GREENSBORO, N.C.—Las Vegas had a banner year for baseball talent in 2010. Bryce Harper was the headliner, destroying junior college competition as a 17-year-old on the way to a National League rookie of the year campaign two years later.
Then there are players currently enjoying success in the minor leagues like Padres righthander Donn Roach and Red Sox righthander Aaron Kurcz (who were both teammates with Harper at Southern Nevada CC), Pirates righthander Nick Kingham and Rangers third baseman Drew Robinson.
Two players—third baseman Kris Bryant and righthander Michael Wagner—are now juniors at San Diego. But what happens in Vegas, sometimes winds up in West Virginia.
Righthander Aaron Blair from Marshall is one of the top righthanders in this year’s draft class. How does a high school player from Nevada wind up at a college nearly 2,000 miles from home?
“I went to Jupiter, Florida, my senior year and I played with the Ohio Warhawks,” Blair said. “And they saw saw me throw out there. I came on a visit and committed the next day. I had a lot of fun on my recruiting visit. I really liked the coaches and the players I was with. Everything was great.”
Blair’s emergence at Marshall capped a fine year for the program’s pitchers. Athletics righthander Dan Straily led the minor leagues in strikeouts (190) and became the first Marshall pitcher to pitch in the big leagues since Rick Reed in 1988. Other recent picks like Padres righthander Joe Church (17th round, 2012), Rockies lefthander Mike Mason (24th, 2012), Rangers lefthander Greg Williams (12th, 2011) and Blue Jays righthanders Arik Sikula (36th, 2011) Ian Kadish (NDFA, 2011) had solid minor league seasons in 2012.
The key now is leveraging the stories of guys Straily and Blair into more success on the recruiting trail.
“It’s about development,” Marshall head coach Jeff Waggoner said. “That’s the biggest thing. That’s what we have to do in this program. We have to bring guys in and develop them. The success of some of the guys who’ve made it to the big leagues obviously helps with recruiting and we hope that the guys out there now, hopefully more have the chance to make it.”
A 21st-round pick by the Astros out of Spring Valley High, Blair made an immediate impact for the Thundering Herd. As a freshman, he pitched in 12 games, making seven starts and going 2-3 with a team-best 2.72 ERA. The following year, Blair became the team’s most dependable starter. He went just 2-8 on a Marshall team that was 17-37 on the season, but posted a 3.98 ERA with 82 strikeouts and 28 walks over 84 innings.
“I’ve gotten smarter on the mound,” Blair said about his progress since high school. “I’ve learned to locate better and I’m just physically stronger.”
He was 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds in high school. He’s the same weight now, but he’s grown an inch and has tightened up his physique and added more muscle. He’s also added a key pitch to his repertoire.
“When Aaron came to Marshall, he was primarily a fastball-curveball guy,” Marshall pitching coach Joe Renner said. “And I think the thing that’s really improved the most and has become a really good pitch for him is the changeup. It’s a swing-and-miss pitch for him, it doesn’t matter if it’s a righthanded hitter or a lefthanded hitter. It’s got a lot of late, sinking action on it and when you add that third pitch to the mix, it makes it tough on hitters. For me, that’s been the biggest thing because he’s always had pretty good command. It’s gotten better as he’s gotten older. His velo has improved as he’s gotten stronger. Each year, he’s just gotten a little bit better.”
Blair cemented himself as one of the top pitching prospects in the country during his breakout campaign in the Cape Cod League this summer.
“It was great,” Blair said about his time on the Cape. “The host family I had was terrific, as was the team I played with and the coaching staff. And, of course success is a big thing out there. I was able to do my thing and had a lot of fun doing it.
“I really put my name on the map with my performance out there. I couldn’t have asked for anything better out there.”
Pitching for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, Blair was one of the summer’s best performers. He led the league with a 1.17 ERA and won both of his playoff starts.
“Aaron came in as a confident pitcher, but I think the Cape this summer solidified who he is,” Waggoner said. “The best thing about him is he knows what he’s doing out there. He really knows how to pitch. Obviously he has good stuff, but his pitchability is off the charts.”
That pitchability was on display Feb. 24 against North Carolina A&T. With more than 20 scouts in attendance—including many crosscheckers—Blair came out firing fastballs in the 91-94 mph range. After the first couple innings, he settled into the 89-91 mph range, but held his velocity well and still reached back for 93 when he needed it, including four times in the sixth inning, even on his 102nd pitch of the day. Like he showed in the Cape, his fastball had heavy life and he kept it down in the zone. Despite it’s late armside run, Blair actually uses a four-seam fastball grip, but his lower three-quarter arm angle helps him get the tailing action in on righthanded batters.
Blair showed a lot of confidence in his 84-86 mph changeup with late fading action. His 76-80 mph curveball was a little inconsistent, but showed tight rotation and late break at times. Still, with his heavy sinking fastball and his arm slot, some scouts think a slider would fit into Blair’s arsenal better than his curveball.
“I (tried throwing it) in high school and I wasn’t really a big fan of it,” Blair said. “When I came here, they wanted to try a slider, but I felt more comfortable just throwing three pitches and getting better with those three.”
Blair took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Aggies, but had a long layoff before the inning when the Herd put five runs on the board to go up 8-0.
“In the sixth inning, we scored the five runs and all of a sudden he’s got an eight-run lead and he had to sit quite a bit, then he goes out and walks the first two guys, which is uncharacteristic of him,” Renner said. “He’s a strike-thrower. But his stuff was good. I still think he’s fine tuning a little bit. He had seven days in between starts and the last two days we couldn’t really do anything with the weather. Was he good? Yeah. Have I seen him better? Yeah.”
Blair was pulled in the sixth inning and wound up with a final line of 5.2 innings, two hits, three runs (all earned), two walks and five strikeouts.
Turning that corner could determine how high Blair goes in the draft and he’ll have a string of key matchups over the final month of the season against Conference USA opponents Central Florida, Tulane, Memphis, East Carolina and Rice.
“I’m trying to avoid the big innings,” Blair said. “Both my starts so far this year I’ve had an inning where I give up three runs and have thrown a lot of pitches. If I can limit that to one run and instead of 30 pitches, 20, then I’ll have another inning in me.”
Below is video footage of Blair's outing against North Carolina A&T . . .