Draft : : Story
Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sky-high velos, sky-high interest

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

Earlier this week, it’s safe to say Jacob Bukauskas was trending. Twitter was on fire. Facebook was aglow. Text messages and good old-fashioned phone calls were tying up scouts’ and cross-checker’s mobile phones across the country. Heck, even the dying print media was, well, all atwitter.

The hyperbole had actually been building since late February when Bukauskas – a newly ordained class of 2014 right-handed pitcher at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., and a University of North Carolina signee – participated in an indoor pitching session at Pinkman Baseball Academy in Sterling, Va.

Throwing  in front of a gathering of scouts who had learned in January that Bukauskas would graduate from high school a year early and be eligible for the 2014 MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft, Bukauskas threw fastballs that registered, first, at 98 mph and finally at 99 mph. That was up from his previous high of 93 mph recorded at the 2013 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in June.

And then it happened. This past Monday (April 14) while pitching against West Potomac High School (Va.), Bukauskas not only threw a seven-inning one-hitter with 18 strikeouts but according to reports had his fastball touch 100 mph on at least two occasions on several scouts’ radar guns. The social media floodgates officially flew open.

”Obviously, I’ve picked up a little bit of velocity, so that’s definitely been going well,” Bukauskas told PG when asked about his eventful spring during a telephone interview this week. “The command on all my pitches has been great this far, so overall things are going really well and I’m just really humbled by all the attention I’ve been receiving.”

Perfect Game vice president of player personnel and scouting David Rawnsley is among those in the national scouting community who caught wind of Bukauskas’ increased velocity this spring.

“It’s pretty amazing the velocity gains we’ve heard about with Bukauskas, as he was a guy who primarily threw in the 88-90 (mph) range last summer – although he did top out at 93 at the PG Junior National,” Rawnsley related. “His defining characteristic was that his slider and changeup were potential plus-pitches and he had the ability to use them with precision, even coming out of his then-sophomore year.”

The gains he’s showed in his velocity this spring didn’t happen by accident. Bukauskas worked extensively over the winter with his high school head coach, Sam Plank; his high school pitching coach John Griffin; with John Pinkman, who runs the Pinkman Baseball Academy and is his personal pitching coach; and with his father, Ken Bukauskas.

The first thing the group did, according to Jacob Bukauskas, was eliminate a lot of the running from his training regimen, since that was counter-productive to his efforts to add muscle weight. It was an effective strategy as Bukauskas put on about 25 pounds and is now listed at 6-foot-1, 195-pounds, up from the 6-1, 170 he registered at the Perfect Game Underclass All-American Games in San Diego in August.

He attributes his gains in velocity not only to his added weight but also to a strength program put together by Plank and his father, Ken. Most of the added strength and muscle is in his legs, and he also credits some assistance he received from several Stone Bridge High School football players.

“Some of the football players showed me around the weight room a little bit and they showed me that the ‘squat rack’ was definitely the place for a pitcher to be,” Bukauskas said. “That’s where I spent most of my time this winter and most of the weight has been added to my legs, but I did a little bit of upper body stuff, too.”

And that is where a pitcher has to exercise some caution.

“I’ve got great coaches around here that have told me that I need to be careful when doing upper body stuff just for obvious reasons – you don’t want to hurt your shoulder or your back or anything like that,” Bukauskas said. “With the upper body lifting, it was just mostly a lot of light weight stuff.  But it was with the squats where we definitely focused a lot of our energy on, and I attribute most of the (added) velocity to my legs.”

He also credits Pinkman for helping him tweak his mechanics ever so slightly, which allowed him to pick up some velocity as well as improving his command of off-speed pitches. And he doesn’t want to down-play the influence of his father.

“My dad, he’s kind of the guy I can always lean on to talk about everything that’s going on with the decision that will be coming up soon,” Bukauskas said. “He helps me keep my head on straight and focus on baseball, and keep my mind on schoolwork and everything else I need to focus on; he tells me the other stuff will take of itself if I keep doing the right things. He’s my quote-unquote ‘rock’ that I lean on all the time for advice and stuff like that.”

The “decision” Bukauskas referred to is in regard to the upcoming draft. Major League Baseball implemented a new rule during the 2013 draft that makes it permissible for a high school student who has graduated after three years of coursework (instead of the customary four) to not only move onto college a year early but also become eligible for that year’s draft.

Bukauskas, who is 17 years old and won’t turn 18 until October, committed to North Carolina after his freshman year. He and his parents began talking with the UNC coaches about accelerating his studies so he could graduate a year early and get on campus in Chapel Hill in 2014 instead of 2015.

He had already got a head start on graduating early by taking high school-level foreign language classes while in middle school which freed-up class time once he was in high school for other courses. He also took a history class online over the summer.

“I’m extremely happy with that decision that we made to go ahead and do that, both as a baseball player and as a student,” Bukauskas said this week. “With the class work, if you put in the effort you can do it. I like to think of myself as a hard-working student – you don’t have to be the most talented academic student to be able to do it, you have to work really hard – and I attribute my ability to graduate in three years mostly to that.”

In what turned out to be Bukauskas’ senior season with Stone Bridge has been a dandy so far, with the Bulldogs winning nine of their first 10 games. As of early this week, Bukauskas was (unofficially) 4-0 and had not allowed an earned run while striking out 51 in 23 2/3 innings of work. Throwing 100 mph fastballs has a tendency to produce those kinds of numbers.

“Our team has been doing really, really well,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and it’s helping us to have a lot better season than we had last year.”

Bukauskas played in seven Perfect Game tournaments with the national champion EvoShield Canes in 2012-13 and was named to the all-tournament team at six of them. He also attended the PG Junior National Showcase and the PG Underclass All-American Games in both 2012 and 2013 and was named to the Top Prospect List at three of those four events.

Changing his graduating class may have deprived Bukauskas of one opportunity but when door closes another almost always opens. He is now ranked the No. 23 overall (college, junior college, high school) prospect in the upcoming June amateur draft.

“He was definitely on track to be a strong candidate for the 2014 Perfect Game All-American Classic. Now it seems as if he’s a strong candidate with his reclassification to become a first-round pick,” PG’s Rawnsley said. “It’s a good lesson for young pitchers on how important strengthening your core and lower body muscles are, whether you throw 80 miles-per-hour or 90 miles-per-hour.”

It’s ironic that Bukauskas decided to graduate from high school early only because he wanted to get to Chapel Hill as soon as possible, and now it’s likely he’ll never enroll in a class there, at least not this fall. When a high school prospect is projected as a first-rounder, options must be considered.

“(The draft) was always there but it was not nearly as much of a consideration as it is now, obviously” Bukauskas said. “It’s going to make for an interesting decision and as a family I know we’ll come to the right decision. I don’t think the reclassification has hurt me … and I’m extremely happy with the decision we’ve made. It’s pushed me to become a better baseball player and without that decision I don’t think I’d be in the same position I’m in right now.”

Whether he ends up at UNC or with an MLB organization, Bukuaskas sees his situation as a win-win in at least one very important regard.

“I’m mostly looking forward to working with some more experienced coaches that can help me with becoming more physically mature,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’m looking forward to.”

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