Leasider Jim Stevenson can lay claim to discovering only one of this year’s two Cy Young Award winners in Major League baseball.
But at one point, the 52-year-old who now calls Tulsa, Okla. home with his wife and three kids was scouting both Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs and Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros.
The pair won the National League and American League’s top honours for pitchers, and they were drafted while Stevenson was working as a scout for the Houston Astros.
“It’s been fun watching those guys, especially Dallas, develop from where he’s come from and where he is today,” Stevenson said, in a phone interview from Tulsa. “It’s special. I’m proud of the kid.”
Stevenson is still tied to Leaside, having grown up in the community, and having played baseball for the Leaside Atom Baseball Association and Leaside’s rep program. He played college ball State-side, but still came back to coach the midget and junior teams alongside league benchmark, Howard Birnie in the early 1990s.
It was in 1993, while taking a handful of Canadian players with him down to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, that he got his big opportunity to become a major league scout.
With him on that trip was pitcher Jason Dickson, who would go on to play for the California/Anaheim Angels. From there he scouted for the Cleveland Indians from 1993-97, Milwaukee Brewers from 2001-07 and with Houston starting in 2008.
Stevenson has had the opportunity to see aces like A.J. Burnett, Kerry Wood, Cliff Lee, Max Scherzer and even Clayton Kershaw develop in high school and college while touring around North Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.
“It’s funny, I was telling someone the other day when I was watching the (MLB) playoffs between the eight teams, and there were 35 guys who came out of this area here,” Stevenson said. “It was pretty special.”
What drew him to Keuchel, who was drafted by the Astros in 2009 at the behest of Stevenson, was how the pitcher could keep batters from getting a rhythm.
“He wasn’t a guy you scouted with the radar gun. You put it down, and you just watch. The hitters will tell you if he’s any good,” he said.
“You see guys throwing 100 (miles per hour) and the velocity doesn’t bother anyone. [Hitters] don’t care if you throw 100, but what they have trouble with is the nasty slider.”
Keuchel had that nasty slider and, at the time he was pitching high school ball in Tulsa, his fastball was around 83, 84 mph.
“I wanted this kid. He was who I wanted to get, no matter what.”
Calling Keuchel a mix of Toronto Blue Jays starter Mark Buehrle and Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine, Stevenson said his discovery has worked hard to hone his skills.
“This year, he just took it to a whole new level. This is a guy who checks all of the boxes. You talk about confidence, competitiveness, perseverance and will to succeed,” Stevenson said. “He literally ground it out with every pitch, with every hitter, mix and match, and change his speeds. He’s a master of his craft.”
As for Arrieta, while Stevenson couldn’t get him in 2007, it was the man who started him on his career path, Jim Richardson of the Baltimore Orioles, who claimed him.
“What separated it with Jake was this guy was throwing cannonballs,” Stevenson said. “It’s the heaviest ball you’ve ever seen in your life. It was just a power sinker that would come out of his hand like a heavy rock.”
With all his major league experience, Stevenson is sure to check in with Leaside, chatting with Howard Birnie and Eric Stickney to see what’s happening — even ruing the fact he could not attend the third annual Leaside Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony Nov. 20.
As for the Toronto Blue Jays, they still hold a special place in his heart, even though he works for the Astros.
“I’m a huge Jays fan,” Stevenson admitted. “The Jays are still my favourite team to follow.”