By Julian Guilarte
New York Yankees pitching prospect Hayden Wesneski attended Sam Houston State University and got drafted in the sixth round in the 2019 Draft. Wesneski still lives in Houston, and he has a great circuit of Minor League and Major League talent to train with down there. This past season, Wesneski rose through the Yankees’ system quickly, starting in High-A with the Hudson Valley Renegades and ending his season in Triple-A. He started 24 games and put together an impressive season. Wesneski pitched to a 3.25 ERA with 151 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings. Wesneski is the No. 8 prospect and the third-ranked pitching prospect in the Yankees’ farm system.
Wesneski is lucky to have a great training facility at Dynamic Sports Training in Houston with various Major Leaguers. Yankees relief pitcher Lucas Luetge and his teammate, catcher Josh Breaux, are some notable players there. Wesneski has topped out at 99 mph and throws a sinker, which was his bread and butter until lefties started to give him fits. They were taking the sinker the other way and pulling the slider. This forced him to develop a cutter, and it is now a very reliable pitch for him. He refers to it as his “get out of jail free card.” Wesneski’s biggest adjustment came at Double-A with the Somerset Patriots. He had to learn how to pitch and not just rely on his stuff. He didn't realize the difference in competition level until he showed up.
"Double-A Baseball is big boy baseball. There were growing pains,” Wesneski said.
He doesn't believe he pitched as well as the numbers would suggest. Wesneski had to refine his location and figure out how to approach hitters. He talked about setting hitters up and putting himself in the best position to succeed. He saw how hitters took pitches, and he couldn't figure out why they would continuously spit on certain pitches until he realized the hitters were taking them because they never looked like a strike. It took him around eight to nine starts in Double-A to adjust.
Wesneski also realized that pitch selection and location were critical in avoiding weak contact resulting in bloop singles, since the goal for most pitchers is to force weak contact in areas that produce outs. He used analytics to help in certain areas and explained how they are different for everyone.
"I use them differently than how Ken [Waldichuk] or Sean [Boyle] uses them. Some people are all in, some people don't even look at them, and I'm in the middle," Wesneski said.
He uses analytics to see if his pitches are doing what they should be, and as a reference to see how on or off he was in his outings. Wesneski does this by looking at the depth and movement of his pitches. Analytics weren’t used that much with Hudson Valley because pitchers were still in the early stages of development, but in Double-A, they became much more prominent.
Based on conversations he has had with other Minor Leaguers, Wesneski feels that the Yankees are among the best teams in using analytics to prepare pitchers for their starts. According to him, the Yankees give a nice map of what pitches will provide the highest percentage of success to each batter that a pitcher faces.
Going back to draft day in 2019, Wesneski didn't hear much about the Yankees before the draft. On the day of the draft, they called his agent. Wesneski freaked out with his dad when he heard his name called in the sixth round. It was one of the greatest moments of his life that he will never forget.
Wesneski thought it would be hard to move up in the system because of all of the talented prospects in the organization. His goal before the season was to make it to High-A and stick there.
"I love being a Yankee; I just didn't think it would happen like this,” Wesneski said.
Wesneski credits his college experience at Sam Houston for turning him into the man he is today because he grew up when he had to live on his own. He also credits his family, coaches, friends and mentors. Wesneski loves competition and team bonding, which were two of the main reasons he was so excited to return to camp and show everyone how much he improved during the offseason. He is making the most of his opportunity, and he turned heads at Spring Training.
I saw him pitch live during Spring Training in an intrasquad matchup in March. He pitched two live innings and struck out three batters. He got plenty of swings and misses and got two batters looking. He also got a crucial double play with the bases loaded. Wesneski turned heads with a wicked slider for a strikeout in the Yankees’ first Spring Training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was such a nasty pitch that it went viral, with the help of Pitching Ninja.
Last season, Wesneski got some experience in Triple-A. He observed how professional the setting was with guys like Adam Warren and Greg Allen, who have accumulated several years of big league service time. Those guys have seen the show, and they showed him how good those guys are up there. Wesneski's goal is to pitch so well that he will ultimately force the Yankees’ hand in calling him up. He wants to remain a starter, but he is also more than willing to come out of the bullpen to get the callup.
Wesneski loves bonding with the team and enjoys playing cards on the bus trips with the Latino players because they are fun and full of energy. Some of his off-the-field hobbies include board games, golfing and video games -- Wesneski enjoys any type of game.
He also has a special bond with his best friend and roommate Ken Waldichuk. Playing together in Hudson Valley was their first time in the New York area. They enjoyed exploring their surroundings, and they took hikes together on trails around the ballpark, Dutchess Stadium. They also enjoyed trying New York pizza and bagels for the first time. According to Waldichuk, Wesneski quickly started getting carried away with the bagels.
On the diamond, the two have frequently talked about how to attack hitters with their mental approach. On the mound, they have a contrasting motion. Wesneski has a sinking approach from the right side, and Waldichuk has a vertical approach from the left side. For Wesneski to take the next step this season, he must focus on nailing his routine between starts, which will help him stay consistent.
“The key is staying in the present, maintaining my health, mechanics and mind. I have a decent routine and want to make it a great routine," Wesneski said.
Waldichuk attended Saint Mary's College of California and was selected one round before his buddy Wesneski in 2019. Waldichuk's offseason home is in San Diego, and he enjoyed going to watch the San Diego Padres at Petco Park growing up. Waldichuk started last season in High-A, and he dominated with 30 2/3 scoreless innings and 55 strikeouts in seven starts. He skyrocketed to Double-A and continued to put up outstanding numbers. He finished the season with an ERA of 3.03 with 163 strikeouts in 110 innings. Waldichuk is the top-ranked pitcher in the Yankees’ Minor League system and is their No. 6 overall prospect.
Waldichuk has a heavy ball, and his stuff sneaks up on you quickly; his 94 is not the same as Wesneski's 94. Waldichuk's pitches are difficult to catch because of late movement, and he has a funky delivery that makes batters uncomfortable. His velocity has topped out at 97-98 mph, and this skill set is unique for a left-handed pitcher. His pitching makeup could very well make him successful for a long time.
Double-A was also the most difficult adjustment for Waldichuk. He had to start using his breaking pitches more and executing them better. He has been able to enhance his slider, and he's currently working on improving his slurve and changeup. Waldichuk was able to learn the cutter from former Yankees pitcher Vidal Nuño, who learned it from the great Mariano Rivera.
"It's one of the most difficult pitches to learn because it needs to be practiced consistently to maintain the perfect feel and execution. Of course, no one was better at it than Mariano,” Waldichuk said.
Julian Guilarte is a Yankees Major League and Minor League reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @JulianGuilarte1.