If it seems like Ohio State righthander Alex Wimmers and his catcher Dan Burkhart have a unique bond or better chemistry than most teammates, it’s because they do.
The two have been best friends since first grade and have played baseball together nearly as long. They played together at Cincinnati’s famous Moeller High, the alma mater of numerous big leaguers including shortstop Barry Larkin and outfielder Ken Griffey Jr.
Now they’re at Ohio State, where they helped the Buckeyes win the Big Ten Conference regular season title last season. Wimmers went 9-2, 3.27 with 136 strikeouts and 55 walks over 105 innings and was named co-conference pitcher of the year. Burkhart hit .354/.429/.589 with 10 home runs and more walks than strikeouts.
They have been roommates at Ohio State for three years now and Burkhart believes their close relationship helps between the lines.
“We’ve been playing together since we were 9 years old, so as far as game plans and when we’re planning for a game, that really helps a lot,” Burkhart said. “I know what his pitches are going to do, I know what he’s going to throw, so it’s beneficial having caught him pretty much my whole life.”
But the Buckeyes’ Friday-night battery almost never happened. Burkhart signed with Ohio State during the early signing period and then encouraged the coaches to take a closer look at his best friend.
It worked out well, now that Wimmers has blossomed into a second-team preseason All-American and potential first-round pick.
“Coming out of high school, there were a lot of big question marks,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said. “There were people recruiting him, but I wouldn’t say he was the most heavily sought-after individual. I felt like we were very fortunate because we already recruited Dan Burkhart, the catcher. And he and Dan were very good friends that played together since Little League, so it was kind of natural that he wanted to follow Dan, and we’re very happy he did.”
Wimmers led the Big Ten in strikeouts last season, whiffing 27 more than Indiana righthander Eric Arnett, a first-round pick by the Brewers. He also posted the league’s best batting average against, as opponents managed to hit just .211 off of him.
Wimmers gets it done with a fastball, curveball and changeup.
“He’s generally an average fastball guy,” a National League area scout said. “He’ll touch 92. If he touched 93, it wouldn’t surprise me, but he’ll pitch average with some life on the fastball and really commands his fastball. For me, the separator for him is a plus curveball and plus changeup, right now, present—and not just one out of every five. And he can throw all three of them for strikes. He’s got the potential to have three major league out pitches. He can get you out with the fastball, it’s good enough with the sink on it and he can get righthanders out with his curveball and lefthanders out with his changeup.”
His changeup, a pitch he really learned the summer after his freshman year with the Luray Wranglers in the Valley League, has come a long way in a hurry.
“His changeup was dominant last year,” Burkhart said. “It was pretty much unhittable, especially to lefties. He’s got the same arm speed and, when he does that, it’s so hard to pick up. Not only that, but it’s moving away from the lefty about three to four inches, and it’s diving down, and it’s 10 miles an hour slower. It’s just a nasty pitch.”
Room To Grow
But Wimmers isn’t without his faults. He walked the second-most batters in the Big Ten last year and threw the most wild pitches (13). Still, Todd said control isn’t a problem for Wimmers, that he just nibbles too much and needs to trust his stuff a little more often.
Never satisfied, Wimmers is a relentless worker, constantly trying to improve. That fiery drive shows on the mound, as well. If he throws a bad game, he’ll be back with a chip on his shoulder the next time out. When he didn’t make USA Baseball’s collegiate national team last summer, he turned a negative situation into a positive one when he headed to the Cape Cod League.
“I don’t like to fail,” Wimmers said. “I felt like a failure and I took that to the Cape. I wanted to prove to Team USA that I should have made the team. I don’t like to fail and I do everything I can to bounce back. It’s like having a bad game and coming back the next week—you have to come back even harder and make sure you don’t have the same problem you did. I took that anger and that drive to succeed going into the Cape, which was basically a better option.”
Wimmers was the ace of the Bourne Braves’ staff, helping the team win its first-ever championship.
“I think he realizes that . . . every team we play when he’s on the mound is going to be excited about the challenge,” Todd said. “He’s going to have to be just as excited and willing to accept that challenge.”