BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – When Parker Sanburn signed to pitch at the University of Arkansas in November 2012, his pitching career was on cruise control. He had dominated the high school ranks with a moving fastball and sharp curveball. But the hard-throwing Wildkat had no idea how fast the game would be taken away from him, or how hard he would have to battle to get back into the game he loved and take it to the professional level.
On July 14, after a surgically repaired shoulder and a healed broken back, Sanburn signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers – and in the process, proved that hard work and perseverance pays off.
“I was hoping to get drafted, but my medical history got in the way,” said Sanburn of the MLB Draft that took place last month. “So, I kept going while playing in the Northwoods League. I talked to eight to 10 MLB teams and it came down to the Royals and the Rangers, and I thought the Rangers were a better fit.”
The road to professional baseball was especially long for Sanburn. When he signed to play college baseball at Arkansas, he said, “This has been the goal – going to college and hopefully going to the next level. This is unexplainable on how excited I am with this gift that God has given me.”
But as excited as he was after signing to play for the Razorbacks, he was just as disappointed as injuries dominated his senior season at Kokomo High School. After striking out 65 batters in 41 innings during his junior season, Sanburn made just one appearance in his final prep campaign. He then traveled to Arkansas, and after being medically redshirted his freshman year, he threw less than nine innings in year two.
When Arkansas told Sanburn he was no longer needed, he returned to Kokomo to continue healing a fractured L3 vertebrae that occurred during his freshman year with the Hogs. After an attempt to make the team at Indiana University, he nearly gave up on the game before a former coach called and asked him to pitch at Des Moines Area Community College.
“I actually quit at Indiana – I said I was done and over it,” said Sanburn of his decision last summer. “Then (DMACC pitching coach) Jason Van Skike called and wanted me to come to Des Moines, but I told him I was done. He said I had too good of stuff to quit, and so I went to Des Moines.”
Van Skike had coached Sanburn on the Kokomo Jackrabbits in the summer of 2016 and knew the hurlers potential. After playing in Des Moines last spring, Sanburn praised the DMACC coaching staff for allowing him to mature as a pitcher and for providing an ideal learning institution.
“I had a lot of help from Jason,” said Sanburn, who had 69 strikeouts in 50 innings at DMACC. “I had a great time there, and I learned a lot about myself. I was able to become the best version of me that I could – it is amazing what happens when you are not getting yelled at all of the time; just a positive environment.”
One benefit of being injured was Sanburn grew into a smarter pitcher. While his fastball is still clocked above 90 miles per hour, he has learned to rely on his secondary pitches.
“I had to overcome that fear of hurting myself again,” said Sanburn. “I basically had overworked myself. But as I grew older, I realized it is not a good idea to work until you break. I have worked on my location instead of trying to overpower people. I can still get the fastball going, but I don’t need to as much because I have good secondary stuff. And I can now locate my fastball down in the zone, which gets people out.”
Sanburn spent the first part of this summer in the competitive Northwoods League, which has produced more than 160 Major League Baseball players. Playing for the Lakeshore Chinooks, Sanburn earned an All-Star Game nod earlier this month in the 20-team league. Before signing with the Rangers, he led the league with 48 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings as a relief pitcher. In 15 appearances, he gave up just eight hits while posting a sizzling 0.37 ERA.
Sanburn, who passed the MLB physical despite previous injuries, is now in the Rangers rookie camp in Surprise, Arizona. He hopes to be placed with a Class A team (possibly the Spokane Indians in the Class A Short Season Northwest League) and feels he has a legitimate chance to move up the ranks – much like his older brother Nolan, who is pitching in the Washington Nationals organization and has seen action in Class AA.
“This might sound arrogant, but I feel like I could throw in the big leagues right now,” said the younger Sanburn. “I am throwing between 92-95 and touching 96, and my curve is my best pitch and touching 85. I have worked on my changeup and I am throwing strikes – if I can continue to do that, I feel I should be able to move up.”
He noted that he told the Rangers when he signed that he is not just a roster position – he is someone that wants to contribute.
“I told them that I am not just someone you sign to fill the roster,” he said.
“I am a bulldog and I am going to come and kick people in the teeth. I want to sign another contract as I move up. I am going to will this into existence and make it happen – and if they don’t like that, they have the wrong guy.”
The Rangers organization must have liked what he said and thought he was the right guy – and now it is back on the shoulders of Parker Sanburn to prove he has what it takes to be a professional baseball pitcher.