Basketball Pays Off

Arnett's time on the hardwood helps with baseball

Eric Arnett's All-American season started with an invitation from Indiana head basketball coach Tom Crean.

Arnett, at 6-foot-5, was a three-sport star in high school. He received Division-I football offers from Mid-American and Big East conference schools as a wide receiver and played basketball, too. But Arnett was a pitcher for the Hoosiers' baseball team when Crean offered him an opportunity to try out for the hoops squad.

It's safe to say Arnett made the most of it. And it made him.

A season after moving between the bullpen and the starting rotation, in which he went 4-5, 5.45 in 66 innings of work, Arnett's 2009 numbers were staggering—12-2, 2.50, with 109 strikeouts in 108 innings—en route to garnering co-Big Ten pitcher of the year honors.

The result? Arnett was the first collegiate pitcher to be drafted in the first round by the Brewers since Ben Sheets was taken 10th overall in 1999.

The strenuous basketball workouts pushed Arnett physically. And because Arnett said he was the worst player on the team, it made him want to compete. But it wasn't his physical stature that made the most difference.

"The mental aspect to my game helped the most," Arnett said. "It helped build my confidence. If I was able to play with (the basketball team), I should definitely be able to go out and play a sport I've been playing my whole life."

Arnett traveled with the basketball team, but did not play in games, until baseball practice started in February. He recalled a trip to Lexington, Ky., for a game with Kentucky where 23,500 rabid Wildcats' fans were shaking Rupp Arena—a different world from Indiana's Sembower Field.

"It seems like nothing then when you go out and pitch in front of 1,000 people at a baseball stadium," Arnett said. "It definitely helped."

'Blessing In Disguise'

Crean knew Arnett was a freak athlete when he offered him the opportunity to try out. In high school, Arnett earned three all-conference selections in football and two in basketball. Arnett holds records at Watkins Memorial High (Pataskala, Ohio) records for receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. He also holds the school record for home runs. What Crean didn't know, however, was that Arnett would be the best slam-dunk artist on his team.

Arnett didn't receive the football offers he wanted coming out of high school, so he decided to focus on baseball, a decision he called a "blessing in disguise."

While Arnett showed improvement at the end of his sophomore year, no one could have anticipated the strides he made before his junior campaign.

"Based on the first two years, if you had asked me in January is Eric Arnett going to go out and be an All-American, I would have said 'Probably not. I'd love to see it, but I doubt it,'" said Tracy Smith, Indiana's head baseball coach.

Arnett added three to four miles per hour to his fastball and developed his slider into a nearly unhittable out pitch. With the added velocity and deception, Arnett cut down his walk totals from 5.18 per nine innings in 2008 to 3.28 in 2009.

"It's no secret, he was a real workhorse for us," Smith said. "And what impressed the scouts the most is that he was able to hold his velocity deep into games."

Against conference foe Illinois, Arnett allowed seven hits over 10 innings of work in a 2-1 win. The last pitch of that game was registered at 94 miles per hour. In total, Arnett pitched six complete games in 2009 and averaged just under eight innings pitched per appearance.  

"His year by anybody's standards was impressive," Smith said. "To go out and dominate the way he dominated was very overpowering."

Ready To Roll

Due to his collegiate workload, Brewers farm director Reid Nichols said Arnett will pitch at Roookie-level Helena (Pioneer) for the rest of 2009, instead of starting at low Class A Beloit, which has a 25-man roster limitation.

"Because of the amount of innings that he had and the pitch-heavy innings that they were, we'll be able to monitor his innings and pitch counts closely (in Helena)," Nichols added. "We're going to do all we can to keep him healthy, that's my main goal with him."

Arnett will make his professional debut with Helena quickly. He was the second first-round draft pick to sign.

"When a guy signs this quickly that's this high of a pick, that tells us he wants to play and that means something," Nichols said.

Although Arnett said he's just hoping to get his feet wet during his first professional season, his collegiate coach thinks the slow approach won't last for long.

"He's just scratching the surface," Smith said. "(Milwaukee) got a good one. I can see him getting (to the major leagues) pretty quickly."