On the night of Game Five of the World Series, Marty Smith was sitting in Jake Melnick's Corner Tap in Chicago, taking in the series with his son. Smith, the head coach at Central Florida JC, was roughly 1,100 miles away from Lakeland, Fla., where one of his pitchers was about to do something special.
In the showcase part of the annual Florida Junior College All-Star Weekend, incoming sophomore Nate Pearson—a fresh-faced, 20-year-old righthanded transfer from Florida International—had thrown a 100 mph fastball.
Smith's phone began to blow up. Texts came rushing in, including one that read, "Your boy really opened some eyes today."
It was a significant milestone for Pearson, whose fastball was peaking at 92-93 just a year and a half earlier as a high school senior. Throwing a 15-20 pitch bullpen at the showcase, Pearson had thrown a 100 mph fastball.
"I honestly couldn't believe it," Pearson said. "That's been a goal of mine ever since I started throwing low to mid-90s. I wanted to get to 100. You see it on TV. All the big names like Noah Syndergaard and all those guys who are praised for how hard they throw—I looked up to them. So I just had this goal, not my main goal, but something in the back of my head that I kept working towards. Once I finally did it, it was pretty surreal."
While seeing triple digits pop up on a radar gun has almost become old hat in baseball's golden age of velocity, it's still extremely rare for an amateur player. In a given year, there might be one or two players who can push past 99 mph, and they're usually one-inning relievers. Since Pearson tickled 100, he's been impossible to ignore. And he's still just scratching the surface of what he could become.
As a senior at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic (Spring Hill, Fla.), Pearson pitched off his fastball. He'd toy with an offspeed pitch here or there, but he was able to get hitters out by throwing his fastball in the strike zone. This was the way he had pitched his entire life; he could locate his low 90s fastball and he wasn't afraid to throw it to hitters, even when they knew it was coming.
"I had a low 90s fastball and high schoolers couldn't really touch that," Pearson said. "So I really just lived off my fastball and I would try to mix in whatever offspeed I could but it really wasn't as good at the time, so I mainly just stuck with my fastball and tried to beat them with that."
Pearson garnered some attention from professional scouts in high school, but nothing serious enough to keep him from going to college. He spent his freshman year at Florida International, where he appeared in 19 games, struck out 33 batters, walked 12 and posted a 2.70 ERA in 33.1 innings.
Standing at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds when he enrolled at FIU, Pearson committed himself to filling out. Now, he's listed at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds.
"One of the main reasons I really liked FIU and why I went there was because we had a really awesome strength coach who really knew what he was doing," Pearson said. "He really introduced me to a whole new way of lifting, focusing on explosion and everything for me to get my weight moving. I'm a pretty big guy and it's important for me to be able to move my weight. I just took it all to heart. I ate well. I just committed to the whole thing, just getting better at every aspect that I can."
Following his freshman year, Pearson decided to transfer to junior college, where he thought he might have better opportunities and he could get a little closer to his home and his family. When he connected with the coaching staff at Central Florida JC, Pearson knew he was in. Smith and pitching coach Zach Bove knew the elements of Pearson's game that he wanted to improve, and they proposed a plan to help him get there.
"He told us what he was looking for as far as development and the things he'd like to do to train," Smith said. "A big thing was he wanted to develop a second and a third pitch."
Pearson, in addition to a long toss program and some work with weighted balls, has really focused on developing his offspeed stuff over the past six months. In the early part of the season, Pearson was pitching in games every Wednesday. In between starts, Pearson would get together with Bove and some other Central Florida pitchers for what the group called "Slider Sunday."
"He just went out and was spinning softballs and spinning everything he could to just get a feel for it," Smith said. Pearson throws two distinct breaking pitches, a low 80s slider with more two-plane, horizontal action across the plate, and a mid-70s curveball with 12-to-6 shape.
"We had heard earlier in the year that we were calling too many breaking balls, but that's what he came here for," Smith said. "He has the capability of throwing a wipeout slider. There are times when it's just really, really good. His curveball has been a little more inconsistent but he likes it. He gets on top of it and it's effective against lefthanded hitters, although he's thrown his changeup really well. But it's just nice to have all three. And he really wants to work to throw all of his pitches and we have been in the position to allow him to do that and get comfortable with it."
Pearson doesn't throw 100 mph regularly; very few pitchers do. He's been able to pace himself and comfortably pitch at 93-94 mph for most of his outings. As he gets close to coming out of the game, Pearson can reach back and hit 97 or 98 in the late innings. He's also shown the ability to control his fastball, a trait he's had since his days at Bishop McLaughlin.
"Intent" has become a popular buzzword among young players in recent years, and it's a word Pearson likes to use to describe his approach on the mound. He attributes much of the growth of his offspeed stuff to throwing it with intent.
"Coach Bove has helped me a lot with the mentality of (my offspeed stuff)," Pearson said. "Just throwing everything with intent just like my fastball. When I was in high school and last year I would kind of baby it. When I'd throw my slider, I kind of thought too much about it rather than just throwing it like my fastball and letting my grip do the work."
Pearson has also developed some feel for his changeup this year. While his breaking pitches are sexier, Pearson will occasionally spot a changeup down and away from a lefthanded hitter, or use it to disrupt a righthanded hitter's timing.
One American League area scout who saw Pearson in February was impressed with the righthander's progress after seeing him again this past Monday. Pearson struck out 10, walked one and surrendered just two hits in eight scoreless inning.
"He'd show a good breaking ball here and there earlier but he wasn't always throwing it for strikes," the scout said. "Now he comes right at you with it. He can throw it for a strike and miss bats. To me, he's shown enough offspeed and command to be a starter."
Over the past 10 drafts, only seven junior college pitchers have been drafted in the top two rounds. Pearson, along with State JC of Florida lefthander Brendon Little, has a chance to join that group this year.
"I think my stuff is just as good as anyone else out there," Pearson said. "I know that I get the stigma of being a JuCo pitcher, but I feel confidence in my stuff and I just want to be a workhorse and really compete out there."
The scout who saw Pearson on Monday seemed to agree. "He wasn't facing Florida or Miami, but everything he threw could play," the scout said.
If Pearson's upward trajectory continues, he'll have a chance to prove that his stuff can play at higher levels. He's committed to Louisiana State next year, but his rising stock could lead to him being drafted in the first or second round come June.