There have been seven pitchers to make the big leagues as 35th-round draft picks. The most successful is Chasen Bradford, who has amassed 1.1 WAR since 2017 with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners.
There has been just one player drafted out of Lafayette College in Easton, PA, to make the majors: Jeff Mutis, who had a 6.48 ERA in four seasons with the Cleveland Indians and Florida Marlins from 1991-94.
And there has been just one Bednar in MLB history: Andy Bednar, who pitched 5.1 innings for the 1930-31 Pittsburgh Pirates with a 15.19 ERA.
San Diego Padres prospect David Bednar is looking to buck all three of those trends. Bednar was drafted in the 35th round in 2016 after his junior season at Lafayette. Often when a college junior is selected in that part of the draft, he will come back for his senior season to try to improve his stock. For Bednar, that wasn’t really much of a consideration.
“I was pretty set on, if I was drafted, I wanted to get started on my pro baseball experience,” Bednar says. “A lot of conversation with my family and friends, they were all very supportive of me, but yeah, it was a good decision looking back on it.”
Less than a week after being drafted, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Bednar made his professional debut with the short-season Tri-City Dust Devils of the Northwest League. After 8.0 shutout innings there, he moved to the Fort Wayne TinCaps of the Midwest League. Overall in 2016, he had a 2.32 ERA in 31.0 innings pitched.
He began the 2017 season in Fort Wayne, but he was promoted to the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm of the California League in late June. His 2.64 overall ERA in 61.1 innings earned him an invite to the Arizona Fall League, where he threw 8.0 innings and allowed just one run.
Bednar’s 2018 season got off to a rocky start: After disastrous outings in his fourth and six appearances of the season, his ERA sat at 12.15. But things turned around quickly, and in 62.2 innings over the rest of the season (spent entirely at Lake Elsinore), Bednar recorded a 1.72 ERA. His 2.73 overall ERA is outstanding even without factoring in the offense-friendly environment of the Cal League.
Bednar was promoted to the Double-A Amarillo Sod Poodles for 2019, and the early-season bad game bit him again. On April 8, in his second appearance of the season, Bednar entered in the 10th inning of a tie game with a runner on second base. A series of hits culminated in a two-run homer, and at the end of the inning Bednar had allowed four earned runs. The life of a reliever means it can take a while for your stats to bounce back from one bad early outing, but Bednar has remained confident, especially knowing that the issues that sparked his early problems in 2018 — most notably, eight walks in his first 8.0 innings pitched — have not plagued him this year.
“Last year was a little bit different,” he says. “I was just kind of all out of sync [in the two bad games], and I was able to bounce back and finish strong. This year, I’ve been feeling much, much better. I’ve been throwing the ball well, and there was just that one outing that was a bit of an outlier. But I was definitely able to learn a lot from [last year], that if I can just take it one outing at a time, one day at a time, and focus on the next pitch, good things will happen.”
Bednar has a 2.45 ERA in 11.0 innings since that April 8 appearance, with two of the three runs he has allowed scoring on what MiLB.com describes as a “medium range fly ball to left centerfield” that “fell between left fielder and centerfielder as two runs scored.” Such is the life of a pitcher, especially a reliever — sometimes you do everything right, and the ball just falls.
In another farm system, Bednar might be more highly touted. His fastball is in the high-90s, with a curveball and a splitter that he is gaining confidence in daily.
“The splitter is relatively new in the last two years or so,” he explains, “and I have been getting a lot more comfortable with it to throw it in any count and put guys away with it. My curveball has gotten a lot more consistent over the last year or so, I’ve been able to throw it for a strike pretty much any time I want. I’m just continuing to tighten up both pitches to throw them for strikes and use them to put away hitters.”
The Padres farm system isn’t just the best this year — it’s one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory. Between that and the fact that relief pitchers often don’t rank highly on prospect lists, Bednar is a bit under the radar in San Diego’s system. He has bounced between spots 25 and 40 on most organizational prospect lists.
But even though they don’t get the prospect love, relievers often have the straightest path to the big leagues. Position players can be blocked by established big leaguers. There are only so many starting pitchers a team needs over the course of a season. But for a relief pitcher, if the performance justifies it, chances are he’s going to see the big leagues. As such, Bednar doesn’t worry much about who is ahead of him on depth charts or prospect lists.
“I try not to think much about that, even a little bit,” he says. “You just have to control what you can control. It’s awesome playing with a lot of different talented guys, and it pushes me a little bit more. But you just control what you can control, just go out there and throw the ball well.”
One of those “talented guys” is Chris Paddack, who spent much of last season in Lake Elsinore as Bednar’s teammate. This year, he is pitching for the Padres in San Diego and making the most of it, with a 1.67 ERA in 27.0 innings pitched so far. Seeing Paddack’s success makes Bednar’s big-league dream seem a little more real.
“The more guys you play with who you see go up and play at that level,” he says, “the more confident you become that, hey, I can do that too. Paddack is great — he’s a guy who works harder than just about anybody, and he’s had great success everywhere he goes. He’s awesome on and off the field, works really hard, and deserves all the success that he’s going to have.”
Bednar was a starting pitcher in college, but the Padres immediately switched him to relief. His stuff was good enough for college, but it really took a step up when he turned professional.
“My fastball was probably upper 80s to low 90s in college,” Bednar says. “Moving to the bullpen, throwing more volume, changing up my workouts, stuff like that, has helped me progress and get a lot better.”
(Interviewer’s note: That’s the humble way of saying “I touch 98.”)
The conversion from starting to relieving wasn’t too tough for Bednar.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I got drafted,” he says. “I was just excited to start my pro baseball journey. But it wasn’t a huge deal to switch to relief, just getting used to getting ready quicker and being available every day. You still just have to get guys out and make good pitches and the rest takes care of itself.”
“I like both roles,” he continues, “but I like what I’m doing now because you’re able to pitch every day and can just get back out there and if you have a bad outing or keep the ball rolling if you have a good one. As a starter, if you have a bad outing, you have five or six days to think about it. But as a reliever you have to have a short memory and get back out there.”
Bednar comes from an athletic, baseball-loving family. His dad, Andy (no relation to the former MLB player Andy Bednar mentioned above), played baseball and football at Cornell and is now the baseball coach at Mars High School in Mars, PA. His younger brother Will is a senior at Mars and is committed to play college ball at Mississippi State, and their 15-year-old sister. Danielle, plays high school softball. Will throws harder than David did in high school — “That’s putting it lightly,” David laughs — so eventually it might not just be a 1930s pitcher David is competing with for the title of Best Bednar in MLB History.
But for now, David Bednar is on his path to the big leagues. And for him, that path means trusting his stuff.
“I just go out and attack the zone no matter who’s out there or the situation. I’m just going to go out there and pitch to the best of my ability and put it all out there.”
You can follow David Bednar on Twitter at @david_bednar.