CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – It was just before 10:30 on Sunday morning, and the scouts began assembling en masse behind home plate of the spacious single batting cage that was spotlighting the pitching talent at the Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase.
They were gathering to see with their own eyes what they had only recently caught wind of, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound locomotive from Clarkston, Mich., this 17-year-old right-hander who had been converted from a catcher to a pitcher only six months previous and was already delivering BB’s from 60-feet, 6-inches that were reaching home plate at a speed approaching 95 mph.
And, lo and behold, out to the mound walked Luke Shilling, a senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac, Mich., who started all the buzz by rocking and firing 95 mph fastballs a week earlier at the Super 60 showcase in Chicago.
If the instantly likable Shilling was the least bit uptight about his outing on this day, he certainly didn’t show it when he spoke with PG nearly two hours before his session began.
“I’m just trying to stay loose and have some fun,” the personable Shilling said. “I can’t go out there and try to do too much. I just have to go with what I feel, I guess.”
And then he glanced around PG Headquarters’ new indoor facility and expounded on what he had just said:
“I’m just really trying to get more exposure and get put in front of more people, and get more experience with batters in the box before the spring season comes so I’m a little more prepared. I know Perfect Game, the organization, runs events really well so I thought this was a good opportunity for me.”
Shilling’s father, Jed Shilling, was also taking in the scene. He watched intently as other top pitching prospects took their turns throwing to live hitters during the showcase’s Sunday morning session, eager to gauge their performances against his son’s after Shilling was finished throwing.
“More than anything, we want to give (Luke) a chance to compete at a high level and to get an opportunity to see how his skills matchup with other kids in his age group,” Jed Shilling said. “It has been a little bit (of a whirlwind) … but it’s created a lot of excitement and it’s fun for him; it’s good to see.”
The anticipation was palpable Sunday morning and Shilling didn’t disappoint. He came out blasting with the single barrel that is his right arm, delivering a succession of 93 and 94 mph fastballs, wicked 11-to-5, 78 mph curveballs and deceptively effective 81-84 mph changeups. Perfect Game President Jerry Ford was among those impressed by the outing.
“He looks like a top three-round candidate to me,” Ford said referring to the MLB June amateur draft. “I liked both the command and the quality of his breaking ball, he threw a couple of plus changeups and he’s mid-90s with life and very little effort. The only thing that keeps him behind a lot of the other guys that are the high-profile guys in the country is that he doesn’t have the history they do.:
One respected scout who watched Shilling on Sunday said he was much better here than he was last weekend.
And this, as Jed Shilling said, has indeed been a whirlwind. Shilling spent his entire middle school and high school careers as a catcher and the University of Cincinnati had offered him a scholarship – which he accepted – to join the program as a catcher.
That all changed in August when in a strange twist of fate he was asked to throw a bullpen session, nothing serious really, just kind of fooling around. He had always shown a strong arm as a catcher but what came out of his right hand during that session – low 90 mph fastballs – caught everyone by surprise.
Up until that point, Shilling hadn’t pitched since he was 11 or 12 years old and the ease with which he became acclimated to his new favorite position on the field was nothing short of remarkable.
He traveled here with the Michigan Bulls for the 2014 PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in late September, where his fastball sat at 86-90 mph. His next stop was the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. – this time with the St. Louis Pirates/Midwest Mets Scout Team – where his fastball sat 89-91.
“It took a while to get used to but it’s starting to come around,” Shilling said of his adjustment period on the mound. “I’m starting to feel really comfortable on the mound, holding runners on and whatnot. For me Jupiter was big, because I went out there and I didn’t do very well, but having that experience in front of everybody, now being out there in pressure situations doesn’t bother me as much anymore.”
He has been working with former major league right-hander Don Kirkwood. “He’s just been helping me with everything from the mental side and what to think out there,” Shilling said. “He’s helped me with different grips, repeating my mechanics; he’s really helped me improve my pitching in a short amount of time.”
Shilling described the Clarkston, Mich., community as more hockey-minded than baseball-minded but he’s still looking forward to his senior season at Notre Dame Prep, which is in Pontiac, Mich. He has been playing for the Michigan Bulls for the last two years.
“It’s just a great organization,” Shilling said. “(Director of Operations) Sean (Gallagher) has been really critical to my development as a player and I really appreciated everything they’ve done for me.”
Shilling came into the PG P/C Indoor ranked No. 256 nationally in the class of 2015 and as the No. 90 right-handed pitcher. Those rankings were released before his most recent exploits, however, so he’s sure to make a prodigious climb when the next rankings are released.
“People have asked me what I like better, pitching or catching – I just like playing,” Shilling said. “I’m not mad that I’m not catching anymore, I just love playing baseball. I’m just glad that pitching has given me the opportunity to play at a really high level.”
Shilling de-committed from Cincinnati and has now signed with Illinois from the Big Ten. He said the coaches at Cincinnati “didn’t see eye-to-eye” with him on his decision to start pitching and he understood their feelings because he was throwing in the mid- to upper-80s at the time and hadn’t started to flash the big numbers that he has shown recently.
“I decided to open my recruitment back up and some schools came on later,” he said. “Indiana and Illinois were my final two and I just went with my gut with Illinois. I really love the coaching staff and I know I’m going to have a good opportunity to pitch in the big-time; I’m really excited.”
Now it’s time for Shilling to get excited for June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft. Based on his performance here and Ford’s well-respected appraisal, his stock is certain to rise. But it is not lost on the family that he has a lot of work ahead of him.
“From here, things get compressed because he started pitching so few months ago,” his father Jed said. “I think the biggest thing for him to get right now is just the experience – just as much experience as he can jam in there and him actually having some failure so he can figure out (to handle it).
“You just don’t step out there and do it – it’s a learning process – so one of the biggest benefits for him this weekend is getting out and having a chance to compete.”
Shilling has enlisted the help of an adviser who has been giving him advice on what to expect from the draft and how the process works. Shilling is 17 years old and will still be 17 in June when the draft takes place but he doesn’t seem to be any hurry to rush things along.
“I’m looking at it and I’m ready to go if it’s there but I’m also not afraid to go to college and come out three years later,” he said. “Right now it’s hard to tell but we’ll see later on in the spring where things are at.”
Luke Shilling has only been pitching for six months. The whirlwind will continue over the next four months as anticipation of the draft builds and Shilling continues to build his reputation. His father, for his part, is going to sit back and enjoy the show.
“You have a lot of pride, being able to sit there and watch your kid perform well,” Jed Shilling said. “He still has quite a ways to go. He’s just converted to a pitcher – he needs to do it out on the mound and within competition – and it’s all a learning experience and I’m sure that will come as part of the process.”