Kilichowski Next In Line
Lefty adds to Jesuit High's crop of pitching
It should be no surprise that Tampa's Jesuit High has another Division I recruit on their hands. After seven of its seniors signed college scholarships last year, including Baseball America All-American and Astros' supplemental first-round pick Lance McCullers Jr., the Florida powerhouse led by head coach Richie Warren has another senior signee slated to pitch in 2013.
John Kilichowski, a 6-foot-5, 185-pound lefthander, will be an instrumental part of a team looking to capture a state championship that has eluded them in recent years. And the Vanderbilt recruit in the heart of their pitching staff has had a busy summer in preparation for his senior season. After participating in USA Baseball's Tournament of Stars, the Prospect Classic and trials, Kilichowski has now achieved his ultimate goal of making the 20-man roster for USA Baseball's 18-and-under National Team. Those 20 players will travel to Seoul, South Korea, to compete in the IBAF 18U World Championships in early September.
Speaking at the Prospect Classic in June, Kilichowski admitted that he didn't understand how badly he would want to make the final cut for the 18U team, nor did he realize just how challenging the road would be. Months of preparation and continually battling the best high school talent in the country make his roster selection all the more special. Kilichowski also admitted, however, that there is still work to be done.
"It's very special and I'm very excited," Kilichowski said. "But once you do reach it, the goal changes and now it's to win the gold. There's really no celebration for it. Today we've still got practice and a game and then we fly to South Korea."
Kilichowski made 14 appearances for Jesuit last season, mostly as a reliever. He posted a 0.83 ERA in 34 innings, striking out 47 batters and walking 13. Opponents batted a mere .110 against him. He committed to Vanderbilt last November and now looks to have a solid few months before entering his senior season.
Much will be demanded from Kilichowski over the next year. Fortunately, having played with McCullers now gives Kilichowski the chance to seek advice from someone who knows his way around the national showcase circuit.
"I went and asked Lance, 'What do I need to do this summer?' " Kilichowski said. "I knew that he had done everything that I want to do, you know, play in the national games, Under Armour and Perfect Game and the USA Team. So he's done all of those things, he understands and he's done it recently so it was nice to have someone like that directing me."
Though McCullers may have started drawing national attention in the past few years, Kilichowski's relationship with him extends back much farther.
"I've actually been playing with him since I was eight years old," Kilichowski said. "We played AAU baseball together and I've played with him and against him forever so I've watched him as he's kind of grown and developed. It's been a cool process."
Kilichowski also benefits from one of the most successful throwing programs in the country, led by Jesuit pitching coach Geoff Goetz. Baseball fans will remember Goetz as the sixth-overall pick by the Mets in the 1997 draft. He pitched in the Mets, Marlins and Yankees' farm systems before shoulder injuries ended his playing career in 2006.
"From my standpoint we want to be consistent with the throwing program," Goetz said. "I'm not going to be the kind of guy who says you have to long toss every day, or you have to do this or have to do that; it's a communication."
One reason the Tigers have turned out so many successful pitchers in recent years comes from that highly-personalized approach.
"We really try to customize it for them," Goetz said. "I understand that when they get to the next level it's going to be a more complete structure. But I'm lucky enough to be able to (work on an individual basis) because we don't have a ton of pitchers that I'm in charge of so I just spend the time to personally get to know every kid."
An athletic southpaw with room to fill out, Kilichowski won't overpower hitters with a fastball that sits in the upper-80s. But his repertoire includes a solid changeup and curveball that keep batters guessing.
"Even when my fastball is a little bit off I can have command of two other pitches and make it a little easier on me," Kilichowski said.
"We spent a lot of time throughout the season really trying to get the feel (for the offspeed pitches)," Goetz said. "Now he has three separate weapons. When you talk five or six months ago he was primarily a one-pitch guy with an average secondary pitch."
The more subtle aspects of the game are the areas that Kilichowski especially emphasized this summer.
"The things that aren't visible on TV, like how you handle runners in certain situations and mental aspects of the game are things that, even for a person who has played for a long time, you really won't understand until you play with this caliber talent," Kilichowski said.
The Road Ahead
Obviously the main goal for any young pitcher is to stay healthy. With Kilichowski it is no different. And just like all other aspects of Goetz's pitching program, injury prevention is an ever-adapting process that gets tweaked day by day.
"I mainly learned from the physical standpoint of overthrowing and doing too much," Goetz said. "When I went to a certain professional organization I got forced into doing something that I did not want to do multiple times as far as the throwing program. Not too long after (that) I had my first arm surgery. So I'm very cautious of being so stuck in my own ways or thinking that there's only one way of doing it."
Physical tools aside, Kilichowski sports a business-like attitude that reflects his passion for the game and desire to get better.
"His ability to compete is amazing," Goetz said. "He has a good sense of humor and messes around but he knows the time to focus and when to be ready to compete."
"I love to enjoy myself when I'm on the field, but once I'm on the mound and I have the ball I could not be any more serious," Kilichowski said. "It's a very serious mood I take when I'm out on the field because every pitch I have to put in 100-percent effort or else the guys out here are going to make you pay for your mistakes."
The 18-year-old acknowledges that winning the gold medal in South Korea is where his focus lies right now. In terms of his main priorities though, Kilichowski's are the same as nearly all top high school prospects: bring home a title and improve his draft stock in the process.
"First my goal is to go in senior year and help my team win a state championship," Kilichowski said. "We've gotten so close, two times as state runners-up and a loss in the state semis. That's got to stop. I want to do that and as I do that just really get better—focus on the things that scouts or coaches say I could really improve that would help draft status and things like that, so I'm prepared for either college or the pros or whatever is most fitting down the road."
"John stays within himself very, very well," Goetz said. "It's that old saying of what our dads said to us when we were in Little League: do what you can do and don't worry about things that you can't control. If you do that, I think things will fall into place."
Simple wisdom for players made all the more valuable coming from a former first-round talent.
"My approach as a pitching coach is, 'Hey, I've been there,' " Goetz said. "So it's not 'in theory' or 'you're going through something I never have.' I've lived it, I've coached it now and I just try to give them the best route to succeed in what's going to be one of the most exciting periods of their lives."