TAMPA — Measuring pitching prospects is an inexact science, but the radar gun is the professional and college scouts’ most trusty tool because it often separates the power arms from the pretenders.
And on one mid-March day behind the Jesuit High School baseball field backstop, one number on the gun raised all eyebrows.
Near the end of Jesuit’s district game against Jefferson, one of 16-year-old right-handed reliever Lance McCullers Jr.’s fastballs popped into the catcher’s mitt to the tune of 97 mph.
“When I heard that, I thought the radar gun must be messed up,” McCullers said. “Quite honestly, I knew I threw hard, but I’m still kind of in shock about that.”
But the fact is, McCullers is no joke.
Gifted with the best arm in the bay area — and possibly the state — McCullers is just a sophomore. He’s also the Tigers’ starting shortstop, as well as their No. 3 hitter. This year, he has worked to hone a curveball that hits the mid 80s.
He has already accepted an oral offer to play college baseball at the University of Florida. McCullers is the oldest son of a former major league pitcher and has already matched his father in velocity.
“What he’s throwing at 16 is what I was throwing at 25,” said Lance McCullers Sr., who pitched seven major league seasons, mostly as a reliever with the Padres in the mid 1980s. “And he’s a heck of a lot better athlete than I was.”
McCullers is a major reason Jesuit (29-3), consistently one of the top baseball programs in the bay area, is back in the state tournament after a four-year hiatus and playing for its first state title in a decade. The Tigers face Ponte Vedra in Friday’s Class 4A state semifinal at Digital Domain Park in Port St. Lucie.
“We have a great program here,” McCullers said. “But you never know when you’re going to get back. The road is tough just to get to this point. We can’t get wrapped up in going to states. We have to get wrapped up in winning states.”
This is a rare opportunity for a rare talent.
“It’s as rare as I’ve ever seen,” said Jesuit pitching coach Geoff Goetz, a former Jesuit standout and first-round draft pick in 1997. “I mean, I played with Josh Beckett as a senior and he was amazing. But to have that kind of velocity at his age and to be able to throw two other plus pitches for strikes, I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s just a different level.”
In his two seasons at Jesuit, McCullers has been the Tigers’ closer, and more times than not, their bridge to victory in the late innings. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder has yet to allow an earned run in 16 innings this season, striking out 33 and holding opponents to a .125 batting average.
At the plate, McCullers leads the team with a .467 batting average. He has driven in 27 runs and has 12 extra-base hits. In the regular season, he made just one error at shortstop.
McCullers committed to Florida in September, choosing the Gators over Georgia, LSU, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
While most around him say he has the talent to be either a position player or pitcher in the future, being the closer suits McCullers just fine.
“I love having the ball in my hands late in the game,” he said. “I love coming in to close it out. To me it’s kind of a mind game, thinking about what the batter thinks I’m going to throw and trying to throw him off.”
Most hitters choose to sit on his fastball — most have to — which made the development of his breaking ball this year, and a selectively-used changeup that still hits the mid 80s, key to his success.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 100 next year,” Goetz said. “He might have already hit it. At 16, he’s not even close to hitting his peak, velocity-wise. But if he can consistently pitch between 93 and 97 and get hitters out, holy crow,he’d still be better than 99.9 percent of the guys out there.”
McCullers’ father, who has coached him for years with the AAU Tampa Cannons, noticed early — age 6 or 7 — that his son had a strong arm.
McCullers Sr., a Tampa Catholic alum, led San Diego with 16 saves in 1987 and struck out 126 hitters in 123 innings. Mom Stacie was a tennis standout at LSU. Even his younger twin brothers, Ryan and Austin, have their claim to fame. The Jesuit incoming freshmen were members of the Citrus Park team that went to the Little League World Series two summers ago.
But it’s the comparisons to his father that are hard to avoid. There are already whispers about the pro draft (Baseball America has him projected as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2012 MLB draft). But McCullers’ greatest strength might be his ability to remain grounded.
“To me, there’s really no comparison,” McCullers said. “(My father) made it to the majors. I haven’t made it yet. But I know he’s done a great job with me.”
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.