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July 10, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Cape Cod League Pitchers

by Bryan Smith

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Bryan covered the hitters of the Cape Cod League previously.

In his first start with the Falmouth Commodores, Aaron Shafer set a pitch count before the game with his coach, Jeff Trundy. Then Shafer went to the mound and dominated. After the eighth inning, Shafer had thrown 92 pitches. Like all pitchers, the Wichita State product wanted desperately to finish what he started. But Trundy, who had allowed Shafer to exceed his pitch count narrowly to finish the eighth, couldn't let him.

"It's a balancing act," Falmouth Commodores coach Jeff Trundy tells me when I ask about the dichotomy of both winning and developing in the Cape Cod League. "Every organization has fans that work hard 365 days and they want a club that's going to win. But it's our responsibility to use them in a manner that their career won't be threatened. I look at it as they are loaned to us for their summer, and these programs have confidence that we're going to take care of their kids."

In the end, the Cape Cod League is all about development, and no other summer league in America does a better job of developing pitchers. "I can handle a loss better than I can a kid's career being threatened," Trundy says. This philosophy is why the best pitchers in the country flock to the east coast in the summer, which is in turn why the league's average ERA annually competes with Johan Santana's.

The Elite Group

While the Cape is always a pitchers' league, the number of genuinely elite starters is usually pretty small. Team USA does a very good job of snatching up the nation's best sophomore arms each summer, but sometimes, like with Andrew Miller in 2005, an elite pitcher slips through the cracks. This season, there are three, and by coincidence, they are all on the same team.

Team USA's impressive pitching staff features top-ranked arm Brian Matusz backed by three others (Jake Thompson, Lance Lynn, Tyson Ross) this summer. Nevertheless, in a three-game series it would be hard to choose a staff between Team USA and the Falmouth Commodores. Even after projected first-round pick and Winthrop ace Alex Wilson left the team after two subpar outings, the Commodores still have the top three starters in the league pitching 60% of their games in Shafer, Shooter Hunt, and Chris Friedrich.

Shafer has everything you want in a pitcher, starting with good size. He commands both sides of the plate well with a fastball that sits at 93-94 mph. He's also adept at changing speeds, throwing one of the league's best changeups, along with an average breaking ball. Shafer had a topsy-turvy sophomore season following a dynamite freshman campaign, but he is right back on pace in the Cape Cod League.

Chris Friedrich is a perfect example of one of the benefits the Cape can provide: legitimizing small school talent. Friedrich was second in the nation in batting average against (.155) as a sophomore at Eastern Kentucky, but on the surface that doesn't mean much, as he pitched in the Ohio Valley Conference. But Friedrich hasn't slowed down pitching against the nation's top talents in the Cape. He turned in the summer's first real gem--five shutout innings while striking out 10 hitters in the game's first three innings. Excuse the catcher for the one passed ball: Friedrich has the best breaking ball in the league, a power curve that requires good blocking skills when the southpaw is generating tons of swings-and-misses. "He works off that breaking ball, and guys get it into their head, and then that fastball, which is also a plus pitch, goes right by them," Trundy noted.

Shooter Hunt returns to Falmouth after his dominance last season led to so much praise. Hunt entered last summer behind Jake Thompson at Virginia, but was able to pick his transfer school after leading the league in strikeouts last summer. Hunt moved to Tulane, where his 104-strikeout sophomore season reinforced a first round projection. He's shown the same late, exploding fastball of last season, as well as a wipeout slider. His change needs a lot of work, however, leaving some scouts to project a future in relief for the athletic right-hander.

Moving outside Falmouth, it's hard to find another elite pitcher. Multiple coaches mentioned the lack of "knockout" starters in the league this season. The closest example of a non-Falmouth, well-regarded pitcher is Eric Surkamp, a southpaw who pitched ahead of Andrew Brackman in NC State's weekend rotation this spring. Surkamp was invited to Team USA but didn't make it through the final cut. In his first start last week since joining Orleans, he allowed three baserunners and struck out 11 in 7.2 innings. Surkamp should be the next high-round lefty to draw comparisons to Tom Glavine, thanks to good command of a fastball that just touches 90 mph and the league's best change. He has a pretty good breaking ball as well, giving him three above-average pitches, and at 6-5 and 215, he has the size that Glavine never had. That might lead to a higher draft selection than Tom, too, who was taken 47th overall in the 1984 draft.

The Sleeper Sophomore Starters

Would you believe me if I told you the following was the average sophomore season of five pitchers that averaged to be the thirteenth overall selection in a draft?

          IP   ERA    H/9   BB/9   K/9
Total     63   5.32  10.6   3.0    9.2

This does in fact represent the sophomore seasons of the second (Greg Reynolds), fourth (Brad Lincoln), fifth (Brandon Morrow), nineteenth (Brett Sinkbeil), and thirty-fourth (Brooks Brown) choices in the 2006 draft. However, all entered their junior seasons on first-round follow lists, and capitalized on their opportunities with big final collegiate seasons. What changed? All five dominated in the 2005 Cape Cod League. I mentioned in the review of this season's hitters that the Cape is always used to identify sleepers, and that's even more true of pitchers, who typically perform at their highest level during the summer. While this year's sleeper crop is a bit less fruitful than those of previous seasons, there are some names gaining helium with each outing.

The sleeper with the most first round potential is Dan Hudson, who has racked up 29 strikeouts in his first four starts. Hudson is Old Dominion's best prospect since Justin Verlander, and has the same pitcher's body of the ace he took the torch from. Hudson has a good fastball with good downward movement, and has made significant advances with his breaking ball, now a plus pitch. After striking out more than one per inning as a sophomore at ODU, he has legitimized himself in the Cape, and will enter 2008 with high expectations.

Like Friedrich, a lot of pitchers in the Cape made the trip east for exposure. Wade Miley didn't make a great impression on a big stage as a sophomore, taking the loss in a poorly-pitched game against Sean Morgan and Tulane to start his season. The Green Wave are the biggest opponent on Southeastern Louisiana's schedule, so while Miley's season improved after the start, no one noticed. Well, people are noticing now, as Miley has two complete games and 34 strikeouts in 35 innings to start his Cape career.

One arm not capitalizing on the enhanced exposure is Hawaii's Matt Daley. Former Rainbow Steven Wright starred as a reliever in the Cape before returning to start on Fridays his junior season, a role that perhaps Daley should ask for. Generously listed at 5-11, the short right-hander has a quick arm that gets his fastball up to 94 mph, but his command has been off this summer. The radar guns indicate Daley should be on follow lists, but while that's the first step, he's hardly taken any pressure off of his junior season.

In a combined four years of college, Scott Green and Bryce Stowell have pitched a total of 34 innings. Green, a prized Wildcat recruit thanks to his 6-8 frame, needed Tommy John surgery his freshman year, and returned as a sophomore to throw 17.2 innings in the bullpen. Stowell was Baseball America's top prospect in the Central Illinois Collegiate League last summer following a 16.1-inning freshman season at Pepperdine, but Stowell redshirted with UC Irvine this spring after transferring. Both are impressing in the Cape. Stowell should help lessen the blow of losing Wes Etheridge by bringing his plus slider right into the Anteaters' weekend rotation. Green has been particularly impressive, showing three plus pitches at times, including a fastball reaching 93 mph and a tight slider for someone his size. Green should finally begin to match his hype in Lexington next spring.

The Firemen

One staple of the Cape Cod League has always been the emergence of relief pitching. Craig Hansen became a top arm in the 2005 draft class by not allowing a run his previous summer pitching against top Cape competition. Brandon Morrow and Tim Lincecum, collegiate starters, both vaulted up draft lists touching the upper 90s in relief. Last season, a sleeper like Cory Gearrin also showed that deception can supplant velocity in impressing scouts.

This summer, the best of the group is probably Luke Burnett, a 6-8, 250 pound right-hander from Louisiana Tech. Burnett won't be able to match the numbers of top Cape closers of the past, thanks to an eight-hit, six-earned run explosion in two innings on his first appearance. "A lot of kids come here and it takes awhile for them to realize they belong here. [Luke] now has his confidence, he has his feet wet," said Trundy. Since the first outing, Burnett has allowed two runs on six hits in 10.2 innings. One coach said he liked Burnett better than Andrew Brackman, a similar physical presence whose stock exploded by touching 99 mph on the Cape last season. Burnett has routinely sat in the mid 90s this summer, touching 96, and also showing a good splitter. The secondary offering, combined with Burnett's downward angle, make him a groundballer par excellence. If the "gigantic" pitcher (as deemed by his coach) shows better command in the bullpen than he did starting as a sophomore (4.9 BB/9), Burnett could be permanently bookmarked for a future in relief.

Behind Burnett, a host of other impressive bullpen arms come into the picture. Auburn starter Evan Crawford has been the league's premier left-handed reliever, allowing just five hits and 26 strikeouts in 16 innings. Crawford works in the low 90s and has a power curveball, and seems to be this summer's Brett Cecil, gaining greater favor every time out. Another starter convert, Purdue ace Josh Lindblom, was deemed Cotuit's best pitching prospect by coach Mike Roberts. "He's consistently under control, and very polished. Plus the breaking ball has been much better." Lindblom's slider has tightened in relief work, and he has shown improved command of his heavy fastball.

Despite what it looks like, not all Cape relievers are starters in the spring. Long Beach State closer Bryan Shaw has made waves so far, striking out 18 in 10 innings for the Chatham A's. According to Rich Lederer, Shaw has a two-pitch repetoire featuring a fastball that touches 94 mph and a "wicked" slider. A West Coast sleeper getting attention is Ryan Perry, a right-hander from Arizona who was pasted for 12.4 H/9 as a sophomore. Perry has been better on the Cape, showing an explosive arm that pitches exclusively between 93-96 mph, but he remains too hittable.

One hard-throwing reliever that hasn't figured things out in the Cape is Texas A&M's Kyle Thebeau, who was moved out of the Aggies weekend rotation this spring when his results continually didn't match his stuff. Thebeau has worked in the mid-90s and shown an outstanding breaking ball with Falmouth, but he's allowed 11 baserunners in five innings. "It's his consistency within the strike zone that's the problem," coach Jeff Trundy said. "He's always falling behind in counts. Once he figures out his erraticness, and he will eventually, he has a real good arm."

The Freshmen

Ideally, a freshman pitcher at the Cape is the player's initial entry into starting in college baseball. Many programs believe an elite freshman is best groomed by relieving in his initial season, pitching on weekends against top competition but not yet having to worry about endurance. If a player shows the moxie as a freshman to start immediately, great, but an elite arm shouldn't be thrown into the fire immediately. This is what the Cape is for--so that the nation's top freshman arms can begin learning to transfer their stuff into big numbers. Even though the 2009 draft seems like light years away, follow lists are beginning to be written up with these guys' names on them this summer.

If Falmouth is the home for the league's elite pitchers, Wareham is the spot for the league's best freshmen. At the top of that list is Andy Oliver, an Oklahoma State lefty that struggled with his fastball control as a freshman in Stillwater. Oliver has improved with each outing on the Cape, leading up to a one-hit, seven-inning gem last time out. Oliver has sat at 89-92 mph this summer, but he has shown a plus curveball and plus change, both of which he is learning to control. Three-pitch left-handers are a rare breed, so if Oliver can survive in Stillwater's hitter-friendly environment, he'll be a top arm in 2009.

Behind Oliver on the Gatemen have been Kendal Volz (Baylor) and Dallas Keuchel (Arkansas). Volz was one of Baylor's prized recruits from a year ago, but was too hittable as a freshman, although he showed solid peripherals, including a high strikeout rate and a low opponent slugging percentage. "Kendal has made some great adjustments," Wareham coach Cooper Farris said, referencing Volz' last outing, a complete game shutout. "He was always 90-93, but it was up in the zone, so we got some tilt out of his delivery and the groundballs started coming." Keuchel has the least prospect potential of the three, maxing out at about 88 mph, but he has the best changeup on the team.

After Oliver, the next-ranked freshman in the circuit is Kyle Gibson, pitching in Falmouth behind the aforementioned elite trio. Gibson had a big freshman season at Missouri, playing every possible role for the Tigers, including closing towards the end of the season. Gibson is a big physical right-hander with a plus fastball, and his breaking ball has made huge strides during the spring. He's throwing a better change in the Cape, and has altered his approach, attacking hitters with more regularity. After this display, look for Tim Jamieson to move Gibson to the weekend rotation. In 2009, he figures to be the highest drafted Tiger since Max Scherzer.

A quick run-through of the rest of the names: Alex White (North Carolina) was a late arrival to the Cape because of the College World Series, but give him time and he could eclipse Oliver and Gibson as the premier freshman pitcher on the Cape. One would have thought Sean Black (Seton Hall) or Wade Kapteyn (Oral Roberts) might have taken the title, but both have struggled, Black leaving after eight hittable innings, and Kapteyn allowing 33 baserunners in 13.2 innings for Bourne. UCLA has a pair of elite freshmen pitching for Chatham, led by lefty Gavin Brooks, the next-ranked southpaw behind Oliver. Charles Brewer is similar to Volz, a right-hander dependent upon his movement. Sam Brown (NC State) looks like the premier freshman reliever, though he has competition in Kevin Couture (USC), Hunter Harris (Texas), and Shawn Sanford (South Florida).

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

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