When you’re a young pitcher with a 95-plus MPH fastball, chances are the scouts are going to find you no matter how far off the beaten path you might be.
It’s a process of discovery Major League Baseball made just a little easier this year with the creation of a new pre-draft combine.
Instead of sending people all across the country in a hit-or-miss search for the best talent available, the inaugural event — held last week at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary — brought 167 of the top prospects together in one place to showcase their skills in an evaluation camp similar to those staged by the NFL and NBA.
With scouts, general managers and former players of all 30 MLB teams looking on, participants ran through a week full of drills and game competition in hopes of enhancing their stature heading into this year’s draft, scheduled for July 11-13.
“Every team is represented here,” said former MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac, a former big league pitcher who played his college ball at NC State. “If you think you’re in a program that doesn’t get a lot of eyeballs, all the eyeballs in baseball are right here in Cary, North Carolina.”
Among the players that benefited most from the added exposure was Mason Miller.
A right-hander who actually does have a fastball consistently measured at better than 95 MPH, Miller has flown under the radar during his college career at Gardner-Webb — despite striking out 121 batters in 92⅔ innings this season.
But given the chance to compete against higher-profile pitchers from more recognizable schools such as Dallas Baptist, Michigan and Boston College, he caught the scouts’ attention by clocking the five highest pitch velocities of the event.
In addition to a top delivery of 99.1 MPH, Miller also recorded the highest average fastball velocity (98.2), the best average fastball spin rate (2,503 RPM on seven pitches) and the best average breaking ball spin rate (2,565 RPM on four pitches).
As impressive as his performance on the mound might have been, the Pennsylvania native said that might have been the least important aspect of the combine for his professional baseball future.
“Walking out of there throwing the majority of the fastest pitches of the week, that leaves a good thought on people’s minds,” Miller said. “But that’s something I’ve done all year. The people making the decisions are aware of that.
“I think the real value came from the medical stuff and things like that that they may not have known already. I got the opportunity to interview with a couple of teams’ general managers and scouting directors, and I thought that went really well. It allowed them to get to know me as a person, which is a valuable thing for guys like myself.”
Charlotte right-hander Bryce McGowan also opened some eyes with a performance that included the second-best average spin rate at 2,426 RPM over nine pitches.
Each pitcher had five minutes to throw as many pitches as they could with a bank of radar guns pointed in their direction.
As for the position players, Louisville slugger Alex Binelas was by far the biggest star of the event. The sophomore third baseman recorded six of the top 10 exit velocities that were measured, four of the top eight hit distances and one of the top three percentages of hard-hit balls.
Unlike Miller, a graduate student whose college eligibility has expired, McGowan and Binelas were among a large group of players with the leverage to return to school if they aren’t drafted high enough or offered a lucrative enough bonus.
High school seniors such as catcher Bryan Arendt of Holly Springs, who has signed to play for UNC Wilmington but could still decide to sign a professional contract depending on his draft status, are in an even more advantageous position.
“So far, I’d say I’m still on the fence as far as where I go,” said Arendt, who indicated that he’s heard from four teams with an interest in selecting him. “I think (the Combine) really helped me a lot. I think it moved me up some draft boards and got some more eyes on me. I thought it was a great experience, a little nerve-racking but otherwise, I enjoyed it.”
The other players with North Carolina ties participating in the combine were left-handed pitcher Phillip Abner of Charlotte Christian School, right-handed pitcher Ryan Cusick of Wake Forest, left-handed pitcher Garrett Horn of Glenn HS, infielder Danny Serretti of UNC, first baseman Bobby Seymour of Wake Forest and outfielder Justice Thompson of UNC.
In all 91 high school players and 76 college athletes took part, a distribution of draft-eligible talent that made the event truly unique.
“In baseball, where you have high school players drafted and college players drafted, there are very rarely any, if ever, on the field at the same time,” analyst Harold Reynolds said on the MLB Network’s live broadcast from Cary.
“This was a first-class event Major League Baseball has put on. For every young guy that came here and had the nerve to come play and perform, it was pretty cool to see them all intermeshing and talking.”