TAMPA — While other prospective scene stealers were caught up in the radar guns at last weekend’s Perfect Game USA National Showcase in Fort Myers, Jesuit rising senior Lance McCullers paid no attention to the numbers.
The show was already his.
This time last year, McCullers’ 96 mph fastball helped earn him the title of Perfect Game’s No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2012.
But when it comes to professional baseball scouting, junior year accolades are as valuable as a pack of sunflower seeds. What matters is a prospect’s progression throughout the year heading into the MLB first-year player draft.
So when you’re on top like McCullers, there’s only one way to go — down — right?
Not for the 17-year-old right-handed pitcher/shortstop. In the position drills, he set a Perfect Game event record by throwing 98 mph across the diamond. Then, on the showcase’s last day, he dazzled on the mound, striking out three batters in two hitless innings by mixing a 98 mph fastball with a mid-80s slider and curveball.
“Sometimes you get caught up in the numbers, and being No. 1 is a huge number,” McCullers said this week. “But I try not to get too confident. I can’t get wrapped up in the articles or the numbers. I just need to stay on my track to where I want to be.”
While pitch speeds were being posted on the scoreboard at City of Palms Park, McCullers -- whose father Lance was a second-round pick out of Tampa Catholic on 1982 and went on to pitch in the majors for seven seasons -- said he never looked back.
“You see some guys pitch to the scouts, they’re looking back at the scoreboard after every pitch, “said McCullers, who was recently named the St. Petersburg Times’ all-Suncoast pitcher of the year after leading Jesuit to its second straight Class 4A state title game.
“I didn’t even see guys in the back. I’ve learned it’s not all about how fast you throw. Pitching’s about more than 98. I’ve thrown 99 before with Team USA, but I’m not a gunslinger anymore. I’m a pitcher.”
Perfect Game’s new rankings are expected to come out next week, and founder and president Jerry Ford said McCullers will remain the organization’s No. 1 overall prospect.
“Even though there’s not a whole lot of room to throw harder, he still raised the ceiling,” Ford said. “He’s just an amazing talent. I think he can be an outstanding position player. And if you look at his makeup he scores just as high. We’ve even seen him when things haven’t gone well, and he always seems to bounce back well, and that’s important. And when he is at his best, he’s right out there with anyone we’ve seen in high school.”
Ford insists that being No. 1 offers no guarantees for next June’s MLB draft, but said McCullers is a rare find with a bright future.
“He’s pretty much the whole package,” Ford said. “I wouldn’t want to predict he’s going to be the No. 1 pick because he’s on top of our list, but I think he will be one of the guys considered early on. I would even imagine he’d be one of the top picks this year and this was a great draft class.”
This summer, McCullers will play in a handful of showcase events, but not as many as in past years. He will play in the Perfect Game All-America Classic presented by Rawlings (formerly the AFLAC All-American Game) in August in San Diego. He’s also a finalist for the Jackie Robinson Award, given annually to the top rising senior in the country.
McCullers said his current focus is on playing at the University of Florida, even if he is a top draft pick in 2012. He points to current freshman ace Karsten Whitson, who was the ninth overall pick last year by the Padres but decided to go to Gainesville and has helped the Gators to the College World Series.
“He has a chance to be a part of the first team to bring a World Series title back to Florida,” McCullers said. “I look at something like that and that’s something I want to be a part of. Winning a state championship at Jesuit is something I want to be a part of, and something we’re going to accomplish.”