SeattleClubhouse Q&A: Dario Pizzano

SeattleClubhouse Q&A: Dario Pizzano

SeattleClubhouse recently caught up with 2012 draftee Dario Pizzano for an interview. The 15th round selection out of Columbia was one of only 11 qualifying minor leaguers to hit .350 or better in 2012 and he was recognized as an Appalachian League All-Star. Rick Randall talks with Pizzano about that debut and about what lies ahead for him.

In 2010 he was recognized as a freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger, and he is one of only 21 players in history to be named to the All-Ivy League First-Team three times (2010-2012). Pizzano hit .364 in 133 career games at Columbia and on top of the home runs, he ranks among the school's Top-10 in career batting average, slugging percentage (.647), on-base percentage (.448), doubles (43), runs batted in (108) and total bases (293). That success carried over to the professional ranks as Pizzano hit .354/.442/.507 for Pulaski and Everett after being selected by Seattle in the 15th round of the 2012 draft.

Dario took some time over the holidays to talk with SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall about the season that was, the Little League World Series, the life of an Ivy League student-athlete, transitioning to pro baseball and what lies ahead for him.

SeattleClubhouse: Hello Dario, thank you for taking a break from the holidays to talk with me.

Dario Pizzano: No problem, thanks for having me.

SC: You come from the Ivy League, having been one of the greatest players in Columbia's history, so I'd like to talk about being a student-athlete first off. Balancing academics and athletics can be hard for young baseball players, even at the high school level. What techniques, approach or plan did you use to keep yourself focused enough to not only qualify for an Ivy League school [Pizzano had a 4.0 GPA as a senior in high school], but to carry on that academic success while playing competitive baseball at a high level?

DP: My parents always told me that I can't just do one or the other [school or baseball], they told me that I have to be the whole package, or be the "all around" person. So I wanted to always have the academic side there to fall back on regardless of where baseball took me. Even this fall; I got drafted after my junior season so I had two semesters left to get my degree. So I really wanted to make sure and go back and finish that up because, God forbid, if anything happens I'll always have that degree to back me up.

My dad always told me growing up, "Don't ever let a school tell you that you can't go there for any reason -- be it grades or whatever. Be the best that you can be in all aspects so that your options are open." So growing up, I always knew that I wanted to play baseball and I always knew that I wanted to do well in school. "Let it be up to you," my dad would say. I never wanted to have anyone be able to tell me that I couldn't get into their school for one reason or another. So that was always a driving force for me. I was always pretty good in school, but I always tried as hard as I could and took all the hardest classes that I could so that I could have the opportunity to get an Ivy League degree while playing Division-1 baseball to get that notoriety and that exposure. That had always been my dream my whole life was to play baseball. So I always used that as a driving force to push myself to do the best that I could in school to give me more opportunities on the field. And whatever edge I could have to keep pushing me to the next level.

SC: You were a four-year varsity starter in high school at Malden Catholic, a two-time All-Star, two-time leading hitter for the conference and three-time Ivy League first team selection. Clearly there was a lot of success and even domination there on your part, but high school ball, the Ivy League and professional baseball are a long ways apart. What was your biggest challenge or adjustment to pro ball?

DP: The biggest thing was velocity. The Ivy League is Division-1, but it isn't the ACC or the SEC or any of the big time conferences. We don't get guys throwing mid-90s or closers coming in throwing 98. And when I went to Pulaski this past summer, the hardest thing at first for me was getting my timing down. I was seeing the ball well but I was a little late -- I felt like I had a hole in my bat because I was behind the velocity.

Being the 3-hole hitter most of my life and being looked at as the power guy at Columbia, I was always pitched backwards to, too. But in Pulaski at the beginning I was seeing speeds that I'd never seen before but I also was being pitched differently than I was used to being pitched. It really wasn't until I got really hot later in the year and I was hitting 3rd again that they started to pitch me more the way that I was accustomed to seeing. Then I got used to seeing these 93s, 95s, 97s from these young 1st rounders and Latin ballplayers that all throw hard. I'd never seen that type of velocity before. There are probably five to seven guys, maybe 10 in an up year in the Ivy League that even touch 90. And the jump between 90 to 95 is significant.

SC: Let's talk more about your 2012. You had a very successful debut season to say the least, hitting over .350 at two stops and showing a patient eye and extra base power at the plate. How would you describe your experience during this past year?

DP: It was definitely a culture shock. Being in the middle of nowhere Virginia. Growing up in Boston and then going to college in New York, one of the few cities that is actually bigger than Boston, so I was always in the city lights. So going to the Appalachian League and living in a Travel Lodge, starting from the bottom like that was new to me. I was told that was going to be the way and it wasn't going to be the glamorous life right away but to stick with it and keep working hard and I'd get there.

As for the baseball experience, it was great. The fans were great and all the people around the area were great and they showed support for us. The game is always fun, but when you're going well it seems better and seems like you can do no wrong, so when I was being successful and felt like the go-to guy and everything, I was the 3-hole hitter, it was great and I enjoyed it that much more. I learned how to live the minor league life on the road and adjust to that and everything -- it was just great. I really couldn't have asked for a better start to my minor league career.

SC: What about your approach to the game? I read that you played both basketball and baseball in high school and that you actually took a lot away from the basketball court to help you on the baseball diamond -- can you elaborate on that connection?

DP: The two are really very different. Basketball is so much a team game. And playing baseball in college and in the pros is different, too. Playing in college is all about everyone do their part to get the conference ring and move on in the tournament. Pro ball is a little bit more of everyone wanting to do well so that they can succeed and they can move up. Obviously that is what everyone wants -- it's what I want -- to succeed and to move up closer to Seattle, or to wherever their respectful Major League team is. Basketball is a team game and one person can't really just run the show. We're seeing that now with Kobe Bryant scoring 35 points per game and the Lakers are losing. So I think that I learned that value to work as a team during my time in basketball.

I always like playing "team baseball". Help rally my teammates or help pump them up -- I just don't like feeling alone out on the baseball field. I like feeling the other eight guys out there with you. Because building on momentum is huge in baseball. If three guys in front of you get a hit I think that you're more likely to build on that momentum and get a hit in that fourth at bat than if you led off an inning or if there were two outs on the first two pitches in the inning and you had to start a rally on your own. So basketball taught me team chemistry to be successful as a team, and I think that, clearly, chemistry is an important aspect in baseball, too. Looking at the San Francisco Giants, not being considered one of the most talented teams, and they've taken two of the last three World Series. So I think that speaks to the importance of chemistry in baseball.

SC: You had an incredible month of August, leading all of minor league baseball in hits for that month and hitting over .400 for an extended stretch. Was that the month that it all came together for you?

DP: A lot of things happened all at once and they just all fell into place that month. I've always been a consistent hitter, but if I get hot I definitely build off of big games. There was a game early in that stretch when I got three hits and it was kind of like, "OK. I can get three hits in a pro game," and I stopped worrying about. At first I think it is natural for all new professional baseball players to think, "Now I'm actually being paid to do this, paid to succeed and all eyes are watching me to move up and I don't want to get cut," all sorts of things like that are in the backs of players' minds, I think. As the early season went on I was doing relatively well, hitting .280 to .285, which is good, but I knew I could do better. But I wanted to put that out of my head and not worry about things that I couldn't control. It's hard enough to hit a baseball being pitched that fast, you don't need extra added pressures or stresses on yourself, so I just let that all go.

There was that and then also the first week of August one of my good friends who was serving in Afghanistan lost his life, was murdered actually, and I heard about that and just sort of felt like he was watching over me and kind of being my guardian angel that month. I think that helped me out a lot because a lot of that success happened when he was on my mind. And also my whole family all made the trip out for like 10 days to visit me in August and brought along my girlfriend and I really wanted to do well for them. And that is when I got really hot with a stretch of great games. My teammates actually made the joke that I was hitting just because my girlfriend was there.

So I think it was a combination of things. It was one of those situations where everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, and the ball looked like a beach ball coming in and I felt like I was swinging a tennis racket. It was great, I felt like I could see the seams perfectly during that stretch and everything came a little easier, it was great.

SC: Sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. That isn't easy. On a lighter, happier note, I understand that your Latin teammates in Pulaski had a nickname for you, is that right?

DP: Yeah (laughs), they called me, "la maquina de bateo" -- "the hitting machine". I think Phillips Castillo and Franklin Diaz were the ones that said that. That was actually what they started calling me when my girlfriend was there, saying that I was a hitting machine when she was around. I took some Spanish back in 6th grade and so I talked with and got along with and was playful with the Latin guys quite a bit. And Castillo, one day after I doubled and then scored, I was coming back into the dugout and he said, "Outstanding. La maquina de bateo." And I just died laughing. And I took it as a huge compliment, especially considering that Phillips is a well-regarded prospect in his own right.

SC: Prior to becoming a professional, back in your younger days, you got the great opportunity to play in the Little League World Series in 2003. Can you talk about the enormity and the pageantry of that event, especially experiencing it at such a young age?

DP: I think actually that you're so young when you're there that you don't even realize the grand scale that there are millions of people watching you around the world. I was just out there having fun and playing baseball on a grassy infield, going to play the game I love. I always consider that one of the best times of my life. For one thing, you get treated like a celebrity everywhere you go during that time and you don't even know how to react. I loved it. I also always consider that the most important moment in my baseball career because that experience is what made me say, "I want to be a professional baseball player. I love this game so much and I want to be in front of even more people than this someday, playing in the MLB World Series." That was such a great experience and I actually did really well in that tournament. And those guys that I played against...there were some great players there. Randal Grichuk was on the Texas team and he was a first rounder by the Angels a few years ago, Michael Broad out of the University of Miami, Devon Travis who just got drafted out of Florida State this past year. So I think that gave me the confidence, at 12-years-old, that I could take that next step and do whatever it takes to continue to advance through the various levels in baseball and make it to the ultimate goal of reaching the major leagues.

SC: You take pride in limiting your strikeouts and working walks -- being a selective hitter. You were successful on those fronts this first season in Pulaski and Everett, but how does a hitter accomplish that discipline, something that so many players struggle with in their careers?

DP: I always had that advantage -- I played four years on my high school team and was hitting 3rd from the time I was a sophomore -- so I had the advantage that I was always pitched to a little differently, pitched backwards or whatever, especially starting with my freshman year at Columbia, and I saw lots of breaking balls from an early age. You see guys struggle and they could hit any fastball, and that's what they've always done is sit back and time and crush the fastball, but they have trouble hitting off-speed stuff.

I think I was really fortunate to go to the Ivy League in that regard. I feel like I could time any fastball at this point, I think, but having the experience of seeing a lot of 2-0, 3-1 changeups and sliders and being able to see that -- and those guys in the Ivy League don't have the overpowering fastball so they need to spot up and hit their corners and have plus off-speed pitches -- and having been pitched that way for basically the last six years I think that once I got the timing of the fastball down I still had the ability to hit the off-speed stuff. So I think that was a huge advantage for me.

Coach Boretti, my freshman year at Columbia -- I was way too selective at the beginning of my career there -- he told me that I didn't have to wait for one that split the plate in half. I could always hit a lot of pitches in the gaps, and he taught me to look middle-away, because guys who don't have as much velocity that is how they work is middle-away. And he always told me that if they ever came in that I had quick enough hands to get around on it and react in. Of course, like we talked about earlier, when they started coming in with 95 it was a little different. But once I got comfortable with that it became easier for me. And a lot of these guys don't have refined off-speed stuff because all they needed to do was throw 95, so I worked hard on studying pitchers, studying tendencies and look for my pitch and put a good swing on it.

If there are less than two strikes and it isn't my pitch, I feel like I have another bullet -- I have another strike so let it go. I think it has worked out pretty well so far.

SC: Is there a coach or someone else that you've had the pleasure of working with who you count as your biggest influence as far as your approach to and success in the game?

DP: My parents for sure are huge influences, they're number one. My dad has never been my coach and he never even played growing up, so not in that respect, but my parents have always given me the upbringing and the opportunities to succeed -- paying for the showcase circuit, the Perfect Game tournaments, for the Top-96's, all the prospect camps and everything to get the exposure -- they were great on that. I always told them, "Don't worry mom and dad, I'll pay you back when I make it". And they're holding me to that! But I give them the most credit because they gave me the opportunities for all of that.

But I also have three coaches in my career that have each been greatly influential and have contributed greatly to my success. My Little League World Series coach, Charlie Bilton, was harsh on us and some of the parents were shocked at times, saying, "they're just 12-year-old kids!", but he taught us how to win and he was fierce and he gave us the drive to want to win. Then my high school coach, Steve Freker. He's been a long time high school coach in Massachusetts so he had a lot of contacts and he'd get me those spots in invitational tournaments and I'd perform at those. He taught me a lot about the game, too. Then Coach Boretti. I played high school ball in Massachusetts. It's generally not known as the strongest area in the country -- I hit almost .600 in high school -- but when I went to Columbia there were some minor adjustments that Coach Boretti made with my hand positions and things like that that helped allow me to be successful and continue to get better.

SC: Having enjoyed a very successful first season as a professional, what has your focus this offseason been as far as baseball goes?

DP: I've always been known for my hitting, that is my strength, but I feel like I'm working hard to improve my fielding. At instructs last year -- I can't remember who said it, it might have been Jack (Howell) or Alvin Davis -- they said, "you don't make the majors as a DH." They kept stressing that. You can't just hit. You have to have the whole package. You have to be able to field, you have to be able to throw, you have to be able to run. So I really worked at instructs a lot with my fielding -- little first steps. Little things that will help me get there a half a second sooner so instead of a ball tipping off the edge of my glove I'm making a catch.

My arm is always a big focus. I played infield for most of my career before Columbia and I always threw with weird mechanics like an infielder, and no one ever changed it or tried to correct me. So when I got to college and started throwing six days a week it really started wearing my arm down. I actually ended up having surgery in college and later got tendinits because of being so worn down. But now, I just work as hard as I can on refining my motion and my throwing. Cory Snyder worked with me on throwing mechanics a lot in instructs. He had a cannon when he was playing and he worked a lot with me on getting my elbow above my head and it has been great -- so much less stress on my arm. And I feel like my arm has gotten a lot better this off-season.

SC: Playing baseball every day can be a grind. What do you do to motivate yourself from day to day, year to year?

DP: Anything that I can do to keep an edge. I go to the training room every day, because until last year I never even knew about some of the shoulder exercises and things like that that I could do to focus on getting strength in there, the muscles around some weak spots like around the shoulder, around the elbow. So going to the training room every single day and working hard so that they never have a reason to take me off of that field. Last year, even before I stepped on a minor league field, I had a little bout with triceps tendinitis and so it kept me off the field for the first few week of the season and it was killing me. So I was at the park and in my uniform and sitting on the bench but I couldn't do anything for two weeks.

So there is that and then the mental side of that, too. That is all off-season preparation, too, that I'm going through now. Throwing every day, getting in that routine and knowing what it is like now after having been through my first pro season. I use all of that day-to-day activity as motivation to stay out of the training room -- for injuries -- and to stay on the field and stay in my routine so that I can be successful and in shape and ready to handle whatever lies ahead.

SC: Looking ahead to 2013 what are some of those goals for Dario Pizzano?

DP: My first goal is to make a full season team, of course. I don't limit myself with my goals and I, of course, would love to just be able to jump to Double-A and then to the majors each in just one year, but my first goal is to just make a full season team out of spring. So I'm going to Spring Training this year with that as my goal.

Actually this off-season I went back to school for some training and my baseball trainer at Columbia also trains Scott Diamond, the left-handed pitcher from the Minnesota Twins. So I got to interact with him quite a bit and he gave me a lot of good advice. Number one, he said when you go to Spring Training don't try to look around and figure out which roster everyone is going to be on to try and figure out where you're going. Like, "he's going to be on this roster, he's going to be on this roster, I'm better than him, he's better than me," and so on. Just control the stuff that you can control and play your game, do well and don't worry about is out of your hands -- don't give yourself any unnecessary added pressures like that. And it was nice having someone with that experience to talk with and give me some reassurances of doing things the right way.

So I'm looking forward to getting to Spring Training and showing that I put in my work, hopefully that I worked harder than anybody, and play my game and hopefully make a full season roster. What I don't do is head into the season saying, "I want to hit at least .350 again." I don't think that you can do that to yourself as a player because that just gives you too much pressure to think about all the time.

SC: Thanks so much for your time, Dario.

DP: Thank you, Rick. I read all of the interviews you do and I really appreciate the opportunity to be among the people that you talk with for the site.

SC: That's great to hear, Dario. And you certainly deserve the exposure here, so thank you.Looking forward to following you in 2013 and beyond for the Mariners.

DP: Thanks again.

Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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