In the first two weeks of its season, Western Illinois has run into a pair of the biggest arms in the Midwest in Southern Illinois' Sam Coonrod and Evansville's Kyle Freeland. Both ranked among the top 30 prospects in the Cape Cod League last summer, and Freeland entered the season as a second-team preseason All-American. The Evansville lefthander has built upon his first-round buzz, running his fastball up to 94 and giving hitters fits with his 83-85 slider, according to a scout who has seen him.
Western Illinois coach Ryan Brownlee was impressed with him, too.
"He's good, man. I haven't seen a lefthander like that in a while with a power arm like his," Brownlee said. "His command of his fastball and slider was really good. He's going to throw harder, too, because he throws easy, and he's got a projectable body. He looks like a rotation guy in the big leagues, is what he looks like."
The Leathernecks have their own power arm with a less famous name but very intriguing arm strength. Junior righthander Tyler Willman has made a big leap forward after posting a 7.71 ERA in just 12 innings as a freshman and going 1-6, 5.92 last year. He threw a seven-inning complete game against Evansville this past weekend, allowing just one run on six hits to improve to 1-1, 2.08 in 13 innings.
"He threw well his first time out (against Nicholls State)," Brownlee said. "He walked the first two guys of the game, and last year he would have blown up. But he settled down. He made pitches when he got in some jams. And this past weekend, he pitched with a base open, and made hitters hit what he wanted to give them, and he got out of a couple jams."
Willman has a wiry 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame that screams projection, and Brownlee said he has worked in the 90-95 mph range in each of his first two outings.
"He's not even close maturity-wise to what he's going to be in three or four years," Brownlee said. "It won't be surprising if he's hitting 100 in a few years, because the arm is really quick. His fasball command is getting better. He was pretty much down the whole game against Evansville. When he stays good in his tempo, it's usually down and it's firm."
Brownlee said Willman has thrown some very good changeups as well. He is able to throw that pitch in the strike zone more consistently than his slider at this point, but he is still refining the slider after ditching his slow curveball in favor of it during the offseason.
"He's getting more swings and misses, because it's tighter (than the curveball was)," Brownlee said. "But it's got to get tighter if he's going to be a premium pick.
"There were crosscheckers coming back in the fall to watch him pitch. I've had some good picks, but I've never had crosscheckers come watch a guy work out."
It sounds like Willman better get used to having scouts congregate behind the plate when he's on the mound, because he is one of the more interesting rising prospects in the Midwest.