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College  | Story  | 3/20/2015

Crownover prepares for future

Nick Kappel     
Photo: Dawson Powers

The 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic featured an impressive collection of arms, many of which became top picks in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Among the top 50 draftees that year were PG All-Americans Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Max Fried (Padres), Lance McCullers (Astros) and Matt Smoral (Blue Jays).

Others went the collegiate route. Carson Fulmer bypassed the Red Sox for Vanderbilt, and Mitchell Traver chose his
commitment to TCU over the Astros.

Three other PG All-Americans that year had commitments to Clemson University: Lucas Sims, Clate Schmidt and Matthew Crownover. Sims signed with Atlanta after being drafted No. 21 overall. Schmidt passed on an opportunity with the Detroit Tigers to become a Clemson Tiger. And Crownover – the 6-foot southpaw who fanned a pair and was clocked at 92 mph in his PG All-American game appearance – went undrafted. But not because he wasn't good enough.

Crownover was injured in the second outing of his senior year at Ringgold High School in his hometown of Ringgold, Ga. A few days later, on March 5 – his 19
th birthday – Crownover was told he had a torn UCL, ending his high school career.

Tommy John Surgery followed. After rehabbing twice a day for four months, Crownover – now at Clemson – returned to the mound 11 months after surgery. His first weekend start came against top-ranked North Carolina. Crownover's Tigers knocked off the previously 22-1 Tar Heels in extra innings, no doubt a big win for Clemson. But for Crownover, that moment meant something more.

It was satisfying to know that I worked my butt off to get to that point,” Crownover told Perfect Game earlier this week. “I wasn't exactly myself at full strength, but I was back and competing again.”

Though not yet at full strength, Crownover mowed down ACC opponents to the tune of a 1.73 ERA in seven conference starts. Nothing short of a freshman sensation on the mound, Crownover shined outside the lines as well, earning an All-ACC Academic selection and the Tiger Baseball Award, given to the team's best leader.

After proving to be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery in a dazzling sophomore year (8-6, 2.90 ERA in 17 appearances), Crownover was selected by the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. With a chance to join some of his fellow 2011 PG All-Americans in the pros, Crownover instead returned to Clemson for his junior year.

It was a great honor to get drafted,” he said. “But I knew I needed to come back and work on my breaking ball a bit because it was lacking. And it took me until this year to get it back.”

Now 36 months removed from surgery, Crownover has been absolutely dominant as a junior. Working his four-pitch mix – fastball, changeup, curveball, slider – Crownover is 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA through five starts.

He defers some of the credit to his catcher and fellow former PG All-American Chris Okey, who played in PG's most prestigious event in 2012.

He's a great leader with a great personality,” Crownover said of Okey. “He does a great job calling pitches and managing the game. I can't say enough about him. He's one of the best in the ACC, that's for sure.”

The batterymates were at their best last weekend vs. Notre Dame, holding the Irish to three hits in eight innings. Although Crownover's left arm may be on fire, the early-season weather in ACC territory has been ice cold. His start against Notre Dame was his first this season in which the temperature was above freezing.

It was nice to finally get a warm day,” Crownover said jokingly. “My arm felt pretty good and I had good, but not great control. I threw the ball well fastball location wise and mixed it up, throwing my curve and changeup well and my slider to lefties.”

All three former PG All-American's contributed to Clemson's 6-1 over the Irish in game one of last Saturday's doubleheader. Okey went 1-for-4 and Schmidt pitched a spotless ninth inning to secure Crownover's fourth straight win.

Very much a student of the game, Crownover finally feels comfortable on the mound, which spells bad news for opposing ACC lineups.

I'm one of those guys who can throw whatever I need to whenever I need to,” he said. “It's not like I have to throw a certain pitch to get somebody out. It depends on what the batter is doing up there. I just go off of their last swing to determine what my next pitch is going to be.”

His next pitch might be to the pros, with June's draft upcoming. But before that, Crownover is focused on two things: pitching Friday nights for Clemson and excelling in the classroom.

Right now, with all the time I've spent here with Coach Leggett, I think it'd be disrespectful not to only focus on the task at hand which is pitching Friday nights with my teammates,” he said. “I only have so many starts left, so I just want to focus on pitching the best I can.”

A sports communication major, Crownover teamed up with one of his professors, Dr. Jimmy Sanderson, to present at last year's SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) convention in Houston. Their presentation, “Building From Within or Acquiring From Without: An Analysis on Roster Construction for Postseason MLB Teams From 2009-13” won the USA Today Sports Award for best poster.

Their study found that teams with homegrown players at left field, catcher and relief pitcher have higher WAR values, making them more valuable than acquiring those players via free agency.

Their project for this year's SABR convention will focus on draft trends over the last 10 years in the top five rounds.

We're looking at which teams are more likely to take high school players or college players, or a righthanded pitcher over a lefthanded pitcher,” Crownover said. “You can't quantify it exactly, but you can see the trends over the last five or 10 years.”

Crownover hopes to pitch in the Majors one day, but he understands that – even if he does make it – his career won't last forever. When he's done playing, Crownover wants to work his way up the ladder in a Major League front office and eventually become General Manager.

Most people that are trying to get these jobs are coming from MIT or have the opportunity to do summer internships,” he said. “Playing baseball, there's no time for me to do that.”

To better prepare himself for his “dream job,” Crownover's research with Dr. Sanderson gives him a foundation to work from when he playing days are over.

I would like to know certain things when it comes to sabermetrics,” he said. “I'd be lying if I said I knew how to quantify WAR or slugging plus on-base percentage. I just want to go into a job interview one day and say that I played baseball for a long time and I know where scouts and people in baseball are coming from, but I also understand some things behind the analytics. I'd like to help connect the dots and be the middle man.”

Although he doesn't pay much attention to his own stats, Crownover judges himself by three very important measures: first pitch strikes, retiring the leadoff man, and pitching well in the first inning. If he can succeed in those three areas, he says, “I'm going to be pretty good.”