OMAHA, NEB. >> For all the walk-off hits and grand slams that have highlighted the NCAA baseball tournament so far, the stage is set for pitching to take over when the College World Series opens Saturday.
Thirteen pitchers who will be in Omaha were taken in the first 10 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft, with No. 1 national seed Florida leading the way with six, including five in the first four rounds. There are the high-quality freshman and sophomore arms sprinkled throughout all eight teams.
Throw in the fact that the wind usually blows in this time of year at the spacious TD Ameritrade Park, and conditions are ripe for dominant pitching.
Big 12 pitcher of the year and third-round pick Thomas Hatch (8-2, 2.04) and seventh-rounder Tyler Buffett (8-3, 3.15) have been a formidable 1-2 combination for Oklahoma State in the national tournament. Miami has impressive depth, and UC Santa Barbara has been led by a fourth-round pick in Shane Bieber (12-3, 2.84).
ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson said the raw talent level among college pitchers is significantly higher than it was 10 to 15 years ago.
"There are more kids who throw harder," he said. "You see it in the major league draft, you see it in the major league bullpen. There's more velocity in the game."
Some of the hardest throwers are freshmen.
TCU closer Durbin Feltman touches 97 mph, Arizona's Cody Deason hits 93 and Coastal Carolina's Jason Bilous regularly is in the low 90s after having Tommy John surgery in 2014.
Peterson, who pitched at Stanford in the mid-1990s, said it was extremely rare to see someone throw 95 mph during his college career. He said greater emphasis on weight training and year-round baseball has resulted in a greater number of hard throwers.
"The wow factor of velocity now is so much higher than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago," he said. "It's not like a mile and hour. Once, if you threw 90, you threw pretty hard. Now it's 95. That's a pretty big jump."
Florida has perhaps the deepest pitching staff to ever come to the CWS.
Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year and second-round pick Logan Shore (12-0, 2.24 ERA) and Alex Faedo (13-2, 3.25), who could be the top college pitcher in the 2017 draft, are set to start the Gators' first two games. A.J. Puk (2-3, 3.05), the No. 6 overall draft pick and first college pitcher taken, has struggled since April and slid into the third starter's spot. Stars in the making are hard-throwing freshmen Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer.
"I think this staff, in particular, there are good power arms," ninth-year Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan said, "but the development of the change-up has been probably as good as I've had since I've been here. We have a bunch of guys that have learned to slow the ball down, and that's hard to do.
This year's group of top CWS arms is an example of what Oklahoma State pitching coach Rob Walton calls a decade-long trend of elite pitchers choosing to develop in college rather than in the low minor leagues.
Florida's Singer, for example, turned down a $1 million signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays after being drafted in the second round as a high school senior.
Talented pitchers like Singer see that Michael Wacha was drafted out of Texas A&M in 2012 and was with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013, just as Mike Leake went from Arizona State in 2009 to the Cincinnati Reds in 2010 and David Price from Vanderbilt in 2007 to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
"The high-end college pitchers are becoming great professional pitchers very, very quickly, spending a half season to a year in the minors," Walton said. "That's a credit to college baseball and developing these players and helping them bypass some lower levels of the minor leagues and getting to the big leagues."