Following a wildly impressive first three seasons of pro ball that saw him shoot up the prospect rankings, Padres right-hander Keyvius Sampson found himself in that exact situation from 2012 up through the early portion of last season.
Sampson, the Padres' fourth-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, finished with a 5.00 ERA and a 4.2 walks per nine innings rate for Double-A San Antonio in 2012 before getting off to a miserable start in '13 for Triple-A Tucson, accumulating an 8.03 ERA and 12 walks in four starts.
"Believe it or not, I really wasn't getting hit around much," Sampson said. "It was more about the lack of command. It was very frustrating because you're trying to be so perfect all the time, even when you don't have to. If you make a good, quality pitch, most of the time you're going to get an out. Sometimes you win the battle, sometimes you don't, but you have to make them deserve it."
Once on the fast track to the Majors, Sampson was sent down to San Antonio at the end of April to work on his command.
"That was a tough time, but it ended up being good for me because I figured it out," Sampson said. "I was trying to be way too fine with my pitches. I was nibbling so much and not just going right after guys. So I learned to trust my stuff, trust my abilities and be aggressive."
That renewed faith helped Sampson turn the corner. Using his low-to-mid-90s fastball and an elusive changeup as his main weapons, the righty returned to form in a big way. Sampson, who tallied 143 strikeouts in his breakout 2011 season for Class A Fort Wayne, racked up 110 punchouts against just 33 walks in 19 outings (18 starts) in San Antonio.
Sampson made five more starts for Tucson at the end of the season to mixed results before turning in a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League, working 11 1/3 innings against some of the game's best prospects and surrendering just one earned run while striking out 10 and issuing five walks.
"There were a lot of talented guys there, so I knew I couldn't play around the zone," Sampson said. "It was a great experience, and it gave me some confidence going into the offseason."
Protected from the Rule 5 Draft when the Padres put him on their 40-man roster in November, Sampson is thrilled to be in his first big league camp this spring. He's working to get his curveball and slider crisper, two pitches he believes will help take him to the next level. After all, if Sampson can strike out more than 100 batters using mostly his fastball and changeup, imagine what he can do with a developed four-pitch arsenal.
"I think a lot of people will be surprised this year by my curveball and slider," he said. "They would be a pretty good weapon; to be able to mix things up in certain at-bats with certain hitters. They can't just sit on something, they have to be ready for everything."
Like last year, Sampson will begin 2014 in Triple-A, but first he'll spend the next month soaking in all the experiences Spring Training has to offer. The Padres want the 23-year-old to have his eyes wide open, so he'll have a better grasp of big league life.
"I think it's great that Keyvius is able to rub shoulders with guys like Huston Street, Josh Johnson and Joaquin Benoit, just to see how they go about it every day, from the time they walk in the clubhouse to the time they leave," Padres manager Bud Black said. "They get to see what a Major League pitcher does at this time of year."