I’d made a professional team or would have a professional team look at me.”

Maldonado is basically a blank slate as a pitcher. He’s raw talent which needs to be molded into a professional pitcher, but the product he’s turned into in his first professional season is already a pretty solid return.

Pitching in the Northwoods League last summer, Maldonado more than 14 batters per nine innings (36 Ks in 23 IP), but he also walked 16.8 batters per nine innings (43 in 23 IP). His work so far this year with pitching coach Hector Berrios has been about completely rebuilding his delivery to put him in position to reach the kind of velocity he did in last year’s showcase event.

In his outing Monday, Maldonado was largely 89-91 mph with his fastball. But more importantly, he threw 21 of his 32 pitches (65.6%) for strikes. That’s where his concern is at this point. He understands as he and Berrios continue to build his mechanics and fine-tune his delivery that velocity increases will come.

But after walking the world during summer ball last year which was preceded by averaging a walk an inning during the college season, walked just one over two innings Monday was a step forward. It hasn’t been that long Maldonado has focused on pitching. He was a glove-first catcher who averaged between 1.85 and 1.95 seconds on his pop times to second base. He had messed around with pitching previously in his life, but nothing competitively like he had in college.

“This coaching staff really believes in command over velocity and I am totally OK with that,” Maldonado said. “Obviously, the 97 looks great. But getting in that zone and trying to dominate hitters every day looks better.”

Maldonado may as well be the posterboy for this Cutters pitching staff. Luis Cedeno has been the team’s hardest thrower through the first five games, averaging 93-94 mph with his fastball. But despite a staff without overpowering stuff, Williamsport is still fourth in the New York-Penn League in ERA (2.36), tied for second in fewest walks allowed (10), fourth in lowest opponent batting average (.177), and tied for third in strikeouts (50).

Maldonado has taken the philosophy of attacking the zone with quality strikes to heart. And even though he’s been a full-time pitcher for just over a year, he looks as comfortable and as natural as can be on the mound. The 23-year-old from Redondo Beach, California, understands his time to figure everything out is limited because he is the second-oldest player on the roster and more than a year older than the average player in the NYPL.

But he’s not rushing anything. He’s taking his time and focusing on everything Berrios is teaching him about building his delivery from the ground up. He never even thought he’d have an opportunity like this, so now that he does, Maldonado is soaking in everything he can to hopefully put together more outings like Monday’s.

“(Monday) I wasn’t even trying to throw hard. I was trying to attack hitters,” Maldonado said. “Hector always says I have velocity in the background, but velocity will come once I become more comfortable with my delivery. I have to put my head down and work because every day is a new day. I just have to go out and attack hitters and attack the day.”

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