How Chris Nunn's quest to go viral with 99-mph video helped him earn a shot at MLB redemption
Access to social media has changed Nunn's career, and it's going to overhaul how baseball finds talent
On the day Chris Nunn's career changed all he wanted was to get a look at himself.
Nunn was ensconced in Lipscomb University's bullpen, partaking in one of his first side sessions of the winter. Before stepping in he'd pressed record on a camera stationed behind him so afterward he could review his pitches and mechanics.
At 28 years old, Nunn was facing a dim future. He was too old to be a prospect, but too unproven to be entrenched. He had yet to sign a contract for 2019, and had finished the previous season in an independent league after being released by a major-league organization for the third time in three years. Whatever big-league aspirations he retained were endangered. Another misstep would render them extinct.
Nunn navigated his long, lanky frame through his delivery. The hood on his sweatshirt pulsed and his left arm recoiled as he fell off the mound with every throw. Fastened to the wall ahead and to his right was a radar-gun display. He'd hit 96 and 97 miles per hour already, but the pitch that made him famous clocked in at 99 -- the sign of a baseball beast. He'd summon 99 once more before texting his agent the footage.
In the time since the bullpen session, Nunn's outlook has improved. This week, he joined the Texas Rangers with the expectation he'll open the season pitching relief for their Triple-A affiliate in Nashville -- a beautiful twist that will station him near his mother, who recently began chemotherapy. His chances of reaching the majors appear fatter than ever, given the rebuilding state of Rangers and their bullpen. Nunn's significance within the game has grown, too. His story now transcends him. No matter what comes next, he's more than another unknown minor-league wanderer: he's evidence that even million-dollar arms can benefit from free advertising.
Rob Friedman has seen videos like Nunn's before. Lately, he sees between 20 and 40 of them per day.
Friedman, better known as "Pitching Ninja" on Baseball Twitter, is behind a new venture called FlatGround. The premise is simple: push back against the amateur baseball industrial complex by providing exposure to those who are otherwise without it. Friedman gained firsthand knowledge of the sport's inequality problem at the youth level during his son's recruitment. He noticed players from well-off families could afford certain luxuries, like better equipment and private lessons. They also had an easier time getting past the sport's gatekeepers, the scouts and college recruiters who flocked to far-flung, pay-to-participate showcase events. The odds of a scholarship or look in pro ball were unfairly distributed.
Friedman decided he could help unprivileged players gain an audience: the 100,000 followers, including countless baseball insiders, he had accumulated over the years. FlatGround has picked up nearly 18,000 followers in less than two months. Every day, Friedman retweets videos from otherwise anonymous players, each hoping to find an opportunity. The account has created hashtags that designate whether a player is an amateur or a pro, making it easier for suitors to sort through the candidates.
FlatGround seems to be succeeding in pairing under-the-radar players with teams. "I get a really good success story every day," Friedman told CBS Sports. Among those are a Dutch pitcher who received more than 20 offers from American colleges after FlatGround shared his video, and Parker Hanson, a one-handed collegiate with a low-90s fastball and the desire to spend his last year of eligibility with a bigger program. Then there's Nunn, whose bullpens Friedman says he would pay to watch. Why? "He has the intent to throw the living piss out of the ball."
Friedman learned of Nunn and his intent the same way most of baseball did: through the viral videos. According to Nunn's agent, Nello Gamberdino II, he was scrolling through his timeline when he saw a tweet from a pitcher who claimed to be the FlatGround record holder for velocity. In his clip, the pitcher had hit 98 mph. "When I saw that, I'm like, 'wait a minute,'" Gamberdino said. He'd already passed the video around the industry, shipping it to scouts and front-office types. Sensing an opportunity to drum up more interest, Gamberdino tweeted the video at the FlatGround account, noting Nunn had hit 99 mph. Gamberdino experimented with his message, sprinkling in the buzzwords likeliest to catch attention -- "6-foot-5," "free agent," "left-handed pitcher."
The experiment worked. FlatGround retweeted Gamberdino, igniting a Nunn-related frenzy. The eight-second clip has since been played more than 370,000 times -- the "99" velocity reading flashing in front of countless eyes, including many employed by big-league teams. Roughly half the teams in the majors checked in on Nunn, with many calling to verify he was the same person they had old reports on. Gamberdino fielded so much interest following FlatGround's retweet that his cellphone carrier informed him on consecutive days he had exceeded the threshold for texts received. He joked, "I didn't even know they had that."
Teams had reason to be skeptical. The Nunn they had reports on was a 24th-round pick of the San Diego Padres who had pitched four unremarkable seasons as a professional. His Padres career culminated in a brutal 2015 that saw him allow more than seven earned runs and walks per nine innings. The following spring, Nunn asked for his release. He took the year off from baseball, resuming his education (he's nearing completion of his MBA) and taking up modeling (he and his chiseled jawline appeared in some music videos).
Nunn contemplated retiring. But he rejoined the ranks in 2017, beginning a series of short stays. He signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in April and was released in May before appearing in a regular-season game. He'd make one appearance for the Frontier League's Evansville Otters, then enter the Chicago Cubs organization in mid-August. After the season, he was selected by the Houston Astros in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft. Sure enough, he didn't last long with the Astros either. He was released in June after 15 appearances, yet he credits Houston for introducing him to contemporary analytics and technology.
"Everything you hear about the Astros, and how they're developing offspeed and all these things, is spot on," Nunn said.
Self-improvement is pivotal to Nunn's story, but not all of it arrives by choice. Some, as Nunn learned, is delivered by necessity. During his off year, he was elbowed in the eye while playing basketball. The injury nearly cost him use of the eye, and saddled him with double vision and sensitivity to light. His reprieve was sitting alone in a dark and quiet room. Existing. Nunn inhabited this tormented existence for months, causing him to become depressed. Now, years later, he reflects upon that challenging stretch and concludes that it helped him develop in various ways, including granting him additional body control and keener spatial awareness -- aspects that enable him to better repeat and maintain his mechanics. "The way I'll tell the story in 10 years ... you've seen Jordan shoot with his eyes closed, or Kobe shoot in the gym with the lights off, right?" he explains. "I started to rely on feeling things instead of seeing things."
Immersing himself in a meditative state trained Nunn to focus and remain in the present. A onetime skeptic of Phil Jackson's zen-master ways, Nunn has taken to coining his own witticisms -- for example: "greatness comes at once" -- and at times sounds downright Jacksonian. Consider how he analyzes the difference in his body control, like a scout lamenting about the metaphysical differences between a pitcher's command and control.
"You can watch someone dead-lift 500 pounds, and they might maintain positioning, but they're not controlling their body. There's a difference in controlling your body and just appearing to maintaining positioning," he said. "Visually, if I saw something and I said, 'oh, I'm moving properly' -- if it appeared I'm moving properly. That doesn't mean I'm still controlling the movement, it just means I'm in the right positions at the right time."
When it comes to video, Nunn has the tendency to be in the right position at the right time. His viral moment represents the fourth time the medium has helped him. The first time, he submitted footage to Lipscomb to get on the team. Then, when he was reentering baseball's ranks, he sent a video to Pat Murphy. Heck, his relationship with Gamberdino -- his agent and the man behind the fateful tweet -- is owed to video.
Gamberdino has represented Nunn for only about half a year. He first noticed the lefty last summer, when Nunn was pitching for the St. Paul Saints. It was an unusually cold night in the midwest. Nunn began the game slowly, his fastball clocking in around 90 mph. Rather than lose heat as the game burned on, Nunn added until he was throwing 97 mph in the seventh. "That's when I thought, 'OK, something's different about this dude,'" Gamberdino said. The two established contact and stayed in touch, with Gamberdino streaming Nunn's next few appearances through the American Association's website before becoming his agent.
Access to video has changed Nunn's career, and it's going to overhaul how baseball finds talent. Scouts and recruiters used to hide in the bushes and in disguise to find new players. In the future -- and in the present -- they can scope out someone throwing on social media and get an idea about how their arm works, as well as insight into how their mind works. It's a one-stop shop, in a sense -- and one teams are already exploring.
Nunn isn't Friedman's lone success story. Earlier this winter, Friedman retweeted footage of Baseball Bigfoot: an indy-league pitcher named Taylor Grover who packed a triple-digit fastball. The exposure landed Grover a deal with the Cincinnati Reds last November. Within a month -- without him appearing in a regular-season game -- Grover was plucked by the Baltimore Orioles in the minor-league Rule 5 draft. Years ago, under different management, the Orioles picked Jason Garcia in the Rule 5 draft thanks to video they took of him during instructs. And so on.
Those within the game are mostly in favor of the evolution.
At their core, Twitter videos are free information. They may not tell you the entire story, but they can serve as notice that there is a story to be discovered. One big-league scouting type told how he had ran across an old player he was familiar with on Twitter. The player had reinvented himself, but the team official wouldn't have known as much without social media. The medium should, if nothing else, inspire teams to do their due diligence. ("It's going to cause them to do their homework and do their due diligence to find out more about that player," Gamberdino said.) That Twitter erases the geographical borders makes it an especially attractive tool to mid-major colleges, whose recruiting efforts have historically been local in scope. "You're trying to get as much information as you can and make sure you're covering your bases nationally," said Greg Byron, Austin Peay's pitching coach.
The players stand to benefit from the shift, too. FlatGround has already fostered a community where current and former big-leaguers offer mechanical advice to up-and-coming hurlers. It's common to see Glendon Rusch, Robert Stock, or any number of others chime in, giving back to the game in a way that previously wasn't possible. The players on the receiving end have likely never received professional insight, nor have they experienced another rare commodity gifted to them with a FlatGround retweet: leverage. "When colleges start to see other people starting to ask for these pitchers' information publicly on Twitter, all the sudden their competitive juices get going and it becomes a feeding frenzy and puts the pitchers more in control of his destiny versus waiting for colleges," Friedman said.
As with any change, there are negatives and caveats worth highlighting. They range from the minor (Friedman's commitment to retweeting all submissions means serious baseball people have to deal with an unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio) to the malicious (agents, or other parties with vested interest in the pitcher's future, will inflate velocity reports to garner attention). There's also the matter of teams seeing video as a viable replacement for scouts. The Astros are said to have turned to a more video-heavy approach to scouting, and other teams are likely to follow in due time. An optimist would point out that perhaps the availability of video would permit scouts to lead a better lifestyle, with more of their work being done from home rather than on the road; a realist would point to baseball's endless march toward efficiency.
For the time being, teams aren't signing pitchers based just on video. They were familiar with Nunn and Grover from their past pro experiences. The videos showed the pitchers' velocity and evidence of their improvements, but it's likely both would have been discovered in due time anyway. The widespread video revolution, then, might take place at the collegiate level, where there are smaller travel budgets and more spots to fill. That's probably all right with Friedman -- if nothing else, it'd prove that showcase ball isn't as important as the organizers want players and their families to believe.
As for Nunn, he's not too surprised that everything worked out. Greatness comes at once -- if not, it seems, when it's scheduled. "I'd been telling my parents, 'My plan is to hit 100 miles per hour on a video, create a storm, and basically bully my way onto the team that I want to play for,'" Nunn said.
"Of course, I didn't imagine it happening on Jan. 14 -- I was thinking February or March ... but I'm OK with it."
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