Max Pentecost Is Back and Ready to Reclaim Top Prospect Status
The Blue Jays pegged the 2014 first rounder as a blue-chip catching prospect. But then, for nearly two years, he virtually disappeared as a result of three shoulder surgeries.
Photo by John Lott
The U.S. Customs officer at the Sarnia border crossing was a curious sort, and in a most friendly way.
Why are you going to Lansing?
What are you writing about?
Who's Max Pentecost?
What position does he play?
Why write about him?
He's a catcher who can't throw?
OK, travel safe. Have a good day.
Max Pentecost can throw. He can catch, too. He just doesn't do it in games. Not yet.
But every day he throws and catches bullpen sessions. His meticulously planned throwing program is going well. He is optimistic. His manager says Pentecost might be ready to catch in games by mid-July.
He has traveled a long road to Lansing.
In 2014, he was a first-round draft pick. The Blue Jays pegged him as a blue-chip prospect, a catcher projected to hit and play superb defence. But then, for nearly two years, he virtually disappeared.
He endured three shoulder surgeries within 13 months, proving once again that medicine is not an exact science. It was never clear whether the first two surgeries were part of the solution or part of the problem.
"There were days when I was wondering, 'My shoulder—is it done, or is it just something that has to be fixed?'" says Pentecost, who is currently limited to a DH role for the Class A Lansing Lugnuts.
"I just kept pushing through it. There were days I'd have progressions and I'd think, 'We're really onto something here.' Then it would go backwards. Your mind is just spinning. But that's when it's good to have something you can do outside of baseball to get your mind off of it."
For Pentecost, that something was fishing, a passion since his early childhood in Georgia.
"Fishing was my getaway," he tells me. "That was the time I took to clear my head."
Casting for bass didn't bother your shoulder?
"No," he says with a grin. "Luckily, I cast mostly left-handed."
Maxwell Glen Pentecost owns a ready smile, a staunch work ethic and a knack for looking at the bright side. His shoulder struggles have made him mentally stronger, he says. If he were able to catch now, he says, he might not be able to focus so much on fixing his swing and refining his timing at the plate.
But he longs to catch again. At 6'2" and a slender 200 pounds, he does not present as a prototypical catcher, but he comes advertised as a savvy defender and a hitter who uses the whole field.
"Once I get back to catching, it'll be more normal, like I'm used to baseball being," he says.
Pentecost was the 11th player chosen in the 2014 draft. The Blue Jays gave him just under $2.9 million to sign and sent him immediately to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he played only six games before he was promoted two levels to Vancouver. There he batted .313 with a .731 OPS in 19 games before shoulder pain stopped him cold.
His last game for Vancouver was on Aug. 7, 2014. He did not play in another game until May 12 of this year in Lansing.
"People don't realize how hard it is, how exhausting it is to come back from what he went through with the three surgeries," says John Schneider, his manager in both Vancouver and Lansing. "You see Devon Travis in the big leagues say it was the 10 toughest months of his life on the DL, and it was that times three for Max."
During Pentecost's long absence from the public eye, I occasionally asked Blue Jays officials what was going on with him. The answers were vague. He was always recovering from surgery, rehabbing, trying to get back, but no one seemed to know for sure what the problem was or how long it would take to fix it.
Doctors, apparently, were facing a similar challenge. Before his first surgery in October 2014, an MRI indicated a labrum tear. But the way the MRI dye pooled in his shoulder fooled the eye, he says. There was no tear. It took arthroscopic surgery to find that out. But there was inflammation, so surgeons did a cleanup.
He underwent a second surgery in February 2015. "I had really bad impingement symptoms," he said. "They decided to take some of the acromion bone off to give my shoulder a little more space to move around." That procedure is more often performed on pitchers.
Post-recovery, his throwing program went well. He felt a little pain, but did not consider it worrisome. But it began to get worse, and he could not recover between throwing sessions.
He was also reluctant to tell anyone.
"Sometimes (the pain) wasn't as bad as it had been, so therefore that was a good day," Pentecost says. "I wanted to play so bad. I was just praying that one day I'd go out there to throw and it would be like it miraculously fixed itself."
He missed the entire 2015 season. October brought a third surgery, this time to fix a tear that formed a groove in the rotator cuff and inhibited the normal movement of his triceps tendon. Dr. Craig Morgan, an expert in that type of procedure, performed the surgery. Then, it was back to rehab again.
A strong support group kept him going, he says.
"Good friends. People in the Blue Jays organization—the coaches, players, everyone. They never gave up on me. Always encouraged me. Kept me sane," he says.
"And I did a lot of fishing."
In his first game with Lansing, Pentecost hit a homer and two singles. He went 9-for-20 in his first five games. In 18 games since then, he is hitting .200, with 13 hits—all singles—in 65 at-bats.
He has never faced such good pitching. He has a lot of catching up to do. The adjustment has been tough.
"It has," he says. "I'm not going to lie. At the beginning, I was just so excited to get back on the field that I wasn't thinking about anything. I was just going out there and playing. And then you start getting beat on a pitch, and you're like, 'How am I going to fix this?' And you start thinking about fixing stuff. I just have to get back into a groove, build an approach at the plate, getting back into that everyday routine. It's just a matter of time."
Kenny Graham, a Blue Jays roving hitting instructor, agrees.
"He's still learning, and he knows that," Graham tells me. "He's learning to make adjustments that all professionals have to make in their careers.
"But he's a very athletic kid. He's got a good sense of the strike zone. He's a very handsy hitter; he can manipulate the barrel and move the ball around all over the field. He's got that hit tool in him."
Through Tuesday's action, Pentecost had 205 plate appearances in his pro career, divided almost equally between 2014 and 2016. He is still raw.
"Max has a knack for hitting," Schneider says. "But it's tough to explain to him sometimes that he really doesn't have that many at-bats under his belt over the course of his career."
Meanwhile, a committee has been at work supporting his throwing program. His rehab therapists in Florida and trainers in Lansing have supervised his daily workouts. Lansing pitching coach Jeff Ware has worked with him on mechanics. Minor-league pitching co-ordinator Sal Fasano helped him find a new arm slot that puts less stress on his shoulder.
Some days he works on throwing for distance, others for velocity, others just throwing lightly to let his body recover. He estimates he is throwing at about 85-percent effort.
"The short-term goal is around the all-star break to have him built up, totally ready to catch and hopefully rebounding well from the day-to-day throwing process," Schneider says.
Meanwhile, Pentecost says he is finally learning to stop thinking about his shoulder when he throws.
"I'm still weaning off of it, but we've had a bunch of good days throwing, no pain," he says. "The more of those you get, the easier it becomes to get it out of your head."