The latest C’s Chat is with 2019 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Gabriel Ponce.
The 20 year-old right-hander finished up his first season as a professional ball player where he recorded a 4.66 earned run average and struck out 36 batters over 38-2/3 innings.
The 2019 season for Ponce began at Arizona Western College where he struck out 92 batters over 72 innings with an earned run average of 1.75. Despite those impressive statistics, Ponce had his doubts he would be drafted.
“I was back home with my grandparents in San Luis, Arizona and my grandparents were at the house along with my little sister and my little brother. I was on my computer just trying to see the draft.
I mean, to be honest, I kind of didn’t know I was going to get drafted because I wasn’t committed to nowhere after my college career was done. I had like hoped and I believed in myself that I could get drafted. I felt it was like not 100 percent sure.
It was amazing when the area scout was texting me and it was like a good feeling just to hear from him and the organization too.”
The signing scout who recommended that Toronto take Ponce in the 28th round is no longer with the Blue Jays organization.
“Darold Brown. He texted me (in August) saying like he got back with the Detroit Tigers but he put in the word for me and he still told me to ‘Text me if you have a problem or anything. If you need help with anything, just text me.’ He’s open for anyone.”
There were a couple of other teams that showed an interest in Ponce.
“Some other teams approached me. The Giants texted, Milwaukee. I had the link in my computer and I was doing some questionnaires from other teams. Even my home team from Arizona was scouting me and my advisor helped me out with it too. It was surprising that my home team was scouting me and everything.”
Leading up to the draft, Ponce was asked to fill out questionnaires from major league clubs and that was something he took seriously.
“I actually took my time filling out those questionnaires because I wanted to give out like exact details not to only like write more but to explain too how I am as a person. Those questionnaires are like to get to know you as a person so I try to write as much as possible so that they can know about me.”
The 6-foot-2 right-hander says it was a challenge to make sure he got noticed by major league scouts.
“Me living in San Luis, Arizona which is not even a big city. It’s a small city. It’s a small town. No scout goes to Yuma, they all go to Phoenix or stuff like that. When I had to go to the pre-draft workout, I had to go to Phoenix. It’s like three hours and 30 minutes away from me. I had to drive there from like 4:00 a.m. to get there for like 7:30 a.m.”
Before pitching for Arizona Western College, Ponce was part of an historic first for the San Luis High School baseball program as he was the first player to sign a letter of intent with a Division 1 school, the University of San Diego.
“Honestly, it’s just like many people in my community think of me as a role model because I’m like the first guy who actually went to a D-1 university. I really liked it and everything.
I like to give back to the community too. If I learn something, I’ll get back with my friends and tell him, ‘Hey, I learned this and that.’ Give back to the community, even like little league players.
It’s not that big in San Luis but where I live, there’s like a border town which is San Luis, Mexico. I like to also to go to Mexico and share some information with the coaches. Just have some more knowledge for the guys who are growing up playing baseball.
With the University of San Diego Toreros in 2018, Ponce won three of five decisions but had a 5.68 ERA in primarily a bullpen role in which he whiffed 43 batters over 38 innings. When Torerors pitching coach Nathan Choate took over the coaching job at Loyola Marymount College earlier this year, that also resulted in a change of address for Ponce.
“San Diego was great and I learned a lot from that. I really liked the facilities and everything. I mean, coach Choate left San Diego and I feel like he was pretty much like my Dad and took care of me and taught me a lot. They taught me how to be mentally strong, which I feel has become like a weapon now. I feel like I’m mentally strong now to overcome any obstacle, even in my head. I went with that going to Western Arizona (Junior College).”
Going to Arizona Western was a good fit for Ponce.
“I felt like for me it was more beneficial to go to Arizona Western. I feel like the competition was really good, facing San Jac (San Jacinto), facing Yavapai College Central. Guys that go to D-1 are dropped down from D-1 which our big schools like ASU (Arizona State University) or U of A (University of Arizona) or like Kansas Sate. There’s some guys that dropped down from Arkansas, Auburn. Just the competition there was great.”
Among those Ponce would compete against was a San Jacinto pitcher who would later become his teammate in Vancouver.
“We actually played Luis Quinones last year but I didn’t know him at the time. Now we’re here. We talked about it. We actually beat them with a walk-off.”
Input from his pitching coach and his Matador teammates helped Ponce enjoy a stellar 2019.
“My pitching coach helped me a little bit. It was just moving on and trying to develop myself. Just getting help from everyone. Just my friends that (say), ‘Okay, I need to learn this. Can you show me a few tricks? How do you become better doing this like ‘catch-play’ or what do you do better on this?’ There was a teammate that had a really good slider and I was like, ‘Hey, help me mess around with this grip too.
A lot of diversity too. There was a guy from Curacao, the Netherlands, there were guys from France, there were guys from the whole world. There was diversity and they were all friendly. It was fun because we all competed while having fun.”
Baseball was not Ponce’s sport of choice when he was growing up.
“I didn’t start throwing a baseball until I was 14 and I didn’t starting pitching until I was at junior year in high school. Because I used to play soccer.”
There were two other sports that competed for Ponce’s affections.
“Other than baseball, I was on the swim team in high school, on the golf team and basketball team. I was actually pretty good in basketball. I only got Honourable Mention for All Region in baseball and I got the Most Valuable Player for basketball, which is crazy. “
Ponce says he was a backcourt player on the hardwood.
“Guard, but I used to run point a lot too. I like the Celtics. My favourite basketball player is Kyrie Irving even though he went to the Nets. I was pretty bummed about that.”
His professional rooting interests sort of extends to his hometown football team.
“I’m not up to date on football. If the Arizona Cardinals play, I’m like ‘Okay, I’ll root for them.’ And then hockey, I’ve never watched hockey. Even though there is a team in Arizona.”
A four-time All-Star and three-time World Series winner was Ponce’s favourite pitcher growing up.
“When I started playing baseball, I saw the Giants against the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. I really liked Tim Lincecum and how he pitched and everything. Growing up, I watched Tim Lincecum pitch. I didn’t want to have like (Lincecum’s) mechanics or anything, I just watched him and loved when he pitched with his deception. It was fun to watch him pitch.”
Three coaches helped Ponce develop as a pitcher in high school.
“Cesar Castillo. He was a big influential guy for me. He was like my counselor in school and he was also my baseball head coach.
Also my basketball coach, Tim Morrison, who was also the pitching coach in baseball. They talked to me a lot saying, ‘We believe in you. Okay, you’re going to do this, you’re going to do that and they helped me throughout the way.”
Also my summer ball coach, Lupe Chavez. He runs the Aggies baseball (club) in Watsonville, California. I never thought I was going to play summer ball or travel baseball. He was like, ‘Okay. I see good in you. Let’s go.’ He actually was the one who helped me out with San Diego and other schools.”
Getting Gabriel get to the diamond first was his grandfather Manuel Ponce.
“The biggest influence out of all of them is my grandpa. My grandpa played professional baseball in Mexico. He had a chance to play in the United States but it was rough back then. He was like a big influence for me.
I remember when I was 14, my grandpa told me, ‘Hey, let’s go train. I want you to play baseball.’ I was like, ‘No, I suck at baseball. I want to stick to soccer or basketball.’ But he was like, ‘No, let’s go! Let’s go to the field!’
We went to the field and the first day, when you’re a young kid, a young teen, you’re like, ‘Oh, I suck at this. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ He never gave up on me. Then we started train everyday. I got the hang of it pretty quick and it was nice. It was fun too.”
There are three pitches that Ponce is working to perfect.
“I throw a fastball which kind of moves like a two-seam, like it pops out of my hand which I feel is like a really good trait to have.
I throw a slider, sometime a loopy slider, sometimes it can be sharp but it gets the job done.
I’m working on my split-change right now because I used to be able to throw it really good but now it’s just like I’m kind of lost with it but I’m going to train hard with it so it can be like it was back in San Diego. It’s a touch pitch. I mean, I may not have like a good, good feel of it but I’m starting to feel like it’s back on.”
Just like at Arizona Western, Ponce has also been picking the brains of his fellow Canadians pitchers.
“Interacting with my teammates is good just because everybody throws their stuff different but then you gain a little bit of that knowledge and you try to put that in your catch-play. Different grips, different knowledge from other people. You can use that and whatever feels right to you, then you’re good with it. My catch-play partner Jared DiCesare, really good at catch-play because we do like long toss changeups and everything and it’s really helped me out.”
Another learning opportunity for Ponce comes in the form of charting games in the stands before making his next start.
“I don’t write notes because I have a really good memory so it’s like I’ll try to do this and that so I can remember each (hitter) and what they can do. It’s actually fun to chart. I like charting. It’s easy for me.”
When he got to pitch at Nat Bailey Stadium, Ponce enjoyed pitching in front of more than 6,000 fans.
“The atmosphere here is amazing. Back home, there was like 50 people that showed up to our games and now it’s like 6,400 or something like that. It’s like unreal. My first outing it’s was like, ‘Oh my God! This is crazy.’ But then you start getting used to it and then you just make it a habit of trying to pitch with some many people watching you.”
The 2020 season should see Ponce pitching for the Lansing Lugnuts. He will turn 21 years old on April 29. You can follow him on Twitter @gabrielponce02.
Thanks a million to Gabriel Ponce for this latest edition of C’s Chat and to C’s Media Relations Assistant Jordy Cunningham for setting up the interview.