Caleb Ferguson is making a name for himself, but slowly. The rookie left-hander has established himself as a trusted arm in the Dodgers’ unsettled bullpen, but a Google search for “Caleb Ferguson” last week produced another athlete.
Caleb Ferguson also is a freshman running back at Western Carolina University. He led his team in rushing in a scrimmage last weekend. Football is big in the South.
In California, not so much. The Dodgers’ Caleb Ferguson has never met anyone with his full name, and he had no idea there was another athlete with his name.
“Oh really?” he said. “I’ve never run into anybody.”
Of course, the notion that the 22-year-old Ferguson would be making a major league name for himself this year would have seemed plenty farfetched this spring. He was a 38th-round draft pick who never had pitched above Class A, so he thought a year at double-A would be mighty fine.
He signed a lease for an apartment in Tulsa, Okla., home to the Dodgers’ double-A farm team. His parents threw some furnishings in the car, then drove eight hours from Ohio to deliver them.
He pitched his way out of Tulsa in six weeks.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said, “and I definitely didn’t think I’d be in the bullpen in the big leagues.”
As the Dodgers struggle to develop a supporting cast for All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, Ferguson has emerged as a pleasant and desperately needed surprise. Even after giving up a three-run home run Wednesday night, he has an earned-run average as a reliever of 2.16, with four walks and 30 strikeouts.
Of the 127 National League relievers who have pitched at least 20 innings, Ferguson ranks sixth in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). Jansen ranks seventh.
“To say that we expected him to come up as early as he did and have the impact that he is having on our bullpen was not something on our radar,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.
“We thought, if things went really well this year, he could have a taste near the end of the year. To his credit, he’s taken this opportunity and run with it.”
“Taste” is an interesting choice of word.
Ferguson would have been a much higher draft pick had he not blown out his elbow in high school and required elbow ligament replacement surgery. The Dodgers drafted him anyway, signed him for $100,000 and sent him to their Arizona training complex for rehabilitation.
He was in camp, in more ways than one.
“I got put into fat camp,” he said.
That was in 2014, and he could rehabilitate his elbow and his diet in camp.
He had a breakout season last year, with a 9-4 record and a 2.87 ERA in the hitter-friendly Class A California League, but the Dodgers sent him home with this message: You are at a fork in the road (pun intended). You ought to spend the winter deciding whether your road will lead back toward fat camp, or to major league camp.
“Toward the end of last year,” he said, “I got a little lazy.”
Under Gabe Kapler, who ran the Dodgers’ minor league system from 2015 to 2017 before becoming manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Dodgers provided healthy catered meals at all of their minor league ballparks.
“Some of them are good,” Ferguson said. “Some of them still are bad. Usually, when you’re on the road is when you run into problems with meals, and you’re going into a gas station trying to get some food to eat.
“Not going out to a drive-thru after a game is a big thing. It was, oh, I can go here and get a ton of food for $5. Being able to stop all that and eat what they provide has been good.”
So good, in fact, that the Dodgers immediately noticed two things about Ferguson this spring: his weight was down, and the velocity on his fastball went up. Friedman said he took note of Ferguson on the minor league practice fields this spring.
And, when the Dodgers needed a starter, in a season in which each member of their season-opening rotation has spent at least one stint on the disabled list, they eventually turned to Ferguson.
“When you lose four starting pitchers at one time, it’s going to open the door for somebody,” pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
Of all the statistics Ferguson has compiled this season, this one might be the most compelling: The Dodgers, who ruthlessly shuttle pitchers between the minors and majors, have optioned Ferguson only once this season. (They have optioned Pat Venditte seven times, twice in a five-day span.)
As a starter, Ferguson was not impressive. As a reliever, he has given the Dodgers no reason to option him, adapting so well to an unfamiliar role that he has been used less to soak up innings and more in critical situations. For a new-school organization, it is a wonderfully unintentional old-school way of training a starting pitcher.
“It’s like going back to the old days,” Honeycutt said, “for a young guy to come up here and pitch out of the pen and get a little bit of success and continue to grow that way. Now you’re seeing a very confident young man, and he’s been doing just an unbelievable job.”
Prospect guides are reliable, but not infallible. Baseball America this spring ranked Ferguson as the Dodgers’ No. 20 prospect, projecting him as a “future lefty specialist.” Not only has he outperformed his projections, he has been more effective this year against right-handed batters (.615 OPS) than against left-handed batters (.668 OPS).
Maybe he remains a reliever next season, maybe not. He is just trying to carve out a niche for himself on the team.
As it turns out, that is exactly what the Caleb Ferguson at Western Carolina also is trying to do. He is a redshirt freshman, a running back eager to play anywhere after sitting out last season.
“This year, I’m hoping to be on every single special team that I can,” he said by telephone after practice Tuesday, “and trying to get a little bit of playing time as a running back.”
Ever run into anyone else named Caleb Ferguson?
“I don’t think so,” he said. “No, sir.”
Any idea that the Dodgers had a player named Caleb Ferguson?
“No,” he said.
The football player confessed that he is not much of a baseball fan. Now, however, he could keep up with a player that shares his name.
“I could,” he said.