(Photo via Mercyhurst website, seen here, Ed Mailliard)
Erie, Pennsylvania isn’t a location anyone thinks of when it comes to baseball dominance. The weather is perennially cold, and the two colleges there are both Division II Catholic Universities: Gannon University and Mercyhurst University. However, this season, Mercyhurst boasts three starting pitching prospects and one closer, all juniors looking for a shot at the big leagues.
“People can’t believe a small school like us can have such great prospects,” said Head Coach Joe Spano. “These guys are amazing. They do a lot of work.”
First on the list is Matthew Minnick. After being heralded last preseason as Baseball America’s Preseason DII Pitcher of the Year, Minnick posted a 2.35 ERA and a 4-1 record in five starts before a partial tear of his UCL benched him for the rest of the season. This year, he’s working his way through rehab after undergoing surgery and aims to rejoin the team before the season ends. Coach Spano is impressed with the progress Minnick has made in rehab, remarking that he is, “Way farther ahead in rehab than expected,” and is, “Very close to game-ready.”
As one would expect, having a great season interrupted by injury was devastating for Minnick, but Coach Spano says Minnick was still vital to the team’s success even when he couldn’t be on the field.
“He’s just a great teammate,” said Coach Spano. “He almost became a coach; invested in the rest of the season and did what he could to help the younger guys. He’s like the quarterback that gets injured, puts the headset on, and rallies around the backup.” Minnick’s resilience and commitment to doing what he could for the team despite going through rehab is one of the things that makes him a remarkable player. Add to that his success pre-injury with a mid-90s fastball, excellent breaking ball, and decent changeup and you have the makings of a player who has high chances to succeed at higher levels.
Coach Spano agrees with this, but says he hasn’t pushed Minnick to discuss what the future might hold due to the overwhelming nature of rehab.
“It’s so early and he hasn’t thrown a pitch yet,” he said. However, Coach Spano also remarks that if Minnick is selected he is a hard enough worker to be able to continue his growth in the majors. For now, the focus is on returning to the Mercyhurst rotation where he will join fellow juniors Russell Lamovec and Chris Vallimont who also hope to enter the MLB next year.
Vallimont boasts impressive statistics in his first four starts of the season with an ERA of 1.80. He’s also only walked two batters while striking out 37 in his 20 innings of work, most recently pitching through eight scoreless innings against California University of Pennsylvania, tallying 15 strikeouts in that game alone. This outing earned him Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West Pitcher of the Week honors.
Vallimont has a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and has been working on developing his control, as well as locating his offspeed pitches. In Coach Spano’s words, he is translating his talent into baseball smarts.
If you look at Vallimont’s game-by-game statistics, his second and third starts were much rockier than his first and fourth. This inconsistency can be attributed to the weather Mercyhurst constantly battles. In weeks when it is cold, the team has to practice inside, and aren’t able to throw for as much distance. Vallimont, like most pitchers would, struggles in those weeks, but is outstanding when the team gets to practice outside on a full-sized field.
Compared to last season, Vallimont has better command overall, regardless of whether he gets to practice indoors or outdoors. Coach Spano attributes that to his conditioning in the offseason. Vallimont used to rotate into his front leg, which would pull him off target, but, now, he’s put a lot of work into strengthening his core and lower half so he can stick to his target.
“He can taste that he has a shot at the next level…which has kept him focused on the conditioning aspect,” said Coach Spano.
Coach Spano also believes that Vallimont’s mental game is a huge aspect of what gives him the chance to move on to the next level. Despite being young, Vallimont has the composure of a highly experienced pitcher.
“There’s not much that really rattles him or gets him intimidated,” Coach Spano said. “Athletes that just play the game the way they play it have success. He respects all opponents but he’s not intimidated by them.” As Vallimont continues to add to his stellar season, more pressure is likely to come from scouts, and his play will be heavily scrutinized as teams attempt to decide what his value will be in the draft. He’ll need to rely on his strong mental game to keep a level head during that time, but, luckily, he won’t have to do that alone.
He and Russell Lamovec are close friends as well as teammates.
“They do everything together,” said Coach Spano. “Being under the microscope with the scouts it’s good to be around someone who’s going through that with you.” Lamovec is as strong a player as Vallimont, though not quite as tall, standing at 6-foot to Vallimont’s 6-foot-5, and has earned his share of recognition throughout his time at Mercyhurst.
He comes into the season as the defending Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Year, a title he has proved he deserved in four starts so far this season.
In his second start of the season verses Glennville State, Lamovec went seven hitless innings, logging 10 strikeouts. This start earned him both PSAC Pitcher of the Week and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Atlantic Region Pitcher of the Week honors. It also came after he went six scoreless innings in his first start of the season, in a game where he logged 11 strikeouts. All together, Lamovec pitched 13 scoreless innings before he sustained a cut on his hand in his third start that ruined his perfect streak.
In that third start, Lamovec allowed five runs – the only five scored against him in his four starts this season. He still posts a 1.27 ERA, after allowing only two hits and no runs in his fourth start. Coach Spano thinks Lamovec, Minnick, and Vallimont are all in the same boat: if they get a fair offer from an MLB team, he doesn’t expect to see them back for their senior year.
“These guys aren’t looking to get rich they’re just looking for a chance to play,” said Coach Spano. “I think Russel’s in the same boat. [He’s] as good as anybody I’ve ever coached.” That’s saying something, considering this is Coach Spano’s 19th season as Head Coach at Mercyhurst, and he has had 10 players drafted in that time-no small feat for a little-known school like Mercyhurst.
Joining the three dominant starters in hopes to make it to the majors, is closer Andrew Ciolli. Ciolli has punched out five in seven innings of work, and has a 1.80 ERA before the California University of Pennsylvania game on March 24 in which he suffered a rough outing that raised his season ERA to 3.60, still quite respectable.
A factor in the success of this crop of pitchers at Mercyhurst is undoubtedly Coach Spano’s philosophy on developing pitchers. Coach Spano and his staff focus on developing players into athletes first and being conservative with how much their guys throw, in order to keep their arms healthy and explosive.
“We’d rather sacrifice wins and losses in the short term to have our guys develop in the long term… can’t be explosive with a sore arm,” said Coach Spano. Not every player is lucky enough to be part of a program that values their futures as much as their now.
In fact, it’s rare that pitchers have a chance to develop alongside peers that are as good as they are, which means the Mercyhurst pitchers have a unique chance to be competitive as teammates rather than as rivals.
Coach Spano recognizes the opportunity his players have, and he is excited to see where it will take all of them, remarking “It becomes contagious when you put good athletes around each other.” Ciolli, Lamovec, Minnick, and Vallimont will keep progressing and trying to improve their draft stock as the season goes on. Their strategy will be to focus on the day in front of them.
“Our philosophy is one pitch at a time,” Coach Spano explained. “[They] keep focused on what they have to do that day and I just kind of try to be there and guide them through it.” With Coach Spano’s guidance, and each other to lean on (and compete with), it will be exciting to watch how all these pitchers progress and where they end up in the draft.