PORT CHARLOTTE — Chaz Roe sat at his corner locker in the Rays clubhouse last week talking pitching with two new teammates as he continues a big league education that’s taken many turns.
It’s not a spot Roe could have predicted he’d be in seven years ago, when he was close to walking away from the game at age 24.
When you’ve a long winding path to big league stability like Roe has — through 10 different big league organizations — casual conversations like this one with right-hander Charlie Morton and catcher Mike Zunino are precious.
“Sitting around these guys and the knowledge they have from being around the game of baseball, it helps out a lot, just to bounce ideas off each other,” Roe said. " I’m constantly trying to learn as far as how to set up hitters and things like that. Any conversation I have with Charlie or Z, it helps a lot.”
Roe, 32, could be entering this spring training with a much different mindset. After last season, when he allowed 35 hits and recorded 53 strikeouts over 50 1/3 innings and held opposing hitters to a .196 average, his spot in the Rays bullpen is secured.
“He’s established himself, but I think a lot of credit goes to our front office,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Ten or eleven teams, whatever it is, obviously our guys saw something in his pitch mix and what he’s capable of doing. He’s not just stuck (with us), but he’s been a huge part of our bullpen.”
That’s not the way Roe is approaching spring training.
“It’s the mindset I come into every camp, that I’m fighting for a job," he said. "I don’t like to be comfortable and feel set as far as thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got this job.’ It just pushes me more to have that right mindset in that I’m in here competing for a job.”
Roe has an arsenal that few relievers possess, especially a slider that dances out of the zone. Last season, Roe’s slider averaged a spin rate of 2843 rpm, according to Baseball Savant, which is seventh-highest among major league. The frequency Roe threw his slider might be more telling to its effectiveness, having thrown is 52.7 percent of the time. He threw the pitch 404 times last season, and the only reliever to throw more last season was his then-Rays teammate Sergio Romo.
“That means nothing to me,” Roe said of his slider spin rate. “That’s way above my head."
Zunino caught Roe’s first spring training outing Tuesday, but he’s also had to face Roe’s slider as an opposing hitter.
“The only benefit I have catching it is that I know that it’s coming,” said Zunino, acquired from the Mariners in a November deal for Mallex Smith. “I felt like I knew it was coming when I was hitting, but still. It’s got a break that you’ve never seen before and you see it just take a right-, guess it would be left-hand turn (from the pitcher’s perspective). It’s awesome and it’s going to be fun to catch.”
While Roe averages more than a strikeout per inning and his slider is a swing-and-miss pitch, he makes his living by pitching to contact and keeping his pitch count low.
“I try to work quick and get out of the inning as fast as I can with the least amount of pitches,” Roe said. “Most strikeout guys throw a lot more pitches than contact guys. As quick as I can get the team back in the dugout, the better. Stuff like that helps out in the long run.”
Roe said his success is difficult to wrap his head around. He was a first-round pick in 2005 by the Rockies, but toiled through the minors, only once posting a sub 4.00 ERA. Before the 2012 season, Roe was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for an unapproved amphetamine. He was a free agent at the time and no one was interested in signing a pitcher with an uneven pitching resume who would have to miss the first 50 games to serve a suspension. Roe considered leaving baseball and going to college until he received an invitation to play independent ball with the Laredo Lemurs. He recorded a 1.47 ERA that season, and the Diamondbacks gave him a second chance on a minor league deal.
He saw his first big league innings with the Diamondbacks in 2013, and seven organizations later, the Rays traded for midway through the 2017 season in a deal with the Braves.
“I thought I was out of baseball a few years ago to be honest with you,” Roe said. “So to be here right now is a blessing. ... I was getting ready to kick it aside and go on with life. But opportunities opened up for me, doors opened up for me, and a lot of guys helped me out get me to where I am today.”
And he’s still taking in everything he can, listening like a rookie rather player who had now reached arbitration.
“When you see guys’ stories like Chaz and you see what he’s doing now, it’s amazing,” Zunino said. “You sort of see what he’s doing to get here. You kind of see things that maybe guys who haven’t had that journey wouldn’t know."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard