Jeremy Guthrie was undoubtedly the ace of the Stanford baseball team in 2002. He went 13-2 for the Cardinal squad, pitching a team high 157.2 innings and posting a sparkling 2.51 ERA in a tough Pac-10 conference. But, like many of Stanford's premiere talent before him, Guthrie was drafted as a junior in the first round of the 2002 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and did not return to The Farm to complete his senior season.
Instead, Guthrie has spent this season pitching for the Cleveland Indians organization. Because of his age (24 years) and exceptional college career, the Indians made the unusual decision to start their first round draft pick at the Double-A level in Akron, Ohio. With the Aeros of the Eastern League, Guthrie excelled, allowing only 44 hits in 62.2 innings and posting a 6-2 record to go along with his 1.44 ERA.
According to Guthrie, his adjustment to professional baseball has been remarkably smooth.
"The big difference is mainly being on your own," he said in a telephone interview with The Bootleg. "I find being able to focus solely on baseball to be very enjoyable. There's no homework or other school concerns to distract you."
Guthrie's solid performance at Akron earned him a mid-season promotion to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, where he has met stiffer competition. In 13 games spanning 71.0 innings, Guthrie's ERA stands at a disappointing 7.10 and he is only 2-8 overall. Most of the damage has been done via hits -- Guthrie has walked only 20 -- but he has allowed 11 homeruns and over 1.3 hits per inning pitched after allowing no homeruns and only 0.64 hits per inning pitched at Akron.
Even with his struggles, Guthrie remains upbeat and focused. "I've definitely noticed a difference here at Triple-A," he said. "The hitters here take advantage of mistakes more frequently [than at Akron], and they are very good at situational hitting. Rather than always going for the homerun, they look to get the opposite field base hit.
"I have to realize, though, these hitters are just one step away from the MLB," he said, and remained confident that he would soon right the ship. "You still need to locate, keep the ball down, and make them hit the ball to the defensive players behind you."
To get the scoop on why Guthrie might be struggling at Triple-A, we called John Manuel, who is the senior writer for collegiate baseball at Baseball America.
After starting 2-2 with a 4.91 ERA with Buffalo, Guthrie has not lasted into the sixth inning in any of his starts, a statistic that Manuel says is telling. "It's been a long year for Jeremy, even if you don't consider all of the pitches he threw last season at Stanford," he said. "Switching to pitching every fifth day, rather than once a week, is a big change. It seems like Jeremy has worn down over the course of the year."
Plus, said Manuel, even for the best of prospects, "the jump from college to Triple-A [in one year] is a lofty leap."
Manuel compared Guthrie's Triple-A numbers with those of Mark Mulder in 1999, when the lefty allowed 152 hits in 128.2 innings and posted a ERA above 4.00 in a very good pitchers park at Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A). "I saw Mark at the Pan Am Games in August of that year," said Manuel. "He went straight from college to Triple-A, and he was just worn down. His fastball was down to the mid-80s in velocity and his stuff didn't look good at all." Mulder went on to win 49 games in his first three Major League seasons and finish second in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 2001.
Manuel also suggested that Guthrie may still be learning how to pitch to professional hitters. "In college, he'd throw mostly fastballs, and you can't get away with that at Triple-A, especially if you've lost some velocity." Guthrie has been pounded by left handers at Buffalo, suggesting that his changeup may still need some work.
Still, Manuel believes that Guthrie projects as a good pitcher. "He certainly hasn't pitched great, but I wouldn't say that his struggles are entirely unexpected. Jeremy is still a legitimate prospect and he'll probably have a good year next season."
With the Indians, Guthrie has been kept on a pitch count, something he never experienced at Stanford. "I don't mind them at all," Guthrie of the pitch counts. "They teach me to go deeper into ballgames and be more efficient with my pitches. I haven't been forced out of a game due to the pitch count before I've been ready."
Still, with so much being made of the high pitch counts registered by Stanford's pitchers during the 2003 College World Series, Guthrie seemed an ideal person to ask about Stanford's pitching philosophy. After all, Guthrie averaged almost 8 innings per start his junior year and is fondly remembered for an awe-inspiring 13 inning complete game victory in the NCAA Regionals against Cal State Fullerton on May 31, 2002.
"Bottom line," says Guthrie, "the program's track record speaks for itself. [The coaching staff's] philosophy has worked; the team is successful, individuals are successful, and there's no reason to change it."
Guthrie was careful to point out that while outsiders may question Coach Marquess' disdain for using pitch counts to pull pitchers from ballgames, none of the Stanford players have anything but the utmost trust in the coaching staff's decisions.
"I was confident in their decisions and knowledge, and I know the rest of my teammates were also confident," he said. Guthrie also said that as so far as he knew, there were no concerns by Major League clubs regarding the way he was used at Stanford.
Guthrie also dismisses the often-heard whispers that Stanford's coaching philosophy doesn't translate into professional success. Instead, Guthrie credits the Stanford coaching staff with preparing him to pitch in the minors. "Especially [pitching coach Tom] Kunis," said Guthrie. "He does a great job of calling games and really teaches us how to attack hitters." In particular, Guthrie has taken Kunis' lessons on situational pitching with him through the minors. "He made me realize what I should be trying to do with each pitch."
And yes, Guthrie has kept up with the 2003 Stanford team and had the opportunity to watch them during the College World Series. "They were a great team, as they usually are," he says about the Cardinal.
But how do they compare to Guthrie's College World Series teams?
"Their future is even brighter than ours because of the great sophomores and juniors they'll have next year. They can win it all in the next couple of years."
Guthrie's future, too, is bright. Since he signed a Major League contract with the Indians, he is already on their 40-man protected roster, meaning that in September, the Indians could bring him up to the Big Leagues without accelerating his free agent clock or removing another prospect from the roster. While Manuel does not expect Guthrie to pitch in the Majors this fall, he says that there's a decent chance that Guthrie could be called up to experience the Big Leagues in September.
"Even with his struggles at Triple-A," said Manuel, "I think you have to look at this as a successful year. And Jeremy is still a very special pitcher."
Sean Bruich is a sophomore at Stanford University. You can hear him on KZSU 90.1 FM during the Tuesday night broadcasts of Cardinal Baseball throughout the 2003-2004 season.
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