By C.J. Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
It had been a couple months since Will McAffer had talked to the Cincinnati Reds, so when his phone rang while at his friend’s house during a spare on the afternoon of June 10, it came as a bit of a surprise that the voice on the other end belonged to Jamie Bodaly – Cincinnati’s area scout for British Columbia.
The call was letting him know that the Reds had just selected him with their 32nd round pick of the MLB draft.
“I thought [the call] was coming, but I wasn’t sure,” said the 18-year-old McAffer. “It was kind of a surprise when it happened to be honest – I thought it might not happen, but it was definitely a big honour.”
McAffer received the call in the midst of his second straight dominant campaign with the North Shore Twins of the BC Premier Baseball League, during which he has also made appearances with the Junior National Team.
Last year as a grade 11 he caused the league to take notice, posting a 2.10 ERA while allowing 43 hits and striking out 45 in 46 2/3 innings of work. This season he’s improved in nearly every area, improving his velocity to strike out 48 in his 37 2/3 innings and recording a 1.67 ERA.
“His work ethic is terrific,” said Twins head coach John Haar, who’s coached him with both the North Shore prep team and senior team. “He comes to practice every day; he’s a great team kid. Very polite, but when he arrives, he gets down to business and gets his stuff done. … I just think he’s made steady progress over the past couple years as a pitcher. He’s smarter, he understands now the idea of pitching versus throwing, and I think he’s got a huge upside.”
The improvements have steadily come since McAffer’s days with Highlands Little League in North Vancouver, but some of the biggest ones have come thanks to pitching coach Brooks McNiven. The former UBC Thunderbird and fourth-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants has mentored McAffer at Sentinel Secondary’s Premier Baseball Academy and with the Twins for four years now; “he’s great – he just does it all,” said his student, attempting to encapsulate all that his teacher does for him.
Extensive learning also came with the national team, as playing against pro teams and college-aged players showed the pitcher what the next level of competition would be like. Self-described as a hard-throwing righty who can get ahead with his high-80s fastball and put batters away with his curveball or changeup, McAffer did just that against the Cubs on Canada’s Dominican Republic trip, retiring eight batters in a row after allowing one run in the first inning.
In Florida, he struck out five in five innings of work against the Blue Jays’ and Tigers’ minor leaguers.
“The players you play against are a completely different calibre than what we’re used to – it’s really good,” he said. “It makes you see what the next level is like, so you don’t have a surprise when you get there.”
Next year will bring McAffer to that next level, though he doesn’t know for sure yet which direction he will take to get there. He has already committed to Division I South Dakota State and is leaning towards going to school, but the Reds will still make him an offer after they come out and watch him pitch in early July. Haar predicts a bright future no matter which route he takes.
As for right now, he remains the ace for a Twins team sitting atop the PBL standings. A main reason for their success has been their pitching: the staff collectively owns a 1.92 ERA, allowing just 54 earned runs – 74 total – in 197.2 innings of work, while striking out 196 and walking 92. Two other key contributors to those totals are Matteo Vincelli and Braedon Toikka – the former with a league-leading 0.89 ERA and 54 strikeouts, and the latter with a 2.03 mark and 57 punch-outs.
“Having the support from all my team members is always great. They’re a great group of guys – always positive, and give us the best chance to win. Even though it may not help me when I’m with the national team, just the competitive vibe and learning how to be competitive with the team really helps.”
In addition to a harder fastball and better curveball, it’s that mental side that McAffer wants to keep improving, as he mentions the need to keep the bigger crowds he’ll pitch in front of out of his head. “Even at my games the crowds are getting kind of rowdy,” he said with a laugh. “Which is good practice at keeping them out, because if you let them get in you’re done.”
McAffer appears to be far from being done, though; his baseball career is still just getting started.
“He seems to have added a couple miles per hour of velocity each of the last two years, and I think he’s capable of doing exactly that for the next two or three years,” said Haar. “I think he can be a real power pitcher. Very strong, good pair of legs – just needs to be a little more explosive, but somewhere along the line, either in college or the professional ranks, they’ll be somebody out there that could help him along with that. I think his future’s pretty bright.
“And he’s a nice kid.”
McAffer also held the honour of being the only current PBLer who heard his name called during the 2015 draft. Several alumni were still selected – Jeff Degano (White Rock), Alex Webb (White Rock), Devon Stewart (Langley), and Tristan Graham (North Shore) – and Haar believes that the number will rise back up again soon.
“Things kinda go in waves. We got spoiled back there a few years ago; when you have an Adam Loewen and a Jeff Francis go early in the first round, that’s a remarkable thing, especially for a Canadian high school league like the PBL. And it is a good league, but you don’t get top-of-the-line pitchers or top-of-the-line athletes that come around there too often.
“Kids that are going to go to the professional ranks – if they’re in the high choices they’re going to be outstanding players, and I guess we’re really fortunate whenever we get kids drafted. But I think we’ve done quite well over the years and this is just one of those years where maybe we’re a little bit short of graduating players as far as top-of-the-line calibre, but I think there’s some throughout the league as grade 11s that might surprise us next year.”