Jackson McClelland: The Best Blue Jays Relief Prospect You’ve Never Heard Of

Tim McClelland photo

One of the the best potential power arms in the Blue Jays system lives in an RV.

No, we’re not talking about Daniel Norris, whose travels in his Westfalia van throughout the Toronto minor league organization a few seasons ago became well known.  Dunedin Closer Jackson McClelland has hit 100 with his fastball, which sits in the high 90s, and has a wipeout slider.  He leads the Florida State League with an 18.9% swinging strike rate.

Originally drafted by the Pirates in the 35th round of the 2012 draft, the Cherry Hill, CA native (where he threw for Redlands East Valley High, a Pitching factory that has churned our numerous MLB draftees, including Tyler Chatwood) opted to attend Pepperdine, where he started in his sophomore and junior seasons.  At Pepperdine, he pitched well, but at least one evaluator (MLB Draft Report) felt that McClelland had more to give:

 His stuff is more than enough to get college hitters out (90-95 FB, breaking ball with upside, usable change) and he’s a really good athlete throwing from a 6-5, 220 pound body, but he’s never consistently missed bats. Teams with a more forgivng view of underachieving college talent who might consider him a talented ball of clay to mold rather than a near-finished product seem more likely to give him a call this June than otherwise.

The Blue Jays obviously saw material that they could work with, and after a brief trial in the Northwest League in 2015 (3 appearances, 2 starts), the Blue Jays converted McClelland to relief, and sent him back to Vancouver the following year.  2017 was truly a breakout season for him, as he added velo to his fastball, and recorded 15 Saves between Lansing and Dunedin.  Although he missed a month due to injury, McClelland has picked up where he left off in his return to High A and the D-Jays this year, notching 7 Saves, and fanning 40 batters in 30 Innings Pitched.

For every high bonus draftee or international free agent, there are countless players who toil for wages less than a 7-11 employee – there are enough to stock a couple of leagues on their own.  In the Blue Jays system, players are housed by the team at the GCL and Appy League levels, and use host families (some of whom have trouble putting enough food on the table for 6’5″/230 players) at Vancouver – Lansing has a host family program as well, but hosting young men with varying schedules and big appetites for five months of the year has led to some difficulties.  For players above that level, day-to-day life during the season can be tough – having a comfortable place to sleep, and getting a decent meal away from the park are considerable challenges.

McClelland’s dad Tim had recently retired from his job as a California Fire Chief the year before he was drafted, and when his mom Michelle learned that players above Lansing had to sometimes resort to sleeping in the clubhouse and smuggling or stealing food in order to survive, they sold their house and bought a 31 ft RV “toy hauler,” complete with generator for cross country travel, and headed for Michigan.  After living in an RV Park in Leslie, MI, a small town about 20 minutes south of Lansing, Tim and Michelle packed up and made the drive south to Florida when Jackson was promoted to Dunedin early last season.  They found an RV Park in Clearwater, about 15-20 minutes from Dunedin.

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The McClelland Family Home (during the season) Tim McClelland photo

Tim agrees that having a home-away-from-home environment has been a part of Jackson’s success:

He’s very appreciative and has told us he knows his success the past 2 seasons is a direct result of having a familiar, stable living accommodation. He really struggled with his host home placement in Vancouver and even in the Cape Cod League in 2014. I retired that year so we flew out to Mass and rented a house and car on Cape Cod for the summer…..He enjoys living in an environment where he’s comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about offending people with how much he eats etc.

As for living in a trailer, it’s part of a retirement dream for Jackson’s parents.  Tim says that one of the couple’s goals was to travel and see the U.S.A.  Jackson’s situation, in Tim’s words, caused them to gladly alter their plans in order to support him.

Clutchlings photo

Jackson’s 2017 season started with a bang – a two scoreless/hitless innings, three strikeout save in Lansing’s home opener, in which he sat 93-95 with his fastball.  He Saved 7 more games in 8 chances for the Lugnuts before being promoted to Dunedin in early June.  McClelland Saved another 7 (in as many chances) as the D-Jays, bolstered in the second half by the promotions of Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette, captured the Florida State League’s 2nd half North Division title.  Jackson’s velo soldily sat in the mid-90s as the season progressed,  and  he was consistenly the last man up in Dunedin’s bullpen. Working with Dunedin Pitching Coach Mark Riggins, McClelland was encouraged to use his two-seam fastball, which he had been discouraged from using previously.  With this pitch back in his arsenal, Jackson gave up only one Earned Run in the month of August as the D-Jays headed for a playoff match up with the Yankees Tampa affiliate.

Unfortunately for Jackson’s parents, they had to give the Florida State League playoffs a miss, which turned into a shortened affair due to the impending arrival of bad weather:

 As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, we got everything packed and literally rolled north when Jackson returned from Tampa right after the (final regular season) game. We were well ahead of Irma and the fuel crunch and stayed up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for about 3 weeks which allowed Irma to pass and then hit the road west for the AFL (Arizona Fall League, where Jackson was assigned after the season).

When 2018 opened, you could understand if Jackson thought he was headed northeast, to the AA New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League. But one of the unheralded aspects of the Blue Jays now highly ranked farm system is that they have quietly been building an impressive depth of relief prospects, a necessity in this day and age of almost disposable bullpen arms.  And perhaps it was just as well, because Michelle, who scours the area around Blue Jays affiliates (as well as Toronto) for RV parks couldn’t find one in New Hampshire that opened before May 1st.

As it turned out, Jackson was on the DL for most of May with back issues, and it took him a few outings to get back into the swing of things.  By July, his velo and command were fully back, and he reeled off six scoreless outings in a row, fanning 12.  He had a hiccup five days ago when he entered a game and left after walking four straight, but McClelland has been one of the organization’s most consistent relief Pitchers since his return from the DL – last night, he threw a scoreless inning.  He typically sits 97-99 with his four seamer, 95-96 with the two-seamer (with movement), 89-91 with his slider, and 84-85 with a circle change.  A source who covers the Florida State League suggests that his four seamer is a little straight, and would be best used as an elevated eye-level changing pitch with two strikes.  Another report suggests that his change up is becoming one of the best in the Florida State League.

Most millenials would be less than thrilled with moving in with their parents, but for Jackson, living in Tim and Michelle’s home on wheels has provided him with an off field environment that allows him to focus full time on his career:

   It’s been a really good experience for me, and a chance every night to step away from baseball and reset mentally for the next day.  It’s a real simple, easy way to live.

For their part, Jackson’s parents are happy to be able to both provide support for their son, and follow his progress closely as he chases his dream.  Tim cites a night last year at St Lucie as a highlight.  They were able to park their RV just beyond the outfield for the series, and watched as Jackson struck out Tim Tebow on a 98 fastball.  Still, there are things they miss:

I’d say there’s a couple things we miss most – being away from our young (3 and 4) and only grand children being number one. Secondly a couple things like taking long, hot showers in our own home (5 gallon water heater in the trailer so it’s military style showering) and having to load up all the laundry weekly to go to a laundromat

Complicating matters was the health of their newest grandchild, Tristin, was born earlier this year in California with an enlarged heart.  He received a heart transplant on May 12th, but the strain of living with heart failure for the first four months of his life had taken an enormous toll on Tristin’s fragile body, and he died on July 2nd.  It was incredibly tough for Tim and Michelle to be so far away, doubly so for Michelle, who was “emotionally torn,” in Tim’s words, about where to be:  with her ailing grandson in California, or with her son and a husband with health issues (Tim is a retired firefighter, many of whom have had job-related health complications).

Jackson and his Great Dane Grizzly enjoy some quality post-game time together. Tim McClelland photo

Where does Jackson McClelland go from here?  He doesn’t have a lot left to prove after over a full calendar year in High A.  To be sure, the Blue Jays would like to see him continue to develop his pitches, but why isn’t McCloser pitching at a higher level?  There are a couple of possible explanations.  For starters, there is a fair amount of depth ahead of him in the New Hampshire pen, including  Zach Jackson, Travis Bergen, and Danny Young, who have all performed solidly for the Fisher Cats.  There are a couple of right handed relievers above McClelland who have not pitched as well this season, but for now, it appears that he’s trapped in a bit of a numbers game.  A cynic might suggest that with McClelland eligible for the Rule 5 draft this fall if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster, the Blue Jays might be content to keep him in High A, as teams may be less inclined to take a Pitcher who hasn’t played above his level.  That’s a strategy the team has used in the past with Starters, but they haven’t done so in recent memory with a Reliever.  Or perhaps the team just wants McClelland to continue to pitch in a place where he’ll get consistent reps.  Since they sent him to the Arizona Fall League last year, you would have to think that they consider him a prospect, and he fits into their future plans.

Not many minor league players get a chance to live in accommodations that allow them not to worry about adequate food or a comfortable place to sleep.  And even fewer parents get an opportunity to watch their sons work their way up an organization’s ladder.  Whether Jackson McClelland’s next stop is in New Hampshire or in some other organization, one thing is certain:  mom and dad will be packing up the RV and following him, all the way to the majors.

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