Midseason Player Of The Year: Drew Pomeranz
Mississippi junior lefthander Drew Pomeranz pitches off his explosive fastball as well as any pitcher in college baseball, but his devastating knuckle curveball is really his signature pitch—the offering that makes him unique from just about every other pitcher in the country.
"My curveball is a lot different than anybody else's, because instead of twisting it, I spike it with the point of my finger, and I flick it straight forward," Pomeranz said. "There's no break action, I just push it off the seam. It's like a two-seam forward, straight down. Since your arm naturally pronates, it's like a screwball almost. Sometimes when I'm cutting it, it's like a slider straight down. It's a true knuckle curve the way I throw it. A lot of people spike it and still flick their wrist, but I don't."
That's a lot of detail about one pitch, but it's characteristic of Pomeranz, a student of pitching who seems to love talking about his craft. Given his background, Pomeranz's knowledge about and passion for the game should be no surprise.
Pomeranz's father, Mike, earned four letters as an infielder for Ole Miss. When Drew was 11, Mike taught him and his brother Stuart to throw the knuckle curve because "it doesn't put as much strain on your arm—it's like a fastball," Drew said.
Stuart went on to become a second-round pick by the Cardinals out of high school in Collierville, Tenn., in 2003, when Drew was in eighth grade. Drew gained more insights about the nitty-gritty of pitching and the process of becoming a professional baseball player from conversations with his brother, who reached Double-A.
"My whole four years of high school I got to see how he handled it, what the life was like, you could say," Drew Pomeranz said. "Even sitting through the scout meetings with my family and him when I was in eighth grade, you see how all that stuff works. Even during the offseason, he's home during Christmas, you pick up little things here and there. Once he had four, five, six years under his belt in minor league ball, he'd come back with little things he picked up over the years—changeup grips, things like that. He was pushing me to go to school the whole time."
The younger Pomeranz was a 12th-round pick by the Rangers out of high school, though he would have gone higher if he were more signable. The Rebels had high expectations for him, privately comparing him to Vanderbilt lefthander David Price before he ever threw a pitch for Ole Miss.
Two and a half years into his collegiate career, Pomeranz has established himself as a top candidate to follow in Price's footsteps as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He has been simply masterful against very good competition as a junior this spring, going 5-0, 1.65 with 65 strikeouts and 17 walks in 44 innings.
"He's just been really good all the Fridays, and he usually is," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "I can probably think of maybe one bad start or a couple bad starts in his career. The few things we always say about Drew is No. 1, he's a tremendous competitor—he's certainly at his best on the biggest stage. Put that together with the talent he has—a dominant fastball and a great breaking ball, but he's a true three-pitch guy."
By now, it has been conclusively proven that the pressure of big games does not faze Pomeranz.
As a sophomore last year, he beat Louisiana State and ace Anthony Ranaudo in front of a large, hostile crowd on a Friday night at the new Alex Box Stadium. He won on Fridays at Florida, at Arkansas and at Auburn. He threw two masterpieces in the Oxford Regional and another against Virginia in super regionals. Pitching for Team USA last summer, he carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning in the championship game of the Enbridge Northern Gateway World Baseball Challenge against Germany.
"He just wants the ball in every big situation," Team USA pitching coach Mike Kennedy said of Pomeranz last summer. "He can be a slow starter, but if you didn't get to him early you weren't going to get to him."
At 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, Pomeranz strikes an intimidating figure on the mound, and his stuff is even more intimidating. Since he has arrived at Mississippi, Pomeranz has become more physical, helping him withstand the rigors of the season and come back on short rest when necessary—like when he struck out 16 and allowed only one run in a complete game win against Western Kentucky in the clincher of the Oxford Regional last year. That effort came on two days' rest.
"I had actually been begging (Bianco) two or three weeks before that to let me close on Sundays," Pomeranz said. "I was at that point in the year—the way I did it, I started on Friday, and I did long, long toss on Saturday and Sunday. Most people don't like to throw, but I feel it helps to make your arm stronger and flushes everything out. So I wasn't really getting sore at all. At that point, I had to beg to get into another game in the weekend. So I was ready for that (WKU game).
"I didn't think I would make it nine innings, but it worked out that way. I just went out there with the mentality that I'm pitching on two days' rest, and I might not have my same fastball velocity, I might be a little more tired on the mound. But I was just staying loose and focused on hitting spots, not trying to blow it by people. My velocity was actually higher in that game—funny how that works."
USA Baseball's director of national teams Eric Campbell said Pomeranz is one of those pitchers whose command gets better and stuff gets sharper the more he "feels" his arm—when most pitchers would be fatigued. It helps that Pomeranz is built like an innings-eating workhorse.
"When he got here he gained nine pounds of muscle and lost six percent body fat. People just don't do that," Bianco said. "It's the other thing people don't know about Drew, because he doesn't talk much and he's quiet: He's got a great work ethic, and he's always looking to get better. He continues to improve each year."
If he's this good already, it's scary to think about how good he can get if he keeps improving.