Maddeningly inconsistent Canadian pitching prospect Phillippe Aumont finally turned in an impressive string of appearances (35 strikeouts in 21.2 Triple-A innings) to close out the 2011 season. Will he be part of the 2012 Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen?
Phillippe Aumont had a difficult childhood growing up in Gatineau, Quebec – a place he calls “a ghetto.” Aumont, who comes from a broken home, was placed in foster care at the age of 13. While he had a foster home, Aumont spent most of his time on the streets:
“It was a pretty rough place,” Aumont said. “There’s lots of drugs and lots of bad kids. I was going in that direction, and I finally realized that’s not what I want to do.”
“I took soft drugs and then I was involved in some small-time robberies,” he says candidly.
“I was on the wrong track. Two or three of my chums from back then became vegetables because of drugs. Others are totally lost.
“I wanted a better life. I wanted a future. At one point, I had the willpower to say no.”
It was at that point that Aumont left his foster home to live with his adopted parents, Stephane Petronzio and Sylvia Hughes. Petronzio was a summer-league baseball coach when Aumont arrived to play at the age of 14, throwing his fastball in the mid 80′s. However, it wasn’t just Aumont’s size (6′ 2″ at the time) or his radar-gun readings that impressed Petronzio:
“What really struck me was that he used to come to practice by bus,” Petronzio said. “To me, that meant he was very passionate about baseball and was willing to work for it.”
There was more to Petronzio’s decision to “adopt” Aumont than just baseball.
“We wanted to get him off the street,” Petronzio said. “Our first objective was to make him a good man. Baseball was secondary.”
Living with the Petronzio family helped Aumont achieve his high school degree, the first in his family to do so. It also afforded him the opportunity to play for his country on the international stage.
Baseball Canada’s Director of National Teams, Greg Hamilton, spotted Aumont at a tryout and immediately placed him on Canada’s Junior National Team.
“His street smarts, his life smarts, were very advanced in his sense of what he wanted to be and what he wanted to accomplish,” Hamilton said. “He had a desire to be successful; he had a desire to be a good person.”
Phillippe gained valuable experience when playing for Team Canada in Cuba at a tournament. He pitched 4 innings, then homered in extra innings to win the game. Aumont’s international exposure had additional benefit: the opportunity to showcase for MLB scouts when playing professional teams. Coming from Quebec, Aumont was a relative unknown. There was no high school baseball during Aumont’s time and chances to see him pitch were limited.
Aumont has faced professional teams several times. Against the Atlanta Braves’ extended spring training squad, he struck out four in two scoreless innings. Against Detroit’s extended spring squad, he hit 96 on the radar gun. In an outing against the Mariners’ rookie-level team in the Dominican Republic, he struck out seven and allowed four earned runs in four innings. In that game, attended by much of the Seattle scouting staff, 24 of Aumont’s 67 pitches were more than 94 mph.
Aumont caught the eye of Bob Fontaine, Vice President of Scouting and David May, Northeast Scouting Coordinator for the Seattle Mariners. Aumont had filled out considerably and was an imposing figure on the mound at 6’7″ and 250lbs.
“You look at a kid as big and strong as he is and as big and strong as he’ll continue to get, you can’t help but get excited,” Fontaine said. “Coming from Canada, (he) hasn’t pitched as much as a lot of the kids from the States, obviously, but the competition has been as good as anybody in the States has faced.”
Seattle (and other organizations) thought he was the best pitcher available and were ecstatic that he was still on the board when their turn came at #11. Bob Fontaine said Aumont’s background wasn’t a deterrent for the club:
“We’re fine with it, and we’re very confident that this is a fine young man,” he said.
So confident that Aumont was signed to a $1.9 million bonus. He was drafted higher than any Quebecker before him in MLB draft history.
Seattle took it slow with their prized prospect the following season in low-A Wisconsin. Aumont began the season in the bullpen, throwing between 40 and 50 pitches every 5 days before being moved to the starting rotation. After 8 starts, Aumont was shut down due to a sore elbow and finished the season with 56 innings pitched. To ease the burden on his elbow, the Mariners elected to use Aumont in a relief role the following season.
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At the beginning of the 2009 season, Aumont was a member of Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic and had the biggest moment of his baseball career vs. Team USA. With Canada trailing 6-4 in the 7th inning, Aumont was called on to face the top of the order for Team USA. No small task for a pitcher who had only one season of professional experience at low-A level.
Dustin Pedroia, last year’s American League MVP, doubled to lead off the inning. Jimmy Rollins, a former NL MVP, followed with an infield single. With Chipper Jones batting, Aumont threw a wild pitch, which advanced both runners into scoring position.
Aumont admitted to feeling nerves against Jones. He was well aware of Jones’ .364 average in 2008. He walked Jones to load the bases.
Aumont didn’t panic, he said, and that’s how he got cleanup hitter David Wright — who admitted to having no idea who Aumont was — on a lineout and Kevin Youkilis on a strikeout. Just one out from escape, Aumont found himself in a 2-2 count against Curtis Granderson. With everyone in the building standing, Team Canada catcher Russell Martin called for a fastball. Aumont shook him off and threw a curveball.
Granderson struck out swinging on a nasty hammer and Aumont pumped his fist as he danced off the mound and 42,314 fans went wild. It was a consummate coming out party for the Canadian kid with a checkered past.
That season Aumont was promoted to the hitter-friendly high-A league, playing for High Desert. In 33 innings, Aumont posted a 3.24 ERA with 35 strikeouts and 12 walks. He was promoted mid-season to Double-A West Tennesee and struggled with his command. In 18 innings he walked 11, although he also struck out 24. He finished with a 5.09 ERA at West Tennesee.
Following the season, Aumont was acquired by the Philadelphia Phillies from the Seattle Mariners with outfielder Tyson Gillies and pitcher J.C. Ramirez in exchange for pitcher Cliff Lee.
At the beginning of the 2010 season, Aumont entered MLB.com’s Top 50 Prospects list, checking in at #47:
He wouldn’t last there long.
The Phillies moved Aumont from the bullpen to the starting rotation and assigned him to their Double-A affilliate in Reading. The control problems that plagued Aumont in West Tennesee in 2009 intensified in 2010. In 11 starts, Aumont posted a 7.43 ERA and a 38/38 K/BB ratio in 50 innings pitched. He was demoted halfway through the season to the Phillies’ pitching-friendly Florida State League affilliate in Clearwater. He was just average there, posting a 4.48 ERA in 16 games – 10 of those games being starts. Yet he still had little command of his pitches. Aumont walked 42, beaned six and threw 11 wild pitches in 72 1/3 innings.
This past season, Aumont turned things around in spring training. After camp had concluded, Chuck LaMar, the assistant general manager who oversees player development for the Phillies, was asked to name the “bright light” of camp so far – in other words, the guy who made everyone sit up and take notice.
“Phillippe Aumont had an outstanding spring,” LaMar said enthusiastically. “He had impressive outing after impressive outing.”
“Phillippe Aumont’s confidence is back,” LaMar said. “He likes the role he’s in. He’s throwing strikes with power stuff – 94, 95 miles per hour with a curveball and a sinker with late life. We really like what we’ve seen of this guy.”
Aumont carried the momentum from spring into the regular season for Double-A Reading, pitching 31 innings in relief and performing extremely well: he posted a 2.32 ERA, had 41 strikeouts to 11 walks and only 23 hits allowed.
That performance earned him a mid-June promotion to Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
“My confidence level’s higher than it was last year, that’s for sure,” Aumont said. “I’m much more comfortable in my delivery this year, and when things go wrong, I know what’s wrong and I’m able to make the adjustment right away.”
“Frustration set in and I didn’t handle it well,” Aumont admitted. “It was the toughest thing I ever had to deal with, something I never had to experience before. Every game I thought, ‘This start will turn things around,’ and it didn’t happen, and I think I gave up on myself a little bit.”
The biggest key to the turnaround, Aumont said, was the time he spent in the off-season with Dr. Jack Curtis, the organization’s “mental coach.” Curtis — who had ties with the late Harvey Dorfman, who worked with Roy Halladay on his mental approach — was with the Mariners when Aumont was drafted, then surfaced last year with the Phillies, and Aumont said Curtis “gave me a big start at coming back and being myself.”
“Some of the stuff seems so complicated, and he’ll take it apart and you realize it’s simple stuff,” Aumont said. “We worked on getting the right mind-set, on emphasizing the positive, and it’s carried over.”
Phillippe has often been referred to as a “right-handed Randy Johnson.” Johnson, like Aumont, struggled with his mechanics because of his height and build – so much so that he didn’t figure it out until he was 30. It was well worth the wait.
Aumont is able to repeat his delivery much more effectively in a relief role. As well, having to face a team’s lineup only once in a game allows him to stick to his two most effective pitches: his fastball and hard curve. His changeup is sub-par at best and is Phillippe would be well-served to scrap the pitch entirely. As a result of these factors, Aumont’s breakthrough of 37 strikeouts in 22.2 Triple-A innings this season is legitimate. Although the walks are still a concern, I expect him to be pitching in the Phillies’ bullpen in 2012. In fact, Aumont could turn out to be a key piece of the bullpen for a team that looks to have a shaky back end should closer Ryan Madson choose not to re-up. That would turn this feel-good story into a feel-great story. Stay tuned.
Images courtesy of gcobb.com, milb.com, Baseball Canada’s Media Guide and Getty Images.
Quotes sourced from Mariners’ Phillippe Aumont Sends Message, Prospect of the Day: Phillippe Aumont, Canada’s Aumont Makes Most of His Chance, Phils’ Official: Don’t Give Up On Phillippe Aumont, M’s go north, draft Canadian pitcher, Bearing Down on Phillippe Aumont, Phillippe Aumont Bounces Back, Aumont Bouncing Back From Brutal 2010 Season and Big Kid … Big Dreams.