Drafting Guthrie makes sense
By Brett Kaufman
He's 23 but still a junior. He struggled at Brigham Young in one season as a reliever, then transferred to pitching-rich Stanford and within a month became the Cardinal's Friday night starter--after spending two years without so much as soft toss on the lawn.
He turned down significant money from the Pirates to return to the Farm after becoming a third-round selection in last year's draft and tying the knot with his fiancé just days after he helped lead Stanford to the national championship game.
But as opposing hitters will tell you, what's really tough to figure out is Guthrie on the mound. Armed with a 94 mph fastball, an electric curve, biting slider and an improving changeup, Guthrie has marched to another productive season (9-1, 2.68 109 strikeouts and 26 walks in 114 innings) and an even loftier draft position.
"Last year, I felt there were a lot of questions about me that couldn't be answered in such a short time, as I came out and kind of came onto the radar pretty late," Guthrie said. "(The Pirates) weren't as sure about signing me as I thought they should be, so we just never got to the point where I felt it was a good decision to sign."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder has done more than enough to answer concerns about being a one-year wonder. He stormed onto the scene in 2001--going 13-4, 2.82 with 128 strikeouts in 134 innings--after a two-year Mormon mission to Spain, while his parents and high school coach greased the wheels for his arrival in Palo Alto.
Guthrie says he has significantly improved on the mental aspect of pitching in 2002 and has proven that his remarkable stamina was no fluke.
"I think I have a better understanding of the game and of pitching," he said. "I've pitched better in situations this year. And just being able to come out and throw the same week after week has shown that I have the arm strength and the stamina to go through a long season."
Yet endurance raises the biggest questions as the draft nears. Guthrie has gone the distance in three of his 13 starts, and averages more than 7 innings a start. He has reached 140 pitches twice this season, and usually registers between 110 and 120. Is that a potential red flag for some suitors? Not in his mind, or in that of Stanford coach Mark Marquess.
"In reality, his arm is in as good a shape as you'd want it to be for an elite pitcher," Marquess said. "He wasn't a typical California type of pitcher, in summer leagues and everything. He was an athlete. His mission gave him time to fill out physically and develop, and then after last season he had time off. He has not pitched more than 5 1/2 months in four years, and that's unusual."
Guthrie's reputation for durability was such that even a short outing at Washington--he left after six innings and 87 pitches in a game Stanford eventually lost--raised questions.
"He was fine, but he was tight in his backI wasn't concerned about his armbut the thing is, if he's tight in his back does he change his arm angle?" Marquess said. "And he was pitching probably as good as he pitched all year, just dominating them . . . But we didn't want to chance it, and we lose the game. I told him the next day, 'No matter what we tell these guys, they're going to think you're hurt.' "
Guthrie understood his premature departure might alarm scouts, so he decided to answer them not with words, but with action. His next four starts were all complete-game victories, during which he had 36 strikeouts (including a career-high 13 in an 11-0 shutout of UCLA) and a 2.31 ERA.
"I didn't feel any type of pressure," Guthrie said. "I had no problem coming back and throwing and I was perfectly healthy, so I knew whatever I did on the mound would show that there was no problem."
Next In Line
Guthrie's workload falls in line with Marquess' use of past aces such as Mike Mussina, Jack McDowell and Jason Young. In the 1999 College World Series, Young threw more than 170 pitches in a game and brought the Cardinal's pitching decisions onto the national stage. Marquess is quick to defend the philosophy to which he has adhered for his 26-year stint at the helm.
"I don't know where 100 pitches became the most important number in the world . . . More important for us, pitch count tells you he should be getting tired, but a lot of things go into that," he said. "Our feeling is that the risk was more in pitching on short rest than on throwing 20-25 more pitches in a given game with six days in between."
Guthrie has only positive things to say about how the Stanford coaching staff handled him this season and last.
"They try to judge off the pitcher and not pay as much attention to the numbers. There's a trust there," he said. "I think (Marquess would) like me to be out there and give our team a chance to win, and when it's time, it's time."
With those issues settled in the minds of Guthrie and his coach, only the remainder of the college season and the draft remain as concerns, and both say coming back was an excellent decision for Guthrie.
"In the overall scheme of things, it was the best thing for him," Marquess said. "It's worked out well, and I'm real happy for him. And he hasn't pitched that muchhe'll get better. He's going to be a major league pitcher. He's in that mold of all of them here at Stanford. He's going to have it all."
To both men, that makes all the sense in the world.
Brett Kaufman is in his second year covering the Cardinal for the Stanford Daily.
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