Mathias LaCombe is the embodiment of the old phrase “how quickly things can change”.  

At the beginning of this spring, he was a virtually unknown relief pitcher at a community college in a rural region of eastern Arizona who had trouble consistently throwing strikes.  At the end of the spring, he became only the second native of France drafted by an MLB team when the Chicago White Sox called his name in the 12th round.  

Yes, things can often change in a hurry.

To learn more, one needs to go back a bit.

From Pineuilh, a town in the famous wine region of Bordeaux, LaCombe began playing baseball at the age of 8.  He tried other sports, such as rugby, but stayed with baseball because he liked it’s “difficulty”.  He played for various club teams and also spent three years training at the French national baseball academy in Toulouse before eventually finding his way to Cochise College in Douglas, AZ, which several French players had previously attended.

In his first season, he had a good strikeout rate (10.4 per 9 innings), but also a 5.04 earned-run average and a high 1.52 WHIP after walking 14 and allowing 24 hits in 25 innings. 

“When he got here, he was a skinny dude without a lot of pitchability,” said Cochise Coach Todd Inglehart, who has been at the school for 25 years.  “His fast ball velocity was probably 87-88 – maybe 89 – and he had trouble throwing strikes.  He was a one-pitch guy who didn’t control the strike zone well.  He did better in the playoffs – he was throwing more strikes and his velocity had improved to the low 90s – but he was still a one-pitch pitcher.”

Photo: In April 2023, Mathias LaCombe was pitching for a small community college in rural Arizona. Four months later he signed an affiliated contract. 

As the 2023 season neared, LaCombe had gotten stronger – he’s now 6-2 and 185 pounds – and gained velocity through a weight-training program, but Inglehart still didn’t have a good fix on his potential upside.

“We were patient, because we’ve had a lot of international guys here, and there is an understandable adjustment period,” Inglehart said.  “It’s a step-by-step process.  I give kids time to figure things out before I make any assumptions.  I didn’t know at first what his role would be, and I really didn’t know at the start of his second season.  I knew that he had great makeup – he was fearless, competitive, and willing to be coached – but he had such a long way to go.”

As it turned out, LaCombe made up a lot of ground quickly.

The team’s closer the previous season – voted to the All-America team – had been moved to the starting rotation, and Lacombe took over as closer.  But he wasn’t getting many save opportunities because the team’s offense wasn’t generating a lot of late-inning leads, so Inglehart moved  him into the rotation.

“His first start was kind of marginal, but his velocity had improved to 94-97, and he really started to get better by mid-March,” Inglehart said.  “He went from having poor command to pitching through a shoebox.”

White Sox area scout John Kazanas also took note.

“I saw him last year but nothing came out to tell me, ‘Wow,’ until this year,” Kazanas said. “He relieved [in one game] and I believe threw four or five innings of shutout ball. The life of the fastball, the arm strength that he possessed, the looseness in his arm, just the definition of his body for projection — all of a sudden, [I thought], ‘Holy smokes!’”

LaCombe could tell the difference, too.

“My command and velocity had improved,” he said. “I was hitting 94-95 regularly when starting and hit 96 six times in the seventh inning of starts.  Once, I hit 98 in a relief appearance, and I was starting to put up some really good numbers.”  

Photo: LaCombe’s hometown club in France is Stade Toulouse which competes in the French First Division. Photo credit: Stade Toulousain Baseball 

Numbers such as a 1.74 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP, and a 7-to-1 strikeout/walk ratio – good enough that Kazanas was able to get White Sox area supervisor Ryan Dorsey to make the trip to Cochise, a seven-hour round trip by car, to see him pitch.  And the club eventually made him the 359th player taken in the draft.

LaCombe said he had been “pretty confident of being drafted because I’d been putting up great numbers and been getting more calls from scouts before the draft.  [Kazanas] was one of the first scouts to get in touch with me.  A lot of them thought I’d be drafted on the second day, so I was a little disappointed when I didn’t get picked by then, but I was pleasantly surprised to be picked on the third day and still get the money I had been looking for.”

His goal, of course, is to make it to the big leagues, which would make him the first French player to do so.  The only other French player drafted by an MLB team is outfielder Joris Bert, who was taken by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 19th round of the 2007 draft and played two seasons at the rookie-league level.  

“He is driven to be the first French player to play in the big leagues,” Kazanas said. “When he goes back to France, he’s going to make an impact on hundreds of kids who have that same dream.”

Photo: Mathias LaCombe signs his first affiliated contract with the Chicago White Sox. 

LaCombe appeared for France in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers late last year, allowing a run and striking out two in one inning against Great Britain.  

Boris Rothermundt, assistant national technical director of the French Baseball and Softball Federation, as well as the first French player to have played college baseball in the United States, said, “Mathias has been our future in terms of the World Baseball Classic qualifier, so we’ve got four years to build a team around [him and 15-year-old pitching prospect Ben Couvreur] and other players that have either university or professional experience.”

LaCombe currently is at the White Sox’ training facility in Glendale, AZ, and is not sure of his next posting.  He may be kept in Arizona to train, since the development league there – the Arizona Complex League – is near the end of its season, and the low U.S. minor leagues complete their regular seasons by mid-September.

“I definitely need to work on some things, like my slider, the movement on my  pitches, and overall consistency,” LaCombe said, “but I’ve always had the dream of playing pro ball in the U.S., and I’m going to do everything I can to make the most of this opportunity.”

Inglehart added, “He’s so young as a pitcher that he probably has a pretty high ceiling.  In my opinion, he’s only scratched the surface.”

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