By JAY LeBLANC
September 1, 2008
Ever since his high school days in Illinois, New York Yankees pitching prospect George Kontos has impressed scouts with his live arm and good stuff and shown flashes of brilliance. The 6’ 3”, 215-pound righty was chosen as the top high school baseball player in Illinois in 2003 and earned Baseball America Short-Season All-Star honors by going 7-3 with a 2.64 ERA and 82 K’s in 78 innings for the New York-Penn League‘s Staten Island Yankees immediately after the Bronx Bombers selected him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft.
However, command issues have long prevented Kontos from achieving consistency in his results and reaching his full potential. In spite of his obvious talent, Kontos never won more than five games or posted a sub-5.00 ERA in any of his three seasons at Northwestern University, and he took a step backward in 2007 after his impressive 2006 debut, going 4-6 with a 4.02 ERA in 19 starts with the advanced Class A Tampa Yankees. Kontos’ down year also included two months on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and an arrest for trespassing and obstruction following an April incident at a Tampa bar.
That said, 2008 was an important year for Kontos - who entered the season ranked by Baseball America as the No. 17 prospect in the Yankees organization - and the 23-year-old responded. Though he has just a 6-11 record to show for it, Kontos has made great strides this season with the double-A Trenton Thunder. He hasn’t missed a single turn in the rotation and currently ranks second in the Eastern League in strikeouts (152), sixth in innings pitched (151 2/3), 11th in ERA (3.68) and fifth in WHIP (1.26), and has limited opposing hitters to a .239 average. He earned Eastern League Pitcher of the Week honors after tossing eight scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and fanning 13 in a July 31 win over the Altoona Curve.
More impressively, Kontos - who has been criticized in the past for his over-reliance on his plus slider - has made solid progress with his curveball and changeup under the tutelage of Thunder pitching coach and former big league lefty Scott Aldred. With the Yankees’ top two starters - Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte - getting up there in age and several of the team’s more highly-touted prospects - including Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy - turning in disappointing campaigns, it’s possible he could take his four-pitch arsenal to the Bronx as early as next season. I recently had a chance to speak with Kontos:
Q: What was your reaction when you learned you’d been drafted by the Yankees? Did you know in advance that they were looking to pick you?
A: I actually didn’t. The Yankees were one of the teams that I hadn’t spoken much to, and then right before the draft I got a call from the scout in my area. We went through some normal questions, just about signability and you know, money stuff, but I hadn’t talked to him all that much. Then he called me on draft day and I realized I’d been picked by them, and it was a good day - I was happy that I was with the Yankees.
Q: You faced solid competition while pitching in the Big 10 for Northwestern. How did that help prepare you for your pro career?
A: Well, I think that going to college was definitely a big thing. I was scouted out of high school and I turned down going into the draft to go to college, and I think it definitely matured me; I think I was not ready to go out of high school. So going to college and experiencing that level of competition, it was definitely a good thing. It matured me a lot.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you throw and how you like to use them?
A: I throw a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a slider, curveball and changeup. My best pitch is probably my slider; it’s my go-to pitch, my put-away pitch. But throughout the year, my changeup and curveball have come along big for me. My changeup is a pitch that I can throw now to lefties; it’s what I use to get lefties out, for the most part. My curveball is a pitch that has come along nicely. I can throw it for strikes; I have a real good feel for it. So with those two pitches coming around for me this year, I pretty much have my four-pitch arsenal that I can go to at any time. It’s been a good year for that.
Q: Do you consider yourself a strikeout pitcher, a guy who pitches to contact, or some mixture of the two?
A: I think I’m a mixture of the two. I tend to strike out a few guys - I think I’m second or third in the league in strikeouts right now - but I mean, I try to pitch to contact. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but I think I’m a mixture of both.
Q: Can you tell the differences in the level of competition as you climb the organizational ladder?
A: Yeah, definitely. The jump from high-A to double-A here, in my opinion, has been the most significant. Guys here are more disciplined; you have a few guys who have had some big league experience. Definitely, the defense is better and the hitters are much more disciplined, so you have to make better quality pitches to get them out.
Q: Is there any pitcher, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model your approach after?
A: Growing up, I looked up to Roger Clemens quite a bit, and last year I was fortunate enough to get to hang out with him and talk to him a little bit when he was in Tampa rehabbing, so that was pretty cool. He’s a great guy and a great pitcher, obviously, so that was a really exciting experience for me.
Q: What were your goals entering this season? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished them?
A: My goals were just to come in here and obviously help the team win, and my main goal was just to develop more as a pitcher, and that, I think, has definitely happened. I’ve matured quite a bit this year. Coming into this season I was going through some delivery altercations with our pitching coach, Scott Aldred, but as the season’s gone along we’ve definitely solidified my mechanics - ones that I can use going up the ladder further. So, overall, this year, I think I’m having a pretty good year. I’m very happy with how it’s gone.
Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Yankees?
A: Well, as soon as they think I’m ready. Hopefully, that’s sooner than later, but if I keep pitching well, hopefully it will be at the beginning of next year.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets.