2005 Early Draft Preview: Gaining Control
By Will Kimmey
Washington led Georgia Tech 14-0 in the eighth inning of a mid-April game last season when little-used Husky Brian Bauer got the call to pinch-hit with the bases loaded. Normally, Bauer would have been excited about the opportunity, but the feeling was different with Jason Neighborgall on the mound firing 95 mph BB’s all over the place.
Bauer knew that even a grand slam wasn’t likely to win him more playing time. So he resigned himself to stand in the box, take four pitches and trot down to first base the way seven of his teammates already had that inning. Instead, he ended up wearing a first-pitch fastball in the back.
That game encapsulates Neighborgall’s sophomore season: 1/3 inning, no hits, five earned runs, seven walks. His raw stuff rivaled that of any pitcher in college baseball; his command forced Georgia Tech to use him mostly at the end of blowouts. On the year, he recorded 11 strikeouts and allowed six hits in 6 2/3 innings, walked 24 batters, threw 13 wild pitches and allowed 20 earned runs for an 0-1, 27.00 record.
It marked a stunning departure from Neighborgall’s senior year at Riverside High in Durham, N.C., when he emerged as a potential first-round pick in 2002.
"He’s been an enigma to all of us for some time now," said an American League crosschecker who has followed Neighborgall since his prep days. "We all saw him throw strikes in high school at 94-95 (mph), but we all knew he wanted a few million dollars, so it was tough to take a high school righthander that high."
Neighborgall let clubs know he sought a significant seven-figure bonus out of high school to steer him away from Georgia Tech, and he ended up slipping to the Red Sox in the seventh round. Three years later, he again is eligible for the draft. And his stock looks just as volatile.
"You talk about total package, he ranks right up there with the best of them. His upside is big," said a scouting director who strongly considered drafting Neighborgall with a late first-round pick in ’02.
"We’ll have to really dig into what has happened at Georgia Tech—mentally, physically, mechanically. He looked so bad when I saw him last year, like a pitcher who had lost his confidence."
Scouts who watched Neighborgall at Georgia Tech’s scout day this fall saw more of the pitcher they remembered from 2002. His fastball buzzed into the upper-90s. His 12-to-6 power curveball was a second plus pitch. He looked under control and was controlling his pitches.
"He hasn’t played against anybody yet, so I don’t want to get too excited about it," said Georgia Tech pitching coach Bobby Moranda. "But I will say he is pitching with a lot of confidence, and he’s having a lot of fun playing baseball."
"I’ve been feeling great," Neighborgall said. "It’s great to get back out there and I’m looking forward to it."
No one can pinpoint a source for his struggles. There were mechanical issues: He was throwing almost two feet across his body and lacked rhythm with his delivery. But Neighborgall and those who have coached him also acknowledge a mental side to the problems.
"Early in an outing, it’s a mechanical deal that throws him off. But then mentally, it starts to wear on him," said Sandy Moore, who coached the righty the last two summers in the Cape Cod and Coastal Plain leagues.
Neighborgall enjoyed a solid freshman season in 2003, going 3-0, 3.70 with 32 strikeouts and 36 walks. His signature moment came in a start against North Carolina State in the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. He went 5 1/3 innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits and striking out four in the Yellow Jackets’ victory. But even in that performance—in which he got a no-decision—Neighborgall’s control issues were evident. He walked seven, and had to leave the game so soon because he reached a pitch count of 101.
Neighborgall then joined Wareham in the Cape Cod League. His first appearance was a harbinger of what was to come.
"He was 95-98 that night. He was dominating," said Moore, who served on the coaching staff but did not work with the pitchers that summer. "I was thinking he was going to cruise, but he never settled in. He would have two good innings and then a bad one that would take him out (of the game) because of pitch counts."
Neighborgall’s struggles continued that summer, and his use as a starter became more sporadic. The coaches lost confidence in him and often would begin action in the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Seeing relievers warming so quickly hurt Neighborgall’s confidence more. He finished with 37 strikeouts and 29 walks in 28 innings during an 0-5, 3.81 summer.
He returned to Georgia Tech and endured his difficult sophomore season. "When he came back from the Cape, I didn’t even recognize the kid, physically or mentally," Moranda said. "He was scarred from the summer."
Neighborgall recorded two strikeouts and didn’t allow a hit in his first appearance, but Savannah State scored three runs as a result of five walks before he got out of the inning.
"Of course it was very frustrating," he said. "Last year I was stuck in a rut. It wasn’t anybody’s fault but my own."
Neighborgall, whom Tech players and coaches call a good teammate and hard worker, worried more about letting his team down than submarining his draft stock, but that was happening as well. "He wasn’t just bad; he wasn’t able to throw it to the catcher," the crosschecker said. "It was like he was praying the ball over the plate."
The control problems continued with a return trip to the Cape, this time with Bourne. His failure to throw strikes (13 walks and nine wild pitches in eight innings) cost him the opportunity for regular duty, and he called Moore to see if his Coastal Plain team in Fayetteville, N.C., had openings. The Swampdogs had lost two pitchers and needed arms. Moore told Neighborgall he’d hit his pitch count in every outing.
"It was a relaxed environment," Neighborgall said. "He gave me the ball and said no matter what happened I was going to pitch. That took a load off my shoulders."
Upon Neighborgall’s arrival, he had the catcher set up down the middle for lefthanded hitters and outside for righties, regardless of what pitch he was throwing. Moore noticed Neighborgall even had trouble playing catch with teammates. But when the pitcher backed up to play long-toss at 180 feet, he displayed a fluid motion, hitting his target nearly every time. Moore encouraged Neighborgall to try to restore some of that ease and rhythm to his delivery on the mound, and helped him get his body aligned on the mound to counteract his across-the-body motion.
Neighborgall started throwing more strikes. He worked five innings in his first start, against Florence on July 17, with seven strikeouts, seven walks, one hit and no runs allowed. And he earned his first win in nearly two years. "That was a big boost for him," Moore said. "The best medicine for him was just a little bit of success."
Neighborgall went 1-1, 5.30 with 27 strikeouts, 34 walks, 14 wild pitches and three hits allowed in 19 CPL innings. He counted it as a small step forward.
"If anyone says confidence comes first, then success—I think they’re wrong," Neighborgall said. "You get success first, and then it builds."
Neighborgall felt so confident heading out of Fayetteville that he decided to keep throwing through the fall to keep his momentum going. His newfound command carried into the early spring. "We’ve got him straightened out," Moranda said.
All three of Georgia Tech’s weekend starters from 2004 are gone, and Neighborgall will take a spot in the rotation as a junior. He called the last two years a learning experience, and said he wouldn’t trade his time in college for anything—not even the millions he passed up out of high school.
"I’m more prepared for any struggles I’ll have now," he said. "A lot of kids don’t deal with struggles in college before they head to the minors and they don’t know what to do. I now know how to cope."
Scouting opinions are still mixed, and could remain so even if Neighborgall enjoys a successful season. He could go in the first round or just as easily fall to the fifth. His stuff and 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame stack up against that of any pitcher in the draft, but his control bouts could still haunt him.
"It’s just a matter of, is he going to throw strikes?" the crosschecker said. "So his upside is scary, but so is the risk."