Paying Dividends

Gamble on Patton pays off for summer league team

In the spring of 2007, Matt Hayes took a chance. The coach of the Forest City Owls needed an extra arm, and it was too late to draw a big-name player into the Coastal Plain League.

So Hayes brought in a stringy, 6-foot righthander out of a small junior college in Illinois named Spencer Patton.

Two years later, it looks like Hayes made one heck of a good call. Patton, now a junior at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, was back in the Coastal Plain Leage and led the league in strikeouts. Through his first two starts of 2009, Patton dealt 27 Ks in just 14 innings of work.

"I took a chance on him because I needed an arm and it was late and I didn't think I could find anyone better," Hayes said. "He's turned out pretty good for us."

Part of Patton's outrageous stat line is naturally due to college hitters struggling with the switch from metal to wood bats. But at the same time, nobody else in the CPL was racking up strikeouts quite like Patton. The next closest pitcher had 22 strikeouts, and Patton has already fanned more than half as many batters as he did last season in the CPL (50 strikeouts with 50 hits).

Patton also seems to have changed his game plan somewhat. His strikeouts this summer and last year at Edwardsville (a team-high 77 in 68 innings) are a departure from the pitcher Hayes describes as a "ball-in-play guy."

"When I came into college, I was more of a thrower," Patton said. "I wasn't really a pitcher. All my coaches in college have taught me how to effectively pitch and not just throw the ball over the plate. I think that's a big key, is actually pitching and locating your pitches."

Patton can not only throw his fastball up in the zone for strikes, but at the tail end of his season at Edwardsville he also started gaining command of a slider. That gives him two strikeout pitches for a devastating combination with hitters adjusting to wood bats.

"Those kids are playing with wood bats out there and they haven't made the adjustment right away," Edwardsville coach Gary Collins said. "So he's carving them up."

It's not what hitters expect from a player whose 6-foot, 180-pound frame is decidedly average.

"He's not very imposing on the mound, but he's got a fast-moving arm," Collins said. "And he doesn't have to put a lot of effort into it. He's real compact, no extra motion."

Even more baffling is that his ERA last season at Edwardsville was a less-than-stellar 5.24.

"He's got good stuff, and right at the end his slider improved dramatically," Collins said. "The problem he had was we were a pretty bad defensive team.

Whatever the reason, Patton's statistical down spring gave him motivation to go forward and build draft buzz for himself, if not in 2009 then next year.

"I would love to get drafted this year," Patton said. "I don't think it's going to happen—I say this and then might get totally surprised—but I definitely want to pursue baseball as long as possible."

But the most surprising aspect of Patton is not his success on the mound. It's that in a locker room featuring players from programs like North Carolina and Notre Dame, the kid from that college nobody's ever heard of in Illinois is the one who people listen to.

"He's become more of a leader in the clubhouse," Hayes said. "He's talking with the younger guys about pitch location and pitch selection, and talking about hitters on other teams and some of the returners . . . He's grown into a complete player for us."