Daulton Jefferies is not the prototypical power pitcher. Despite hitting 98 with his fastball on the mound, and 103 on flat ground on a crow hop, just looking at Jefferies, it’s hard to believe he’s a sophomore, much less a Friday-night starter in the Pac-12.
Junior Ryan Mason -- California’s Saturday starter who’s personality can best be described as a Jackson Pollock painting – jokes that he has to have enough personality for the two of them. Jefferies has no problem with that.
The 6-foot, 180-pound righty isn’t the first lightly-framed Bears hurler to light up the radar gun. It wasn’t that long ago that 6-foot-3, 190-pound Brandon Morrow was hitting 99s at Evans Diamond. Despite their physical similarities, until this year, Jefferies had never even heard of the former first-round MLB Draft pick of the Seattle Mariners, now with the San Diego Padres. Even though, according to head coach David Esquer, he may just be better than the former fifth-overall pick.
“He has the potential to be the best pitcher that we’ve had, at Cal, in my time, and that’s including Morrow, Johnson and Ross,” says Esquer, who has two second-round MLB Draft picks in the past six years – National League All-Star Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres, and Erik Johnson of the Chicago White Sox – and a first-rounder in Morrow. “That’s including Morrow, Johnson, and Ross. He’s a shortstop who pitches. The breaking pitch is the same with Morrow. Ross was different – his breaking pitch came first, before the fastball. His strength is his pinpoint control. His strength is that he’s got good feel. He’s got to be able to use that feel to get a plus offspeed pitch. You will know he’s turning a corner, if he’s getting check-swing strikeouts and chases in the dirt. He has to be able to have that wipeout pitch.”
There are differences in the two, and not just the three inches of height.
“He’s obviously ahead of Brandon, right now, because he’s a starter, and the M.O. with Morrow as a reliever, was that you could get it in short spurts,” Esquer says of Morrow, who was not a starter until his junior season, whereas Jefferies was the Friday-night ace from Day One. “Now, Brandon went from 92-93 to 99 in one summer, when he went to the Cape before his junior year, and all of the sudden, he was legitimately throwing 99 mph. Daulton hasn’t done that, but he’s on that trajectory. It’s been more gradual.”
That gradual trajectory is arguably better for the slightly-built Jefferies, who knows he has to keep an open ear to what his body is telling him.
“He’s so meticulous about his conditioning. We’re lucky there,” says Esquer.
“I’ve talked to many people about staying healthy, and keeping my body mobile, and stability-wise. I pulled back on throwing a little bit, because it took a toll on my body, because I wasn’t used to throwing that hard,” Jefferies says. “I’ve been feeling the arm out, staying comfortable with it. Hopefully, I’ll lead up to being ready.”
Jefferies will get a test early, as he faces Duke’s Michael Matuella -- an odds-on favorite to go first overall in June’s MLB Draft -- on Friday at 7 p.m. in the opener at Evans Diamond.
“I’ve talked to coach [Mike] Neu about everything, about a routine, and what I can do for throwing,” says Jefferies. “I trust what he’s doing. I listen to him. He’s kind of a mentor for me.”
Neu made it all the way to the Majors after helping Miami win the 1999 College World Series, despite never being listed above 5-foot-10.
“I focus on staying smooth, and try not to be jerky or mess up my mechanics or anything like that, because once you do that, you activate muscles that you don’t necessarily need to activate, and you get sore. It’s just staying smooth,” says Jefferies.
That smooth delivery makes his electric fastball all the more effective, particularly when paired with his change up, which is quickly becoming his wipe-out pitch, which he likes to work on in the off hours.
Jefferies saw former Cal shortstop and current minor league pitcher Michael Brady out, working by himself in the indoor cages during the Bears’ recent Pro Day at Evans Diamond, and instantly felt a connection. He, too, likes to find catcher Mitchell Kranson and just work on fine-tuning his repertoire.
“He pitched one inning in college. I talked to him about change ups and cutters and he seems like one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, because he was in the cages, working on a cutter by himself, and that’s what I like to do – work by myself. I learned a lot from those guys. It was a really good experience, having them out.”
During that preseason workout – and at the Alumni Game back in November, Jefferies also got to pick Ross’s brain.
“Tyson, I talked with him in the fall, during the Alumni Game, and I kind of asked him about his preparation and everything,” Jefferies says. “He said to trust your process, don’t try to do too much, stay in your zone. I’ve kind of preached to everyone about staying in that zone that you get in.”
Trusting his process and staying within himself were paramount for Jefferies last season. After shutting out then-top-25 Texas and then shutting out East Tennessee State on Feb. 21 in Auburn, Ala., Jefferies was the victim of 13 straight starts without a win, including five no-decisions and a tough-luck loss after 8.0 stellar innings against USC, as the Cal offense couldn’t get him enough run support, despite a 3.45 ERA.
“I kind of trusted my guys. I kind of stuck with my own process,” says Jefferies. “I stayed in my own routine, didn’t really worry about the numbers. I was just trying to give my team a good, competitive outing, with every pitch, every start that I have.”
And that’s what he’ll do, starting on Friday, when the lights turn on once again.