South Dakota is known for Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Producing baseball players? Not so much.
It’s not hard to understand why, either. It’s a cold-weather state with fewer than a million people. But there have been a handful of big-leaguers come out of the state, including longtime players such as infielder Mark Ellis and outfielder Dave Collins.
Sam Wolff hopes to join that list some day.
Wolff’s parents raised him and his four brothers in Rapid City, S.D., home of Mount Rushmore, and he pitched in temperatures as low as 20 degrees. The right-hander went on to pitch at the University of New Mexico and joined the Texas Rangers organization as a sixth-round draft pick last June.
He pitched well in his first professional season, combining to go 4-0 with a 0.60 ERA with five saves over 21 relief appearances with Short A Spokane and Low A Hickory last season.
This year, Wolff is in the rotation at High A Myrtle Beach and has gone 4-3 with a 3.10 ERA over his first eight starts.
“I feel the season has gone really good, and I’ve learned how to make that transition from pitching once every seven days in college to once every five days,” Wolff, 23, said. “And I’ve really focused on limiting my pitch counts in at-bats. Trying to get outs with three or four pitches instead of those seven- or eight-pitch at-bats.”
That approach has allowed Wolff to pitch deep into games, something he rarely did in high school or college. He’s gone seven innings in four of his eight starts, and has pitched at least five innings in all of them.
Wolff considers himself a power pitcher with a fastball in the 93-94 mph range, but he is learning to use that to draw weak contact early in counts rather than strikeouts.
It was exemplified Wednesday, when he allowed three runs on seven hits over seven innings. He struck out only one batter and had no walks.
Limiting the walks is something the organization would like to see Wolff continue to improve upon. He has issued 19 in 49 1/3 innings this season, including allowing multiple walks in his previous six starts.
Last season, he had 44 strikeouts to nine walks over 30 innings.
“I’m getting better at being able to identify what the hitter is trying to do and adjust to that,” Wolff said. “And I’m pounding the zone.”
Wolff has put himself on a nice development track and one day could become another South Dakotan to reach the big leagues. That would be quite an accomplishment, considering the state goes largely unnoticed in the baseball world.
The Rangers have only had two players who were born in South Dakota — left-hander Floyd Bannister (1992) and right-hander Justin Duchscherer (2001) — play for them.
“It was definitely tough to get recognized, because scouts can go to Southern California and see a lot of potential draft picks in a couple days, whereas there might be only one or two they can see in South Dakota,” said Wolff, whose dad, Steven, played three years in the Padres organization from 1983-85.
“But, at the same time, I come from a baseball family. And the weather is great during the summer, so we played a lot of baseball up there.”