Interview: MiLB Pitcher Phoenix Sanders

Phoenix Sanders

In this article, I interview MLB pitcher Phoenix Sanders who is currently a pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

Phoenix and I discuss many aspects of baseball pitching and his journey to the MLB.
In addition, Phoenix shares many valuable pitching tips to help players of all ages.
At the end of this article, I list the key takeaways of this interview with Phoenix Sanders.
I encourage you to record these in your baseball journal.

By the way, Phoenix became my son-in-law on January 23, 2021.
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Phoenix Sanders Tampa Bay Rays Pitcher
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As a result, I compiled a list of the baseball, softball, and coach’s equipment I recommend.

Interview Video – Scott Hemond and Phoenix Sanders

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Introduction to Phoenix Sanders

Phoenix’s story consists of no one wanting to give him a shot b/c of his size (5’10”).
Despite always being the youngest and smallest player, Phoenix gets on the mound and deals.
He has never been handed anything and pitches with a chip on his shoulder.

Road to the MLB

After High School, Phoenix pitched for Daytona State College (Junior College) for 2 years and quickly became the Friday night guy.
Phoenix landed at USF (University of South Florida) and became the Friday night guy there for 2 years.

The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Phoenix Sanders in the 10th round of the 2017 MLB draft.
Phoenix ascended rather quickly in an organization considered by many to be the best pitching organization in baseball.

In 2 full seasons, Phoenix Sanders climbed up the minor league ranks to the AAA Durham Bulls from Rookie Ball.

Questions and Answers

Scott Hemond Interview with Phoenix Sanders
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How did you become the type of pitcher you are today?

It developed when I was younger. I’ve always been super competitive b/c I was the smallest and youngest. I played up all the time and always had to rise up to compete with older kids.
In high school, I played 1 year of freshman ball, 1 year of JV, and 2 years of varsity. However, I should have played 3 years of varsity and 1 year of JV.

Instead of being upset about it, everything worked out.
Everything works out for a reason and only control what I can control. 
Worrying about other stuff just makes folks beat themselves up.

Why do you work quickly while pitching?

Well, I always adopted the philosophy of “If you are going to be good, be good quickly.  If you are going to suck, do it quickly.”

Phoenix Sanders

No one likes to be out there when I’m sucking, so to keep them engaged do it quickly.
Baseball is very rhythm and momentum, so I pitch better when I keep my rhythm.

How did you develop your breaking ball?

Scott Hemond: Your Curveball is your bread and butter. 
Also, you have a high spin rate on your fastball which gives the illusion of your fastball rising. 
This is why you can throw up in the zone while throwing less than 95mph.

Phoenix Sanders: I’ve always been able to manipulate the ball well b/c I didn’t throw a curve until I was 15. 
Up to then, I learned how to spin it up, down, and away.
Once I was able to learn how to throw a curveball, I mastered it by throwing flat grounds.
I would throw 12 in a row until I found the shape/grip.  Once I found the grip I liked, I threw 10 more to get the feel of it.
Curveballs are hard to throw which is why everyone likes to throw a slider.
To throw a slider, you can tilt it and throw it hard.
I think I was just blessed with the ability to spin the ball.
I actually Didn’t throw slider until I went to USF.

Do you find it hard to throw the slider and curve?

The curveball is there 80% to 90% of the time for me.
I need to throw the slider more and more to get the feel of it during a game because I haven’t been throwing it for too long.

Do you throw the changeup as often now as in college?

No, but I’m trying to work it in more to not be a predictable fastball/curveball to lefties.
If I throw a 1st pitch changeup and give up a HR, I just gave up a HR with my 4th best pitch when I only may pitch for 2 innings.
This doesn’t make sense.

If you are going to get beat, don’t get beat with your 3rd best pitch.

Phoenix Sanders

When you got into pro ball, what did you expect and what was it like?

Difference between minor leagues from big leagues is the opportunity to develop new pitches and try new things during the game.
When I first got in, I sucked b/c I was too serious.
I figured out rather quickly that it’s just baseball. Just go out there and have fun.
Once I figured that out, my ERA dropped from 7 to 4.

I was starting in rookie ball. 
They asked me what I wanted to do and I said whatever I need to do to get to low A.
Their answer was a relief pitcher, so I became a 1 to 3 inning guy.

When I went to fall league in 2018, I could get away with only FB/CB in low A and high A.
But, I needed a 3rd pitch when facing hitters such as Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso.
Ultimately, I needed to at least show I can throw 3 pitches so they would have to honor all 3.

I committed to throwing a slider to lefties.
Getting confidence to throw it up and in like a cutter or bury it near the Blackfoot.

In High School, pitchers can get away with curveball middle.
However, this changes as a player plays at higher levels.

  • JUCO and USF – 3 or 4 guys can hit and really cause damage.
  • Low-A and High-A – more than half of the lineup can really hurt you.
  • Double-A – 7 or 8 guys can hurt you.
  • Triple-A – all 9 guys can hurt you.

Never leave a pitch off the table.  If you have a pitch, keep throwing it and throw it during times when it won’t hurt you.

Scott Hemond (Scotthemondbaseball.com)

Scott Hemond: Guys with incredible bat speed can be beat easier by slowing them down with off speed, which makes it possible to beat them with a fastball.
If you throw too many FBs, guys with sub par bat speed will catch up.

What is your plan for getting ahead in the count?

Most pitchers nowadays throw away from contact and quickly get behind in the count.
I always have a good game plan with my pitching coach and catcher.

I’m an off speed guy, so I understand I need to throw fastballs in counts they aren’t ready for it.
So, if I get to 2-0 I throw a slider or fastball.  Higher level Good hitters will sell out to one of them.
I just need to be smart.
I work middle of the plate b/c pitches move.
This is what the Rays teach and this was a gamechanger for me..

Do you find pitchers don’t want to give up hits, so they throw it on the corners too much and end up missing?

Today, big hitters are ok with striking out b/c they get paid to hit homers.
Power pitchers are paid to strike people out, so they are ok with walking guys.
I don’t necessarily agree with this mentality, if your stuff is good enough you will get the guy out.
I don’t throw away from contact b/c hitting a baseball is hard too.

Pitchers must work to get ahead.
Guys who walk people don’t pitch for very long and makes the defense fall asleep.
What I see is young pitchers throw a 2-0 breaking ball for a strike and it ends up getting hammered.
When I work with younger players, I look for the pitches they throw with better movement and help them figure out how to throw that pitch for a strike.

So for me, my curveball I throw it at the top of the mask for a strike. 
To throw one off home plate, I aim at bottom of mask.
Kids are inconsistent with all their pitches and have no idea what they do differently between a good one and bad one.
I was FB/Change until high school.  As soon as you start throwing a curveball, most pitchers abandon the changeup.

How do you go about pitching inside?

The Rays really helped me with this. 
They encourage me to not be so fine with pitches, which helps me place it better.

It’s always good to move a guys feet so they don’t get too comfortable.  Not hit the batter, but make him question things.  Make the on deck guy have another thought in their head.

Phoenix Sanders

I still struggle now with throwing inside at times b/c everything is a chess game. 
I have to learn to throw inside consistently to reduce my predictability.
Most HS and younger players only want to throw the ball down and away b/c young hitters can’t hit down and away. 
This doesn’t work in college and pro ball.

What did you do mechanically to throw the ball inside and not drill the guy?

Pitching is about visual keys. 
For me, I put my right eye on the target and visualize a release point.

You have to throw bullpens and take BP with game intensity.  If not, players can’t perform consistently in those scenarios. 

Scott Hemond (scotthemondbaseball.com)

MLB Pitcher Interview – Key Takeaways

  • “If you are going to be good, be good quickly.  If you are going to suck, do it quickly.” – Phoenix Sanders
  • Never leave a pitch off the table.  If you have a pitch, keep throwing it and throw it during times when it won’t hurt you.
  • Guys with incredible bat speed can be beat easier by slowing them down with off speed, which makes it possible to beat them with a fastball. If you throw too many FBs, guys with sub par bat speed will catch up.
  • Pitchers must get ahead in the count.
  • Do not throw away from contact and try to strike everyone out.
  • For young pitchers, pay attention to what you do differently when you throw a good pitch versus a bad pitch.
  • As soon as young pitchers start throwing a curveball, they quickly abandon the changeup. This is a huge mistake – never abandon a pitch.
  • Move the hitters feet by going inside. Do not hit the batter, but make him question things.  Make the on deck guy have another thought in their head.
  • Pitching is about visual keys. To hit a spot, put your right eye on the target and visualize a release point.
  • Throw Bullpens with game intensity. Take Batting Practice with game intensity.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this MLB Pitcher interview with Phoenix sanders. I wish Phoenix and Haleigh the best of luck as they head to south Florida for spring training.

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