Baseball, softball players committing as underclassmen a polarizing topic
By: Bill Beckner Jr.
Saturday, April 14, 2018 | 7:10 PM
Tyler Wiederstein knows he has a baseball scholarship waiting for him at Michigan in about three years.
But the sophomore pitcher and second baseman from Hempfield also understands the tenuous nature of verbal commitments. They do not come with guarantees.
Committing early like Wiederstein did in October means his performances in games are magnified. From his pitch counts to his speed on the radar gun to his first-pitch strikes, his average with runners in scoring position to his putouts and extra-base hits — it all means more because the Wolverines are watching and following the almost-daily progress of their prospect.
“I call the Michigan coaches after every game,” Wiederstein said. “When I pitch, I call the pitching coach. They always want to know how I am doing.”
By extension, Wiederstein hears the cheers at home and the jeers on the road. Opponents and fans also are watching closely.
He's become “that Michigan kid.”
“When you're playing high school ball, people know who you are and will try to get to you,” said Wiederstein, who hadn't even pitched in a varsity game when he committed. “You just have to try and block that out and play your game and not let them get in your head.”
But recruiters are getting into players' heads a lot earlier these days, too. When it comes to recruiting, youth has been served.
There has been an influx of Division I college attention in freshman and sophomore baseball and softball players in the WPIAL. Scholarships are offered to players much earlier than in the past with the growth and exposure of AAU and travel ball introducing prospects much earlier.
A number of other underclass baseball players in the area already have committed to high-level programs.
Kids of summer
The sophomore group also includes Franklin Regional's Bryce Harper (Virginia Tech), Brandon Gelpi of Central Catholic (Pitt), Mark Black of Serra Catholic (St. John's) and Austin Hendricks of West Allegheny (Mississippi State).
A talented freshman class is close behind. It includes Norwin pitcher Jayden Walker, a fast-rising, 6-foot-3 left-hander who is expected to draw D-I attention.
Mt. Pleasant softball has two freshmen committed to D-I schools: Haylie Brunson (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Courtney Poulich (Liberty), and Hempfield freshman catcher Emma Hoffner verbally pledged to St. Francis (Pa.). Albert Gallatin sophomore Annalia Paoli committed to Pitt last year.
In recent years, Belle Vernon star pitcher Bailey Parshall committed to Penn State as a sophomore, and Penn-Trafford catcher Josh Spiegel gave Oklahoma State the nod just before his junior year.
The exposure is happening in the summer months as budding players perform at national tournaments and showcases with college coaches watching.
“To me, you don't want to see a 15-year-old kid make that decision so early and have to deal with it,” Norwin baseball coach Mike Liebdzinski said. “Kids are trying to get seen more nowadays, and college coaches aren't coming to see them at high school games.”
Former Franklin Regional coach Tim Quinn coaches a 15-under team at All-American Baseball and has seen the talent that could be sweeping across the WPIAL in the coming years.
“I think this is an exciting time for baseball in our area, and it is only going to get better,” Quinn said. “I've never seen so many kids commit this early. It is amazing.”
While getting one foot in the door to a major college program is a positive, the long wait to get there can be taxing.
The right to play
High school coaches only get the young players for a few months, and some have to decide if those players will fit neatly into a lineup of juniors and seniors. It's a fine line for coaches to walk, but if the players have talent and can help a team win, how can they not play them?
“It's been easy, actually,” Hempfield coach Tim Buzzard said. “Tyler has been fantastic to work with and coach because I think he understands the process. He knows he has to put in the time. Justin Wright is the same way, and it was like that from the time be committed as a sophomore.”
Wright, now a senior, verbally committed to St. John's two years ago.
“It's so different now,” Buzzard said. “It's just so hard to project what a kid is going to do three or four years from now.”
Quinn said players in the area caught on to the AAU baseball circuit sooner than previous classes.
“These kids are really the first age group that has been playing AAU baseball since they were 9 and 10 years old,” Quinn said. “AAU really became established in our area in the mid 2000s.
“So these kids, all around the age of 15, have spent the last five years practicing and playing at such a high level that everything starts to take hold.”
Some of the top AAU baseball programs in the area include All-American, Beaver Valley Baseball, the Pittsburgh Outlaws and the Diamond Dawgs.
All in good faith
Commitment is the word that doesn't hold water for some prep coaches who struggle with wanting what is best for their players and their teams. Added pressure is not exactly a plus, and they don't want dissension among a roster of select summer-ball players and spring-only ones.
“It's not good for the game to have kids commit so early. It's ludicrous,” Hempfied softball coach Bob Kalp said. “It's non-binding both ways. You might have a kid who's good but marginal. But you offer them, and they don't get a lot better. They had it right when you had to sign your junior year.”
And some believe the summer recruiting experience overtaking players so early can devalue the high school playing experience. If colleges aren't watching, who is there to impress? Good old mom and dad?
“You have to worry about the games you're playing and what team you're playing for and do your best,” said Wiederstein, who hit a three-run home run and drove in five runs Thursday against Norwin. “You can't worry about anything else.”
Liebdzinski said scouts came to watch former Knights home-run hitter JJ Matijevic, now in the Houston Astros organization, but he was an exception.
Pine-Richland fans will remember dozens of pro scouts taking up most of the bleachers to watch Neil Walker play.
But even Matijevic, who committed to Arizona as a junior, began to turn heads of college scouts long before he scaled fences in the WPIAL.
“These coaches can see 50 kids in one day at some of these showcases,” Liebdzinski said. “I understand why they do it, and you can't really blame them.”
The talent in the current classes has more to do with youth, obviously. These kids can play. But many of them only know baseball and softball as their ticket to that intangible scholarship, which makes their maddening preparation a year-round, seemingly 24/7 venture.
“Many more athletes are choosing to specialize or focus on one sport more than I have seen in the past,” Franklin Regional coach Bobby Saddler said.
The fear of injury could have something to do with the baseball athletes steering clear of football. One coach referred to the current freshmen/sophomore classes as “the concussion group.”
“When I was a kid, we played baseball from April to July,” Quinn said. “Today, these kids start in January and play until August. They get a month off and start back up for fall baseball, if they aren't playing football. Fall ball ends and they get November and December off to rest.”
AAU baseball and travel softball not only offer months of repetition and drills, but also ups the competition level for many players and teams, just like it does the exposure.
Summer ball has taken on a new meaning.
“You have the best kids from each community playing together and traveling all over the country to play the best kids from other top AAU programs,” Quinn said.
And then there is the showcase circuit, where players perform drills and play in front of college scouts. USA Baseball and PBR offers such events around the country.
Softball is more tournament-based in the summer months with teams playing two or three games a day. Many of the WPIAL's top recruits get scholarship offers playing outside of Pennsylvania.
“Because softball is an equivalency sport for scholarships, it is very competitive for those opportunities,” said Brunson, who is starting for Mt. Pleasant. “There are some girls that are blessed with physical tools when they are young and the top programs go for those kids. The other schools just try to keep up, and it gets more competitive down to seventh-graders verbaling.”
Brunson said she was introduced to the realities of modern recruiting at a national fast-pitch tournament in California when she was 11.
“Three big colleges were watching our game,” she said. “It made me want to work harder because I realized there are so many girls going for the same spots.”
Related: Baseball underclassmen named preseason All-Americans
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.