The 130-pound high school shortstop at Alabama baseball’s walk-on tryouts wouldn’t have stood out from the crowd. The only college to show interest in Chase Lee was Division III Covenant College in Chattanooga, so he came to Alabama as a regular student instead.
His parents pushed him to show up for Alabama’s open tryouts for the baseball team in September 2017.
“They kind of wanted me to try my best at everything I do, so they made me try out because there was nothing to lose from it,” Lee said.
Lee eventually made the team a year later, following a route he never would have guessed. At the suggestion of head coach Brad Bohannon, he switched to pitching and learned to throw sidearm. He posted a dominant season for Alabama’s club team in spring of 2018 and now suits up at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. UA opens its season on Feb. 15.
He probably won’t be the Crimson Tide’s Friday night starter or its closer, but he’s earned a spot on the team for the 2019 season. That’s more than he could have expected when he showed up for tryouts in 2017.
“We were obviously a little thin on the mound last year, so we talked going into tryouts, ‘Hey, if anybody looks like they have good arm action, let’s just put them in the pen and see if they can’t do something on the mound, see if they can’t pitch,’” pitching coach Jason Jackson said.
Lee showed some athleticism as an infielder and Bohannon liked his arm strength. He had played mostly shortstop at McAdory High School and pitched only a little during one season, but was willing to try. His pitches topped out around 82 miles per hour, well below what he’d need to help an SEC team.
There was a flash of potential that intrigued Bohannon, but Lee was still a long ways off. He suggested to the freshman that he switch his arm slot, from throwing overhand to throwing side arm.
“Bo was like ‘Hey, your stuff is a little short,’” Jackson said. “(Lee) said, ‘It’s always been my dream to play at Alabama, my whole life. What do I have to do? Is there anything?’ There’s a pretty good amount of kids that will say that, so that wasn’t too out of the ordinary. Bo told him ‘Man, to be honest, I think your best shot is probably going to be if you can master (sidearm), make some strides in that.”
That was all Lee needed. He didn’t expect feedback at all from the tryout, so he took the advice and ran with it. Later that fall, he started working with local pitching coach Bryant Thompson. Lee had never pitched full-time or thrown sidearm, but set out to learn.
“Most times when kids try out like that and they don’t make it and they’re already enrolled in a school, they kind of give up on it,” Thompson said. “That was the last thing on Chase’s mind. He just kept working.”
Sidearm pitchers use an unconventional throwing motion, lowering their arm until it’s parallel or near-parallel with the ground when they release the ball. It creates less power than throwing over the top, but creates a different movement on the ball.
It’s also more difficult for righty hitters to see the ball when it comes out of his hand. Lee throws right-handed, which means right-handed hitters in the batter’s box have to see the ball coming out behind their shoulder rather directly ahead.
It’s not unusual for a pitcher who is struggling to drop his arm slot in an attempt to keep his career alive when hitters find success. It’s also not unheard of for middle infielders like Lee to make the switch, though it is rare. Shortstops and second basemen, unlike outfielders, have to throw the ball from a variety of angles. They’re also usually better athletes than some other positions.
The speed with which Lee learned his new trade was far from anyone could have imagined, though.
“Chase has really taken it to a whole new level,” Thompson said. “I really didn’t see him doing this much this fast.”
Throwing sidearm wasn’t a straight path. Thompson said some days went smoothly, but others were like starting over again. Lee kept working, though.
He joined Alabama’s club baseball team in early 2018 to put his new pitching skills to use. It didn’t take long before he had become their top starter. Lee posted a 0.21 earned run average and went 7-0 in nine starts, the best numbers in the nation for a starting pitcher at the club level.
“I think I faced him probably upwards of 10 times, and he probably struck me out eight or nine times out of the 10,” said Bailey Whitten, an outfielder and president of the baseball club team. “It’s almost impossible. … I’m by no means an SEC hitter but I feel like I’m a decent baseball player and hitting off of him was a nightmare. You never knew what pitch was coming.”
Competition at the club level isn’t what Lee will face in the SEC, but there’s still talent there. Against Florida State, he played a team with two players that have since been added to the Seminoles varsity roster. Other teams had players who had played college baseball or for a junior college but ended up at the club level.
“We were playing Mississippi State here in Tuscaloosa and he threw an absolute gem, almost threw a perfect game,” Whitten said. “Would have thrown a perfect game but I think he walked a guy in the fifth inning. He ended up throwing a no-hitter against Mississippi State. … I think he had 12 or 13 strikeouts. He could put the ball wherever he wanted to. It was a completely dominant performance. I had a bunch of guys from the Mississippi State team come up to me after the game and say that he was the best pitcher they’ve ever faced. Guys that had played JUCO ball said they had never seen a pitcher as dominant as he was.”
He also put on some weight, taking advantage of his freshman meal plan and a weight-lifting routine recommended by Thompson to add about 20 pounds. At 6-0 and 150 pounds he was still lighter than most SEC players, but stronger than he was at his first tryout.
That put him on track for tryouts again in September of 2018 until he suffered a stress fracture in his elbow that June. It was expected to be a four- to five-month injury.
“That was probably the worst part,” Lee said. “I was kind of down on myself. I was like ‘This is the worst-case scenario.’ I finally get to where I’m supposed to be and my arm shatters.”
He started rehabbing, and somehow was on the mend well ahead of schedule. He was also throwing harder than he was before; Lee said the rehab exercises probably strengthened his arm.
“It was a God thing, really,” he said. “It was the best thing for me, because I was throwing low 80s and I shattered my arm, went to rehab and therapy. It was healed in a month instead of three and jumped up to 88 or 89 when I came back.”
Even tryouts didn’t go smoothly; it started raining after Lee had warmed up, and he had to wait for other pitchers to throw first when the coaches moved things to Alabama’s indoor facility. He bided his time that day and when he got on the mound, the coaching staff saw how far he had come in a year.
“I think it was fun for Bo to tell him those words, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep you around for a little while,’” Jackson said. “Ever since then, Chase has been so appreciative. The one thing you want about guys when they get this opportunity is to know they’re not taking it for advantage. I don’t know what the future holds for Chase, but I know he will not take this for granted, ever.”
He hadn’t imagined himself as a college baseball player. He also hadn’t imagined himself as a pitcher. In one year, he became both.
“My first day (of practice), I was so nervous I don’t think I remember anything,” Lee said. “I was shaking so bad.”
His sidearm delivery will likely make him most valuable as a righty-on-righty specialist out of the bullpen. He throws a sinker, slider and change-up, but he’s still learning. Unlike most college players, he’s barely started to learn his craft. Coaches saw the potential for him to turn himself into a pitcher, and there may be more potential yet to tap.
“Chase’s story — who knows what the ending is going to be — but just to get where he’s got so far is pretty remarkable for a guy that never pitched before and played shortstop in high school,” Jackson said. “But if anybody can do it, it’s going to be a kid that is super dedicated like Chase.”
He’s earned a uniform and a roster spot. He finished one journey, but is just starting a new one.
“I still try to come out here and, I guess I earn my locker every day,” Lee said. “I still don’t consider myself on the team even though I am. I still try to act like every day is tryouts.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.