Have To Adapt
Northern pitchers have to learn to pitch in the cold
On Feb. 19, on a very comfortable 70-degree night in Ocala, Fla., righthander Keyvius Sampson took the mound for Forest High's first game of the season.
About 930 miles north, another one of Baseball America's top 100 high school prospects, Neuqua Valley High lefthander Ian Krol, was preparing for his high school season indoors. The high temperature in Krol's hometown of Naperville, Ill., that day? A bitter 24 degrees and windy.
Such is life for amateur pitchers in cold climates.
"Those other kids in the Southern part of the country have a lot more advantages," Krol said. "We still get our work done at places where you can hit and throw—in cages and whatnot. We still do live throwing, we face batters, but we have to put a screen up, obviously. We pretty much get all of our work done inside."
Notice that he said 'pretty much.'
Cold-weather pitchers have to get creative to battle the elements and stay atop teams' draft boards. At the same time, despite getting limited looks, scouts can't completely write pitchers off for poor early-season performances. In fact, an American League scouting director even implements a rule for his scouts to avoid the second start of cold-weather pitchers because of what he calls his "Cal Eldred theory."
Despite the below-freezing temperatures, Krol said he still does a lot of conditioning outdoors. Along with about a dozen other baseball players, Krol stays in shape during the offseason by participating in a winter boot camp of sorts led by a minor league pitching coach.
Inspired by the HBO series "Band of Brothers," the coach put together the "Currahee Warrior Program" focusing on improving the strength and agility for the eager athletes.
|Average High Temperatures
Exercises called "The Hill of Doom" and "The Christmas Massacre" had the players dragging each other uphill and pushing cars around a parking lot. For some, it may sound like paying for torture, but the players ate it up, the coach said.
"It gets pretty tough," Krol said. "We usually run in snow and it gets us a little tougher and a lot more in shape. We have to run up hills with people on our backs—it gets pretty intense."
He knows the winter workouts will pay off with improved endurance this season.
"The breed of people that come from the Midwest, they're really hard working," Krol said. "They're not laid back and not spending all their time at the beach, which makes you really relaxed."
That said, Krol is looking forward to the warmer weather in his future—whether it's in the professional ranks or with the Arizona Wildcats.
"If I was playing anywhere Southern in the country, I don't really think I would be better, but it would probably help more to just be outside," Krol said. "It really loosens up your arm to be in the hot weather. It's pretty much like paradise there. It doesn't really get lower than 80 degrees in Arizona. It's really a whole different world down there."
Sampson enjoys the warm winters in Ocala, where, according to the National Weather Service, the average high last December was 71 degrees.
After his season ends, from October through December, Sampson hits the gym to focus on strengthening his legs and upper half. Then, Monday through Saturday, he goes outside to run and then plays long toss from foul pole to foul pole. Even during those months, the mercury can rise into the low 80s.
Sampson appreciates the ability to train outside and senses that the warm weather makes the work easier. What he likes best about the climate, though, is the effect it has on his hands.
"When you get cold, your hands get a little bit slick and frozen a little bit, so you have to breathe on your hands," Sampson explained. "But, when it's warmer, you have so much more grip on the ball. You can feel every little bump and bruise on it, so you have much better control."
Meanwhile in Canada, Doug Mathieson has a unique perspective on the situation. As head coach and general manager for the Langley Blaze Baseball Club in Langley, British Columbia, Mathieson has years of experience with getting pitchers prepared in unfavorable conditions. While Langley doesn't get a lot of snow in the winter like the Midwest or Northeast, it's still wet and cold and players are forced to train indoors.
But Mathieson has found a way around the inclement weather. In each of the past eight years, the Langley Blaze have taken a spring trip to Arizona to train in the warmer weather and get experience against college and professional competition.
"It's a battle up here. It's certainly an advantage to be in Arizona," Mathieson said. "They see a lot more batting practice than we do. They do more throwing and more long toss. I know there are mixed feelings on long toss, but those guys at least have that option. We're mostly stuck indoors, so we're about a month behind those guys."
Mathieson said that although training in the cold can make players tougher, baseball is much more conducive to warmer weather.
"I guess you could probably look at the draft and realize there's probably a reason why a larger percentage of the players come from warm weather states," Mathieson said. "Of course it's warmer, so they get to play a lot and it's easier to play."
|'07 State-by-State Draft Results
|Population Estimates by U.S. Census
Draft results support his point. Last year, 44 percent (673/1522) of the players drafted came from five states: California (271), Florida (150), Texas (133), Arizona (61) and Georgia (58). Since 1965, 20 of the 44 first-overall draft picks have come from those states.
Been There, Done That
North Carolina righthander Matt Harvey has experience with both climates. The 6-foot-4 sophomore grew up in Mystic, Conn., but migrated south to Chapel Hill, where he's spent his collegiate career with the Tar Heels.
"Basically, it's all inside," Harvey said about spending the offseason in Connecticut. "There's not too many days where I can go out and throw in shorts and a T-shirt, like we did a couple days ago here."
Harvey said he talked to his mother on Feb. 20—opening day for Division I baseball—and she told him it was snowing back home. Many of his friends in Connecticut couldn't fathom the fact that his season was beginning so early. High school baseball in Connecticut starts in April, and Harvey said his high school team played just 20 games. He threw a complete game nearly every start and still finished his senior season with a modest 55 innings.
"It's too hard to play baseball in the cold," Harvey said. "I've always thrown really well when it's hot. You'll see me in a long sleeve shirt even when it's 80 degrees out. It's just easier to stay loose in warmer weather."
Harvey spent winter break at home, where he had to work out indoors, throwing to his father in the gym at Connecticut—Avery Point. He said pitching indoors can be deceptive.
"You get outside and you get the wind blowing and your curveball might move a little more—you never get the same amount of movement inside," Harvey explained. "Also, inside you always hear a big mitt pop, so you can kind of get tricked a bit with the echo."
One American League scouting director has developed a theory regarding cold-weather pitchers and tries to temper excitement from his scouts that drop in on indoor workouts.
"I think there's one thing that I've tried to employ for a long time now—it's kind of my Cal Eldred theory that I kind of developed because I started to get fooled," the scouting director said. "Usually, guys that come out of cold weather, their first start is lights out and then their second start is terrible. We've made it a habit here to avoid cold weather guys' second starts."
The scouting director remembers seeing Eldred look great in his first start with the Iowa Hawkeyes in the spring of 1989. Then, during his second start, Eldred's fastball was 10 mph slower. Eldred was selected in the first round that year (17th overall) and went on to pitch in the big leagues for 14 years.
The scouting director theorized that the reason behind the second-start slump is that cold-weather pitchers' arms take a little longer to get back to full strength early in the season.
With the shorter seasons in cold-weather states, the scouting director said his team tries to get as many looks at a player as possible, but not all situations are equal.
"We let guys see their intersquad games, but we don't want to make final evaluations off of intersquad games, obviously," he said. "I also don't let them get too excited off of indoor workouts. You and I could sound like we're throwing hard indoors. It really pops the glove and it sounds like a stick of dynamite went off when you really get a hard thrower in there."
Another scouting director doesn't have any rules for his scouts when seeing cold-weather pitchers, but knows that they require patience.
"The kids up north, you're just going to have to wait a little longer until those guys are ready," the second American League scouting director said. "You can't expect to walk in and see him throwing 93 and 94 when you saw him last summer doing that. He's not going to show that right away.
"It's just tougher for those kids—they don't get the luxury of playing outdoors, playing long toss and all that. That's why we do as much extensive scouting in the summer as we do in the spring. Because, if we've seen it, we know it's there."
He also preached caution when scouting indoor workouts.
"I've never seen anybody get anybody out in a gym," he said. "For me, you've got to get somebody out and you can only get people out on a ball field. You can see guys throwing in a bullpen, or throwing in a gym and they might look like Sandy Koufax, but it's a completely different story once they get up on the mound and have to get outs. It's just like seeing guys hit in a batting cage."