Alec Mills is not supposed to be where he is. The 6’4″ right-hander in the Kansas City Royals organization went to University of Tennessee-Martin to study engineering. As a lightly-recruited high schooler from a small town, Mills figured his baseball days were over. Coming out of Montgomery Central High School, Mills barely touched 85 mph with his fastball and did not use a breaking ball or changeup with much consistency. With a few offers for small school or junior college ball, Mills decided it was time to move on and focus on his education.
“At the time, I just wanted to go to school and move on with life. The baseball chapter of my life was done, but once I got to school, I drove past the field and saw them throwing and it got to me. ‘I can get these guys out,’ I thought to myself. I knew I still had the desire. Baseball has been my first love since I was a little kid.”
Mills got in touch with the coach, tried out, and the rest is history.
After making the roster, Mills progressed nicely, and he began turning heads. After throwing well against Georgia Southern during his junior year, scouts began calling. It was at that point that Mills began realizing that going from walk-on to professional could be a real possibility.
“It always helps to get some exposure on a big stage, but baseball is all about hearsay. If you’ve got the talent, someone will come out and find you,” Mills said when asked about the difficulties of being a big fish in a small pond at a lesser-known college.
During the summer of 2012, Mills was playing in the Northwoods League with the Madison Mallards, getting ready for his senior year. Calls began picking up around the time of the amateur draft.
“I started realizing that maybe this was going to happen. The first night of the draft, I pitched, and there was a possibility I would get taken. I told the scouts to call my dad if anything came up. It was a nerve-wracking time before the start. The next day, we were driving to Green Bay. The Royals called me and told me they would be picking me in the next round,” Mills said as he explained his draft experience.
“The Royals made me an offer and said, ‘This is it. Yes or no? We need an answer,” Mills continued. “Everyone on the team was sitting on the bus watching the draft tracker on their phones. My phone was kind of slow, and everyone knew I got drafted before I did. One of my buddies from UT-Martin called me before I knew it was official.”
The Royals made Mills a 22nd round pick, and with that, the former walk-on was off to a professional career, still an underdog.
“Higher up picks are going to get the benefit of the doubt more than another pick, but the Royals do a good job of believing that everyone they pick has Major League ability. I don’t know if you necessarily have to do anything out of the ordinary as a later round pick, but it helps. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, and I know it’s kind of cliche to say, but I am motivated by all of the people who were picked ahead of me.”
Mills did not get out of the gates in spectacular fashion in rookie ball, posting a 4.62 ERA in 17 appearances, but he more than held his own. The 2013 season was off to a good start at Low-A, as Mills pitched to a 1.59 ERA in 18 games, mostly out of the bullpen. That promising season came to a screeching halt, when Mills blew out his elbow and was forced to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
“I blew out my elbow one one pitch. Threw a pitch, felt a pop, heard a pop. It didn’t really feel like I had done anything serious, so I got back on the mound. Then I tried to make a pickoff throw to second and basically lost all feeling in my arm. That’s when I knew I had done something bad.”
The trainer came out, Mills walked off the field, and that was it for the 2013 season and most of the 2014 season.
Mills headed off to Arizona after undergoing surgery on July 31. “It was a time where I could go and take a lot of pressure off my arm with arm care and other exercises. That was good for my body, but mentally it was tough. You’re not able to do something you love for almost a year.”
When Spring Training 2014 came around, Mills was still rehabbing. When camp broke, he was only beginning to throw off the mound. It took until the beginning of the rookie season in Idaho Falls before Mills was ready for game action. While continuing to rehab, the right-hander pitched well, and made it back to Low-A before the end of the year. The first year back from surgery was successful, as Mills transitioned back to starting, and recorded a 2.35 ERA in 57.1 innings across 14 appearances. He still had his trademark control, and walked only 2.2 per nine.
After the season, the Royals sent Mills home with strict orders not to pick up a baseball for a few months. “I went nearly four-and-a-half months without throwing a ball. I think it was definitely good for my arm. I was able to focus on letting my body recharge while getting stronger in the weight room,” Mills said.
With a fastball topping out at 95 mph and an ability to throw strikes on a consistent basis, Mills dominated the Carolina League this summer. Over 21 starts and 113.1 innings, he registered a 3.02 ERA and struck out 111 while walking only 14. Mills also allowed only three home runs the entire season.
“The Royals preach filling up the zone even at the big league level, and for me, I’ve always hated walking a guy. When you get into pro ball, you realize that pitching around a guy to get to someone else, giving up a walk isn’t the worst thing in the world. That is something I need to start doing a better job of doing, but I still think giving up a walk is one of the worst things you can do as a pitcher. If you fill up the zone, lower half, guys will get themselves out. It’s a matter of getting the ball in the right location.”
Going forward, Mills will need to continue harnessing his curveball, changeup and slider. “I always had a curveball in high school. The slider was something I picked up in college. The changeup is something I’ve always thrown, but didn’t totally have a feel for,” Mills said when describing his pitch arsenal. “The rehab process actually helped me work on getting the feel for the changeup, and that was huge for me this year. I was able to lean on it a lot more this year.”
From raw, small town high schooler with no real college baseball opportunities on his horizon, to walk-on, to college star, Alec Mills has been overlooked. That’s no longer the case. Given the chance to gradually improve and develop in pro ball, Mills has turned himself from a late round, organizational depth pick into a legitimate prospect.
“I’ve always known how to pitch,” Mills said, “The past few years have taught me a lot. You develop into something else. You’re always growing into your body, and I don’t even know if I’m done growing. People don’t know what they really are until they’re 24 or 25.”