Arizona’s Amazing Pitching System

From The Oct. 5, 2012 Issue of Collegiate Baseball


Editor/Collegiate Baseball

TUCSON, Ariz. — In one of the most staggering achievements in the history of college baseball, Arizona’s three starting pitchers threw 5,675 combined pitches last season enroute to the Wildcats’ fourth national title.

Arizona finished with 16 complete games, including eight over its final 19 contests.

It was the most complete games in a single season at the school in the last 23 years.

To put this in perspective, Arizona had the same amount of complete games as the entire Southeastern Conference made up of 12 teams.

How did the Wildcats do it without sustaining serious arm injuries?

This story answers the question that has been raised by hundreds of coaches throughout the nation since Arizona won the national title last June.

All 16 complete games were accomplished by a trio of pitchers, including ace Kurt Heyer (7 CG), Konner Wade (6 CG) and James Farris (3 CG).

In 36 games last season, this trio of pitchers worked into the seven inning at a minimum.

Heyer threw 153 innings, which led the nation, and had a 13-2 record, 2.24 ERA and struck out 113 batters with 28 walks. He worked at least 7 1/3 innings over 13 consecutive starts.

Wade threw 136 1/3 innings and posted an 11-3 record, 3.96 ERA while striking out 105 batters with 37 walks.

Farris pitched in 106 2/3 innings with a 7-3 record, 3.97 ERA and fanned 73 batters with 20 walks.

It is extremely rare to see three pitchers on the same college staff pitch over 100 innings in the same season.

Heyer threw 2,212 total pitches in games while Wade threw 1,851 and Farris 1,612, according to numbers supplied by Arizona pitching coach Shaun Cole.

In 10 regional, super regional and College World Series games last season, Arizona’s trio of starting pitchers averaged 8.48 innings per start — an incredibly rare achievement because so many starters experience dead arms late in the season.

In an exclusive interview with Collegiate Baseball, Arizona Head Coach Andy Lopez and Cole explain the remarkable system that the Wildcats have devised to train their starting pitchers physically and mentally so they don’t break down late in the season. Instead, they get stronger and stronger.

Over 50 years ago, it was common to see starting pitchers in pro and college baseball finish games or come close.

That philosophy changed over the years. To prevent dead arms late in a college season, starters now routinely go six or seven innings followed by a setup man and then a closer who are both fresh. Pro baseball has followed that formula for decades.

Then more pitchers are ready for the stretch run as starters still have plenty of gas in the tank to perform at playoff time.

Out of necessity, Arizona was forced to lean heavily on its starting pitchers last season since the relief pitchers were inconsistent. Lopez has coached many teams over the years with lock down closers at Pepperdine, Florida and Arizona.

Because of the inconsistency early in the season by his bullpen, he asked his three main starters to go as far as they could in games and try to finish them.

And this tactic didn’t hurt the Wildcats one bit.

Few people realize Arizona was 47-0 when leading or tied after eight innings of games last season.

Despite nearly 5,700 pitches between the trio of starting pitchers last season, not one starter experienced elbow or shoulder pain through the season. In fact, no pitcher on the staff has suffered an elbow or shoulder injury the last three years at Arizona which shows their system is working.

In fact, they all thrived on more throwing as the season unfolded as they were at their best during the NCAA playoffs.

The reason can be traced to a 4-pronged system implemented by the Wildcats, including:

• A unique long toss, bullpen and running program implemented by Cole with guidance from Lopez.

• Strength and conditioning program orchestrated by Neil Willey. Willey is one of the most respected strength and conditioning coaches in the nation who has worked with six national title teams at Arizona in his 14 years with the Wildcats (2 softball, 1 baseball, 1 women’s golf, 1 men’s swimming and 1 women’s swimming).

• Post-practice and game care of pitching shoulders and arms by athletic trainer Leanna Olivar.

• Mental conditioning program by Wildcat skipper Lopez.

Cole said one of the greatest examples for throwing complete games for his pitching staff was Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher Bob Gibson who put up stunning numbers from 1959-1975.

Gibson threw 28 complete games during the 1968 season in 34 starts and also threw 28 complete games in 35 starts in 1969. He also recorded 20 complete games in five other seasons.

Overall, Gibson had 255 complete games in 482 starts during his 17-year career.

“Bob Gibson was absolutely ruthless when he pitched,” said Cole.

“One of the greatest lines I read on him was that Gibson didn’t just dominate at his peak. He made hitters pray for a swift, easy death.”

Another great example was Juan Marichal. At the height of his career in 1968, he went 26-9 over 328 innings and completed 30 games with nearly five strikeouts for every walk issued. He recorded 22 complete games four other seasons during his 16 year career.

Possibly the most amazing example was Hall of Famer Cy Young who pitched from 1890-1911 and recorded 40 or more complete games nine different seasons. He owns the Major League record for most complete games with 749 in 815 starts over a 22-year career.

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