By: CJ Pentland
Canadian Baseball Network
Ever since the Mets selected Derran Watts in the 12th Round of the 2001 MLB Draft, and Jeff Francis went ninth overall the following year, UBC has been on scouts’ maps. And this season proves no different, as a trio of Thunderbirds have plenty of eyes on them as the 2016 draft approaches.
As UBC ramps up their conference NAIA schedule, the ‘Birds regularly find themselves playing in front of radar guns, notebooks, and hawk-like eyes – especially during day one of their weekend series. That’s when Alex Webb and Curtis Taylor take the mound, the two right-handed starters who take the hill in games one and two.
And in last week’s Saturday games against Corban, they were the only two pitchers the T-Birds needed. In game one, Webb tossed a complete game shutout, facing just three batters over the minimum while striking out seven in a 2-0 win. Taylor followed that up with a complete game of his own, allowing one run on three hits and one walk while fanning seven.
Webb’s ERA now sits at 1.17 to go along with his 41-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 46 innings pitched, while Taylor is a tad behind with marks of 1.79 and 39-to-11.
Now in his fourth year, Webb was described as a ‘project’ by former head coach and current director Terry McKaig when coming out of high school. The former White Rock Triton had the talent and the good grades that made him a fit for the UBC program, but the dedication he put in over the past years has elevated him into one of the NAIA’s top pitchers. Last season he was named NAIA West Pitcher of the Year and selected by the San Diego Padres in the 36th Round – opting to return to school to continue his Applied Science degree and raise his draft stock.
“Man oh man has he turned himself into a good pitcher,” said McKaig. “He dealt with a lot those first few years … but he’s overcome all that and continues to get better. He’s our number one, and the guy that the team wants out there in the first game of a weekend series. He’s really come a long way.”
Taylor has also shown significant growth since when McKaig first recruited him. A tall, skinny pitcher for the Coquitlam Reds, Taylor sat in the 84-85 mph range, to which McKaig thought “get him here, get him stronger, and get him that experience, [and] he’d improve.” McKaig couldn’t guess how much velocity he’d add, but Taylor has stood out by now touching up to 95mph.
“I think more than anything with Curtis it’s been an improved work ethic,” said McKaig. “I remember his freshman year we kept sitting down and having a couple conversations about him asking and wondering what he had to do – he’s had it as a dream and as a goal for quite awhile now to one day get drafted – and I thought he was lacking in a few of those areas around dedication and the work ethic. But I’ll give him a lot of credit for seeking out the meetings and then obviously listening and making some improvements to the work he was putting in.”
While scouts are drawn to his velocity – back in February, Taylor said he had talked to 28 of the 30 MLB teams – head coach Chris Pritchett also lauds his ability as a pitcher who can attack the strike zone. Early in the season Taylor also mentioned how one of his goals was to keep his pitch count down and eat up big innings, which is exactly what he did last weekend with the complete game.
On the offensive side of the ball, Waterloo’s Bruce Yari looks to be the first T-Bird hitter to be drafted since Keaton Briscoe in 2012. Working with Pritchett and new hitting coach Shawn Bowman, Yari has added the power to his game that is often needed for corner infielders and outfielder, yet not at the expense of his approach at the plate.
The 6-foot-3 left-handed hitter currently posts a .419/.530/.624 slash line, adding three home runs, 20 RBI, and 21 runs scored. Pritchett also makes sure to point out his phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio of 5.5 (22 walks, four strikeouts), giving him a blend of talent that would allow him to pass the ‘eye test’ and also catch the attention of more analytically-minded scouts.
“We have a lot of confidence in how we develop our players here at UBC,” said McKaig, though the results have spoken for themselves. In their new training facility, the names of the 20 Thunderbirds drafted since 2001 appear prominently on the wall, and come June some space might need to be made for a couple more.