MLB Draft 2017: Meet the Air Force baseball prospect trying to beat the odds – CBSSports.com

Jacob DeVries, a left-handed pitcher for the Air Force Falcons, comes from a devoted military family. In addition to his father Kenny, a retired Air Force captain, both of DeVries’ grandfathers, as well as various aunts and uncles, served the United States in some capacity or another.

DeVries considered their contributions when he was plotting his life after high school. He thought about their sacrifices; about how he would feel when his father returned home dressed in his uniform; about the feelings he had growing up in tiny Castroville, Texas, a 20-minute drive from Lackland Air Force Base. Those experiences, combined with his aspirations, led him to bypass offers to play at McNeese State (and various junior colleges) in favor of enlisting at the Academy, from which he recently graduated.

But while DeVries’ story reveals how family and environment shape a young man’s thinking, his tale demonstrates something else as well — how tough it is for Air Force players to turn pro, and how much tougher it’s gotten since the last time he had the opportunity.

The Prospect

DeVries’ body is as soothing to a scout’s eye as a cold Arnold Palmer on a hot summer day. He’s tall (6-foot-3 officially) and broad-shouldered — a telltale sign for what baseball folks call “projectability,” or the frame’s potential to add muscle. His arsenal, released from high overhead, has teased similar promise. DeVries’ fastball has touched 96 miles per hour in the past, and his breaking ball has flashed average or better. It’s no surprise that last June the Cleveland Indians used a draft pick (their 38th rounder) on DeVries. What was a mild surprise is that he didn’t sign a contract with Cleveland.

“I really thought about it,” DeVries told CBS Sports. “After talking with my parents and just thinking about it, I decided I would finish my senior year with the guys I came in with.”

A confluence of events have since muddled DeVries’ pro dreams. Some of these have occurred on a personal level. For instance, he’s suffered through elbow tendinitis and inflammation that have robbed him of innings. Those ailments, ostensibly combined with him losing 20 pounds, led to decreased velocity — he’s topping out around 91-92 mph nowadays. But some of what’s eroding DeVries’ chances of being drafted again are out of his control.

Earlier this year, secretary of defense Jim Mattis rescinded a policy enacted last July that made it easier for service academy athletes to turn professional. Air Force wide receiver Jalen Robinette became the public’s cause célèbre due to poor timing — the Academy ruled on the first day of the NFL Draft he wouldn’t be allowed to defer his military service in favor of immediately pursuing a football career. Instead Robinette and others, including DeVries’ former teammates Griffin Jax (Minnesota Twins) and Ben Yokley (St. Louis Cardinals), have to serve at least two years before they can become professional athletes. The same rules will apply to DeVries.

“It’s a tough situation to be in. I definitely see why they made that rule change, but at the same time, for guys who aren’t necessary, there are plenty of other staff officers …  it’s fairly easy to replace those second lieutenants, in my opinion, that are not quite mission essentials,” DeVries said. “It’s kind of unfortunate. There are two sides to the coin. The military side of things is important. We came here for a reason, we came to the Academy to serve and not to play professional sports. For the most part, all of us understood that coming into the Academy we had to do some sort of commitment.”

The looming, unavoidable void between DeVries’ potential selection and his becoming a full-fledged ballplayer impacts his chances of becoming a big-league pitcher, and therefore impacts his draft stock, per prospect experts.

“The scouts I speak with haven’t even been in to see him this spring,” said Eric Longenhagen, FanGraphs’ prospect writer. Longenhagen added that DeVries’ development is “without question” negatively affected by his service requirements. Christopher Crawford of Rotoworld and Hero Sports agreed: “If he has to honor his commitment and take a couple years off, that could be tough, especially with someone who has command issues.”

Baseball requires its youngest to hike through the minors en route to the summit that is the Show. Those endless repetitions help suss out those that do and don’t possess the talent to make it, sure, but they also allow the players to fine-tune their swings and deliveries through trial and error and tinkering and more tinkering. Air Force, predictably, has never had a player reach the majors.

In fact, the Academy has had just seven players drafted — and all of five signed contracts, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That count includes Jax and Yokley, each currently serving their commitments; catcher Garrett Custons, drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013, hasn’t left the military list since being placed on it in August of that year; and Karl Bolt (2007) and Mike Thiessen (2001), who had their professional careers end after 148 and 112 games.

The only other player with Air Force ties to be picked recently, Miami Marlins southpaw prospect Travis Neubeck, transferred to a JuCo after his freshman season.

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Home of the Falcons.
USATSI

The Academy

What’s true of the micro isn’t always true of the macro.

In this case, the commitment stipulations that anchor players like DeVries, who have legitimate shots at being drafted, can feel weightless to the majority of Air Force’s athletes — individuals who are willing to trade their slim-to-nonexistent pro aspirations for the opportunity to play Division-I sports, as well as a free education and a guaranteed job. That’s how Air Force’s coach Mike Kazlausky views the situation, anyway.

“People think ‘Oh, the Air Force Academy, must be hard to recruit baseball players’ — I mean, it’s not,” Kazlausky told CBS Sports. “We only offer half-a-million-dollar scholarships and the opportunity for these young men to be great for the rest of their lives.”

Kazlausky is a knowledgeable baseball man, one who played and coached at Air Force under Louisiana State University manager Paul Mainieri (whose list of apprentices includes several other coaches as well as Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila). When asked, Kazlausky dispensed a lengthy scouting report on DeVries that detailed the pitcher’s gains since high school, back when he was an inconsistent quantity whose velocity ranged from 82 to 88 mph.

At the same time, Kazlausky is a dedicated serviceman. He partook for 20 years, flying combat missions and putting himself in harm’s way for his country. His pride in the Air Force is hard-earned, and potentially matched only by his pride in his players and the challenge they accepted by joining the service.

Kazlausky is as quick to tout his roster’s complexion — he counts rocket scientists and biochem majors among his charges — as he is to reference the Academy’s academic prestige and rigor. He offhandedly recited the core classes (“aero, astro, civil, mechanical, electrical, philosophy, chemistry, calculus …”) and the need for 18-plus hours of coursework per semester.

The other portion of Kazlausky’s sales pitch concerns the honor that comes with serving one’s country, of putting service over self, of doing something he says 99 percent of Americans will never do.

“The kids who come to this institution, they want to be the best. They want to reach the pinnacle. We don’t put any limits or boundaries on our kids,” Kazlausky said. “I don’t want a kid to come here just to be a damn baseball player because he will not make it. I want a kid who wants to come here to be a bad ass, that wants to serve our country, and he wants to wear not just Air Force across his chest, representing a baseball team, I want him wearing ‘U-S-A’ across his chest. That’s what we’re truly representing, we’re representing that one percent.

“We are the carnivores, we eat meat. Everybody else, the 99 percent of Americans, they’re just herbivores. All they do is eat the grass.”

Is it any wonder then that Kazlausky cites the Air Force’s mission — “fly, fight, win” — when describing DeVries’ approach on the mound? Or that his response to a question about DeVries’ character deviates into his military accomplishments? (“He’s been on deployed ops where he’s been deployed to a cutter for six weeks. He’s gotten to fly jets, F-16 jets specifically. He’s been to operational Air Force bases all around the world. He’s gotten basic training. He’s done survival training in the mountains. He’s done so much more than just your normal college kid.”)

Yet for as dedicated to and passionate about the Air Force as Kazlausky is — for as much as everything, baseball or life, seems analogous to service — even he disagrees with the rules that restrict players like DeVries from immediately turning pro. “Do I wish the policy was changed? Sure. I think a great option would be that, upon graduation, the young men sign a contract for 10 years to be in our reserve Air Force, which they’re still serving, and they do that for 10 years and when they’re not playing professional baseball, they’re serving in the military.”

Kazlausky believes professional athletes serve as low-cost public-relations boosts for the Academy — a welcomed one at that, given Air Force’s million-dollar advertising and recruiting budgets. Besides, he reasons, if their athletic careers fail — and most do, he notes — those individuals can always return to the service.

“Is pro baseball a big deal to all the kids at the Academy? Of course it is. They all want to have that aspiration of being a professional player, and I get it. I understand it. I wish they would have that ability, because you’re not talking too many kids that are going to get drafted from the Academy,” Kazlausky said. “Give them a chance. Give them an opportunity. If it doesn’t work out, which most likely it won’t, they’ll be getting their pink slip within two years, and when that happens, let them go back and serve.”

The Field

Among the devils working against both DeVries’ professional aspirations and Air Force’s baseball recruiting, there’s one that hasn’t been mentioned — one that can get lost in the talk about commitment requirements, course loads, and the inherent risk of bodily harm or death suffered in armed service. That one undisclosed devil is admittedly trivial compared to the others, but nonetheless merits mention: Falcon Field located in Colorado, near the Rampart Range.

Anyone Googling DeVries’ statistics will conclude the Indians lucked out when he chose to remain at the Academy. After all, how good can a pitcher be if he finishes his senior season having allowed 75 hits in 58 innings, or having accumulated a 7.56 ERA and a sub-1.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio? Well, context says, better than initially thought.

Card-carrying baseball fans know Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, is a hitter’s paradise in part due to its elevation. The ball reacts differently in the light air. It doesn’t break as much for pitchers, but it flies easier for hitters. Coors Field has a listed height of about 5,280 feet above sea level. Falcon Field sits nearly 2,000 feet higher than that. Add in short fences and torrid winds, and … let’s put it this way: DeVries’ 7.56 ERA was the second-best in the rotation.

Consider the anecdotal evidence that comes with a glance through the Falcons’ home schedule. There was that game in March against New Mexico in which the two teams combined for 40 runs. There was that five-game stretch later in March where the winner scored 10-plus in each affair. There were those three occasions where the Falcons topped 20 runs. And, oh yeah, that recent tilt against San Diego State where the Falcons homered seven times — and lost 18-11.

Advanced metrics sing the same harmony as the ol’ eye test — Falcon Field is a pitching hell. According to Jeff Sackmann of College Splits, a service that provides raw and proprietary NCAA data to big-league teams, Air Force’s park factor over the last four seasons is the second-highest in Division-I, more outrageous than all except Morehead State.

Sackmann offered a warning, however. Because the park factors are based on each team’s schedule, and because schedules are unbalanced and heavy on conference opponents, then the reality is that the Falcons’ numbers are skewed by their presence in the hitter-friendly Mountain West Conference. In other words, Falcon Field is actually a better park for offense than its second-place ranking indicates.

To think, the mound is supposed to be a stress-free environment for DeVries.

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Jacob DeVries hopes to hear his name called this June.
Matthew Ziegler, MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Future

The great mystery about DeVries is if his name will get called for a second consecutive year once the MLB draft begins on June 12. Those in the know are split on DeVries’ chances.

Some are pessimistic. “I kinda doubt he gets drafted at all,” said Longenhagen. “Perhaps once his military commitment is complete he’ll be able to work out for clubs so they can see how hard he’s throwing.” Others are more optimistic. “I think he’ll be drafted, certainly, but we’re talking about a day-two or day-three player at this point,” Crawford said. “Unless someone sees him as a senior sign, it’d be a surprise if he’s taken in the first five rounds.”

Despite Air Force boasting three other potential draft picks (all hitters: Tyler Jones, Bradley Haslam, and Adam Groesbeck), DeVries himself acknowledges the buzz has de-intensified. “Comparatively, from last year to this year, it’s been a lot more quiet. A lot of that’s just because maybe I’m a senior and the velocity and stuff hasn’t been quite what it was before. But I think that there’s still a chance I will get drafted. I cannot say for certain that it will happen.”

Even with the injuries and the lost velocity and the altered policy, DeVries doesn’t speak like someone sulking about what could have been. Rather his perspective, like his secondary education choice, focuses on “we” instead of “I.” “I’ll be honest, I really don’t regret not signing. I was able to finish out my senior year, with a great group of guys.

“I think just watching them play while I was training, I think I would’ve maybe regretted it, especially for what I consider to be not worth signing a contract. Despite the rule change, I don’t regret not signing.”

Perhaps DeVries is of the same mind as some within the industry, who point out that two lost years from a relief prospect isn’t a big deal — not one who is likely to possess great makeup and who is a given to remain in shape during his leave. Or perhaps he’s accepted that going undrafted doesn’t seal his fate — that he can make up for lost time later. Or perhaps he’s bought into the mindset that his baseball accomplishments will always pale to what he does for the Air Force — a line of thinking co-signed by Kazlausky, who marveled at what one of his former players allegedly did during last year’s draft.

“We had a left-handed pitcher, a senior. The Cardinals called him in the 28th round and said, ‘We’re looking at drafting you.’ The kid from the Academy said, ‘Don’t waste your draft pick on me. I won’t sign.’ They said, ‘Really, why?’ He goes, ‘I came to the Academy to serve my country, fly jets, and kill bad guys.’ Who the hell has ever done that?”

Cardinals scouting director Randy Flores neither confirmed nor denied the story. But if it did go down as Kazlausky says, then there’s one suspect — Trent Monaghan, the only senior lefty on Air Force’s 2016 squad. Monaghan’s official bio lists the Latin phrase “vincit qui patitur” as his favorite quote, along with a loose English translation: “He who endures shall conquer.”

So DeVries hopes.

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