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Juco  | Story  | 3/13/2014

Junior College notes: March 13

Allan Simpson     
Photo: Perfect Game

Junior College Top 25 Team Rankings: March 11

Dominant Pitching Filtering

Down to Junior-College Level

Pitching has dominated the four-year college ranks pretty much since the introduction of the BBCOR-model bat in 2011, and the same kind of dominance, not coincidentally, is occurring at the junior-college level.

No doubt,” said Jeff Johnson, the long-time head coach at national junior-college power Chipola (Fla.). “Pitching has definitely been more dominant at the JC level this spring than in past years. Runs are still being scored, but we’re just not seeing the number of hitters that can drive balls like they used to.”

Among 177 college teams in the National Junior College Athletic Association ranks at the Division I level, 33 reported team ERAs less than 3.00 through the second weekend of March. California junior colleges are not members of the NJCAA, but the preponderance of dominant pitching is even more apparent in that state, with 28 of 86 schools recording cumulative sub-3.00 ERAs, and five checking in below 2.00.

Those numbers are a far cry from the heavy-hitting, aluminum-bat-crazed era that popularized the game at both the college and junior-college levels as recently as four years ago.

I think a lot of it is for the same reasons pitching has been dominant at the four-year level,” says State College of Florida-Manatee coach Tim Hill II, whose club has held down the No. 1 spot in Perfect Game’s ranking of the nation’s Top 25 junior colleges since the outset of 2014 season. “The bats are the big factor.”

But apparently not all of the pitching dominance being experienced at the junior-college level can be pinned on a change in bats. The Arizona Community College Athletic Conference has utilized wood for years, and even Central Arizona coach Jon Wente has noticed the way pitchers have gotten the upper hand.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the dominance of pitching,” says Wente. “For one, power is at a premium in the draft, so fewer top-notch hitters are going to college. You’re also seeing more power pitchers who are kickbacks from four-year schools that are going to junior college, and pitchers have learned to throw strikes more consistently.”

Pitching has become so dominant this season at the junior-college level that almost every top prospect for this year’s draft is, coincidentally, a pitcher. In Perfect Game’s pre-season ranking of the nation’s Top 200 Junior-College Prospects, 21 of the first 23 names on the board were either pitchers or position players with legitimate two-way appeal.

While the change to less-forceful bats is having an effect on offensive production at all levels of the college game, the switch may inadvertently have led to a more far-reaching, unintended consequence as there has been a coincidental surge in elite-level pitching prospects, according to a number of junior-college coaches. More and more young players are becoming pitchers, which has only intensified the recent dominance of pitching.

We’ve experienced a much greater emphasis on pitching at the lower levels of the game because of the change in bats,” says Howard College coach Britt Smith. “It’s easier to pitch now than it used to be, and I think you’re starting to see an abundance of kids who believe, ‘my ticket to pro ball is on the mound.’

When the bats were much livelier, kids were more interested in hitting. They naturally tend to gravitate to areas of the game where they have more success, and the change in bats has changed their way of thinking.”

Smith can look no further than his own club to see the dramatic changes that are taking place in baseball at both the college and junior-college levels.

Just five years ago, Smith’s Howard club hit a robust .426 with 99 home runs overall in rolling to a Junior College World Series title with a gaudy 63-1 record. A year ago, he had 13 pitchers on his staff who were clocked at 90 mph and above, and this year’s club, ranked No. 8, has gone 18-4 mainly on the strength of a pitching staff that has posted a collective 2.74 team ERA.

Though Smith continues to emphasize offense as much as ever, he just isn’t seeing the results he once did.

I’ve had a lot of coaches tell me this spring that we have, by far, the best hitting team they’ve seen at this level,” Smith said. “At the same time, I’m sitting here telling our coaches that we can’t hit, that our kids aren’t swinging the bat with the same authority they once did.”

Johnson shares a lot of Smith’s thoughts on the evolution of pitching at the junior-college level. His Chipola squad won the 2007 Junior College World Series at the height of the aluminum-bat era, and yet his 2014 club has seamlessly adapted to the changing times in junior-college baseball with a pitching-rich team that is 21-5 and ranks second nationally.

Like Smith, Johnson doesn’t believe that the emphasis on pitching at the developmental levels of today’s games is an overnight issue, stemming merely from the change in bats.

The bats are definitely a factor,” Johnson says. “You don’t see the cheap home run, or balls fisted over the second baseman’s head and falling for hits as much anymore. But I think the lack of offense overall has been more of a gradual thing as you just don’t see kids out in the back yard playing whiffle ball any more, or emphasizing the finer points of hitting like we used to.”

There’s no longer a premium on teaching kids how to hit in all situations any more,” Smith adds. “They don’t understand working counts, going the other way. They’re all looking to yank balls, no matter where the pitch is thrown.”

In the meantime, a more intelligent approach has been taken to pitching.

If anything,” Johnson says, “more and more people understand the mechanics of pitching better now than they ever did before. You see more private lessons given that are geared for pitching. That’s been a big factor in the improved pitching we’re seeing.”

Catching Up On The Big Three

Righthanders Robbie Dickey of Blinn (Texas), Jake Cosart of Seminole State (Fla.) and Patrick Weigel of Oxnard (Calif.) were ranked 1-2-3 on PG’s pre-season list of the top prospects for this year’s draft, and that trio pitched pretty much according to form in the season’s first month. Yet they haven’t necessarily even been the most-dominant arms this spring in their own states—or even on their own teams.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Dickey, has been a steady 90-95 mph as a sophomore for Blinn while posting a 3-1, 1.88 record in five starts, with 41 strikeouts in 24 innings. In his only setback, an 8-0 loss to Alvin, Dickey was thoroughly upstaged by Alvin sophomore righthander Bryson Mitchell, who fired a perfect game. Dickey was saddled with four runs in four innings, but has been near-perfect otherwise.

Cosart, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound red-shirt freshman, has gone 3-0, 3.38 with 34 strikeouts in 32 innings for Seminole State in his first real exposure to pitching after sitting out the 2013 college season while at Duke. After a major breakthrough last fall, he has continued to impress scouts with his quick, effortless arm and a fastball that has sat from 90-94 mph, and topped occasionally at 97.

Florida junior colleges are unusually deep in top-notch pitching prospects for this year’s draft, and Chipola lefthander Michael Mader, in particular, figures to challenge Cosart in becoming the first JC player from the state drafted in June. Both are targeted to go in the top 2-3 rounds.

Mader, ranked No. 5 overall among JC prospects by Perfect Game at the outset of the 2014 season, is 3-1, 2.08 through his first 30 innings, while walking 15 and striking out 36.

He was 94-95 on almost every pitch out in Las Vegas, where the air is a little lighter, and has generally been 90-93 every time out,” Johnson said. “He’s done a great job this spring developing his breaking ball, a hard, quick 77-79 mph curve, and his change has been getting better. He just needs to finish strong, and continue to develop his breaking ball and show fastball command to become a factor in the draft.”

Dickey heads up an equally-strong contingent of Texas junior-college arms, and could face a stiff challenge himself from fast-rising Howard sophomore lefthander Tanner Scott (No. 37 in PG’s pre-season Top 200), who is 2-1 with a team-leading 1.02 ERA in his first five outings, while striking out 25 in 18 innings. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Scott has been clocked at 92-95 mph as a starter, and reached 97 in relief.

Now that we have moved him to the rotation, he has been getting tons of attention,” Smith said. “We revamped his delivery over the fall and he has shown the ability to pound the strike zone.”

The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Weigel, meanwhile, remains the dominant junior-college arm in California as he continues to be clocked in the mid-90s, and reaches 96-97 mph on occasion. A transfer from Pacific, he has played a role in Oxnard’s turnaround from a 16-19 team in 2013 to 13-2 to begin the 2014 season, but it has been the stellar work of another transfer, sophomore righthander Luke Eubank, who spent the 2013 season at the College of Western Nevada, that has been more instrumental. Both Weigel and Eubank ended up at Oxnard as sophomores after starring last summer in the California College League.

While Weigel typically throws much harder than the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Eubank (No. 36 on PG’s pre-season Top 200 list), he has continued to struggle with command issues while posting a 2-1, 3.75 record in an unfamiliar role as a starting pitcher. In 24 innings, Weigel has walked 27, while striking out 33. Eubank, meanwhile, has posted a glittering 6-0, 0.61 record with 14 walks and 53 strikeouts in 44 innings. He leads California JC pitchers in wins and strikeouts.

For the most part, the same cast of promising junior-college pitchers for the 2014 draft who were readily evident at the outset of the season have held up to the scrutiny of scouts in the early going, but a couple of new arms have quietly worked their way into the equation.

LSU-Eunice righthander Hayden Barnett, a transfer from Arkansas, has been clocked at 93-95 mph in limited looks for the Bengals, and should be a name for scouts to watch closely over the second half of the 2014 season.

He is coming off labrum surgery and has pitched only two times, but he has the best stuff of any guy we’ve had,” said LSU-E coach Jeff Willis, who has guided the Bengals to four NJCAA D-II national championships. “There is more in there, as well, as the arm works and it’s easy. I’m not going to be surprised if we don’t see better velocity as he gets stronger.”

Another previously unheralded JC arm that is starting to draw significant attention is Shelton State (Ala.) freshman righthander Grayson Jones, who has had only modest success to date with a 2-0, 6.12 ERA, but has struck out 37 in 25 innings with a fastball in the mid-90s.

Twins Attracting Attention in California

No school may be benefitting more from the dominant pitching evident in junior college this spring than California’s Orange Coast College, ranked No. 3 in Perfect Game’s latest ranking of the nation’s Top 25 teams. All three Pirates primary starters have sub-1.00 ERAs.

What’s noteworthy about the accomplishment is that two of OCC’s starters are the Hill twins, David and Jacob, who are 9-0 between them. David, a righthander, is 4-0, 0.65 with 48 strikeouts in 41 innings, while Jacob, a lefthander, is 5-0, 0.62 with 31 strikeouts in 29 innings. Both are ticketed to attend the University of San Diego in 2015.

Because of his superior raw stuff, David Hill has always been considered the better prospect of the two and was a 17
th-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago coming out of high school. He elected to spend his freshman year at Long Beach State, where his father Robert and older brother John once played, and another older brother Michael currently is a senior third baseman/outfielder.

David became the Dirtbags’ primary Sunday starter as a freshman, going 4-2, 4.05 in 67 innings of work, but elected to leave one brother behind and team up with his twin Jacob this season at Orange Coast, and the pair has been dominant working in tandem. A year ago, Jacob went an undistinguished 2-2, 3.38 in 21 innings for the Pirates.

David is 90-94, has a plus slider and curve, and a nasty downward change, while Jacob is 88-90, and also has a slider, curve and change,” said OCC coach John Altobelli. “David is the better prospect, but Jacob is lefthanded and you never know how far those lefties can go.”

With his projectable 6-foot-2 frame and loose, easy arm action, along with three solid-average major-league pitches that he can throw consistently for strikes, David Hill began the 2014 season ranked No. 20 on PG’s list of the nation’s top 200 JC prospects, while Jacob was unranked.

Interestingly, another set of twins at a rival Orange Empire Conference college had greater hype entering this season than the Hills, but Michael and Thomas Peterson, a pair of 6-foot-7 sophomore righthanders at Riverside CC, have barely pitched this spring after transferring there from West Valley CC.

Neither Peterson became eligible academically to play at Riverside until early March, and to date had worked just four innings between them. But Michael Peterson, already a two-time draft pick and ranked No. 18 among the nation’s top JC prospects at the outset of the 2014 season, has already made a major statement among scouts, mainly last fall and in bullpen sessions this spring, with a fastball that has peaked at 97-98 mph, and could conceivably reach 100 one day with the leverage he generates in his tall, angular frame. He has had trouble locating the pitch consistently, and has additional work to do in refining his breaking stuff.

With a fastball typically between 89-92 mph, twin brother Thomas doesn’t possess the same raw stuff, but is considered a serious candidate to also be drafted in June because he has superior pitchability, compared to Michael, and a better overall feel for pitching.

Neosho State’s Goedert: The Exception

While pitching has been the dominant theme of the 2014 junior-college season, Neosho County (Kan.) third baseman Connor Goedert has been an obvious exception to the rule. Through his first 22 games this season, Goedert was hitting .527 and led the nation’s Division I ranks in homers (8) and RBIs (49).

He has been seen by as many as 11 scouts at one game this season,” said Neosho County coach Steve Murry. “Since he was drafted last year (Pirates, 34th round), all of them know about him already, but they are continuing to come.”

A year ago, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wichita State-bound Goedert led Neosho County in doubles (22), home runs (11) and RBIs (51), while hitting .326. But he has clearly taken his game to another level this spring.

His strength is his pure power,” Murry said. “He has the ability to hit the ball out to all fields. His biggest improvement this spring has been cutting down his strikeouts (6) with much-improved plate discipline.

Goedert’s older brother, Jared, also a third baseman, was a ninth-round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2006 out of Kansas State, and has spent the last four years in Triple-A. He is currently in the Toronto Blue Jays system.