August 5, 2020

Inspired by Grandfather Who Played Pro Baseball, PU Grad Proctor Signs Deal with Cincinnati Reds

RED ALERT: James Proctor fires a pitch during his career with the Princeton University baseball team. Shortly after graduating from Princeton in June, Proctor signed a free agent deal with the Cincinnati Reds. Over his Tiger career, Proctor posted a 2-16 record in 28 starts with 133 strikeouts in 137 2/3 innings and a 5.88 ERA. (Photo by Beverly Schaefer, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Justin Feil

Jim Proctor made his major league debut with the Detroit Tigers just over 60 years ago after being named the South Atlantic League’s most outstanding pitcher in 1959.

James Proctor always dreamed of the chance to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. The 2020 Princeton University graduate took a big step toward that goal when he signed a free agent deal with the Cincinnati Reds on June 15.

“I was really excited about that,” said Proctor, a 6’5, 215-pound native of St. Louis, Mo.

“I went over to his house after it happened and celebrated and talked. We talk about baseball all the time. He’s definitely my biggest inspiration to keep playing. That was something really cool to follow in his footsteps moving forward.”

Proctor’s grandfather played professionally for nine years mostly in the minor leagues and Negro League. Proctor knew at a young age of his grandfather’s success and wanted to mirror it.

“It was cool,” said Proctor. “It was something that initially piqued my interest in baseball. I just had to continue because I wanted to. I’ve always carried it with me knowing I can lean on him any time for advice with anything. It’s a different game now but there’s still a lot of things that translate into today’s game. To always having him to talk to about baseball because he went through the same things at a higher level than me — where I want to get to — just having someone in the family who’s been at the top level has been great.”

Signing On

Proctor wasn’t exactly sure what his own path would look like when the remainder of the Princeton spring baseball season was canceled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving his pro future in limbo

“That was the hardest part,” said Proctor. “I knew I had more to show. That was the toughest part knowing there wasn’t really anything else I could do to improve my position. It was just a lot of sitting and waiting. That was the hardest part.”

During the abbreviated 2020 campaign, Proctor made just two appearances for the Tigers, albeit ones that showed a bit of the promise that projected him to be a major league draft selection. The hard-throwing righty went four innings against Penn State, yielding no earned runs with seven strikeouts, and then had a five-inning outing against No. 8 Ole Miss where he gave up six earned runs and had five strikeouts. In that outing, Proctor went through the first eight batters without allowing a base runner, and held them scoreless through three innings.

“Ole Miss was probably the best offensive team in the country,” said Princeton head coach Scott Bradley. “He threw five innings against Ole Miss, and the fourth inning he lost a bit of his command and gave up a few runs, but the other three innings he was dominant. Their coach came up to me and said, ‘Ability-wise, that’s an SEC Friday night starter right there.’”

But just as soon as Proctor had shown some of his stuff in his last college year, the season was over. Proctor had a few choices before signing on with the Reds.

“It’s definitely a weight off my back,” said Proctor. “I remember earlier in quarantine just training but still being nervous in the background. Now that I know I’m locked into a team, it’s definitely been easier going forward. It definitely feels freer.”

In view of the changes brought about by the pandemic, Proctor wasn’t sure how they would affect his status. Major League Baseball cut back its draft to five rounds, modified some signing procedures, and limited signing bonuses for free agents.

“In the spring, it was pretty unusual,” said Proctor. “I was nervous when the draft got cut to five rounds. After the draft was cut, I kept working and I was still fielding calls from scouts, but nobody had any idea how many people each team would bring it. It ended up not being a lot. I was really fortunate to have a couple offers to choose from. The Reds were who I decided to go with. I thought that was the best fit for me developmental wise.”

Proctor’s signing is significant because there were so few signings overall compared to a usual draft year. Being picked up gives him a leg up on many young players with professional aspirations.

“It means even more because they’re signing so many fewer players,” noted Bradley.

“The draft this year was only five rounds. You still don’t know what will happen with minor league baseball in terms of contraction, what they’re going to do team-wise, but there were only five rounds in the draft and a lot of teams only signed five to 10 free agents. Whereas teams might sign 50 players per year, teams were only signing 10-15 players this year. For James, he had seven teams come after him, which was his advantage this year. In a normal year as a senior, someone takes you and gives you a $1,000 and says, ‘go play.’ This year, he had a number of teams calling him so they had to pay him what they were allowed to pay because there were multiple teams interested.”

Bradley, for his part, felt confident all along that Proctor would get signed by a MLB club. The longtime Princeton head coach had seen him improve steadily and believed he had a strong upside going ahead.

“James has continued to develop every year,” said Bradley. “His best days are still ahead of him. He’s exactly what the scouts look for — he’s big, he’s physical, he’s got a live arm, mid-90s type arm. He’s a little bit of a late bloomer. When he first came to Princeton his freshman year he was kind of gangly and they found out he had a food allergy and he lost about 20 pounds as a freshman. He figured some things out and he would show you flashes of being really, really good, but just couldn’t sustain it over seven or eight innings in a lot of his starts. The ability is there.”

Proctor’s signing made it three years in a row that a Princeton player has been drafted or signed with a major league team as Ryan Smith was selected by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last year while Ben Gross was picked by the Houston Astros in 2018. He tried to be as optimistic as Bradley was about his potential through the uncertainty of the spring.

“I felt the same way, but I still needed it to happen,” said Proctor, reflecting on the signing process. “I was still a little nervous. I was confident, but nervous as well, just knowing there wasn’t anything else I could do. You kind of look back at what you’d done already and wonder if you’d done enough and hope so, but you can never be certain. And also not knowing how many people teams were bringing in, that made it tougher.”

While Proctor looked into all of the clubs interested in him, he felt best about the fit with the Reds organization and philosophies. That swayed him to go with the Cincinnati club.

“I chose the Reds because, first of all, one of my coaches growing up is a pitching coach in their organization now,” said Proctor.

“I had good connections with him and I’d done some work with him in the past. I liked their focus on analytics with Kyle Boddy as their new director of minor league development for pitching. I thought the direction they were going in with the new school data age of baseball was right up my alley of what I’ve been focusing on in my own development recently.”

Home Instruction

Even after signing, baseball has not returned to normal. Proctor flew out to Arizona for a physical and some testing a few weeks after signing. But since then, he’s been training under the Reds’ guidance at home.

“They put together a remote program for me,” explained Proctor. “So right now, it’s a lot of weekly Zoom calls with my strength and conditioning coaches and throwing coaches and nutrition, everything. Everything is remote. It’s a lot of Zoom. I’m getting instruction from there. It’s a lot of taking videos while I’m throwing so I can get instruction on what I’m doing. It’s twice a week with every department keeping in touch, which has been really good to try to make it as personal as possible.”

Proctor doesn’t expect much more to change over this summer. While major league baseball is opening up a shortened season, the minor league players don’t expect to have games.

“I heard the rest of the summer is pretty much a wash,” said Proctor.

“There could be some sort of mini-camp in the fall for rookies where we go out to Arizona for a month to get acclimated to professional baseball. Other than that, there’s probably not anything until next spring training. Even the fall mini-camp is up in the air. We know nothing.”

After getting the first step of signing out of the way, Proctor has been taking the feedback he’s gotten and started to put it to use.

“I’m taking it as a positive that I have this time right now to improve,” said Proctor. “For the next nine months, I have nothing to do but improve. I’m working a lot on velocity development. I already throw pretty hard, but there’s always room for more. I feel like I have a chance to really refine my pitches before being tested in the pro game. It’s an opportunity by the time the next spring comes to try to be a different pitcher and surprise some people. Nine months is a long time to change. That’s something I’m embracing and look forward to working on.”

Developing Situation

Over his Princeton career, Proctor displayed an ability to improve. “I’m definitely happy with my decision to go to Princeton,” said Proctor, who originally signed with Northwestern before a coaching change prompted him to head east where he became an important member of the Tigers.

“I think it was definitely a good thing overall for me. I developed a lot as a person and player and that’s thanks to the coaches and teammates around me. I have no regrets with that decision. I thank coach Bradley, and the pitching coach Mike Russo, for always believing in me in the four years I was there and my development.”

Bradley always saw a lot of potential in Proctor, seeing that develop and put him in position to work his way up in major league baseball.

“He’s 6’5 with a whippy arm, and right now between his fastball and breaking ball, he has two well above average pitches,” said Bradley.

“His changeup can be above average at times as well. For him, it’s all about consistency. As he gets into pro ball and they run him out there and he can log a lot more innings, you’re really going to see him take off and really develop.”

In his final year at Princeton, Proctor was already taking some important steps to maturing into a better pitcher and player.

“He started for us from Day One,” said Bradley of Proctor who posted a 2-16 record in 28 starts over his career with 133 strikeouts in 137 2/3 innings and a 5.88 ERA.

“He’s pretty special in terms of his ability. Now he just needs a chance to get into pro ball. He’s grown every year. This year, he was amazing how he developed into a leader and how he developed in the weight room. He finally put on really good weight. You could see his back and his legs that he was starting to really grow into a man.”

Heading into this spring, Proctor was looking forward to showing his stuff, feeling confident in himself and Princeton’s ability to excel.

“I think this year was going to be a breakout year for me and the team,” said Proctor.

“We had struggled my first three years at Princeton but I felt like we had a lot of chemistry this year and I felt like we were going to win the Ivy League. Unfortunately we didn’t get that chance, but I think we can look back fondly on how close we were as a team and how much work we put in in the offseason going into the year. Obviously we didn’t get the opportunity to reach that end goal. But looking back, we can look back fondly on the work we put in and the memories we made.”

Major Goals

As Proctor leaves college for the next level, he will be trying to combine the hard work he’s done off the field and put it together with a renewed focus on the field to try to climb the ranks.

“It’s just consistency for him,” said Bradley. “He had the sickness with the food allergy, he had a nagging arm issue — nothing that he had anything to do with but he had to back off at times, but there are times the wow factor is there. He may only show it three innings, but David Hale and Danny Barnes were like that too. They would show you plus stuff for two or three innings and then they’d have a back-up inning and lose a little of their command. James is very comparable to Hale and Barnes when it comes to that.”

Proctor would love to be another Princeton pitching product to make the majors like Hale, currently coming out of the bullpen with the New York Yankees, and Barnes, who made 119 relief appearances for the Toronto Blue Jays from 2016-18.

And like his grandfather, whose success on the mound put the initial seed of playing professionally in Proctor’s head, signing with the Reds keeps him on target for that dream.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and what it means,” said Proctor.

“In a normal year, I would have been playing a few days after signing.  It’s a unique year so there’s been a lot of time to reflect back and think about how cool it is and get to soak in that moment before I start playing games.”