It had been 685 days since Drew Rasmussen’s last competitive game. During that nearly two year period he had been on a roller coaster ride like none other. Rasmussen had been an unsigned first round draft pick, gone through a second Tommy John Surgery, then inked as a sixth round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers. Now, on day number 685, he found himself on the mound at Miller Park.
“Before I took my first warm up pitch, I made sure to run out to the mound and take a look around,” said Rasmussen while reminiscing about his return to competitive baseball. “Just to try to capture the moment and enjoy the experience.”
Although he was at a Big League park, Rasmussen was just about to throw his first pitch as a pro for the Class A Wisconsin Timber Ratters. But when Rasmussen unleashed that initial offering at Miller Park, it would hopefully be a premonition of things to come for the flame-throwing righty.
In 2019, Rasmussen blew away his Minor League competition. He logged 74.1 innings pitched, struck out 96 batters, walked just 3.8 per game and posted a 3.15 ERA across three levels. The season was impressive for anyone pitching in their professional debut, let alone someone who hadn’t thrown more than 31 competitive innings since 2015.
Rasmussen’s debut was so impressive, that it made the Brewers adjust their early plans for him on the fly after a few games with the Carolina Mudcats.
“I thought I’d stay in Carolina longer than I did,” said Rasmussen when looking back at his late-May promotion to the AA Biloxi Shuckers. “I didn’t know that Biloxi was a real opportunity for me.”
It took Rasmussen five games to go from high-ceiling rehab prospect to AA pitcher storming toward the Majors.
When Milwaukee drafted Rasmussen, there was one plan the team and the player shared: getting healthy. His medical issues have been well documented. He underwent his first Tommy John Surgery in March 2016. Rasmussen returned to the mound in 2017 to pitch for Oregon State before being drafted in June by the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately, the Rays found an issue in his surgically repaired elbow that would end up preventing the two sides from reaching an agreement. He underwent a second Tommy John procedure and wouldn’t throw another competitive pitch before being drafted by the Brewers in the sixth round of the 2018 draft.
Once he was officially a member of the organization, Rasmussen started working with Milwaukee's strength and medical staff to ensure he was ready to go for the 2019 season. He also started learning more about himself as a pitcher thanks to a new lab at Milwaukee’s Spring Training facility. That lab tells pitchers about the velocity, the increasingly-important spin rate, and the movement of their pitches. The data can help pitchers understand how their stuff holds up to a competition and the best way to attack opposing players.
“(The staff and I) worked on using some of the technology that’s here to figure out exactly how my stuff plays within my repertoire. I’m a believer that when you get into professional baseball, everybody’s talented. There’s gotta be something more that really sets you apart based on what your talents are. Figuring out exactly how to use your strengths to the best of your ability is key and technology is now giving us the ability to do that quickly and more effectively.”
The technology helped Rasmussen learn a lot about himself and how to use his fastball, slider and changeup. Those familiar with Rasmussen’s arsenal also might notice something different when watching him: he’s added a curveball to the mix. The pitch is a new wrinkle that can show hitters a different speed alongside his high-90s fastball and high-80s slider.
Armed with the strength and tools needed to get hitters out, Rasmussen took to the field. He started by working off the mound in Spring Training before debuting in April at Miller Park. The stay with the Timber Rattlers was short. Just four days with Class A — not even enough to sample some Wisconsin cheese — followed by four games with Carolina and then on to the Shuckers. The season was going as well as anyone in Drew’s situation could have hoped for. Through his first 27.1 innings, Rasmussen only allowed three runs and eight walks across all three levels. Then, something happened. Suddenly, he went from astounding to struggling, allowing 15 runs and 11 walks over the next 12.2 innings at Biloxi.
“Ultimately, the first year coming back off of elbow surgery, I was limping into the All-Star break. I think I was a little gassed, a little confused.”
Fortunately, Rasmussen had the guidance of Shuckers pitching coach Bob Milacki. Coming out of the All-Star break, Milacki adjusted Rasmussen’s workout regimen. The idea was to get him more rest and keep his body strong for the rest of the season.
“I think it paid huge dividends in July and into August. I was able to catch my breath and get back after that. (After two years off) there’s really only one way to get in game shape and that’s to pitch in games. I did have my challenges because of it, but I think there’s a lot of growth and lessons to be learned from it. Was it the most fun? No, but it was good for me.”
Headed into year two, Rasmussen hopes that lesson about conditioning can help him find more success. He’s headed into the season focused on managing his workload between outings and taking better care of himself to properly recover and boost his performance.
“Am I going to be perfect next year? Probably not. I’m still going to have to learn and adapt on the fly; however, I do think there are some things I’ll do differently next year to keep my performance as high as it can be.”
The number one goal is getting to the Big Leagues. For Rasmussen to do that, he also needs to improve the consistency of his pitches. He has already made tremendous strides with his slider by focusing on it in the offseason. The pitch was a focus while playing catch, in bullpen sessions and when facing hitters. That gave him more control of it in the games, but it still needs work according to the man himself.
“I had days where I thought (the slider) was a great pitch, but then I also had days where I thought it was pretty flat and I was relying on speed difference with my fastball to get bad contact, not swing and misses.”
He also wants to take something off his changeup. Right now, the pitch has a similar velocity compared to the slider. The goal is to make it even slower, so he’s been practicing with grips and moving the ball back further in his hand.
“It doesn’t have some of the great action you see on like Devin Williams’. He has an elite changeup. Mine’s not quite as advanced as his. I need to soften it up to find a little more success off my fastball.”
While some players are working on those things at home during the offseason, Rasmussen decided the best thing for him was to stay in Arizona. He wanted to have access to the top-of-the-line technology at the Brewers’ facility and bounce ideas off of some of the coaches.
“We have every tool we need at our disposal here. That was one of the big factors of why I wanted to be here in the first place.”
Rasmussen will continue working up until Spring Training. Then, he’ll put some of what he has been working on into action. And if it all goes as planned, it is pretty safe to say that he’ll be back on the mound at Miller Park again in no time.