Now entering C’s Chat from the bullpen is 2021 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Hayden Juenger.
The Toronto Blue Jays selected the 6-foot-0 righthander in the sixth round of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft after a three-year college career at Missouri State. That’s the same program where 2015 C’s pitcher Jon Harris and 2018 outfielder Hunter Steinmetz came from. Juenger received a signing bonus of $197,500. His signing scout was Matthew Huck.
Juenger got to Missouri State after a stellar two-year career at O’Fallon Township High School. Transferring from Collinsville High School in Illinois, he won nine of 10 decisions and had a 1.54 ERA in 54 innings to help O’Fallon win the Southwestern Conference title in 2018. Juenger emerged as the Panthers ace after going 7-2 with a 2.20 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 63 innings the year before. His younger sister Hayleigh Juenger was also an accomplished softball pitcher at O’Fallon.
With the Bears, Juenger made 23 of his 26 appearances in his 2019 freshman campaign and recorded a 4.58 ERA. The pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign saw him strike out 13 batters In nine innings, winning his lone decision to go along with an ERA of 2.00 while converting four saves. In 2021, Juenger continued on in the closer role and collected six saves while striking out 31 batters in 21 innings, winning two and losing two with a 3.86 ERA.
After the conclusion of the college season, Juenger was the focus of a documentary called The Pursuit which followed him in the months leading up to the 2021 MLB draft. The documentary by 117 Pro can be seen on YouTube. You can watch Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 along with a behind-the-scenes look.
After being drafted by the Blue Jays, Juenger was assigned to High-A ball with Vancouver August 2 and made his debut three days later with a shutout inning against Hillsboro. August 9 saw the St. Louis native celebrate his 21st birthday. Juenger’s first win came August 31 in Everett with two shutout innings and four strikeouts. Win number two came against Spokane September 12 and he finished his year with two scoreless frames and four punchouts against Hillsboro September 16. That gave him a 2.70 ERA and a strikeout-walk total of 34-4 in 20 innings. Juenger was not scored upon in seven of his 11 appearances and five of his last seven.
Baseball America took notice of Juenger’s performance with the C’s. In its 2021 MLB Draft Report Card for the Blue Jays, Juenger was listed as having the best pro debut in the Jays system and was considered to be the closest player to the majors from his draft class.
C’s Plus Baseball caught up with Juenger recently to talk about his draft day experience, his time in college and his first year in professional baseball. A transcript also accompanies the video chat below. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
C’s Plus Baseball – With Vancouver Canadians pitcher Hayden Juenger. Thanks so much for joining me today. I came across this documentary, a three-part documentary, on YouTube about your draft day experience.iIt was a really excellent documentary. You had this draft day party in your hometown. What was that like going through the draft day experience and finally hearing your name called by the Blue Jays in the sixth round?
Hayden Juenger – Yeah, that was definitely something I’ll never forget. Before the draft, before the process even ever started, it all started with I was working out down here one day and my old pitching coach when I was like 14 now does media stuff for Turn Two. And he just started record me workout one day. He’s like, ‘I got a vision of ‘I’m gonna kind of create this video, like a three-part documentary series of your draft process.’ He was like, ‘There’s not many out there. And I think, you know, it’s a process that a lot of people would like to see behind the scenes stuff’. And so that’s kind of how it started. But you know, that day I vividly remember it was … I guess Sunday night, we watched the first round at home and it was just like knowing there was a chance that my name was gonna get called on the day two was exciting, but I did not sleep at all that Monday night or Sunday night.
I think I got like four or five hours of sleep. I was tossing and turning, anxious. And then, the next day, you know, got some calls before the draft and then I didn’t really hear anything when the draft started. And then, you know, the fifth round rolls around and that’s, my phone kind of started ringing a little bit with a few other teams and ultimately, you know, hear my name called by the Blue Jays. It was a dream come true there in the sixth round. And it was, I’ll tell you this much. It was 20 minutes that felt like an hour, felt like a lifetime, honestly, just that 20 minutes. You didn’t know what was gonna happen. And when to finally hear it happen. And all … the work paid off, you know, just to get your name called on the, the sixth round was kind of cool.
CPB – It had to have been really excruciating as you mentioned, sleepless nights and all that, but were you confident you were gonna get drafted after everything was said and done with all the pre-draft workouts and whatnot?
HJ – Yeah, I was pretty confident. I knew that, you know, going in, my day was probably day two. My agent had been talking about, you know, probably gonna be a day two guy. As far as where, you know, we didn’t really (know). There was talk, four to seven, eight (rounds) … later in the second round or day two. Uitimately, like I said, the sixth round, couldn’t be happier … I was just trying to like, describe some of the, I guess, emotions that were in that. I mean, you saw the video. That was raw emotion. … I was kind of shocked at first, like culture shock hit you. Like, that just happened – to hear my name called. But then I would say probably after the party was over, like when I got to talk to (Blue Jays scout) Matthew (Huck) about, you know, when I was flying down and stuff, that’s when it really hit me. That was the, true (indication) . Okay, this is really happening now.
CPB – Now on the video, it shows that you were getting this phone call. So I guess you probably had a few minutes to, I guess, prepare for your name to be called. Was that what happened?
HJ – Yeah, (Matt Huck) had called me a little bit before. It ultimately ended up, you know, it happened … as soon I got off the phone with him. I had about a 15-second break between when I got off the phone with him and when the Blue Jays like actually selected me. So I kinda knew it was coming, but it was crazy.
CPB – So you didn’t really have a whole lot of time to prepare. I mean, usually, sometimes players get heads up like five minutes beforehand, but everything happened at once basically for you.
HJ – Yeah, and the reason being, I’m not going to name the other teams for personal reasons but there was another team that had said they were going to take me. And the Blue Jays picked before them … I didn’t know what team was gonna be (picking me). And it ended up being the Blue Jays. Like I said, I couldn’t be happier that with the way everything happened. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. So when the Blue Jays selected me, I was like, ‘Alright, that’s where I needed to be.’
CPB – Did you have any idea the Blue Jays were interested in, you, when you look back on it and say, yeah, that makes sense that they would take you?
HJ – They were not one of the teams that I had talked to a lot. I will say that. It was kind of like a late thing where I had a few, I would say I had like four or five teams that … I was talking to on a heavy basis before going into a couple days leading up to the draft, the Blue Jays were not one of them. But I remember talking to Matthew Huck, during Christmas break when I was still at Missouri State. … The conversation … went really well. … After I started playing, he had texted me a few times during the season but then leading up to the draft, there wasn’t really anything. So it was kind of surprising when they had called me because they were the first team during the draft that had called me. When my phone popped up and said ‘Matthew Huck’, I was like, ‘Okay … there’s another team. Like, this is cool. Didn’t expect this.’ Like I said … it went really fast. I think Matthew called me in the fifth round and I got drafted in the sixth round. So there was a lot of, a lot of stuff got taken care of really quick.
CPB – I noticed you did get a hold of a Blue Jays cap afterwards. I believe your sister had one as well. Did somebody have caps ready for you? How did that all come about?
HJ – A few of our friends (and) my sister ran to Lids at the mall, which was right down the road and grabbed a couple of them. … I know they sold out pretty quick at Lids from what I heard from some of my family and friends that everybody went and picked one up. They were fighting for ’em.
CPB – So how did it feel to don the Blue Jays cap and being a member of the Blue Jays organization? I’m sure that had to be a special, special moment for you and your sister and really, everybody involved in your draft party.
HJ – Yeah, it was. It was really the feeling that I just like, you know, I would put it on and know like, ‘Hey, like that’s the team that you’re playing for now.’ … Everybody strives to make the big leagues and that’s the end goal, but, you know, to start and be able to put the Blue Jays cap on, it was definitely a surreal moment for me. … I grew up in St. Louis so I know Cardinals fans … I would say for personal reasons, they’re the best in baseball, but I know up there in Canada, when you got a whole nation backing you up, it’s exciting. … When I put that cap on, it’s not just for me or the team, you know, we’re supporting a whole country up there.
CPB – I was going to ask you about that. I saw in your timeline on Instagram and Twitter, (are you a) Cardinals fan or a Royals fan because I kind of saw tweets for both. I wasn’t sure where your loyalties were before this.
HJ – Yeah. I grew up a Cardinals fan and a Royals fan. It’s weird because you know, right here in Missouri or Illinois, but you know, (I’m a) Cardinals fan – born, true blue Cardinal fan. And then the Royals … they were my second favorite team growing up so that was a nice little rivalry growing up, you know, Cardinals-Royals.
CPB – You joined the Blue Jays organization out of Missouri State. Talk about your time at Missouri State. You became the closer. Basically you spent your career there as a reliever. What was that like pitching for the better part of three seasons with the Bears?
HJ – First off, I’d like to thank the coaches for taking a chance on me out of high school. But honestly, like going in there, I had all the confidence in the world and my freshman fall wasn’t good. (Laughs) I had like a 10.00 ERA. I got knocked down. (It was) the first time in my career that I would say I’ve been like kind of knocked down and been like, ‘Okay, like I gotta figure out how to pitch now.’ And you know, I took it to heart. I came back home and made the rotation as a freshman. I made two starts and then moved back to the bullpen. And I think that was the best thing for me. My stuff plays well in the bullpen. … After my second start I made at the University of San Diego as a freshman, it wasn’t good.
And I just kind of looked myself in the mirror. I was like, ‘You know what? This isn’t who I am.’ I kind of put my head down and started working harder and ultimately ended up getting the opportunity to become a long reliever and then transforming two years later (to) our closer for … 2020, 2021. My time at Missouri State was awesome. There’s not a better school I think I could have picked to go to, The coaches … they care about their players there. On and off the field, you know, I think I’m a better player obviously, but I think I became a better person under Keith Guttin. Him and Paul Evans are a great duo down there.
CPB – You talk about Paul Evans and there’s also another pitching coach that was featured prominently in your draft video, Sam Weber. Uh, Would you say those are the two names that come to mind when talking about your development as a pitcher?
HJ – Yeah, for sure. Sam is my trainer now. I’ve been training with him for … my second offseason or, I guess, second winter with him. I started with him last winter and ultimately I think … me and him much clicked really quickly. … He is big into like mechanics and how you move. … Not that my mechanics are bad, but moving better and getting my arm on time, he really helped me with all that stuff. And I actually saw my velo jump a little bit when I started throw with him. And then … Paul Evans is a great guy, a great coach. … Our assistant pitching coach down there is Nick Petree who was actually drafted by the Cardinals (Editor’s Note – Petree was drafted by St. Louis in the 9th round of the 2013 MLB draft) and is, I’d say is arguably the most decorated pitcher in Missouri State history. … He really helped me out too. Our minds kind of think alike. … He wasn’t a big velo guy, kinf of a shorter (5-foot-10, 185 pound) guy that had a really good slider and just kind of figured it out in college and then that got him to pro ball, but he just knew how to pitch. And so I kind of noticed from talking him, picking his brain and … helping me out. … We really (clicked) together … He was our bullpen coach for the last two years there. And as I said, (when you’re) getting to pick his brain, it’s always better when you can pick a guy like that who’s been there and made it … to Double-A with, the Cardinals. … Those three guys really helped me in my development.
CPB – This past year with the Bears,, you were the closer. How did you enjoy pitching in the closer role?
HJ – Yeah, I enjoy it. Growing up, I played a position my whole life…. i actually hated pitching (laughs), ironically. I didn’t start pitching until I was like 12 or 11. … My favorite two things were starting – I wanted to start, I wanted to finish a game. And then, you know, becoming a closer, it is just like, ‘Hey, you know. I got my opportunity. I’m finishing it. … I didn’t get to start it, but I get to finish it.’ … I love the (big) moments. I try (not) to let the moment get too big, you know, I feel like I’m a very calm and cool guy. I kind of pitch with emotion but I think that’s a good thing if you can control it.
And like I said, being a closer … I wanna be the guy that ends the game for us, you know, so being in Missouri State gave me the opportunity to do that. It was awesome. I think back there was one save in particular, or I guess two. It was a Tuesday night in Columbia, Missouri,we beat Mizzou. And Tuesday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and taking down the Cowboys … that was fun too,… Those are the games you live for, you know, the conference wins that those are fun. But when you go into a school, you know, a Power 5 (conference) school and can take ’em down in their place during a midweek and you’re on the mound to close it out, there’s no better feeling.
CPB – And it was a chance for you that last year … I guess, to really, to knock off the rust considering what happened in 2020 with the season getting cut short by COVID. How big a setback was that for you personally as far as your development as a pitcher goes?
HJ – Yeah, I mean, 2020 was a wild year. … I remember we were playing … in Houston, we were playing at Rice and we’re supposed to go to California the next weekend. And our coach is like, ‘Yeah, we might not even be going.’ And I’m like, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what COVID was at the time. Had no idea. I didn’t watch the news like probably as much as I should have, but I try … to stay out that stuff because it’s out of my control. … COVID ended up hitting, we’ get canceled and I come home … we go on spring break. So our school is like, ‘Hey,, take your books home just in case you don’t come back.’ And ultimately that’s what had happened, you know?
I would say it was really my high school years. I was kind of the late bloomer in terms of like velocity and stuff. I moived to O’Fallon my junior year. Born and raised in St. Louis (grew up in) Collins, Illinois. And then we moved to O’Fallon but my junior year is when it really took off. I had moved there, had started to get some offers, some little low D1 (schools), local D1’s, and I was like 89, 91, 92 (miles per hour) Then I think I got to like 93 and then Missouri State, they all came kind of knocking. I was 90 to 93 now, and then it really took off my senior year. I knew after I committed to Missouri State, my junior year, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be a pitcher at college. Like no big deal. Let’s enjoy these last two years of, getting to play the field and hit and stuff. ‘And I think I really just took off.
Another step for pitching was my senior year. I started,that summer I was like throwing like 94 95 and was like, ‘Alright …maybe there’s a chance I get drafted out of high school but I was pretty much set on going to college. I knew I was going go do that. I would say … In between my junior and senior years when it really like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna take off.’ I always wanted to play professional baseball and I knew … I would be pitching at the next level. I knew from like obviously my junior year is when I really knew pitching was from me.
CPB – You talk about your fastball. I’ve heard reports, it’s run up to 98 (MPH). Is that the highest it’s ever been for you?
HJ – Yes, 98’s the highest I’ve ever hit my life. .. My goal is to throw 100 one day. However, I mean, if it happens, it happens. If not, I’ll, I’ll stay with 98, you know, that’s not a bad number to sit at.
CPB – Fast enough! Whatever works, right? Talk about your pitch mix. I’ve heard fastball, I believe, slider and a change up? Talk about your pitch mix.
HJ – Yeah, you hit it. Fastball, slider, changeup. Growing up like in high school. I think that was part of the reason why I had to go to college was I didn’t really have a change up for slider in high school. It was just a fastball and it was good enough to get through, got to college and I quickly learned that I need another pitch. And I would say my freshman year, I had a fastball and then an average changeup and like an okay slider. I wouldn’t say it was average. It was just, it wasn’t really good. And I really worked really hard on getting a slider. And actually the pitch that came naturally to me was my changeup. I played for the Mankato Moon dogs … In the Northwoods league my freshman year in the summer.
And our pitching coach there Keirce Kimbel, he’s at the University of Evansville now. I was throwing, he was like (teaching me) his change up. And I started throwing that. I’ve modified it a little bit now but it’s pretty much the same grip. … The change has been deadly for me now and I didn’t really throw it until I got to pro ball. I mainly threw (fastballs). I think I was 96 percent or 94 percent fastball my senior or my junior year of college. So you’re gonna get a fastball pretty much. But now in pro bowl, my slider’s come a really long way. My changeup came a really long way. So I mean, I’m excited to see what happens going forward.
CPB – You talked about the development of your changeup. Is there anyone who helped you with developing a slider. I know sometimes it’s always a choice of you go slider or curve ball, but how did that development of the slider come about for you?
HJ – Nick Petree, like I said, at Missouri State, he helped me, Paul Evans, Sam (Weber). But then when I got down actually to the Blue Jays development camp when I got drafted, I was down there at the PDC (Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Florida) and Matt, Tracy and Corey Popham really helped me with my slider, um, getting it to where it was at during the season when I was playing up in (Hillsboro) Oregon. … From the Blue Jays standpoint of things, they really … drove home a slider because you know, if we get … three solid pitches, it’s tough for the hitters to hit, you know.. It’s tough for hitters to hit in general, but (if) you got three pitches that can knock somebody, then pitching comes pretty easy.
CPB – Taking a look now of you getting the pitch for the Blue Jays organization and you get assigned to High-A Vancouver, which turned out to be really be High-A Hillsboro in a way. But when you look back on your first season, how did you think it went for you? It looked like, you know, definitely from the stats anyway, it went really well.
HJ – I enjoyed my time. The guys, when I first got there, the guys welcomed me in like I’d been there, you know, the whole year. Honestly like, I didn’t know what to expect and going into pro ball and getting assigned to High-A. … You hear about how awesome the fans in Vancouver are and here we’re playing in Hillsboro and you know, we’re drawing like 50 people a night. … It reminded me of, back home in Missouri State. We didn’t really draw bigger crowds. It was 500, 600 people, usually on a cold March Saturday night or Saturday afternoon. It kind of eased my nerves a little bit. I just kind of relaxed and did my thing and each day just kind of took it day by day and I couldn’t have been happier with the way it turned out. I thought my pitches played really well, thought my stuff was good. Donnie (Donnie Murphy) was a great manager … Phil Cundari, great pitching coach. Taylor Hill, just a great coaching staff up there. I had a great time. Like I said, the guys were great. I thought it went really well honestly.
CPB – Did you find you had to make any really big adjustments in your first year of pro ball? Because it seemed like …things really went smoothly for you.
HJ – Yeah … actually there was a conversation I had with Matt Tracy and Cory Popham before I left Florida to fly out to Oregon and … Corey was like, ‘Just do what you did in high school and college, throw your fast ball, make ’em hit your fastball before you change anything else up. And I was like, ‘Alright you know, that’s what I’ll do.’ So when I got there, I would still attack with my fastball but I knew the hitters are better. I needed to mix in more off speed. And ultimately I think I got it down to like around 65 percent fastball (usage), which for me, I don’t think that’s right where it needs to be honestly. There was one outing in particular, or one week, and I think it was the week I give up, I think half my runs, we were playing Everett and I just couldn’t land an off-speed (pitch).
As far as my changeup, they were spitting on the changeup and I couldn’t land my slider. So I was really just pitching with the fastball. Those two outings kind of got prolonged a little bit because they kept fouling off my fastball. They didn’t necessarily barrel it up but it got my pitch count up so I wasn’t able to get my two innings in. It was, I think, an inning-and-a-third, an inning-and-two-thirds and I was pulled because of the pitch count. And so after that weekend I was like, ‘You know what? I got to go just land an offspeed pitch. I land an offspeed pitch and I’ll be fine’. … Really after that week, my changeup, became deadly and it opened up the play of my fastball. So I think, you know, that was really the only (bad) week I had this year so far of my short career I’ve had in pro ball. But just being able to land another pitch. And I think going forward, that’s what I need to do and I’ll have some success.
CPB – Looking at your stat line, I think really the most impressive thing – ,just four walks and you hit a batter in, all those innings you pitched. So you give yourself a chance to succeed by not walking the ballpark.
HJ – Yeah. That’s something that I kind of take pride in. In high school growing up, never playing travel ball … I hardly had any walks. Well, freshman year I think looking back, I think I had 29 walks or 32 walks or something like that in 58 innings. … I remember just looking at it and I was like, ‘That’s not me. Like I’m pitching scared.’ And so I told myself from sophomore year on, I’m not gonna walk people. And I think if you could look back at the stats, you know, the walks numbers or the strikeout to walk ratio, they’re definitely higher up there. I just think I take pride in (it). If you walk somebody, I think they score. That’s the way I look at it. I walked four and in Everett, I walked three and … ironically, those three runs scored.
So for me, it’s like, if you walk somebody they’re gonna score. Now whether they actually score may not be true, but you walk somebody, you get a ground ball, a force play at second and now there’s a runner on first. Next thing you know, you get a ball in the gap and then that run scores. I feel like you’re just putting added pressure when you walk up somebody. And so I try to keep the ball in the strike zone and if they’re gonna get on base, make them get on base via a hit. You know, obviously walks are part of the game, but I think if you can cut ’em down, then you’re gonna have more success.
CPB – So you complete your first season of Vancouver and reading (about you) a little bit about Baseball America. They usually issue a draft report card of how teams did in the draft. And you were listed in two categories. One, ‘Closest to the Majors’ and two, ‘Best Pro Debut.’ I think the fact that the Jays assign you to HIA right off the bat instead of making you go to Dunedin at first. That’s gotta be a bit of a confidence boost knowing that the Jays … certainly do have plans. They do have high hopes for you.
HJ – Yeah. I mean, that’s something that honestly, whatever they feel comfortable doing, I’ll 100 percent back them up. But for me, knowing like they’re not afraid to push me. And they have told me, ‘We’re gonna continue to push if you show that you can succeed.’ And I really like that because I want that challenge and I’m very thankful for the opportunity. It does give you another boost of confidence when there’s high expectations for you. I have high expectations for myself, you know? Like I said earlier, I wanted to play pro ball since I was four years old when I was in … elementary school and people were asking me, ‘What do you wanna do when you grow up?’ My answer was always, ‘I wanna play professional baseball.’ It was never like, ‘I wanna be whatever a business pro, I wanna play professional baseball’. To (be able to) live that out now is truly amazing. And, like I said, you know, it gives you a boost of confidence when, when you see stuff, that you’re performing well. And then you see it from the organization side of (things), you know they have high hopes for you. It’s exciting.
CPB – So now you’re preparing for 2022. How’s your offseason preparation been going? What’s been going on for you on that front?
HJ – Yeah, it’s been good. You know, I’ve been doing (the Blue Jays workouts). They have some workouts for us and a throwing program. And so I’m following a throwing program and I’ve been down to Florida twice at the PD (Player Development Complex) so far this off season. And, to be honest, I’m really looking forward to 2022. Wherever I may be, you know, … I’m excited, But I would say my, my number one goal was to put on some weight and I’ve actually done that already. I’m gonna continue to put on some more weight. I was, I think, I ended the season like around 182 (pounds) and I’m already up to 192. So for me, that’s a big plus and I’m just going to maintain that weight. I feel good. My arm feels probably, arguably the best it’s ever felt so far. In my short (career). I know college offseasons … there’s not much of an offseason, but so far, I’d say since my freshman year of college, this is the best my arm. has felt going forward. So yeah, I’m excited to get back on the mound here in the next month or so, and, you know, just see where it goes.