Aussie Angel pitching prospect Aaron Sookee throws a heavenly slider destined for Anaheim

One of the most arm demanding pitches in baseball is the slider. The pitch is usually not taught to younger and underdeveloped pitchers unless their arms are physically ready to perfect the pitch. Unfortunately, the slider has caused more elbow injuries than all the other pitches combined. Having said that, when thrown correctly, the slider is one of the most devastating pitches out there. With a new found appreciation for this pitch and the pitchers who throw it, we turn our attention to an Angel pitching prospect that could possibly possess the best slider from his native Australia. Introducing 21-year-old Aaron Sookee

Six-foot-three LA Angel pitching prospect Aaron Sookee was as dominant as ever on the mound as a late-inning reliever for the Australian Baseball League’s Sydney Blue Sox.
The best pitchers in baseball use the slider to their advantage on the field, while their agents successfully utilize it in negotiations to ultimately determine their client’s fame and fortune. It is one of the four pitches that usually dictates a player’s ability to play at a professional level. The slider is very deceptive as the batter sees the ball as a fastball due to its speed and spin, but at the last moment the slider drops in front of home plate–unlike a curve ball which is detected by its spin or the pitching motion of the pitcher. A slider is thrown by grasping the ball with the index finger and middle finger not in the center of the ball, but off a bit to the right. Some of the most notable players to have made the slider one of the most difficult pitches to hit include: Hall of Famers Bob Lemon, Bob Gibson, Dennis Eckersley and Steve Carlton; legends Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Sparky Lyle; and pitchers Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, Zack Greinke, Johan Santana, Carlos Marmol, Ryan Dempster, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Joba Chamberlain, Ervin Santana, Aroldis Chapman, Jonny Venters, Daniel Bard and Craig Kimbrel.
Aaron Sookee promises to be an asset to the LA Angels.

Signed by Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim scout Grant Weir in 2009, Aaron Sookee knew early on that it was a match made in heaven when the Southern California team made an offer he could not refuse. The teenager pitcher had dreamed of playing professional baseball for the LA Angels, who had at the time been a favorite among Australian baseball fans because of the famed Aussie pitcher and former Angel/Blue Sox Rich Thompson.

2010 Blue Sox Trent Oeltjen and Rich Thompson

Working as a late-inning reliever for the Sydney Blue Sox this past ABL season, Sookee made his presence felt by averaging more than one strike out per inning, which is just about the same ratio of two-year Angel minor league campaign (61 strike outs in 59 innings). Heading into his third Angels Spring Training camp, Aaron appeared more confident and more determined than ever to break into Major League Baseball. The following interview took place in mid-March at the Angels Spring Training facility in Tempe, AZ.

Aaron Sookee will take the momentum from his strong Sydney Blue Sox campaign into 2012.
Roberto: What inspired you to dream of playing Major League Baseball as a kid in Australia?
Aaron Sookee: I guess growing up we didn’t get a lot of the major league games so you had to look to the local teams in the old ABL. I remember watching Gary White and Dave Nilsson, both catchers but really great players. And then more recently Chris Oxspring and Brad Thomas and just seeing how they go about their business to hopefully make me into a major league pitcher one day.
Roberto: When did the bidding war between MLB teams begin for your seven-year professional baseball contract?
Aaron Sookee: In January 2009 is when it began and a few teams, I think five or six from memory, were competing. But as soon as the Angels made a bid, I knew that I wanted to play for the Angels.
Roberto: Now with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson acquired during the offseason, do you think the Angels have the winning combination?
Aaron Sookee: Most definitely, you know what I mean. They should win close to 100 games this year with them two. It should be pretty exciting to watch.
Roberto: Has playing in the Angels farm system and in the Australian Baseball League during the offseason helped you develop into a confident pitcher?
Aaron Sookee: I have come a long way. I think that’s from playing everyday. There’s a different brand of baseball here because you do play everyday and you have to be ready to grind it out everyday. That’s the main difference between Australian baseball and American baseball.
Roberto: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
Aaron Sookee: I think the first plan or goal of mine is to make the long season team
in the Midwest League for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. Then step-by-step hopefully one day I get to play pro ball.
Roberto: While a member of the ABL’s Sydney Blue Sox, you were being mentored by former MLB pitching teammates Dae-Sung Koo (New York Mets), Chris Oxspring
(San Diego Padres) and Brad Thomas (Detroit Tigers). Was that inspirational to you?
Aaron Sookee: It definitely was…just watching how those guys go about their business.
It was an honour playing alongside them. I learned a lot from all three of them, even though that Koo didn’t speak much English. He can translate through baseball language I guess and then Thom-O and Ox really helped me grow this offseason.Roberto: Why did you choose to become a pitcher instead of another position?
Aaron Sookee: Because I couldn’t hit. That’s basically it…couldn’t hit! (Laughter)
Roberto: There’s hope thanks to the designated hitter.
Aaron Sookee: Yeah right, it came in for a reason. (Laughter)
Roberto: Your pitching arsenal has improved dramatically with the addition of a wicked
slider, which has successfully ended a lot of innings for you. When did you add that pitch
to your repertoire?
Aaron Sookee: (Laughter) It’s come a long way during the offseason…maybe the last calendar year. I’ve been working really hard on it. I just can’t wait to use it this season.
Roberto: With that pitch, are you the Australian version of the Italian slider expert Alessandro Maestri of the Brisbane Bandits?
Aaron Sookee: Yeah, I guess so (laughter). Maestri has carved Sydney a few times…
He’s a true professional in every aspect of the word. Roberto: Does it feel good when fans ask for your autograph?
Aaron Sookee: It’s very humbling to see that fans appreciate what you do and all the
hard work that you put in because it translates to performance on the field. Yeah, it’s good.
Roberto: Any advice for the youth back home that are considering playing baseball?
Aaron Sookee: Just stick with it. Every time you can throw a ball, throw it and don’t hold back. Don’t leave any stone left unturned and just go after it. Don’t be afraid to play.
That’s the main thing I think.
Roberto: Thanks for taking time out to talk today.
Aaron Sookee: Thank you. It’s been a honour. Thanks for having me.

All I want for Christmas is Aussie Baseball Love!!!

At mlbblogger–where the stadium lights are always on–we long for baseball to reach a worldwide audience. We are thankful for the blessings of an Aussie Baseball Christmas and wish for a prosperous 2012 in the Australian Baseball League (ABL). In the spirit of giving, we would like to share the current holiday season standings and our secret Santa for each team in the ABL.

Team: PERTH HEAT ABL Current Standing: 1st (18-6, .750) 2011 Defending Australian Baseball League Champions
AKA: The ‘Alcohol Think Again’ Perth Heat

Official Website
Official Mascots: HEAT Flash and Hot Dog
Home Field: Barbagallo Ballpark

Secret Santa: Tim Kennelly BA .341 (4th) HITS: 30 (4th)
RBI: 19 (4th) RUNS: 17 (4th) 2B: 6 (5th) OBP: .413 (6th)

Families celebrate the Christmas spirit in Western Australia's capital city of Perth.

Attending the Australian Baseball Academy at the young age of 16, Tim Kennelly was on display for a slew of MLB scouts–who were impressed with his Big League potential as a strategic catcher and skilled third baseman. While still a teenager, he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as a non-drafted free agent in 2003 out of Fremantle, Australia’s Christian Brothers College. In his first year for the Gulf Coast League Phillies in 2005, Kennelly hit .295 with an equally impressive .420 slugging percentage. After suffering a torn labrium in 2006, he missed an entire season. The six-foot Perth-born utility player came back strong in 2009, when he put together a .289 batting average and .433 slugging percentage in 113 games for Phillies affiliates Florida State League (FSL) Single-A Advanced Clearwater Threshers
and Eastern League Double-A Reading Phillies.

Retired MLB All-Star Pedro Martinez stretches with Tim Kennelly before rehab assignment game.
HEAT's Tim Kennelly (Theron Kirkman/SMP Images)

Named to the 2009 FSL Mid-Season and Post-Season All-Star teams, Kennelly soon rubbed shoulders with the baseball’s elite–including former MLB All-Star pitcher Pedro Martinez while calling games behind the plate. Spending seven seasons in the Philadelphia minor league system, he has posted a .263 batting average with 18 home runs and 210 RBI in 485 games. To the delight of friends and family, the Aussie native returned home to play for the Perth Heat in the reorganized MLB-sponsored Australian Baseball League in 2010.

Perth's Barbagallo Ballpark, home of the inaugural ConocoPhillips ABL All-Star Game and
the ABL Defending Champion Alcohol Think Again HEAT (Theron Kirkman/SMP Images/ABL)

After leading his team to the 2011 ABL Championship, Tim Kennelly flew 11,641 miles and spent 24 hours in the air before touching down in Lakewood, New Jersey–home of the Phillies affiliate South Atlantic League Single-A Lakewood BlueClaws. As the BlueClaws primary catcher and outfielder, he compiled a respectable .293 batting average with one home run and 20 RBIs in 39 games.

Perth Heat slugger Tim Kennelly on Team Australia in the 2011 ABL All-Star Game (Theron Kirkman)

In fact, the resourceful utility man has played every position but shortstop in his baseball career. Having returned from Taiwan where he played in the 2011 Asia Series against the best from the Chinese Professional Baseball League, Korea Baseball Organization and Japan’s Nippon Baseball League, the Heat’s Tim Kennelly is having a smashing time during the current 2011-12 ABL season. He will undoubtedly compete for the ABL MVP title down the stretch. Since filing for free agency, the talented and multi-faceted Australian renaissance man remains a solid bet to rejoin the Philadelphia Phillies–considering his fine catching ability and familiarity with the world-class organization’s up-and-coming pitching prospects due to arrive at the Double-A level in 2012.

Adelaide Christmas cheer

ABL Current Standing: 2nd (14-10, .583) Games Behind: 4

AKA: Adelaide ETSA Bite

Official Website

Official Mascot: Chomper

Home Field: Coopers Stadium at Norwood Oval

Top ranked Seattle Mariners prospect James Jones is projected to make his MLB debut at Safeco in 2013.

Secret Santa: James Jones
HR 3 (5th) RUNS 15 (6th)
SB 3 (6th) 2B 4 (7th) HITS 24 (10th)
OBP .380 (10th) RBI 11 (11th)
BA .279 (16th) SLG .430 (16th)

Prior to the start of his 2009 college season at Long Island University, Baseball American ranked James Jones #30 in its Top 100 Prospects. He was later selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 4th round of the 2009 amateur draft as an outfielder.

The Adelaide Bite's James Jones has all the tools to succeed in the Bigs. (Ben Southill/SMP Images/ABL)

While in college, he was respected as an excellent defensive outfielder and a strong pitcher who could hit 95 on radar guns with his fastball. In July of 2009, the six-foot-four left-handed hitter headed to the Pacific Northwest to join Mariners affiliate Northwest League Single-A short season Everett AquaSox and played in 45 games. His quick bat and speed on the bases were evident as demonstrated by his .311 batting average with three homers, 12 doubles, three triples, 24 RBIs, 28 runs scored and 19 walks.

A speedy James Jones on the bases is a pitcher's worst nightmare. (Ryan Schembri/SMP Media/ABL)

James Jones helped the Single-A Clinton LumberKings become 2010 West Division Champs in the Midwest League and a strong contender in the 11 game playoffs–where he led in batting average (.356), hits (16), home runs (3), and stolen bases (9). Last season Jones played with the current ABL batting leader, Adelaide teammate Denny Almonte, as well as Perth Heat’s James McOwen while with the Single-A High Desert Mavericks. Rated by Baseball America as the best outfield arm among Mariner prospects and heralded as an excellent athlete–who is fast and strong with good Big League composure in regards to personality, intelligence, and work ethic– Jones has gap-to-gap power, the ability to track down balls in the outfield and blazing speed on the base paths. James Jones has not wasted a moment in making believers of those following his progress in the Australian Baseball League. On December 11th with Adelaide Bite trailing Canberra Cavalry by one-run heading into the top of the eighth, the 23-year-old slugger blasted a grand slam for a heroic come-from-behind rally to victory.

Christmas in the South Wales capital city of Sydney

ABL Current Standing: 3rd
(13-12, .520) Games Behind 5.5

Official Website

Un-Official Team Blogger:
Todd Van Steensel

Official Mascot: Syd

Home Field: Blue Sox Stadium, Blacktown International Sportspark

Aussie Chris Oxspring and Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland during Spring Training.

Secret Santa: Chris Oxspring
Win-Loss Record: 2-2 (3rd) ERA 2.00 (5th)
Strike Outs 28 (5th) WHIP 1.19 (9th)

After pitching the Australian National Team to a 1-0 victory over Japan in a semifinal game at the 2004 Athens Games and assuring his country’s first Olympic silver medal in Aussie baseball history, Chris Oxspring was hailed a national hero. With Major League veteran catcher Dave Nilsson calling the game behind the plate, Oxspring pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings against Japan. By striking out five and issuing no walks, he catapulted Australia into the gold medal game against Cuba. However, being the pride and joy for Australia was not enough for this professional ballplayer with real life MLB experience with the San Diego Padres as well as four seasons under his belt at the Triple-A level playing for the Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers organizations. Oxspring began the 2011 season with Detroit affiliate Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. In 20.2 innings pitched, he struck out 20 batters in 20.2 innings pitched. Rather than competing for regular playing time, Oxspring opted to make 18 starts for the Independent Atlantic League Somerset Patriots. In 115.2 innings of work, he struck out 114 batters with a 4.17 ERA.

Blue Sox pitcher Chris Oxspring will not settle for anything less than the best. (Joe Vella/SMP Images)

Oxspring has a career 40-24 record with a 3.66 ERA and 612 strikeouts in 638.2 innings pitched. Equipped with a mid-90’s fastball, a knee-buckling curve ball, a cutter/slider and change-up, this right-handed hurler can decimate hitters. After pitching stints for Japan’s Nippon Baseball League Hanshin Tigers and Korea Baseball Organization’s LG Twins, Oxspring had to take two seasons off for an elbow injury. Now in his second season for the ABL’s Sydney Blue Sox, the power arm of Chris Oxspring is in full effect.

Christmas season in Canberra

ABL Current Standing: 4th
(10-15, .400) Games Behind 8.5

AKA Canberra UberGlobal Cavalry

Official Website

Official Mascot: Sarge

Home Field: Narrabundah Ballpark

Cavs Takumi Akiyama has returned to Japan due to player union rules. (Jen Edwards/SMP Images/ABL)

Secret Santa: Takumi Akiyama
Win-Loss Record: 1-0 (1st) ERA 1.23 (1st)
WHIP 1.05 (3rd) Strike Outs 16 (15th)

A fourth-round pick by Japan’s Hanshin Tigers in 2009, Takumi Akiyama may be the best-hitting pitcher in Asia. During his high school campaign, he knocked out 48 home runs. Making his Nippon Baseball League debut in 2010, he held opponents to a .228 batting average in seven starts and put together a 4-4 record with a 3.35 ERA. His mid-90’s fastball, curveball, slider and forkball were all effective pitches in the ABL. Due to Japanese player union rules, Akiyama had to return home to rest before the beginning of the 2012 season. However, Cavs fans need not fret as Santa has left two stocking stuffers from the Tampa Bay Rays organization: Baseball America’s Top Defensive Outfielder Rays prospect–Kevin Kiermaier and catcher Mark Thomas, who led the Charlotte Stone Crabs with 13 home runs.

Melbourne magic during Christmas time

ABL Current Standing: 4th
(10-15, .400) Games Behind 8.5

AKA The Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces

Official Website

Un-Official Team Blogger: Jason Hirsh

Official Mascot: Maverick The Mascot!

Home Field: Melbourne Showgrounds

Secret Santa:
Justin Huber
BB 19 (1st) OBP .468 (1st)
RUNS 19 (2nd) OPS .974 (3rd)
BA .333 (5th) HITS 29 (5th)
2B 6 (5th) HR 3 (5th) SLG .506 (6th)
SB 2 (7th) RBI 12 (10th)

Melbourne's Justin Huber was converted from a catcher to a first baseman due to a knee injury.
(Ryan Schembri / SMP Images / ABL)

Signed in 2000 by the New York Mets as a catcher, 18-year-old Aussie high school student Justin Huber still had another six months before he would graduate. In his first professional season, he blasted seven home runs and drove in 31 runs while boasting a .287 batting average. Racking up an impressive .399 OBP in 2002, he ascended up the Mets ranks by crushing 14 home runs and driving in 93 runs. In his first two pro seasons while facing the Mets top pitching prospects, the 20-year-old catcher hit 21 home runs and recorded 124 RBI.

Justin Huber went 3-for-5 in the inaugural 2011 ABL All-Star Game (Theron Kirkman)

The six-foot-five catcher became Mike Piazza’s protegé and looked to be a MLB shoe-in. However, in the summer of 2004 Huber would undergo surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee and his future as a catcher was over. He was traded to the Kansas City Royals organization in exchange for home run king, Jose Bautista. In 2005 the Royals converted Huber to a first baseman, and he responded with career bests 23 home runs, 97 RBI, a .326 batting average and a .417 OBP. He was named to the 2005 MLB Futures Game with the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano and B.J. Upton. Playing for the World team, Huber’s two-run double lead to a 4-0 victory over U.S.A., and he was awarded the game’s prestigious MVP honors. He has since played in 72 Major League games for the Royals, Padres and Twins.

Bright Brisbane Christmas

ABL Current Standing: 5th
(9-16, .360) Games Behind 9.5

Official Website

Official Video: Brisbane Bandits Baseball “They’re Back”

Official Mascot: Buster the Bandit

Home Field: RNA Showgrounds

2011 Team Australia All-Star Joshua Roberts went 2-for-4 with a home run in the ABL All-Star Game.
(Ben Southall / SMP Images / ABL)

Secret Santa:
Joshua Roberts
2B 9 (2nd) 3B 1 (2nd) HITS 31 (3rd)
OPS .974 (3rd) HR 3 (5th) RBI 17 (5th)
SLG .495 (7th) RUNS 13 (8th) BA .301 (11th)

As the RBI leader in ABL last year, Brisbane Bandit right fielder Joshua Roberts earned the team’s MVP honors. On par to have an equally impressive finish this season after a brilliant performance for Team Australia in the inaugural 2011 ABL All-Star Game, Roberts is certainly one of Australia’s finest athletes–splitting time between baseball’s Brisbane Bandits and rugby’s Ipswich Jets. Roberts probably recorded one of the best jumping catches in ABL history when he literally ran through the fence to rob a home run during a game against Adelaide. Signed by the Cleveland Indians to play professional baseball at 18, Roberts never made it to the Major Leagues in his 117 games for the Tribe from 2004-06. Yet, the 25-year-old’s athleticism and desire to play tough should not be discounted. Look for him to make a big Brisbane Bandit push down to the wire with his “never say die” attitude.

Big Dog Hayden Beard: 2011 Cal League Champ Storm Pitcher herds Canberra Cavalry to Victory

Known affectionately by his teammates and coaches as “the Big Dog”, the Australia native Hayden Beard can be a beast to hit against when pitching on the mound. Just ask the recently crowned 2011 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals Shortstop Rafael Furcal, who whiffed and became yet another strike out victim to the twenty-six-year-old right-handed flamethrower in a minor league rehab assignment game. Out of professional baseball for nearly three years, San Diego Padres prospect Hayden Beard is digging ‘Down Under’ in the ABL.

2011 California League Champion Lake Elsinore Storm reliever Hayden Beard

Pitching out of the bullpen as a late inning reliever for the California League Lake Elsinore Storm–a Single-A Advanced minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres–during the past two seasons, Beard appeared in a total of 61 games and averaged more than one strikeout per inning. Already surpassing his strikeout totals as a reliever in last year’s inaugural season for the reorganized Australian Baseball League (ABL), the Canberra-born player was relent-less to Melbourne Aces batters in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader at home field Narrabundah Ballpark. Assuming a new role in the starting rotation, the feisty pitcher surrendered just two hits in seven scoreless innings and struck out seven to get his first victory for the 2011-12 Canberra Cavalry season.

Canberra's Hayden Beard and Steve Kent

Signed over six years ago with the New York Mets out of the Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program, the six-foot-one Beard was recently selected to represent Team Australia as the closer in the 2011 World Cup competition alongside Cavalry lefty pitching teammate Steve Kent–who had been working his way to the Bigs through an endless myriad of hoops and hurdles as an Atlanta Braves minor leaguer for the past six seasons until recently–and fellow Aussie pitcher Chris Oxspring–who signed with the Padres in 2000, pitched for the 2001-02 Lake Elsinore Storm, received a Silver Medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, made his MLB debut for San Diego in 2005 and was voted as 2010-11 ABL Pitcher of the Year runner-up throwing for the Sydney Blue Sox.

All paths lead to Big Dog Hayden Beard's future home at San Diego's legendary PETCO Park

After a three-year hiatus due to injuries in his pitching career, “the Big Dog” Hayden Beard is following the scent of Major League Baseball leading to San Diego’s legendary PETCO Park. With Australian twenty-three-year-old Josh Spence making his successful pitching MLB debut for the Padres this past season (3-1, 1.71 ERA), the impetus for San Diego to have two Aussie imports concurrently on the same roster to equal the Minnesota Twins current record with Luke Hughes and Liam Hendriks is now more compelling than ever. It won’t be long before “Big Dog” pitcher Hayden Beard joins the ranks of baseball’s elite in a Padres uniform as the path across the Pacific to America’s Finest City has never been clearer.