A photo in the Fairbanks home in Webster Groves depicts Peter Fairbanks in his windup, his right arm cocked backward as far as it can stretch.
The image is from his days with the Single A Spokane Indians and was one of the delivery variations with which he has experimented over the years from high school to Mizzou and through stops in the Texas Rangers’ organization.
“His whole life he’s fiddled with his motion,” his father, Shane, said, “and it drives me crazy.”
“Constantly tinkering,” is how Peter Fairbanks described the process.
He was working on something new the last time he was home, in the winter of 2017-18, and there was a significant reason. The 25-year-old was trying to save his career, which has included two rounds of Tommy John surgery: the first as a high school junior after being injured at the Ballwin Athletic Association and the second in August 2017.
Through research and consultation, he settled on a more compact motion he is now using out of the Texas bullpen.
“I spent seven months at home figuring it out,” he said. “That’s when I changed my arm action. It’s more short, more infielder-ly or catcher-ish. It’s not what you would have been taught with a big long swing to get your arm up. It was fairly simple to change but took a lot to execute.”
After being sidelined for the 2018 season, Fairbanks made a stunning rise in the Rangers’ organization in two months this spring using his new approach.
He went from High A Down East to Double A Frisco to Triple A Nashville and then joined the Rangers on June 8. He debuted the next day by striking out the side against Oakland in his first inning and has allowed five runs on five hits in his first 7 2/3 innings with 12 strikeouts. He has allowed home runs by Xander Bogaerts and Yasiel Puig.
Fairbanks is 6 feet 6 and throwing harder than ever, hitting the upper 90s with his fastball. Whether he’ll stick with the Rangers for the season remains to be seen, and he struggled Sunday allowing three runs (two earned), two hits and two walks in one-third of an inning.
But when your goal for the season is to refine your new technique and reach the Double A level, the opportunity to earn a regular spot in a major-league bullpen is somewhat beyond belief.
“It’s gone a little faster than I expected,” he said. “It’s all been a surprise for the most part. My goal was to get out of Down East by the Carolina League All-Star Game. I hope I can stick up here for a while.”
Fairbanks never doubted he could return from his injuries. An avid reader his entire life, he devoured motivational books and pursued a new approach to pitching after surgery.
Eventually he moved his rehabilitation to Arizona, where he lived with his grandparents. He taped a piece of paper on his bedroom door at their house with a list of goals: 1. Play in the major leagues. 2. Marry Lydia Ely. 3. Graduate.
Fairbanks and Lydia, a 6-6 former volleyball player at Rosati-Kain and Mizzou, were married in December. Graduation for a student who scored a 34 on his ACT remains a priority.
Fairbanks is living a dream much like he was growing up. The family living room was a baseball field where mock games were played. The backyard was where Shane, who played baseball at Mizzou, cut the grass to different levels to give the appearance of base paths, and Peter’s mother, Jane, threw pitches to him for hours. The basement is where he played a game of accuracy, getting points for hitting certain spots with throws.
Years later, Jane was spending time in that same backyard listening to broadcasts of her son’s minor-league games while gardening. Now they can watch every game on TV, waiting to see if he makes an appearance.
“It’s fun to watch when you see your son,” Jane said. “I’m a nervous wreck, like I’m going to throw up. It’s bizarre, especially when he was pitching at Fenway.”
Pitching at Fenway Park, in Boston, seemed a long shot after that second surgery. No one will ever know why his elbow failed twice. Fairbanks didn’t pitch a lot before high school but he was a catcher, meaning he was throwing more than most kids.
He didn’t pitch as a senior at Webster Groves, limiting his play to first base and hitting before heading to Mizzou, where he went 8-12 with a 3.90 ERA in three years. He was then drafted in the ninth round.
After throwing 90 to 95 mph at Mizzou, his velocity increased slightly when he reached the minor leagues. After rehabbing from the second surgery, he was in the upper 90s.
“Once I started being able to move the arm and doing rehab, I didn’t have any doubt I’d be able to get back to what I was,” he said. “And now thankfully better than 2016 and ’17.”
Fairbanks had a chance to show that to the major leagues when he debuted with his family, including younger sister Lia, in attendance.
When it became apparent that Fairbanks would be entering the game, an usher offered to move his family to the front row. Lydia and Jane moved along with his agent while Shane stayed put.
“I would prefer to go off and sit in the upper deck by myself if I could,” he said.
In the bullpen, Fairbanks ended his warmups by throwing a pitch out of the reach of the catcher, and figured he had gotten the bad one out of the way.
His first pitch to Matt Olson was a ball, but he followed by striking him out. After going 2-0 to Chad Pinder, he recorded another strikeout. Then came a three-pitch strikeout of Ramon Laureano. His second inning of work included an error that was erased by a double play.
He has refused to dwell on whether he will stay or go, choosing instead to appreciate the unexpected career move.
“I don’t know if I look at it as work,” he said. “I’m playing a game, which is awesome. I wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable with it. But it’s surreal to walk into the clubhouse every day.”