Whether they grow up playing hardball, stickball or whiffle ball, kids cling to the same fantasy: they’re standing in the backyard or the schoolyard, and they envision themselves in the jersey of their favorite team.
Jake Sabol was one of those kids. He first beat the odds as a preferred walk-on at Central Michigan University and earned a spot in the Chippewas’ weekend rotation.
The Grosse Pointe (Mich.) native then had his boyhood dream realized when the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 36th round of the 2011 Major League amateur draft.
Sabol spent parts of two seasons with the Detroit Tigers organization before catching on with the Traverse City Beach Bums in August of 2012. And he made the Beach Bums look good for signing him, finishing the season as one of the better relievers in independent baseball.
The ability in his right arm is the reason Sabol earned a spot in the Beach Bums’ 2013 starting rotation. He didn’t disappoint, posting a 10-6 record with a 3.18 earned run average to earn a spot on the Frontier League East Division’s All-Star team.
Sabol’s competitive fire isn’t limited to the mound, as the 25-year old has always known that he wanted to coach when his playing days were done. His heart for teaching recently landed him a job as the pitching coach at Northwood University, a NCAA Division II program in Midland, Mich.
A basketball in the right, a baseball in the left
Sabol first picked up a baseball when he was seven or eight and he wanted to be on the mound from the very start. The Detroit Tigers were always his team, but Sabol idolized Pedro Martinez.
“Pedro’s belief that he was the best and the way he challenged hitters, that was something special to watch and it stuck with me,” Sabol said.
But basketball was Sabol’s first love and his size (6’5, 225) made him a natural.
It was his father, Rick, a Northern Illinois University baseball alum, that saw a future for his son on the diamond and not the hardwood.
“In high school I wanted to put hoops in front of everything else and play AAU basketball during the summer instead of baseball,” Sabol said. “My dad convinced me to stick with baseball as much as possible and I’ll go ahead and say that I’m glad I took his advice.”
A product of Warren De La Salle High School, Sabol stayed in-state and went on to become a four-year letterwinner at Central Michigan University.
“CMU gave me the chance to play college baseball at the highest level,” Sabol said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for Coach Jaksa and the rest of the Chips coaching staff.”
Sabol’s trek through college was an odyssey of perseverance and self-doubt. And no one knows that better than CMU head coach Steve Jaksa, now in his 12th season with the Chippewas.
“Jake went through a process in college, it didn’t all just happen for him on the first day of practice,” Jaksa said. “He was a preferred walk-on, and we thought he had great potential because of his size, but Jake has a great work ethic and that’s what really made the difference.”
“Jake also had to deal with his own trials and tribulations like every other pitcher,” Jaksa added. “I’m sure there were times where perhaps he felt as though he should be pitching more than someone else, but at the end of the day Jake listened and bought into what we were doing.”
Jaksa finished, “that’s when Jake started to take off and got better and better on the mound.”
Sabol started 12 games as a senior and finished 5-3 with a 4.13 ERA. He notched shutouts against MAC foes Ohio and Akron and hurled a complete game against Eastern Michigan to clinch the 2011 MAC West championship.
From a Chip to a Tiger
Sabol talked to eight or nine teams but the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers were the frontrunners.
Sabol was at his parents’ home in Shelby Township when he found out that the Detroit Tigers drafted him in the 36th round (1,097 overall) of the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft.
“I was ecstatic,” Sabol said. “All I was really hoping for was to be drafted, but to be selected by Detroit, that took the excitement to a whole different level.”
Sabol went through many ups and downs as he learned the national pastime as it is played outside the spotlight.
His two seasons in the Detroit Tigers farm system were filled with cross-country road trips, classic dugout antics and players competing with cutthroat intensity for the ultimate prize—a call up to the majors.
Sabol lived with players from different countries and learned to communicate with teammates whose first language was not English.
“I met and played with a lot of great teammates, some of which I still have extremely close relationships with today,” he reflected. “It was an experience that I will always remember.”
Sabol went 3-3 with a 3.43 ERA in 13 games (10 starts) with the Gulf Coast League Tigers in 2011. He began 2012 with the Connecticut Tigers (NYPL) and tossed two scoreless innings against the Lowell Spinners in his first appearance with the Tigers’ New York-Penn League outfit. But, Sabol’s slider became evasive and he finished with a 15.63 ERA in four appearances. He was firing a lot of fast balls and wondered what happened to his secondary stuff, as his WHIP in Connecticut swelled to 2.842 from 1.12 a level down the prior season in the GCL.
He threw two scoreless innings versus the Mahoning Valley Scrappers in his final NYPL appearance before the Tigers informed Sabol in mid-July that he would be moving on—released, in baseball parlance—and cast into the thorny woods of free agency.
A Tiger to a Beach Bum
The odyssey of boredom, worry, negotiations and frustration is one many minor league players quietly go through each year when they are released (close to 90% of all minor league players will be released at some point in their career). Like a submarine, they disappear quickly and quietly, and then resurface days or weeks later, hundreds or thousands of miles away, in a new uniform.
Sabol didn’t want to stay out of the game for long. He spent a few days going over his options with his agent and they decided to reach out to Frontier League’s Traverse City Beach Bums back home in Michigan.
“We let them know that I was available and would love to work out for them in hopes of being signed for the rest of the season,” Sabol said.
The workout went well and Sabol signed with Traverse City. He was thrilled.
“I’m glad they took a chance on me,” he said.
On August 3, 2012, Sabol saw his first action with Traverse City in the Beach Bums’ 4-1 loss to the Southern Illinois Miners. He responded by tossing two scoreless innings with two strikeouts. Sabol picked up his first win six days later, when the Beach Bums rallied from four runs down in the seventh to edge the Evansville Otters 8-7.
“I just took my outings pitch by pitch and tried not to worry about the things that I couldn’t control,” Sabol said.
Sabol also worked on the stuff between the ears—the mental aspect of the game—knowing that it can be the difference between being an integral part of a staff and a fringe reliever, clinging to the tail end of a roster.
“I had to figure out a way to become more consistent on the mound,” Sabol said. “Sometimes in college, I could get away with making mistakes but once you get to the professional ranks, the hitters make you pay for it.”
In seven appearances with the Beach Bums in 2012, Sabol went 2-0 with a microscopic 0.71 ERA. He finished with a K/BB ratio of 4.00 and his WHIP shrunk to 0.789 from 2.842 a level up with the Connecticut Tigers.
Sabol’s slider regained its bite and he kept batters off stride, holding opposing hitters to a .157 average.
“My slider became somewhat of a “go to” pitch for me after working on it in Traverse City, day after day,” Sabol said.
He also struck out an attention-demanding eight batters in 12.2 innings. It’s not exactly a large sample size, but it signaled to Beach Bum coaches that Sabol still had some nasty weapons in his arsenal.
Change of Address: Bullpen to Rotation
Former Traverse City manager Gregg Langbehn saw Sabol as a candidate to join the Beach Bums’ front five in 2013.
“We didn’t get Jake until the summer of 2012 and we were so healthy and successful with everything that we already had in place that we decided to put him in the bullpen,” said Langbehn, who was named the Cleveland Indians’ major league replay coordinator in the offseason. “Jason Wuerfel (Director of Baseball Operations) and I talked prior to the start of the 2013 season and we felt that Jake profiled more as a starter because that it what he had been almost exclusively at CMU and with the Tigers.”
“We talked a lot about it and it really was a smooth transition,” said Sabol. “I had been a full-time starter since my junior year at Central Michigan and that was where I was the most comfortable.”
Sabol threw seven scoreless innings in his 2013 debut, as the Beach Bums beat the Evansville Otters 10-0 on May 21. He went on to win his first four starts, including a complete game five-hit shutout of the Lake Erie Crushers on June 5, a 1-0 Beach Bum victory.
Along with the reemerged slider, Sabol’s repertoire of pitches included a dancing two-seam fastball, a four-seamer and a change-up, which he calls his best off-speed pitch.
“I found a lot of success with my two-seam fastball so it became my ‘bread and butter,’ said Sabol. “I went back and looked at a few of those starts and about 85% of my pitches were fastballs.”
“Number one, Jake is a control pitcher that embraces the philosophy of pitching to contact and forcing hitters to put the ball into play,” said Langbehn. “His two-seamer resulted in a lot of ground balls and made it possible for Jake to get through his innings pretty quickly.”
“Number two, he’s an efficient pitcher who maintains a low pitch count and that really made Jake an unsung innings eater for us last season,” added Langbehn.
Sabol didn’t lose his first game of the regular season until June 11 and was 6-4 with a 2.44 ERA on July 12. The Beach Bums sat atop the East Division at the midway point, which gave the All Star Game manager’s job to Coach Langbehn for the second straight season. In turn, he added Traverse City first baseman Chase Burch, reliever Nick Capito and Sabol to the East Division squad.
“The Frontier League All-Star Game was a great experience,” said Sabol, who pitched the eighth inning. “The entire weekend in Washington (Pa.) was a lot of fun and the Beach Bums were represented extremely well with six All-Stars and the East Division coaching staff.’
The West Division All-Stars defeated their East Division counterparts, 4-2. Sabol won his first start after the All-Star break, a 3-1 win against the Windy City Thunderbolts, where he scattered one run and five hits over five innings. He would go 4-2 down the stretch and finished the 2013 season at 10-6 with 65 strikeouts (to just 29 walks) in a team-high 127 innings.
Traverse City finished the regular season at 96-55 to secure the No. 3 seed in the 2013 Frontier League playoffs. The Beach Bums held a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five divisional series against the Lake Erie Crushers and had Sabol penciled in as the game four starter.
Sabol tossed six solid innings and handed a 3-1 lead over to the bullpen to put Traverse City in position to clinch the series. But the Beach Bums relieving corps imploded to the tune of 10 runs en route to a stunning 13-3 defeat.
“That was disappointing since we had pretty much dominated the entire game and had a 3-1 lead in the seventh, but our bullpen had been so strong all season long that it was hard to be mad about it,” said Sabol, who limited the Crushers to one run on six hits. “If it wasn’t for them doing what they had done all season long, we might not have even been in the playoffs in the first place.”
The Crushers lived up to their moniker the next day when they topped Traverse City 5-4 to complete their improbable divisional series comeback and send the Beach Bums packing.
“A tough way to end the year for sure, but that’s why baseball is such an amazing game; it just didn’t work out for us,” said Langbehn. “It doesn’t take anything away from what Jake did or what the team accomplished last season.”
From a Beach Bum to a Coach
Sabol first cut his teeth in the coaching profession two years ago, when he joined the Alma College (Mich.) baseball staff in November 2012. He worked with the Scots’ pitching staff for one year before being named the Northwood Timberwolves’ pitching coach at the start of the 2013-14 season.
“I absolutely love it,” Sabol said. “It has strengthened my belief that coaching baseball is something I really want to do for the rest of my life.”
Sabol works primarily with the pitching staff but also helps longtime Northwood head coach Joe Di Benedetto with recruiting and administrative duties.
One of Sabol’s strongest assets as a pitching coach is that he simply knows how to pitch in the Midwest. For example, the lifelong Michigan resident knows firsthand that when it’s cold, the ball won’t carry on a cripple pitch—2-0 or 3-1—and he can teach the young Northwood arms not to be hesitant to challenge the batter with a fastball.
“I know how to pitch in the cold and overcome the discomfort of playing in this type of climate,” said Sabol. “But more importantly, I had a tremendous student-athlete experience at CMU, and my goal is to create that same kind of atmosphere for the players.”
Northwood University looks to improve upon last year’s 17-26 mark and 11th place finish in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Under Sabol’s tutelage, the Timberwolves’ staff has already lowered their team earned run average from 5.51 in 2013 to 4.83 in 2014.
Sabol’s desire to climb the college coaching ranks comes as no surprise to his former manager.
“Jake’s coach-like traits were evident because he was always thinking about the game and trying to pay attention to everything that was going on out on the field,” said Langbehn. “We talked a lot about pitching philosophies and for me to see him already working with a Division II program, it’s far from a surprise.”
Sabol, who is also working towards a master’s degree in business administration, is undecided as to whether he’ll keep playing for the Beach Bums.
“I ultimately want to become a college head coach and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get there,” he said. “And I think that being an assistant at an NCAA Division II program and working towards my MBA is a step in the right direction.”