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JJ Wetherholt’s Star Turn Leads West Virginia Baseball To New Heights


Image credit: JJ Wetherholt (27) West Virginia Mountaineers vs TCU Horned Frogs in a Big 12 baseball game at Lupton Stadium in Ft. Worth, Texas on Thursday, May 16, 2024 (Photo by Eddie Kelly / ProLook Photos)

JJ Wetherholt in 2023 became one of college baseball’s biggest stars. After a solid freshman season at West Virginia, he took a major step forward as a sophomore. He hit .449 to win the national batting title, was named a first-team All-American and the Big 12 player of the year.

Wetherholt’s rapid rise quickly turned him into a fan favorite in Morgantown. West Virginia baseball had never really had a player like him before. Former ace Alek Manoah became appointment viewing on Friday nights during his junior season. Jedd Gyorko was a star during his West Virginia career from 2008-10, but the program was in a much different place at the time–it was in the Big East and hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in a decade–and wasn’t as resonant within the fanbase.  

Wetherholt came along at a time when the Mountaineers had built something under coach Randy Mazey. His breakout 2023 season was in some ways the next step.

“We’ve had some great offensive players here, but we haven’t had anybody that’s captured the attention of the whole community like JJ has,” Mazey said. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever coached. I’d be willing to bet that people in the community, when they go to work and get a drink at the fountain, they’re talking about JJ Wetherholt.”

By the end of 2023, it wasn’t just the people of Morgantown that were talking about Wetherholt around the water cooler. He was the talk of the amateur baseball world. He had emerged as the top prospect in the country and the projected first overall draft pick.

Wetherholt kept an even keel through the hype.

“It was a lot of trying to stay off social media and not look at all the stuff and conversations about me,” he said. “It was a lot of hard work, trying to get the body right and the mind right and just learn how to deal with the hype.”

With all eyes on him at the outset of this spring, Wetherholt got off to a solid start. Playing at Stetson on Opening Weekend, the lefthanded hitter collected five hits in four games, walked three times and stole three bases. But in the final game of the series, he injured his hamstring.

It was the second time Wetherholt suffered a hamstring injury in about nine months, as he also was injured last summer while playing in the Cape Cod League. The injury this spring would ultimately cost him six weeks of games and he did not return to action until April 5.

All that time sidelined was not easy for Wetherholt. The sport’s attention shifted elsewhere as other players used strong performances to push up draft boards. But he didn’t withdraw or mope because he wasn’t able to play. Instead, he became the Mountaineers’ most engaged presence in the dugout.

“Obviously, I wanted to be on the field and playing with the guys, but just being in a different area and trying to lead from the dugout and keep the guys’ energy up was new for me,” he said. “So, I had a lot of fun with it–as much fun as you could–and then when game, I don’t know, 15 rolled around, I was kind of sick and tired of it and I wanted to be back out there. It was a process and I understood that, and I just tried to do whatever I could to help the guys win.”

While that kind of story is sometimes cliché or overblown, Wetherholt’s transformation into a dugout captain was noted and respected by his teammates. At a team meeting earlier this spring, the Mountaineers were asked to share positive things their teammates had done for each other, like giving someone a ride to practice or organizing a study session.

“There ended up being about six different guys saying JJ did this or JJ did that,” associate head coach Steve Sabins said. “Someone finally said, ‘He was the projected 1-1 draft pick and hasn’t been able to play and he’s brought more energy than anyone else.’

“There’s a lot on his shoulders. It’s a big season for that guy. For the people in the organization to recognize how special that is is pretty cool. Not everyone is like that. From the outside people can say he’s a great teammate, he has great character, but for people on the inside to say that is big.”

West Virginia played fine through a tough early season schedule, with most of its games coming on the road. It went 14-10 and 5-4 in conference play with Wetherholt sidelined. When he returned, however, the Mountaineers found another gear. They swept his first series back–a weekend at Kansas–and went 17-8, 14-7 in the regular season following his return. That helped them to a fourth-place finish in the Big 12 and to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

West Virginia (33-22, 19-11) this week is preparing to open play in the Tucson Regional on Friday against Dallas Baptist. It’s a historic NCAA Tournament appearance for the Mountaineers, who are making back-to-back trips for the first time since they played in four straight tournaments from 1961-64.

It’s fitting that the Mountaineers hit that milestone this spring, as Wetherholt’s rise has happened largely in tandem with the program’s own growth. Mazey arrived in Morgantown in the summer of 2012, as the Mountaineers were moving from the Big East to the Big 12. They had not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1996. That drought ended in 2017 and they truly broke through two years later, when they hosted a regional in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

Wetherholt committed in the fall of 2018 and hoped he would be able to help the Mountaineers take the next step.

“When I committed, I had the vision of building the program up and getting it to be a contender every year,” he said. “They kind of beat me to it by hosting that regional that year but I was super excited, and I just wanted to keep growing off of that. I think we’ve done a pretty nice job of it.”

Wetherholt’s development as a player is itself significant. West Virginia has produced just two first round picks in program history – righthanders Chris Enochs (1997) and Manoah (2019), who both went 11th overall. Wetherholt is now seen as unlikely to go first overall (though a lot can happen before draft day and there’s been a renewed buzz about the possibility in recent weeks), but he projects to become the first top-10 pick in program history. For him to go from an unheralded recruit to an All-American and likely top-10 pick–and to stay in Morgantown in the era of the transfer portal and increased mobility for players–is the latest sign of the program’s growth.

Wetherholt grew up in Mars, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh about 90 minutes north of Morgantown. He played for Mars Area High, where his coach for the first two years of high school was Andy Bednar, the father of David Bednar, the Pirates all-star closer, and Will Bednar, the 2021 College World Series Most Outstanding Player and a Giants prospect. Wetherholt’s prep career overlapped for one season with Will Bednar’s and that year the Fightin’ Planets advanced to the state quarterfinals.

Wetherholt said the Bednar family has provided him a lot of support over the years, while David and Will’s success has given him something to shoot for.

“Those two, it’s just elite talent coming out of our high school,” Wetherholt said. “It kind of gives you motivation, like you can make it out of Mars, PA.”

Wetherholt followed in their footsteps as Division I recruits. He got early interest from Kent State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

The Mountaineers jumped in quickly and strongly after Sabins first saw Wetherholt as a freshman playing in a travel ball tournament at Alderson Broaddus University, about an hour south of Morgantown. Sabins considered skipping the tournament because his father was in town but because opportunities to see recruits without having to leave the state come along so rarely, he decided to go and brought his father to the tournament. Consequently, his father likes to take credit for finding Wetherholt.

What the Sabins saw that day was an impressive hitter. That Wetherholt would stand out at the plate is no surprise for a player who went on to win a national batting title. But it was what Wetherholt did in the field that truly spurred Sabins to take action.

On one play, a Texas Leaguer drifted down the right field line into no-man’s land. Wetherholt, playing second base, took off in pursuit. He dove headfirst for the ball, catching it as he slid over the foul line. Sabins is always looking for a flash of promise from the players he’s scouting. That was the moment for Wetherholt.

The rest, as they say, is history. Wetherholt ran with West Virginia’s offer, happy to join a program that showed early interest in him.

Wetherholt was still relatively under the radar when he arrived at West Virginia. He had impressed over the summer in the Prospect League, where he hit .414/.474/.569 and showed some power potential. But there was still a lot for him to work on.

Wetherholt’s hitting ability, what has pushed him to the top of draft boards, has been his biggest area of growth.

“I’ve gotten better in every aspect – defensively, stealing, hitting, kind of everything,” Wetherholt said. “But I think just overall hit tool has kind of skyrocketed. I’ve always been a good hitter but when I got to college and you’re just doing it on such a consistent bases and you’re facing better competition and you’re practicing harder, it’s something in my game that really took off.”

Wetherholt was an everyday player as a freshman, mostly at third base. He hit .308/.411/.471 with 17 doubles, five home runs and 15 stolen bases to earn all-freshman Big 12 honors.

But he still was flying a bit under the radar. When the preseason 2023 all-Big 12 honors were released by the conference office, he was nowhere to be found. Wetherholt took a screenshot and made it the lock screen on his phone. He spent four months seeing the names of the infielders selected to the team – Nick Goodwin, Jackson Nicklaus, Marcus Brown, Roc Riggio and Brayden Taylor – and using it as motivation.

By season’s end, no one was overlooking Wetherholt. He was named Big 12 player of the year and an All-American after hitting .449/.517/.787 with 24 doubles, 16 home runs and 36 stolen bases. He was the first player since 2002 to collect at least 40 extra-base hits and 35 stolen bases.

West Virginia plays an aggressive style of baseball that encourages players to run a lot. Wetherholt said while he’s always been fast, he didn’t really know how to steal bases until he got to college. Everything clicked for him last year, and he led the Big 12 in stolen bases. This year, with his hamstring not fully healthy, he’s been more limited on the base paths, but the skill is certainly still in his bag.

Wetherholt’s power also is a more recent addition to his game. Listed at 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he’s not the biggest player, but he’s gotten stronger in college. As he’s added strength, his natural bat speed has led to more home runs.

“It was just a process of building my body up, working hard, learning new things and it all came around full circle last year,” he said.

This year’s development has more come on the defensive side of the ball. After mostly playing third base as a freshman and second base as a sophomore, Wetherholt moved across the keystone to shortstop. Mazey said the decision was multifaceted. It allowed the Mountaineers to put their best, most athletic player at the toughest position and gave him the opportunity to show he could handle the position, which would serve him well at the next level.

Wetherholt spent the offseason working hard on his defense.

“That was probably the biggest focus in the offseason was trying to learn how to play on the left side,” Wetherholt said. “I did in high school, but I hadn’t done it in college. I wanted to rise up to the challenge and just work on it day in and day out. We’ve done a pretty nice job but just got to continue getting better.”

The jury is still out on Wetherholt’s chances of staying at shortstop, in part because the injury limited the amount of looks scouts got at him at the position. But his athleticism, arm strength and instincts give him a solid chance. And betting against Wetherholt to do anything on the diamond has thus far been a losing proposition.

The Mountaineers hope to have a lot of baseball left this season and they have the talent to make a postseason run. But whenever this season ends and with it Wetherholt’s college career, a remarkable chapter in the program’s history will be closed.

One of Sabins’ recruiting pitches during his time at West Virginia has been selling players on the chance to come to Morgantown and help the program do something for the first time, either ever or in a decades. That’s getting harder with each passing season and Wetherholt has played a big role in forcing Sabins to find a new pitch.

“Nine years ago, it was easier to talk about doing things for the first time than it is today, but he’s one of the guys who helped us do things that had never been done before today,” Sabins said.

Wetherholt hopes he has a few more program milestones to hit in the next couple months. West Virginia has never won a regional, for instance, and there’s the matter of sending Mazey, who is retiring at the end of the season, out in style. But, for now, Wetherholt is focused on extending this season as long as possible to keep playing with his friends.

“I know what can be in the future, but I don’t really think about it too much,” he said. “I’m just excited about playing with my guys.”

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