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Pitching U: Florida Is Armed And Dangerous

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For righthander Brady Singer, the decision where to commit for college was simple. Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan offered Singer a scholarship the summer before his junior year of high school. It was the third offer Singer had received but there was no need to wait for any more.

“I didn’t think twice,” Singer said. “Sully said, ‘You’re coming?’ and I said, ‘Ok. I’m coming.’ ”

The decision was so easy for Singer, who grew up about 90 minutes from Gainesville, Fla., because of the tradition O’Sullivan had built at Florida. During O’Sullivan’s 11-year tenure, Florida has become one of the best programs for pitching development in the country. Elite pitchers have rolled out of McKethan Stadium like cars off an assembly line, a new model or two every year.

This year is no different. Singer came to Florida as an unsigned second-rounder and has lived up to his premium billing, developing into the Gators’ ace,  the College Player of the Year and a first-round pick. Righthander Jackson Kowar follows Singer in the rotation and also became a first-round pick. Closer Michael Byrne doesn’t match the premium stuff Singer and Kowar have, but he holds the program’s career and single-season saves records and has put together back-to-back All-America seasons.

Last year, Singer, Kowar and Byrne wrote themselves into Gators’ history by helping the program to its first national championship. They are adding to that legacy and have already helped lead Florida to a Southeastern Conference championship, the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA Tournament and super regionals. That trio also will add their names to the likes of Anthony DeSclafani, Brian Johnson, A.J. Puk, Logan Shore, Dane Dunning and Alex Faedo as some of the elite pitchers to come out of Florida during O’Sullivan’s tenure.

The Gators are keenly aware of the legacy that has been developed before them and are eager to keep it going.

“Just when I’ve been here, in that short time, we’ve had all kinds of really good arms, not to mention the teams he had before that,” Kowar said. “Being a part of that, I think it’s nice. I think it creates a competitive environment for everyone.”

Florida’s pitching tradition under O’Sullivan is no accident. It is the product of a strategic decision made by O’Sullivan and his longtime assistant coaches Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel when they took over the program 11 years ago to build the Gators around pitching and defense. It was a natural decision—O’Sullivan began his career as a pitching coach and leads Florida’s efforts on the mound—and it has guided the direction of the program for the last decade.

For O’Sullivan, it all starts with recruiting. As an assistant coach, he was known as an elite recruiter, and he hasn’t slowed down as a head coach. And by tapping Bell and Weitzel, two former scouts, as his assistants, O’Sullivan has built a staff that is optimized for recruiting. Over the years that has paid off.

Florida has identified and developed a string of elite talents, both position players and pitchers. Third baseman Jonathan India this season joined Byrne and Singer as a first-team All-American and figures to be a first-round pick. Catcher Mike Zunino in 2012 was the College Player of the Year and the second overall pick. Harrison Bader and Preston Tucker are among the many hitters who have made their marks both at Florida and in pro ball during O’Sullivan’s tenure.

But it is the pitching that stands out the most in Gainesville. The staff’s early efforts on the recruiting trail paid off with the likes of DeSclafani, Nick Maronde and Alex Panteliodis. Their success, in turn, made it easier to land players such as Johnson, Austin Maddox and Hudson Randall and before long, Florida had a reputation for turning out high-end pitchers, which in turn attracted more high-end pitchers.

“You start to build some sort of a track record with the players and there’s a level of trust that they believe you’re going to help them get to where they want to get to,” O’Sullivan said. “I think over time it takes care of itself.”

Kowar had the most circuitous route to Gainesville but was ultimately drawn by the Gators’ reputation. The Charlotte native originally committed to Clemson, but when longtime coach Jack Leggett was fired after the 2015 season, Kowar got his release from his National Letter of Intent and reopened his recruitment. He gravitated to Florida and Vanderbilt because both Tim Corbin and O’Sullivan served as assistant coaches at Clemson under Leggett.

Kowar had never met O’Sullivan before he reopened his recruitment. But after one phone call and an official visit he knew Florida was the place for him.

“He’s a pitching guy, and I just felt really comfortable with what he’s been able to do with pitchers,” Kowar said. “It wasn’t the ideal route, but I think it was a really big blessing that I ended up here.”

While Florida’s reputation provides a powerful closing pitch on the recruiting trail, there’s still the matter of identifying high school pitchers who will get to school and who will be able to keep the Gators in their lofty position in the college game. Some, like Singer, were considered among the best in their high school class. But Florida has also hit on some more under-the-radar talents. Byrne came to Florida as a preferred walk-on and has developed into the most productive reliever in program history.

Byrne has never had overwhelming velocity and mostly threw in the mid-80s in high school. But O’Sullivan noticed that Byrne always seemed to pitch against the best team in whatever tournament the Florida Burn, his travel ball team, played in.

“I know the radar gun is a big part of our game now, but you kind of watch who the coaches pitch against some of the better teams in their pool,” O’Sullivan said. “When we followed Michael around, he always pitched against the best teams and he never lost. Very similar to Hudson Randall.

“You just sit back and use common sense. Mark Guthrie knows what he’s doing with the Burn. You go in and you watch Michael pitch against the best team in their pool every week for the whole summer and you go, ‘Well, yeah, this is his guy.’ And you just bear down, and you take the radar gun and punt it and say, ‘You know what, this guy gets outs, and if his fastball takes a jump you’ve got something pretty special here,’ and that’s what’s ended up happening.”

Jackson Kowar Celebrates CWS
Jackson Kowar (No. 37) celebrates after recording the final out of the 2017 College World Series.

Byrne, Kowar and Singer arrived on campus in 2015 as a part of the second-ranked recruiting class in the country. But Florida already had a wealth of talent on the mound, and fitting its new recruits into the staff wasn’t going to be easy with a returning rotation of Shore, Puk and Faedo. Shaun Anderson, an eventual third-rounder, took over as closer and Florida had the luxury of slotting Dane Dunning, who would be drafted 29th overall that June, into a Swiss Army knife role.

Joining that staff was an intimidating prospect, even to Singer, who just a few months before had been drafted 56th overall by the Blue Jays. But the Gators’ established starters quickly put Kowar and Singer at ease, taking the pair out to dinner soon after their arrival in Gainesville and proving to be open and willing tutors.

Kowar and Singer were equally willing students, happy to be able to learn from players who had already experienced success on college baseball’s biggest stage.

“They showed us how to work and what it meant to really get better every day,” Kowar said. “They took a really professional approach to the game in their daily routine and I think that’s rubbed off on me Byrne, Brady and some of the other guys.”

The arrival of Kowar and Singer in Gainesville was something of a surprise. Singer was expected to sign following the draft and Kowar wasn’t even on the radar until mid-June. But their arrival took what was already going to be an elite pitching staff and made it the deepest Florida staff in O’Sullivan’s tenure.

Fitting all those pieces together was a tricky puzzle for O’Sullivan. It required Anderson and Dunning, who would have been in the rotation for nearly every other team in the country—and who moved immediately to starting roles in pro ball—to accept spots in the bullpen. O’Sullivan said the pair was extremely unselfish in filling in where they were needed on staff.

Amid so much talent as freshmen, Kowar and Singer also had to take on smaller roles. Singer ended up in the bullpen as a setup man. Kowar mostly served as the midweek starter.

Florida went 14-0 in midweek games that year, a sign of just how deep the pitching staff truly was. But the piece de resistance of that 2016 Gators staff was the SEC Tournament. Kowar and Shore were out that week with injuries. That meant Puk started Florida’s first game of the tournament, a sensational game against Louisiana State that stretched 14 innings and led to Dunning coming out of the bullpen for 4.1 innings.

O’Sullivan then tapped Singer, who hadn’t started a game all year, and the freshman threw six innings to help the Gators win an elimination game. After Faedo threw a seven-inning complete game to send Florida to the semifinals, O’Sullivan turned to lefthander Scott Moss, who that spring recorded just two outs in SEC play as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery. He threw six innings to send Florida to the championship game. Moss, due in large part to his start that day, was drafted in the fourth round.

“It was a dominant performance and now you’re watching him pitch in minor league baseball, and he’s continued that success. He’s continued from that start,” O’Sullivan said. “I think that start in itself was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of depth we have on that staff.’ ”

Florida’s depth that season meant Florida’s talented freshmen worked in supporting roles. But they didn’t chafe at their assignments. They understood that not only were there better, more experienced pitchers ahead of them on the depth chart, but that this was just the first step in their development.

O’Sullivan explains to Florida’s incoming players that what they saw when they watched the team play in high school was usually a finished product. What they didn’t see was the hard work everyone put in over the course of their career to refine their craft.

“This is a three-year commitment and a process,” O’Sullivan said. “No one’s a finished product by the time your freshman year is over. It’s really about getting better from your freshman year to your sophomore year and then to your junior year and, in some cases, senior year. They all have things to work on regardless of how talented they are.”

Not only do all the pitchers have things to improve, those things are also different. Byrne and Singer have spent a lot of time at Florida working to improve their changeups to give them a third quality offering. Kowar, however, arrived with his changeup as his best secondary pitch and has needed to work to find a breaking ball that works for him.

Singer has grown into the Gators’ ace with an electric fastball/slider combination and this season is 11-1, 2.27 with 98 strikeouts and 19 walks in 95 innings. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid-90s and he throws it from a three-quarters arm slot that generates plenty of run and sink. His slider is a sharp offering that can be an out pitch, and he has developed his changeup to round out his arsenal.

Kowar, listed at 6-foot-6, 185 pounds, inspires the biggest dreams about his future, but that’s not to say he hasn’t performed in the present. This season he is 9-5, 3.37 with 96 strikeouts and 41 walks in 98.2 innings. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and his changeup is an above-average offering. He’s found a breaking ball that works for him, and as he continues to mature, there is a belief among many that he’ll improve even more.

Byrne has become an unlikely relief ace, piling up 34 saves in the last two years. He doesn’t have the lights-out stuff typically associated with closers. Instead, he stands out for his pitchability and ability to create groundball outs. His three-pitch mix is good enough to give him a chance to start in pro ball, but he’s shown the ability to thrive in the bullpen and that may be where he stays at the next level.

They all bring different skills to the table and, to a man, they praise O’Sullivan for taking a unique approach with all his pupils. There is no cookie-cutter approach in Gainesville, no stereotypical Florida pitcher every freshman is steadily turned into.

“He’s not going to be a cookie-cutter guy and try to get everyone to throw the same,” Kowar said. “He’s kept my same motion and just added a couple little things here and there to clean me up and it’s been tremendously helpful.”

One of the few things O’Sullivan hammers into all his pitchers’ heads is the importance of throwing strikes. Florida has ranked in the top 30 nationally in walks per nine innings in each of the last five years, a feat that is not by accident.

“If you walk guys, you know you’re coming back to the dugout getting an earful, so you might as well not walk guys,” Byrne said. “If you walk guys, it’s probably not the place unless Sully can help you out with that.”

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Projected Field of 64 (3/20/19)

It's never too early to project what the NCAA Tournament will look like on Selection Monday.

Now that Byrne, Kowar and Singer are juniors, they have developed a professional rapport with O’Sullivan and he has given them more freedom in their own development. That more laissez-faire attitude is part of O’Sullivan’s own development as a coach. Early in his career, he said, he might not have been as flexible in letting a player develop his own routine.

So, if, for instance Singer wants to throw every single day, whether it’s flat-ground work or long-tossing, O’Sullivan makes sure he does it. But if another pitcher doesn’t want to long toss the day after he starts, that’s all right, too.

O’Sullivan has learned over the course of his career that it is important to make sure his players have ownership in their own development.

“I want them to have input on how they go about things because at the end of the day it’s their career,” he said. “You can’t cookie-cut anybody. Everybody’s different and everybody’s arm responds differently after a start.”

The pace at which players put everything together is different for everyone. For Kowar and Singer, O’Sullivan saw their development reach another level throughout fall ball during their sophomore year. Other times, it comes together in just one game.

That has been the case for some of Florida’s next wave of big-time arms. For righthander Tyler Dyson, who could be a first-rounder in 2019, it was an appearance last year out of the bullpen in super regionals against Wake Forest. For righthander Tommy Mace, who could be a first-rounder in 2020, it was a spot start at Mississippi State on the final weekend of the regular season.

“This is not an easy transition from high school to this level,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s an adjustment period. You kind of see a maturation. Really sometimes it’s one game. You go, ‘There it is,’ and you kind of run with it.”

As Byrne, Kowar and Singer near the end of their storied Florida careers, players such as Dyson and Mace, as well as freshmen Jordan Butler and Jack Leftwich have emerged as the next wave. Next season, it will be their turn to carry Florida’s legacy on the mound. And they will eventually beget the next group.

As long as O’Sullivan is scouring the recruiting trail for the next generation of Florida pitchers, there figure to be more kids like Singer, eagerly waiting for their offer to join the ever-growing legacy in Gainesville.

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