For former Kell High School standout Zeke Spruill, a second-round pick of the Atlanta Braves in the 2008 draft, the minors have provided him an opportunity to reinvent himself and grow from a boy into a man.
“The more I control myself,” he said, “the better I perform.”
Spruill’s four-year journey through the minors has been one of growth. A 6-foot-4, 200-pound right-handed pitcher, he signed with the Braves organization out of high school and reported to their rookie level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League in the summer of 2008.
That first season was a big success as Spruill went a perfect 7-0 and was honored as the Braves’ pitcher of the year for their Gulf Coast League affiliate.
After spending much of the 2009 season with the Braves’ Class A affiliate in Rome, Spruill rose to the advanced Class A team in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last year.
Spruill remains in advanced Class A, but now with the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats of the Carolina League. It’s with the Hillcats — whose pitching staff also includes fellow Cobb County alumni Chris Masters (Kennesaw Mountain) and David Hale (Walker) — that Spruill leads in innings pitched (90), complete games (three), wins (five) and starts (14). He’s second with 65 strikeouts and sports a 3.40 ERA.
One of Spruill’s best outings of the season came last Friday when he struck out eight and scattered three hits and a walk over eight innings in a win against the Kinston Indians.
Many of Spruill’s numbers rank among the best in the Carolina League, as he’s tied for first in starts and complete games, and first alone in innings pitched. It’s these numbers that tell the story about how far Spruill has come since being drafted.
“My experience in the minor leagues has been a roller coaster,” he said. “I had some off-field trouble in ’09, and I broke my (pitching) hand last season after a bad outing on the mound that took me out for half the season.
“It was just immaturity and stupid stuff that a 19-year-old would do at the time. I did a lot of growing up last year. After I broke my hand, I realized that I can’t mess around with my career like that. I had to settle down and control myself better.”
Control, at least emotionally, was something Spruill apparently lost after he left Kell.
“It shocked me when I heard that Zeke broke his hand after a game,” Kell coach Donnie English said. “He never showed that kind of emotion when he was with us. He was always under control and didn’t let the game get to him. He was a great kid who did his job and anything you asked of him. He was certainly an asset to our team.”
Spruill, 21, was also seen as an asset by major-league scouts, but it’s taken him some time to really show what he can do.
“Zeke had the tools and the things scouts were interested in,” English said, “but the minor leagues can be tough on some guys. Guys have the ability, but sometimes it’s better to go to college and get that experience before jumping to the minors. Zeke didn’t do that, so he’s had to grow up, and now he’s doing it.”
Although he’s away from his wife of seven months, Kathryn, and their rottweiler, Diesel, Spruill has found his control once again, not only with his emotions, but also with his game. His most improved pitch is his changeup, which he says he “can finally throw consistently for strikes.”
Spruill can also hurl a fastball, sinker and a slider to get hitters off balance.
And now, when things don’t go as well as he planned, Spruill just focuses on his next turn in the rotation.
“Something I always have to think about is to make sure that I don’t do anything stupid again,” he said. “It’s easier to do this season. There have been some outings I’ve been pleased with, and some I haven’t been for the most part, but I’m happy with what I’ve been doing on the mound.”
As long as Spruill continues to perform at a high level, the Braves may find a way to make sure he eventually spends time on the major-league roster.
“I’ve always heard you can go straight to the big leagues from Double-A,” Spruill said.
Last week, the Braves called up Randall Delgado from Mississippi to make an emergency start for an injured Tommy Hanson. Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur and former Walton High School pitcher Blaine Boyer have also made the leap from Double-A into the big leagues.
“I’m just trying to make it one league at a time, and take it one game at a time,” Spruill said.
English likes his former pupil’s new attitude.
“No doubt about it,” the veteran coach said. “He hit (the issue) right on the head. He just needed to get serious.”
The new focus has also brought about clarity and better pitching performances for Spruill.
“When (Atlanta thinks) I’m ready to get called up, I’ll go,” he said. “I can only think about right now and my next game. When it happens, it happens.”