There are two keys to being a secret weapon.
First, you have to be relatively unknown. That’s still the case with Cajuns right-hander Colton Lee, who has risen from nearly quitting the game in obscurity to be a late-inning workhorse for the Cajuns through the first eight games.
Second, you have to have a secret weapon of your own, and Lee has just that in his slider, a sweeping thing of destructive beauty.
“It’s almost like it’s got a battery in it,” said catcher Nick Thurman. “Whenever he throws it, it’ll start at or behind a right-handed hitter, and it’s almost like it catches a ramp and it shoots across the zone.”
And the beauty of Lee’s slider? It’s not fully developed yet. Nothing, actually, about the sidearmer is fully developed yet. He’s only been pitching for two years.
It starts with a highly unorthodox grip — Lee sets the ball deep into his hand and places his thumb on top of the ball next to his index and middle finger rather than beneath it.
It looks funky, almost like a palmball, and it caught Lee some weird looks from the Cajuns coaching staff last fall.
“I showed (assistant pitching coach Daniel) Freeman how I hold it and he looked at me like I was stupid,” Lee said. “He was just like, ‘Well, whatever works.’ He made me show coach Robe, and coach Robe looked at me like I was stupid, but he said, ‘If it works, I don’t care what you do. I don’t care if you go up there blindfolded, as long as you throw strikes.’”
Lee said both the thumb-on-top grip and the fact that it is set deeper in his hand enhance his control of the pitch. Perhaps that also helps him get the wicked spin on it. He’s tried throwing his slider, as he terms it, like “a real pitcher,” but never with the same results.
“I’ve tried,” Lee said. “I go three or four days trying, and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I changing what’s working?’ Obviously I’m doing something right, so why would I change it up?”
Why would he? When he’s throwing it for strikes, it is the most lethal pitch in his repertoire. It is a true slider that sweeps across the zone, but the key is that the movement is late in the path of the pitch, not giving hitters time to diagnose what’s coming.
“He has both (late movement and depth),” Thurman said. “It comes out and breaks so late that a lot of hitters give up on it. It has late, late break and it breaks a lot. It’ll start on the inside half and shoot almost out of the zone. It’s almost unhittable unless he doesn’t get all that movement that he normally has on it.”
He used the slider often in his last appearance against McNeese State, but that was his first time this season where he used all three pitches at his disposal.
Lee can count the number of off-speed pitches he threw in his first three outings on one hand – the number is four, by the way, three sliders and one changeup.
He was finding success with his two-seam fastball, which tails down and in on a right-hander, inducing ground balls and swings and misses.
“He’s from down low, so his fastball has a lot of run toward the inside of a righty and down, which is good,” Thurman said. “It’s caused a lot of ground balls.”
He’s been working on his changeup, which he added to his repertoire this offseason, a process he says has been difficult. But it’s improving.
“That pitch is starting to get a lot better,” Thurman said. “He’s starting to be able to place it and throw it for strikes, and also whenever he needs to, to get it down low to where they’ll be able to swing over the top of it.”
But his knee-buckling slider is his moneymaker, the one that’s still — like nearly everything with Lee — in the early stages of development.
Now all that remains to be seen is how long Lee and his slider can remain a secret.
DEVELOPMENT THROUGH THE YEARS
Here’s a year-by-year look at Lee’s development as a pitcher. He was a high school infielder who transitioned to pitching in his freshman year of junior college — and he had a rough go of it. He was cut after his lone season at Southwest Mississippi, and his baseball career was on its last legs at Pearl River. But there, Lee switched to a sidearm delivery, and he’s found new life.
2013 season at Southwest Mississippi CC
1-1, 17.2 IP, 21 H, 22 R, 16 ER, 10 BB, 20 K, 6.34 ERA
2014 season at Pearl River CC
1-2, 36.1 IP, 32 H, 19 R, 11 ER, 15 BB, 26 K, 2.72 ERA, 2 saves
2015 season with the Ragin’ Cajuns
0-0, 10.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 11 K, 0.87 ERA, 2 saves
PITCH TO CONTACT — UNLESS THEY CAN’T HIT IT
Lee’s strikeout numbers are at a career-best rate through four appearances, but it’s not specifically what he excels at. Coach Tony Robichaux likes how aggressive he is in the strike zone, where the sinking movement on his other pitches induces plenty of ground ball outs. Here is a game-by-game look at how Lee’s outs break down.
Feb. 14 @ UTSA: 2.1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 1 K
- Eight batters faced, 3 fly outs, 3 ground outs
Feb. 18 @ Northwestern State: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 2 K
- Five batters faced, 3 ground outs
Feb. 20 vs Stony Brook: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K
- 10 batters faced, 1 fly out, 5 ground outs
Feb 24 vs McNeese State: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
- 14 batters faced, 1 fly out, 3 ground outs
Season break down: 37 batters faced, 5 H, 2 BB, 11 K, 5 fly outs, 14 ground outs
That gives Lee a ground ball percentage (ground balls/balls in play) of 58.3 percent. That’s good. It’s a small sample size, and the level of talent is obviously different, but just for a base of reference, if that were being done in the major leagues, it would’ve qualified as the third highest percentage in the league.