Some scouts wonder if Larish has
by John Manuel
TEMPE, Ariz.--In the dictionary used by scouts, draftitis is a word. Of course, so it pitchability--here at Baseball America, we're trying to use "knack for pitching" instead.
Scouts like to use these terms regardless of the grammatical implications, in part because it's easy to know what draftitis is--a player struggles because the pressure of the draft gets to him.
Juniors seem to be most susceptible to it, and draftitis can be contagious, infecting whole teams as a struggling junior, counted on to be a key cog, instead becomes a drag. One famous case happened to preseason No. 1 Georgia Tech in 2001, which was waylaid by the double blow of an injury to Mark Teixeira and a bad case of draftitis that affected pitchers like Steve Kelly and Rhett Parrott.
Some players available for the 2004 draft have been immune, with Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver a prime example, as is Florida State's Stephen Drew. However, others aren't so lucky.
During mid-March, Arizona State outfielder Jeff Larish seemed to be fighting a particularly nefarious strain of draftitis. His Sun Devils were off to a nice 20-5 start, while Larish was not.
He was hitting just .287-2-25, with 18 walks and 23 strikeouts in 94 at-bats. The bad luck continued in the Sun Devils' Pacific-10 opening series against California, as Larish sprained his right wrist and missed the last two games of the series. While x-rays were negative, he was expected to miss a conference set against Washington.
That comes after his All-America sophomore year, when he hit .372-18-95, led the nation with 78 walks (while striking out just 42 times), and finished second in RBIs and third in on-base percentage (.528). Last summer, Larish cemented his status as the top position player in the draft class of 2004 with an impressive performance for Team USA. He hit just .255 but slammed eight home runs, a record for the program since it went to wood bats in 2000.
"There's no doubt, he's not as loose and as confident as he's been in the past," Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy said. "Maybe it's the pressure of trying to live up to others' expectations of him.
"At times, he's looked like a different hitter, but it's in there, no doubt about it. Hopefully, his struggles have taught him something."
Lessons To Be Learned
In a draft presumed to have few impact position players available, Larish was supposed to be an exception, an impact bat with power potential. He has always hit, from a .441 average and school-record 12 homers as a senior at McClintock High in Tempe to a .328-3-24 season as a freshman at Arizona State. He played only half the year, as Murphy had planned to redshirt Larish before turning to him midway through the season to be his third baseman.
That's why his struggles are so perplexing; Larish has the tools and the track record to succeed. Scouts asked about Larish varied in their opinions of him; some said he had changed his stance and approach since last season, while others cited draftitis as the major cause of his struggles.
"He's always been very upright at the plate, very rigid at the start of his swing," said one scout for an American League team, "and he tends to cut himself off and not use his hands enough in his swing. But he did that last year. He just has picked a bad time to struggle."
"Larish still has a lot of power, as much as anyone in the draft on the college side," another AL scout said. "It's not coming out right now. He's just struggling with the confidence, with the pressure of the draft. I think he'll get over it."
For his part, Larish has heard many theories how to reverse his slide. He knows he's struggling, and he's doing his best to work through it. But if he knew what the problem was, he'd have fixed it by now.
"I don't feel like I'm swinging it the way I can," he said after a game against Oklahoma State in which he went 3-for-3. "I'm trying to keep it simple. I'm kind of working my way through a little slump, trying to help the team any way I can and trying to battle through it."
No, It Can't Be That
To that end, Larish has moved from first base, which he played last season, to left field. His move to left puts his strong throwing arm in play more than it was at first and increases his versatility. Scouts say they're all for the move to the outfield, and Larish certainly has enough athleticism to play either corner.
Larish agrees with Murphy that the move hasn't helped cause his offensive struggles, but it sounds like he's trying to convince himself.
"It's a little bit of a mental adjustment," he said. "I always try to stay focused the whole game, so that's not different. It was pretty much coach Murphy's call, and I'm working hard to get better at it."
Scouts also agree that sometimes players can work themselves too hard. The talent that made Larish an easy choice as a preseason All-American is still there. When Larish returns from his wrist injury, the best thing he might be able to do for himself is to read his press clippings and remind himself of how good he really is.