For a guy who wanted to play college basketball, pitcher Geoff Hartlieb’s baseball career is working out well.
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound Hartlieb, a right-hander who graduated from Highland High School in 2012, is climbing the ladder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
A 29th-round selection in the 2016 draft, Hartlieb posted 12 saves and a 2.12 ERA in 39 games this summer at low-Class A West Virginia of the South Atlantic League and high-Class A Bradenton of the Florida State League. He had 15 walks and 62 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings.
“I was happy to get that chance to skip over the high-Rookie level and go straight into A ball,” said Hartlieb, 23, who debuted at Bristol (Va.), of the Appalachian League, in 2016 after his graduation from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. “And then it was even cooler, obviously, being promoted (in Class A) and getting a chance to play at that level.”
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Hartlieb earned the move to Bradenton in late June after going 1-2 with a 0.83 ERA and six saves in 20 games with West Virginia, where he held opposing hitters to a .191 average. He was 1-4 with a 3.48 ERA and three saves in 19 games at Bradenton.
“There aren’t many set roles down at that level,” Hartlieb said. “They try to move you around and make you get some work so they see you in different roles — and so you’re not stuck doing one thing. But I settled into the closer’s role pretty well, and that’s where they wanted me by the end of the first half. It was fun being able to do that.”
Like many other closers, Hartlieb’s velocity soared in the role. His four-seam fastball, which previously rested in the low-90s, now touches the upper-90s and has reached 100. He complements it with a sinker, a slider and a changeup.
“I developed the sinker when I got into spring training this year. That was a big pitch for me. It changed the ballgame a lot,” Hartlieb said. “I got a more ground balls and weak early contact. I only throw the changeup about 4 to 10 percent (of the time). It’s just something I’ve got if there’s a guy battling me and we’re going deep into a count.”
Some of the added miles-per-hour comes from the transition from starting pitcher to reliever. The rest comes from improved mechanics and command, thanks to pitching coach Brian DeLunas of Premier Pitching and Performance in St. Louis, Hartlieb said.
“There are a couple of things at play now with Geoff,” said DeLunas. “The biggest thing for him is his command and the quality of his pitches with the added 5 mph’s. He’s added more revolutions, more speed and — we’ve worked with a lot of major-league and minor-league guys — he may have the best slider we’ve seen.”
If he can avoid injury and continue to learn command of his full arsenal of pitches, DeLunas said there’s no reason Hartlieb can’t enjoy a lengthy caeer in the big leagues.
Hartlieb, who lives in Edwardsville, relishes nailing down the game’s final three outs.
“The closer’s role in the big-league level is a high-velocity guy who can come in and get quick outs. That’s the name of the game,” Hartlieb said. “I would love to keep doing that. That’s the most fun I have on the mound, the most fun I have playing baseball. Coming into the game, everything’s on you. Guys are looking to crush the ball as soon as you come in there.”
Good-bye to hoops
Hartlieb couldn’t have envisioned such a life after leaving Highland, where he averaged 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds as a senior post player on the Bulldogs’ basketball team. Hartlieb enrolled at Division II Quincy University and played basketball in 2012-13.
Hartlieb left Quincy after one season – he did not play baseball while there – and enrolled at Lindenwood-St. Charles, where he played baseball for three years.
“I was actually going to transfer (from Quincy) and play basketball at a different school,” Hartlieb said. “But I just realized I didn’t really want to play basketball anymore.
“I emailed Coach (Doug) Bletcher at Lindenwood and just said who I was, where I was from, that I hit 90 (mph) in high school and described my body type. He emailed me back in 10 minutes and asked if I could come down and throw for him. I came down a couple of days later and threw and they offered me a scholarship.”
There is no magic pill. It takes a lot of hard work and his success is all to Geoff’s credit.
The New York Mets drafted Hartlieb in the 37th round in 2015, but Hartlieb returned to school instead of signing. He earned bachelor’s degrees in corporate communications and mass communciations in 2016.
“There were a lot of factors going into my decision to not sign with the Mets, one of them being that my mom (Wendy) had just passed away,” Hartlieb said. “My mind wasn’t right, necessarily, at that point. I knew I wanted to finish my degree and she wanted me to finish my degree as well. I wanted to be close to my family for another year.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better. I got drafted a little higher, I graduated and I got into an organization that I think really takes care of players well. I’m glad I’m where I’m at.”
Basketball is still close to Hartlieb’s heart.
“I often times think of myself as a basketball player playing baseball,” said Hartlieb, the son of Chris Hartlieb. “It’s just who I was growing up. It’s who my family was. We lived in a baseball town but I was always doing basketball. It kind of came first for me.”
Geoff Hartlieb is grateful for the patience showed by Highland pitching coach Sam Weber. Hartlieb was 4-2 with a 1.90 ERA as a senior after going 5-3 with a 2.97 ERA as a junior.
“(Weber) stuck with me and he understood that basketball was my first love,” Hartlieb said. “We worked on baseball when we could.”
Hartlieb credit DeLunas and Josh Kesel, the co-founders of P3, for preparing him last winter for his first full season of pro ball. DeLunas is the pitching director; Kesel serves as the strength and conditioning guru.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been through that long of a grind,” Hartlieb said. “One hundred-forty games is a lot. (DeLunas and Kesel) kept telling me just how ready you needed to be going into it, how you couldn’t go into spring training looking to get started then. So I tried to be in close to midseason form by the time I went to spring training.
“My body was ready to go when I got down there, and it held up for the rest of the year. That was a big concern for me going into (the season). If you can stay on the field and be ready to get your name called, that’s the biggest thing – always being available. It’s a good sign that I could do that in my first full season.”
That’s the most fun I have on the mound, the most fun I have playing baseball.
Geoff Hartlieb on why he likes being a closer
Hartlieb also believes the work he did at P3 is responsible for the increased velocity.
“There is no magic pill. It takes a lot of hard work and his success is all to Geoff’s credit,” DeLunas said. “With the right strength program and some adjustments allow him to move a lot better through the entire movement pattern. It clicked for him. But all we do at P3 is to teach guys how to pull it out, how to get the best out of what they have available to to them.
“He already had this in him.”
For now, the goal is to report to Instructional League in Bradenton. Hartlieb was supposed to leave Sunday. But Hurricane Irma struck Florida and Hartlieb is waiting to hear from the Pirates about travel plans. LECOM Park in Bradenton was not damaged by the storm.
“I’m hoping by this coming weekend, I’ll be able to get back down there,” Hartlieb said. “It all depends on the weather.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm