As of today, Jake Fishman is the only alum from the Union College Dutchmen baseball program to ever be selected in the MLB’s First-Year Player Draft. It’s an auspicious distinction; Union, located in Schenectady, New York, is known more for its cold winters and nationally recognized hockey program. The Dutchmen is a unique college mascot, but for those who are familiar with the Division III Liberty League, their success is much the same as they have been an absolute powerhouse over the last five years.
Thus, for those who follow Dutchmen baseball, Fishman’s selection in the 30th round, 912th pick in 2016 by the Toronto Blue Jays was both surprising and yet justified. A future in the game beyond DIII was obvious; often the route of talented players of that division is to prove one’s self in the Independent Leagues, a mixture of players trying to prove their talent as well as older dogs in their last days trying to salvage their careers.
You won’t find the 23 year old Fishman listed among Toronto’s top prospects; his anonymity is a result of the more recognizable names that have been selected by the Blue Jays. After all, the franchise has made it a habit of selecting legacy names like Cavan Biggio (son of Craig), Bo Bichette (son of Dante and brother of Dante Jr), Griffin Conine (son of Jeff), and, of course, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. If you don’t know the latter, then you haven’t been paying attention over the course of the past year.
Yes, you’re forgiven if Fishman’s name is unfamiliar, but his success in the lower levels of the Blue Jays’ system comes as no surprise to those who know him personally or battled against him at the plate. Throughout his career, success has been a staple of his play: the outcome of a bulldog’s mentality that puts him in attack mode the moment he toe’s the rubber. In his draft year, Fishman was named unanimous Pitcher of the Year in the Liberty League after leading all the NCAA in ERA at 0.41. His contributions offensively (.361 batting average with 14 RBI’s) landed him Player of the Year, sweeping both of the league’s highest awards. That year brought a litany of awards, both regional and national, a fine display for a player who was being quietly scouted but a worthy end to a year where Fishman was consumed with baseball.
“That year was a crazy one,” Fishman reflected as if 2016 was more than two years ago. Countless bus rides to numerous small towns—as is the life of a minor leaguer—undoubtedly would twist the perception of time. But, Fishman’s accomplishments in 2016 are quite difficult to forget. “Coming back from a good summer in the Futures League, I had a lot of confidence in how to get hitters out and that confidence translated into my season at Union,” said Fishman.
To say he pitched with confidence that year would be an understatement. He pitched with a ferocity unmatched by anyone in that league. His 85 strikeouts in 66 innings, coupled with a .4 ERA showed Fishman needed an uprgrade in competition.
The transition from upstate New York DIII baseball to the minor leagues was the first true adversity on the diamond Fishman faced in years. Even his lone appearance in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the Summer of 2016 was a success for him: three strikeouts in five innings of one-run ball for the Wareham Gatemen. Rookie ball with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, however, proved to be a much harder test.
“I thought the Cape League would be like rookie ball, but I found rookie ball to be a very difficult level to play at,’ said Fishman, affirming what his 0-1 record with a 4.80 ERA says on paper. “I got knocked around pretty good that first summer until I finally figured it out at the end. The initial integration was difficult, but once I figured out how to pitch to higher level players, it’s been good ever since.”
Indeed, that ability to adjust and adapt is the product of a studious mind sharpened by a managerial economics major. His 3.33 GPA as a junior landed him a District 3 nomination to the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSida) All-District Academic team. What were the adjustments he made? He simply learned how to locate strikes lower in the zone.
“I’ve learned to throw my fastball down at, or below, the knees which is where it’s most effective,” Fishman said. His natural run on the pitch, which usually sits between 88-91, turns the pitch into a sinker when located in the lower half of the zone. Paired with a sharp biting slider that he can throw to either sides of the plate, Fishman has been able to counteract the launch angle revolution without overpowering velocity.
With well thought out adjustments come great results. Only twice has he had an ERA over three: his struggles in rookie ball inflated his ERA to 4.80 in 2016, but outside a 4.05 blip with Lansing at Single-A in 2017, Fishman has thrived with his newfound ability to command his fastball on another level. In 44 appearances over 57 innings, he pitched to the tune of a 2.68 ERA with 56 strikeouts. When Triple-A Buffalo called in need of a relief pitcher to accommodate a depleted bullpen and a couple of injuries, Fishman couldn’t help but be excited even though he was aware it “wouldn’t be a permanent thing.” That lone appearance, however, which he went 1.1 shutout innings, was enough to validate the success he experienced with Advanced-A Dunedin.
“Definitely working to get back there,” he said, knowing how tantalizingly close he came to a dream that’s been 23 years in the making.
But, there’s more than just his performance on the field that Fishman is willing to discuss. Just recently, he and a hometown friend created a nonprofit called Men’s Health Arkive, an idea born out of his best friend’s struggles and Fishman’s willingness to help do something about it.
“He’s dealt with his uncle committing suicide and his best friend at college committing suicide,’ said Fishman. “And he’s also dealt with depression himself so we teamed up and created a nonprofit that helps men’s mental health with education and communication. We just launched it recently, but everything is going really well so far.”
It’s a reminder there’s more to life than just playing ball. You can find their website at www.menshealtharkive.com, where the platform to share personal stories is available, as well as the ability to donate.
There’s no reason to believe that won’t be possible. Like many times before, Fishman is proving he’s ready for the next step in his career. One only has to look at current Blue Jay major leaguers Thomas Pannone and Ryan Borucki to see a jump wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a player like Fishman. At 23 years old, he still has time on his side to climb the ladder to the majors, but to prophesize when such an ascension will occur would be foolish. It takes time for these things to happen; the course of a professional ball player’s quest to the majors is an odyssey beset with hardships. It’s a personal battle against self-doubts, as much as the physical battle between pitcher and hitter. For now, Fishman will allow his numbers to do the talking. Relievers may be a dime a dozen throughout an organization, but when a lefty reliever can get both righty and lefty hitters out, he becomes suddenly more versatile and, consequently, more valuable. Batters at Advanced-A ball hit a combined .220 against him, so it’s only a matter of time until he takes on batters at the next level.
There is good reason someone like Jake Fishman is overlooked. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leads the core of young talent that features legacy names of professional fathers that not only played at the Major League level but excelled. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Griffin Conine are the heralded names for the next competitive Major League roster in Toronto. You won’t find Fishman listed amongst the franchise’s top prospects, but, by the end, you could be hearing about a crafty southpaw making his way through the ranks soon enough.