He Nearly Threw It All In. But Now This Hurler Is Set for Stardom

Touki Toussaint (No. 62) of the Atlanta Braves pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the first inning of Game 2 of a doubleheader at Progressive Field on April 20, 2019, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Source Ron Schwane/Getty

Why you should care

Because Touki Toussaint knows it takes resilience to make the big leagues.

Atlanta Braves pitching prospect Touki Toussaint was full of despair as he walked off the mound in Asheville, North Carolina, one afternoon in July 2015 after giving up nine runs and four home runs in 3 1/3 innings. Then hurling for the Single-A Rome Braves, Toussaint said to himself: “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done.”

Touki called his mother, Kahaso Kiti, in Coral Springs, Florida, to tell her it was time for him to find another line of work. The self-pity vanished quickly. “If you quit,” she told her then-19-year-old son, “don’t come back here.”

Toussaint had been a first-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 before being traded to Atlanta in 2015. A 6-foot-3 right-hander with a wicked curveball, he had the opportunity of a lifetime — a professional baseball career — and Toussaint’s mother was infuriated by his lack of resilience. Kiti has roots in Haiti, where opportunity is hard to come by, thanks to earthquakes, hurricanes and dictators. Haitians, she said, do not waste an opportunity. Kahaso means “bittersweet medicine.” Her son had to learn to take his medicine, the bitter with the sweet.

Toussaint regrouped mentally after he being scolded by his mother. He polished the command on his 92-95 mph fastball and honed a change-up. The tweaks made his curveball even more effective, and he got back on the rails. “Baseball is 90 percent mental,” Toussaint says. “The mental aspect is what separates guys.”

That’s a major league pitch. He’s good.

MIguel Cabrera, on Touki Toussaint’s change-up

How far has he come? In a spring training game March 17 against the Detroit Tigers, Toussaint threw that change-up twice to Miguel Cabrera. The future Hall of Famer struck out on one change-up. On the second one, Cabrera topped the ball about 4 feet for an easy out. “Tough, tough pitch. He hides it well, very nice pitch,” Cabrera said after the game of the change-up. “That’s a major league pitch. He’s good.”

The slugger is confirming what many think about Toussaint for the 2019 season. At some point, he is going to be in Atlanta with three strong pitches out of the bullpen, not just one.

Atlanta held off on a deal for free agent pitcher Dallas Keuchel because young hurlers Toussaint, Kyle Wright, Max Fried and Bryce Wilson showed well in spring training. Wright was the better of the four, and then Wilson, so they joined the big league club for the start of the 2019 season.

 

Toussaint, 22, who was in the mix for the starting rotation, fell back with a poor outing late in spring training, meaning he started the season in Triple-A. There was no thirst to quit this time, though. He knows he’s close, and so do the Braves. “We’ll need all of them over the course of the year,” says Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves general manager, of his young quartet. “We have starters. The question is who is the best guy?” Anthopoulos adds that Toussaint’s presence on the postseason roster last year (allowing no runs and one hit over three innings in the National League Division Series) “shows you we think highly of him.”

Toussaint used to not think much of himself. The episode in Asheville wasn’t the first time he nearly gave up on baseball. At age 10, he started the season with two hits and then struck out 22 straight times. “I was thinking ‘this is too hard’ I’m going back to soccer, I always did well at soccer,” he says. Touki did not play baseball for a year. Toussaint’s best friend, Devon Crocker, an accomplished baseball player, then made a bet with Touki: If he would come back to baseball, Devon would play soccer. At age 12, Toussaint agreed. Five years later MLB.com rated him the No. 8 pitcher of the Class of 2014.

Baseball became his passion. Matt Cleveland, his high school coach at Coral Springs Christian, remembers the team putting forth a lackluster effort in a fall league game in 2013. Toussaint was off with the U.S. national team, but he heard about the crummy game and got on the team’s group chat to scold his teammates. They perked up and made it to the 3A state semifinals the following spring.

So what about that name? The nickname Touki (full name: Dany Gilbert Kiti Toussaint) is a mashup of his parents’ last names. His father, Dany Toussaint, was an army major and bodyguard to Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and was a candidate for Haiti’s presidency himself in 2006. Kiti, who raised Touki after she split with Dany, is the daughter of a Kenyan diplomat and a Haitian mother. She grew up in New York City because her father worked in the United Nations.

The name sounds as effervescent as his personality. Touki’s smile is wide and gleaming. After a minor league spring training game, he greeted his high school coach with a big hug and gave out bigger hugs to his family members.

Kiti says she taught her children “respect, respect, respect” and her son grasped the lesson. Toussaint is full of thank-yous for any compliment he receives. Told about Cabrera gushing over the change-up, he says, “Thank you for telling me that.”

He had runners all around him in the four innings he worked against the Tigers on March 17 and always minimized the damage, giving up two earned runs. The pitcher who wanted to run and hide four seasons ago when trouble brewed is nowhere to be seen. “Minor league baseball is six levels for a reason,” Cleveland says. “It takes time for these guys to develop.”

Toussaint is still looking for the steadiness that will keep him in the big leagues for the long haul. Called up to Atlanta in April, he was brilliant in relief (six innings, zero earned runs) and notched a victory against the Mets, then was a disaster a week later against the Indians (1.1 innings, seven runs). In two starts in the minor leagues, it has been more of the same: good, then not so good. On Friday, he earned a major league win, allowing one run over four innings out of the bullpen. The Braves wobbly relief corps has created an opportunity for Toussaint, but he has not taken advantage of it consistently.

Some scouts feel Toussaint has regressed in the past year because his fastball went from a steady 94-95 mph to 91-92 as he looked for better command. He was allowing too many base runners with an extra walk or fewer swing-and-miss pitches, which resulted in more chances for batted balls to fall in for hits. 

Still, his change-up is now above-average because the Diamondbacks and the Braves forced him to throw it instead of his curve the first two years of his pro career. “That curveball is a weapon,” says Braves coach and former big leaguer Walt Weiss, who was managing the split-squad game against the Tigers. “He gets a lot of swings and misses with it. But he’s got swing-and-miss stuff across the board with that change-up and fastball too.”

Not to mention he is now the master of the mental game, instead of the game mastering him.

Read more: This hot pitching prospect slowed down to speed up.

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