PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Let’s start this Austin Voth introduction by getting something out of the way: His last name is pronounced Voth like both. Not Voth like sloth. It’s a problem for most people Voth meets.
“It took a full pro year for all my coaches to get my name,” Voth said.
It’s taken a lot longer, longer than maybe he anticipated, for the 24-year-old Voth to secure a chance at cracking the Nationals’ roster and making his major league debut. While Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and A.J. Cole were getting shuttled between the minors and the bigs last season, Voth was left untouched with Class AAA Syracuse, adding another successful season to his rise through the farm system. He followed a 2.92 ERA in 28 outings (27 starts) with Class AA Harrisburg in 2015 with a 3.15 ERA in 27 appearances (25 starts) for Syracuse. But the call from Washington never came.
“I can’t really dwell on that,” said the relaxed Voth, a fifth-round pick out of the University of Washington in 2013. “All you can really do is go out and compete and do your best and then if it happens, it happens.”
Reaching the 40-man roster milestone happened for Voth in November and he is in his second major league camp this spring. He pitched in his third game Saturday, entering the sixth inning of the Nationals’ 6-0 victory over the New York Mets to log 1 2/3 frames. He began his outing by allowing consecutive hits, but danced out of the jam by inducing a pop out from Neil Walker, striking out Jay Bruce looking, and striking out Lucas Duda swinging. He added another strikeout in the seventh before Jeremy Guthrie replaced him.
Voth followed Vance Worley and Erick Fedde, who tossed three innings in the start, his first in a Nationals uniform in a game of any sort, and is the top-ranked pitching prospect in the organization. While Voth doesn’t draw nearly the same hype, he could compete for a spot in the starting rotation on a few major league clubs. With the Nationals, he must settle for battling with Fedde and Cole for the first spot following the team’s established quintet. That could mean a spot on the Opening Day roster if Max Scherzer, whose spring has been disrupted by a stress fracture in his right ring finger, isn’t ready.
“All you can do is project because projections can be wrong,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “Because it doesn’t show how much heart you have, how much intellect you have for pitching.”
Fedde hasn’t reached AAA yet, making his debut likelier for later in the season, which leaves Voth and Cole as the two candidates for the beginning of the campaign if another starter is required. That wasn’t the case a few months ago, before the Nationals shipped Lopez and Giolito, the two pitchers seemingly on the rotation’s doorstep, to the Chicago White Sox for Adam Eaton.
“I was a little surprised,” Voth said. “I thought Giolito was going to be the future for the Nationals. I mean, I thought the way they treated him that he was going to be the face of the franchise coming up. I thought I would have a better chance of getting traded than Giolito. But things work out differently than you assume.”
Unlike Giolito — and later Lopez — Voth has never been considered a top prospect. He doesn’t throw the ball very hard (his fastball usually sits at 88-92 mph) and nasty isn’t used to describe his stuff. But he’s effective because, Voth said, he hides the ball well, his fastball cuts, and he usually has good command. Those qualities don’t attract buzz. For comparison sake, he’s a bit like Tanner Roark.
“A little less velo,” Voth said with a chuckle.
Like a lot of young starting pitchers, one of Voth’s chief priorities is to improve his change-up. He tried a few different grips before settling on an offset circle change-up Nationals minor league pitching coordinator Paul Menhart taught him last season. He used the pitch more and more as last season progressed, he said, jumping from seven to 10 change-ups per game to around 15 by the end. He then threw up to 20 change-ups in the Arizona Fall League.
“I’ve always had the change-up,” Voth said, “but it’s never been that good.”
The goal with the pitch is to better complement his fastball and curveball, to not solely on those pitches, which becomes increasingly difficult each time through a lineup. If he can do it, the chances of getting his named called — Voth like both — in this majors this season will only grow.