College is fertile ground for pitchers

From left, UCLA's Trevor Bauer, TCU's Matt Purke and UCLA's Gerrit Cole are three of the top pitchers in college baseball. AP Photo

Trevor Bauer meticulously studies his corkscrew delivery, frame by frame, from the video he records on a camera mounted behind the UCLA bullpen. From his film, he can study the direction of each of his pitches -- fastballs, sliders, changeups, curveballs, even a hybrid screwball -- each pitch ideally released from the exact same point to maximize deception and destruction. He compares his arsenal to a bazooka shell exploding, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Bauer's mechanical mind shaped his own direction. When it was time for him to consider the next move after he dominated his junior year of high school baseball, Bauer analyzed his options and decided college baseball offered a better laboratory.

He graduated early, skipped his senior year of prep baseball and bypassed his first chance at the Major League Baseball draft to become an engineering major, believing college baseball was the best path to the big leagues.

"Here was the better mousetrap," Bauer said. "I couldn't he happier with it. I don't regret any part of it."

Bauer is one half of UCLA's tandem of right-handed aces. Bauer and Gerrit Cole both bypassed signing professional contracts out of high school -- in Cole's case, he turned down the New York Yankees as the 28th overall pick in 2008 to pitch for the Bruins -- and they teamed up to pitch UCLA to the College World Series championship game last season.

Cole and Bauer have become dominant college pitchers, highly competitive spirits with pro ability, power arms and big numbers. They are projected first-round picks in 2011, tied with 257 career strikeouts each entering the 2011 season and emblematic of the new generation of pitching that is quickly accelerating college baseball's role as fertile ground for professional pitching development.

Different pitchers find different reasons for the flexibility college offers. Bauer wanted a laboratory. Cole found a safe haven to mature while he sharpened his fastball control and developed a changeup to complement his overpowering upper-90s velocity.

"I think the biggest improvement for me has been a better ability to throw secondary pitches and to manage all the off-the-field stuff and to basically kind of grow up," Cole said. "For me that was important, and last year I thought it was the best baseball experience I ever had."

UCLA coach John Savage has two young No. 1 starters, which makes him the envy of college coaches and major league managers alike. He believes each has grown in his time in college baseball, shortening his road from college to the majors.

"[Cole] is a better all-around pitcher now," Savage said. "His competitiveness and his fastball have always been there, but I think all the other things that go into it have made him a more well-rounded guy.

"Bauer has a complete understanding of feel and command. I think the [Tim] Lincecum factor really helps him. You look at him and that's the first guy you think of. I think if you get past that and look at the quality of his work, it's pretty good. I also think people forget that he is still young in his development."

For an increasing number of professional prospects, college baseball is the better mousetrap, and the war for pitching between college coaches and pro scouts rages.

"Pitchers grow in college," San Diego State pitching coach Eric Valenzuela said. "They learn a lot of life lessons that help them become mentally sound on the mound. They let their bodies mature and are still able to compete. College pitchers are constantly watched on an almost everyday basis for three to four years. So when a college pitcher gets to the pro level, how prepared is he to compete and move up in an organization?"

One veteran major league scout with 25 years experience, speaking on condition of anonymity, says he believes professional baseball is the correct steppingstone for elite high school pitchers, but concedes that college baseball has the patience and structure to unearth more surprises.

"I don't agree that more power arms that are ready to come out after high school are really getting to college baseball, but for the guys who don't have peach fuzz on their faces by the time they're in Little League, college is a fit," the scout said. "That's where you see them bloom later on, sometimes when you never expected it."

Those are questions best examined by looking at the arms. In addition to UCLA's Cole and Bauer, there are hard-throwing, previously drafted power arms -- those with fastball velocity in the mid-to-upper 90s and devastating secondary pitches -- who can be found in college across the country.

Cole is the top-ranked junior right-hander in the country, but he isn't alone among the prospects coming to college baseball for a combination of maturity, experience, comfort and leverage.

Texas right-hander Taylor Jungmann turned down the Angels in the 24th round in 2008 to become the Longhorns' ace and record 129 strikeouts in 2010. Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray spurned the Cubs in the 27th round in 2008 and struck out 113 as a sophomore. Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen declined the Diamondbacks in the 10th round in 2008 and struck out 123. All three pitchers are projected first-round picks in 2011.

Still others are late bloomers, such as Connecticut right-hander Matt Barnes and Georgia Tech left-hander Jed Bradley, who were never drafted. Both flourished with regular innings, conditioning and routines to transform themselves from unknowns to probable first-round picks.

"I would say everything has improved in college in terms of maturing as a pitcher," said Bradley, who was the top-ranked left-handed starter in the Cape Cod League in 2010. "I've come a long way. I was 30 pounds lighter and threw 84-86. I wasn't drafted. My fastball command, breaking ball command, changeup command and even my velocity has improved."

The college game has the advantage of a more patient development cycle for aspiring pro pitchers, which can benefit sleepers and studs alike.

"Oftentimes kids aren't physically ready enough for professional baseball," the veteran scout said. "He may have the projection, but there's still a lot to sort out. College baseball helps that progress, and you'll find out who your late bloomers are. It takes some kids longer to mature than others."

College baseball has become a place not only for pitchers who grow into the future, but also for the definite major league prospects out of high school to spend viable developmental years.

In addition to UCLA's Cole, Texas Christian right-hander Matt Purke is a draft-eligible sophomore who turned down the Rangers as the 14th overall pick in 2009. He dominated in 2010, going 16-0 with 142 strikeouts. Freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson couldn't come to terms with the Padres as the ninth overall pick in 2010 and begins his college career at Florida.

University of San Diego freshman right-hander Dylan Covey was selected 14th overall by the Brewers in 2010, but after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes only days before the signing deadline, he decided college baseball would be a better fit to regulate his medical condition.

"Here I have more support and everyone is on my side to succeed and get better and get through it," said Covey, a former standout at Pasadena's Maranatha High. "This may or may not be true, but if I was in the minors right now, maybe you have people rooting against you because they're trying to get your spot. Here, the team wants to win, and in the minors, they want to get to the majors at all costs."

Covey, whose fastball and trademark hard curveball were both considered major league weapons in high school, says he's almost back to 100 percent.

He thinks the camaraderie of college baseball has been beneficial at this time in his life. Just as Bauer uses college baseball to refine his routine, so does Covey, who said being closer to home helps him maintain his medical appointments and puts him closer to his family.

"It was a lot easier to manage the routine here and it helps being closer to home while I work through this stuff," he said.

Valenzuela says he believes polish is priceless.

"It simply makes an organization's job a lot easier by getting a mature, proven man rather than taking a risk on a young kid that hasn't proven as much," he said.

The big winner is the college game, which can increasingly point to a short distance between the NCAA and the major leagues.

"If you don't have that desire to have that kind of competitiveness on your staff, what kind of staff do you really have?" Bauer said. "Everyone is pushing each other to get better. That's a pretty high standard there. That wins games and that's what counts."

John Klima is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.