“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” once amused Magic Kingdom patrons.
Nick Bitsko’s wild ride from last fall through the June 10 Major League Baseball Draft ended 90 miles southwest of Fantasyland at Tropicana Field. The Tampa Bay Rays selected the CB East senior in the first round with the 24th pick.
“(Nick) has the ability to throw three and times even four ‘plus’ pitches, and has a physical nature to one day be a 200-inning big league pitcher,” shared Jeff McLerran, the Rays’ director of minor league operations. “Those are hard to find. Plus, as our guys got to know him, the maturity, thought process and drive helped to make him a guy we wanted to choose with our first pick.”
“They’re (Tampa Bay) so good at understanding a pitcher’s strengths and highlighting and elevating those strengths,” Bitsko noted.
“I think we were very, very happy and somewhat surprised to see him at 24,” McLerran added, “and we didn’t waste a lot of time making that pick.”
Yet Bitsko’s journey from Central Bucks East to Tampa Bay made Mr. Toad’s ride look mild.
Ten months ago, Bitsko was considered one of the best prep arms in the 2021 draft. The hectic journey started in the fall, when Bitsko decided to graduate early and reclassify. He completed five additional classes on top of his regular CB East workload.
“The big class was the stat class. I had to take the in-school final right before Christmas,” Bitsko remembered. “Then we had to submit all of the paperwork to Virginia to apply by Jan. 1 once I was able to graduate early. It was definitely an insane process that was crunched into a little window.”
Bitsko had a long-standing commitment to NCAA baseball power Virginia. But he also had a 6-foot-4 frame, a high 90s fastball and off the charts makeup that made him a likely high draft pick. MLB.com reported Bitsko’s reclassification on Jan. 7 and the family was able to meet with most area scouts during the winter. Ironically, they did not meet with the Rays at that time.
“We try and put a pretty good amount of weight on those intangibles knowing that that is a separator,” McLerran pointed out. “From the time that our guys got to spend with Nick, they felt like those were things in his positive column.”
“I always thought my parents raised me right with that kind of stuff,” Bitsko said humbly. “I give them credit and have always tried to keep a level head.”
Bitsko needed a level head when CB East’s baseball season was unexpectedly canceled. The Patriot had first-round everything, except experience. He logged only 23.2 innings as a sophomore – albeit with 46 strikeouts. Bitsko threw just one March bullpen in front of scouts.
“At the time, we thought we’d lose a couple of games but it wouldn’t be too detrimental to our season. Once everything was officially canceled, I went to two bullpens a week and trained on my own,” Bitsko described. “That was where all of my social media postings came from. I used Rapsodo and the data to start to boost my draft stock.
“I try to look at the positive of everything,” Bitsko continued. “I wouldn’t have been able to break down my data and understand the statistics of my pitches. It was definitely a good process before either going to college or pro ball: to have that experience of understanding the analytics of what I want to do with my pitches. If this didn’t happen, I would have stayed more of a ‘feel’ pitcher and not understanding what my stuff does without the analytics.”
“A lot of the buzz around Bitsko was the result of video and Rapsodo metrics he shared from various bullpen sessions on Twitter and Instagram,” wrote Quincy Fuehne. “To be clear – the number one reason Bitsko was selected isn’t because of Rapsodo. It’s because he’s filthy. That said, his rise may be a sign of things to come.”
Scouting Bitsko “was a challenge and our area scouting director – Zach Clark – certainly had awareness and a relationship with him,” McLarren said. “We weren’t able to do a lot of stuff in person but we tried to utilize Zoom calls or FaceTime video to see what he was able to do as he sent data and feedback as to how he was progressing.”
Viral videos of Bitsko hitting 98 mph produced a draft prospect unlike any other. ESPN called Bitsko “the draft’s Man of Mystery.” MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo ranked Bitsko in his top 15 prospects, yet fellow draftnik Keith Law didn’t even place Bitsko in his final mock draft’s first round because of the huge unknown.
“The day of the draft, I tried to ignore it. I trained in the morning and tried to get my mind off of it. I had no idea what was going to happen,” Bitsko emphasized. But getting selected “was a cool moment to experience with my family and friends around me. It was definitely something I’ll never forget.”
The Bitskos made a quick trip and tour to Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field. Bitsko received a several million bonus, signing the contract in the owner’s suite. But instead of sending Bitsko on the next plane to minor league ball, like everyone else, he is back home.
“As of now, it’s all been virtual. Our pitching coordinators and pitching coaches are reaching out to pitchers as best they can whether they can be on a FaceTime or Zoom to watch a bullpen and give feedback or whether the player can video himself,” McLerran explained. “They can continue to experiment and try to find ways to get better. Maybe make pitches a little bit sharper or work with our strength and conditioning guys to get a little bit stronger or faster.”
“I’ll have a weekly call with the pitching coordinator and get on another call with the minor league pitching coaches and other players to discuss pitches. Hopefully we get down there this fall for instructional league,” Bitsko said, “and they can start to really develop me in a better way and get their hands on me in person.”
“We’re excited to have him,” McLerran concluded. “All of the early returns and the way our scouts talk about him make us excited to work with him.”