Sheppers quickly becomes a pitching prospect
Tanner Scheppers was a 6-foot shortstop with a quick arm who had never pitched in a game when Fresno State signed him in November of 2004 as a senior at California's Dana Hills High.
Three years later, Scheppers has emerged as the Bulldogs' ace and a potential first-round pick.
Scheppers got his first taste of pitching when Dana Hills ran out of arms at a tournament in the spring of 2005. There was no one else who could pitch, so Scheppers got up on the mound and threw as hard as he could. He didn't even have a breaking ball, but he lasted six innings.
He ended up throwing close to 50 innings that season, relying solely on his competitive nature and a mid-80s fastball that sometimes flirted with the low 90s. The Orioles saw enough promise in him to draft him in the 29th round that June, but he opted to take his chances in school.
When Scheppers showed up on Fresno State's campus that fall, he was a gangly 6-foot-4 shortstop with no particular inclination to pitch, despite dabbling on the mound that spring.
"We watched him take a few groundballs and throw balls across the diamond," Bulldogs coach Mike Batesole recalls, "and we said, 'Why don't you go out and throw a bullpen?'"
That's how obvious it was that Scheppers had a chance to be special on the mound.
"He was one of those guys that you see the arm action and the delivery and you think, 'This could be one of those guys that really blossoms,'" Fresno State recruiting coordinator Matt Curtis said. "By the time we got him as a freshman, he was up to 91 (mph), and still feeling his oats as far as command. We liked the arm action, the clean delivery, the projectable body, and we just felt it was in there."
The Bulldogs were right, as it turns out. As Scheppers enters his junior season, he is not yet a household name around college baseball, but he is one of the first names on the lips of West Coast scouts, who are excited by the righthander's 93-96 mph fastball and above-average 83-86 slider with good depth. He could wind up as a first-round pick come June, but it has taken time and hard work to unlock his significant potential.
'An Amazing Arm'
The first of Scheppers' three pitching coaches in three years with the Bulldogs was former big leaguer Bobby Jones, an all-star righthander for the Mets and a one-time first-round draft pick out of Fresno State in his own right. Jones could see that Scheppers was capable of following in his footsteps.
"At the very beginning of my freshman year," Scheppers said, "Bobby Jones sat me down and said, 'You have an amazing arm, and we think your future is pitching. You're a great shortstop, but realistically you need to focus on just one thing.'"
There was plenty of work to be done before Scheppers was ready to pitch at the Division I level. In high school, Scheppers threw from nearly a sidearm slot and tended to collapse his back, so Jones put a brace on his leg to straighten him out, and raised his arm slot to high three-quarters. It took time for Scheppers to adapt to the speed of the game, learn to control the running game and how to react to adversity on the mound. But it didn't take much time for Scheppers to learn other important lessons.
"From high school to Division I baseball, it's a completely different world, that's for sure," Scheppers said. "You can't get away with the 90-mile-per-hour fastball belt high. I learned that control is the biggest part of the game, keeping the ball down in the zone."
Scheppers made just 12 appearances in his 2006 freshman year, going 1-0, 9.00 with 16 strikeouts and 15 walks in 15 innings. But that summer, while pitching for the Santa Barbara Foresters in the California Collegiate League, Scheppers started to become more comfortable with his delivery and with game situations. On top of that, he started filling out his lanky frame, and his velocity climbed into the consistent 91-93 range.
By the time the 2007 season started, Scheppers no longer looked like a gangly pitcher as he rediscovered the athlete who played shortstop in high school. He started the season in a swing role, and his velocity continued to climb throughout the season—on his fastball, but also on his electric slider, which sometimes even reached 90 mph according to Batesole. His sophomore year pitching coach, Ted Silva, emphasized being aggressive on the mound, and Scheppers developed enough confidence in his slider to throw it in a variety of counts to both righthanded and lefthanded hitters. He mixed in a slower 12-to-6 curveball to change the eye level for lefthanded hitters as well as a changeup that was really just a show pitch. But there was little reason to stray far from his dominant fastball-slider attack, which carried him into Fresno State's weekend rotation down the stretch.
"He's just gotten better and better and better," Batesole said. "Guys say that about a lot of guys, but he's become a man right before our eyes. At the end of last year, his last five or six starts, it was electric. You can call me nuts—I don't even know what 100 mile an hour looks like, but he threw a couple pitches last year where I just said, 'What the heck?' He's got that in him."
Scheppers was peaking at the perfect time for the Bulldogs, who earned the No. 4 seed in the San Diego regional last year. He was dominant in relief in Fresno's opening game against the top-seeded Toreros, allowing one hit while striking out three over 31⁄3 scoreless innings, as the Bulldogs pulled off a 6-2 upset victory.
He got the start two days later in an elimination game against Minnesota. After Scheppers cruised through three scoreless innings, striking out four, the first Minnesota batter of the fourth inning lined a ball off Scheppers' face.
"I really don't remember the pitch, and I remember waking up with my coach around me, and a bunch of people around," Scheppers said. "I did get knocked out and black out at that point. I've seen videos and stuff of it, and it was a pretty bad pitch, that's for sure. If I've learned one thing, it's not to hang a slider in a 1-2 count."
Scheppers was rushed to a local hospital, and the Bulldogs stayed alive with an 11-6 win. Scheppers returned to Tony Gwynn Stadium later that day—sporting a lump that looked like a second forehead above his right eye—and rejoined his teammates during the third inning of their season-ending 13-2 loss to Cal State Fullerton.
"This is a tough kid—he showed up the next game against Fullerton and wanted the ball," Batesole said. "He said, 'Coach, I'm ready to pitch today.' Of course I couldn't do it, but that's the kind of kid he is."