ASHEVILLE — In the winter before the 2004 baseball summer season, first-year Erwin High coach Fore Rembert was just trying to help a tall, skinny senior polish his skills in the outfield.
Instead, Rembert discovered Jordan Hotchkiss' hidden talent.
“He'd caught some in previous years, but he mainly was playing the outfield,” Rembert recalled last week. “I was hitting him grounders in right , and we were working on throwing it to the plate. He threw it over the freakin' backstop.”
Rembert asked Hotchkiss to move back to the right field fence then tapped him another baseball and told the right-hander to throw as hard as he could. Again, the ball sailed over the backstop.
That's when Rembert knew it was time for a position change. Hotchkiss, who started playing baseball when he was four, was about to throw his first pitch.
“He was the kind of kid that'd get real nervous, and he started shaking all over when I told him,” Rembert said. “I said, ‘Jordan, look dude. You're gonna do great. I mean, look at how hard you throw.'”
Hotchkiss listened, learned his new position and helped Erwin to a 17-7 record.
He earned a scholarship to Brevard College, got drafted after his junior year and is now a reliever for the Cincinnati High-A affiliate in Lynchburg, Va.
He's allowed one earned in nine appearances and a total of 14 1-3 innings this season (through Thursday's game), giving him a 0.63 ERA. That's the lowest on his team among pitchers with more than one appearance, and it's also lower than the other eight professional pitchers with ties to Western North Carolina.
Besides when Rembert gave him the opportunity to pitch, Hotchkiss pointed at two other developments over the years that set him up to succeed: switching to a side-arm delivery the before his junior year of college and refining his changeup before this season.
“My summer coach for the Asheville Redbirds was Robert Rudder, and he said ‘Maybe you should try throwing sidearm,'” Hotchkiss said last week. “I laughed, and I said, ‘Heck, I'll try anything right now.'”
That day, he picked up a save for the Redbirds.
Still using what he described as a three-quarter sidearm delivery, Hotchkiss said his fastball reaches 92 miles per hour. He supplements that with a change-up to lefties and a slider to right-handers.
Now in his fourth professional season, Hotchkiss said he's unconcerned by the pace the Reds have moved him through their farm system.
“As soon as I got drafted, the best advice my scout (Perry Smith) gave me was to always worry about pitching where you're at,” Hotchkiss said. “Don't look forward, and don't look behind. You've got to forget your bad outings. No matter how good you're throwing, you have to worry about where you're pitching now.”
Rembert's not surprised the tall, skinny kid with a big arm is excelling as a pro pitcher, and he thinks Hotchkiss has a higher ceiling of potential than most guys who've been firing from a mound their entire lives.
“Pitchers are usually identified at an early age,” said Rembert, who now lives in Hickory and no longer coaches or teaches. “His situation was so unique. I was just in disbelief that he had never thrown off the mound before. That's not saying anything bad about the previous coaches. Every coach somewhere has a diamond in the rough; it's just a matter of luckily stumbling across it. That's what we got when we found Jordan.”