Sunday, September 2, 2012

SEC Fan's Guide to Mizzou Baseball: Pitcher U

Max Scherzer
Topps 2012 Allen & Ginters Card
Over the past decade Tim Jamieson's Missouri Tigers have earned the nickname of Pitcher U.  In part this is because of a succession of MU pitchers who were first round draft picks from 2006 to 2009 - Max Scherzer, Aaron Crow (two years in a row), and Kyle Gibson.

Scherzer (Detroit Tigers) and Crow (Kansas City Royals) are both in the major leagues now, and doing quite well.  Gibson will soon be heading to the Arizona Fall League as the next step in his rehab after Tommy John surgery.  He has been working his way back up the Twins' minor league ladder and could be on the major league roster at some point in 2013.

But the seeds for Pitcher U go farther back than Max Scherzer.

After a dry spell around the turn of the millenium, Jamieson and his staff began bringing in some promising recruiting classes.

Garrett Broshuis was a redshirt freshman in 2001, then improved steadily toward filling the role of staff ace in his final year.  Broshuis went on to a pretty good minor league career and is also a good writer.

Danny Hill, and early member
of Pitcher U
Justin James came in for the 2002 season, one of a group of young pitchers from Oklahoma and Arkansas who all knew each other and decided to all go to the same college and make a splash together.  That group included James and Travis Wendte  and Derek Roper, all of whom went on to be drafted.  Wendte returned to MU as a graduate assistant coach after his minor league career.

Justin James was drafted after his sophomore year (he was 21) and went on to a journeyman minor league career that looked to be ending in the independent leagues.  Until the Oakland A's organization got interested and signed him from the Kansas City T-Bones in mid June of 2010 and had him in the Oakland bullpen by September.

Danny Hill came to the Tigers from the state of Texas in 2003 and immediately became a leader.  Hill went on to a short minor league career.

Max Scherzer, flamingo
It was the Tigers' success at recruiting and developing pitchers who went on to be drafted that attracted a young - and very wild - Max Scherzer to join the Tigers in 2004.
The thrill of the gas was so exhilarating, so necessary to his success that Max Scherzer as a high school pitcher would reach peak mph on his fastball only as his mechanics flew apart in a berserk jumble. Forsaking economy for power and balance for speed, Scherzer "touched 90" but did so with a wicked flourish:

Whiplash.

"I used to have the worst head jerk, my hat would fly off sometimes," said Scherzer, the Parkway Central grad who is the All-America ace for the University of Missouri's nationally ranked baseball team. "That's how violent I was. It was violent, real violent. I was so raw."

Working with Tigers coach Tim Jamieson, Scherzer refined his delivery. In drills, he toed the rubber like a flamingo, steadying himself on his push-off leg and bending down to pluck baseballs off the mound. He closed his eyes, repeated the flamingo. He found a mental signpost and repeated it: Chin over toe. Chin over toe.

Balance was the goal.

Firing 99 mph when it mattered most was the result. (St. Louis Post Disaptch)
Along with Scherzer from 2004-2006 was left-hander Nathan Culp.  Ususally in Max's shadow as the #2 guy, there were many times during those three seasons that Culp was the go-to guy in the weekend rotation.

Scherzer went on to be a #1 draft pick and now is with the Detroit Tigers.  Culp was a 4th round pick by the Padres organization.  He finally hung up the spikes after the 2010 season.

By now the Tiger recruiting strategy was clear.  Every recruiting class should have at least one high level pitching prospect who has a shot a being a top draft pick after three years in black and gold.  With the string of successes on display, young pitchers were enticed.

A young pitcher from southwest Missouri, Scott Elbert, signed a letter of intent to play at Missouri when Scherzer and Culp were still freshmen at MU.  Elbert became the first of a short list of top recruits to jump to the pros before his MU career ever began, drafted by the Dodgers.  He finally made it to the show with the Dodgers in May of 2011.


Doug Mathis, PawSox
mlb.com phot
In 2005 the Tigers picked up Doug Mathis, a JuCo transfer, to flesh out their starting rotation.  Mathis was drafted in 2005 and has become a journeyman, traveling through the minor leagues (and Korea), getting his first call up to the big leagues with the Rangers in 2008, and then continuing to see time in Triple-A and the big leagues with various organizations.  He had a good season with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston's AAA team in 2012 before leaving to play baseball in Japan.

In 2006 a pair of freshman pitchers were up and down with their success in the bullpen and strating rotation for Missouri.   But in the 2006 Malibu Regional, freshmen Rick Zagone and Aaron Crow pitched back-to-back gems to keep the Tigers alive and send them on to the Regional final the next day.

Both Zagone and Crow were drafted in 2008.  Zagone was drafted in the 6th round that year and is still laboring in the Orioles' farm system, demonstrating he can be a really good High-A pitcher, but an inconsistent AA pitcher.

Aaron Crow was drafted in the first round in 2008 by the Washington Nationals.  That deal was never made, though, so he was drafted again in the first round in 2009 by his favorite team, the Kansas City Royals.  He made his debut in the KC bullpen in 2011 and found himself at the All-Star game that same season.

Because of Crow's re-entry in the 2009 draft, Mizzou had two pitchers picked in the first round that year, as Kyle Gibson, who was the next top pitcher to enroll at Pitcher U for the 2006-2007 season, also got the nod that year.  Gibson is currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is now pitching in rehab in the Twins' minor league organization.

The 2010 draft saw Nick Tepesch taken in the 10th round by the Rangers organization.  He is at AA Frisco now, and about as hot as a prospect gets.

In more recent years  the Tigers have developed and sent on to the minor leagues such pitchers as Phil McCormick (09-11), Matt Stites (11) and Blake Holovach (12).

And the pipeline is still producing winners.  Eric Anderson arrived in 2010 and has been slowed by injuries but is still expected to be a future draft pick if he can get past the injury problems.  Rob Zastryzny arrived in 2011 and is expected to be the staff ace in 2013 (and will likely be drafted quite high in June).

Ryan Phillips,  Draft Class of 2015
komu.com photo
This past year's freshman class included a trio of pitchers who have the potential to develop into the hot draft prospects of  2014 in Brett Graves, John Miles and Brandon Platts.

And the incoming class this fall includes pitchers Alec Rash (2nd round draft pick of the Phillies this past June) and Ryan Phillips, both highly touted pitching prospects looking toward the 2015 draft.

Over this "Pitcher U" decade, the Tigers have lost their share of top pitching recruits to the draft.  Jarred Cosart jumped from high school to the Phillies in 2008; Jason Adams chose the Royals over Mizzou in 2010, and 2012 saw top recruit Hunter Haynes also jump to the Royals.

Three former Mizzou pitchers excel as pros (yardbarker.com, April 2011)
Vitello recalled a moment after Crow's freshman season when Crow said he was going to be better than Scherzer. At first, Vitello was taken back. Crow had won one game in 13 starts. By the end of that season, Scherzer had solidified his legacy as one of the best pitchers in program history. Vitello laughed, because he knew how much Crow admired Scherzer.

Still, the moment made Vitello think. The scene was an insight into Crow's drive. Was he confident? Sure. A little cocky? Perhaps. But he was bold enough to set a standard. He refused to wilt in Scherzer's shadow. Crow defined a destination. And, with Gibson's help, he spent the rest of his Missouri career trying to reach it.

"I'll be danged if Aaron wasn't every bit as good as Max, as it relates to performance, for us by the time he got out of there," Vitello said.

Scherzer, Crow and Gibson are gone. Their footprints in Missouri's program remain. Rob Zastryzny, a freshman pitcher from Corpus Christi, Texas, researched Missouri's development during his recruitment. What he learned helped him choose the Tigers.

Will he continue Missouri's pitching lineage? How long does a legacy last? When does the flame of a former era fade? Answers might lie in his future.

"It's a huge honor to be able to pitch in the same stadium as those guys," Zastryzny said. "That's part of the reason I came here. Just the talented pitchers that have come through here and been developed here. It's definitely motivation. I want to be just like all of them."
Missouri's Gibson comes into his won (Rivals.com, March 2009)
You'd almost think that Missouri coach Tim Jamieson was a modern day Nostradamus.

Jamieson isn't a philosopher and you probably won't see him formulate too many prophecies. But boy does he have an uncanny ability to find talented pitchers and turn them into premier collegiate players.

Max Scherzer, then Aaron Crow and now Kyle Gibson.

Gibson, like Scherzer, Crow, Justin James and Danny Hill, took time to develop into a great hurler.

Gibson was an extremely lanky high school senior considering going to school at Missouri and Jamieson thought the right-hander had the ability to be great.

It just took a little patience for Jamieson to be proved right. Gibson showed promise as a sophomore last season. But this season he finally has taken his game to another level.

Jamieson is not surprised.

"He has made slow progressions, but each year he has gotten better," Jamieson told Rivals.com. "He was better than Max and Kyle as a freshman and hasn't gotten a lot better simply because he already was good. But now, he strikes me as a pitcher that certainly is more polished and confident."

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