March means baseball, with Sox players in the Pitching Program taking the field after working for months to take the mound. With Davis Torrey, Alex Hillhouse and Landon Hillhouse.
Alex Gunn and Avery Johnson initiated the program last Fall, with emphasis on arm care, lower body strength, location accuracy and a consistent velocity. Both have been anxious to see the season start and have been following players in the program as they play on the weekends. "It's been a learning process for every player", stated Alex Gunn, "but every player has taken it serious and want to learn. It makes it fun for all of us." Gunn pitched locally at Clinton High School, then to Hinds before finishing his college career at the University of Memphis. Alex had the opportunity of a lifetime when he was selected to play for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and playing in the minor leagues before calling it a career after the 2018 season. "I learned a lot about pitching while playing professionally, and I love teaching the game. There is an art to pitching, and we have some artists that are starting to find their way. Watching them excel is what keeps me going."
Avery and Alex grew up playing against each other when Avery was at Brandon High School. "We played Clinton every year and it was always for the bragging rights", Avery said. "Alex and I talk about it and we aren't sure we ever pitched against each other, but he seems to remember hitting a dinger off of me. I think he's dreaming." After playing for the Bulldogs,
Avery continued his career with Belhaven where he pitched for 3 seasons. "I have been so lucky. I have learned and played for the best coaches - first Gerard Gibert in Select travel ball; then Neill Bartling at Brandon and in college, hall of famer Hill Denson. It's a baseball education."
Their playing days over, both Alex and Avery spend their weekdays passing on their unique skills, going from playing against each other to partnering together. "We want to push each other to put a great product on the field", according to Alex. "We also both coach 14 year old Sox teams on the weekend - but we win when we see our players pitching with confidence."
A look at some of the players in the Sox Pitching Program...
Davis Torrey has been in the program for over 3 months, representing the kind of improvement that Alex and Avery envisioned when they began designing it. His first bullpen was normal, hitting his locations at a rate of about 20% accuracy. After a month, he started posting accuracy numbers that touched 80%, and his velocity increased over 7 MPH on his fastball. Today, he stays consistent around 80% across the board on his location, and his fastball has maintained its velocity. "The next step for Davis is to hold, then incrementally increase velocity as he gains confidence", stated Alex. "Of course, it has to show up on the mound in a game to really mean it", added Avery.
So far so good. Working around the rain-outs that we are so familiar with this time of year, Davis has managed to pitch in one game in February with his EC Sox 14U Premier team against the MS Express, pitching 2 innings, he struck out 4 batters while only giving up a hit, and no runs. He faced 7 batters with only 28 pitches, 18 of those strikes. Ever the mentor, Alex sees room for improvement. "It's hard to argue with his first two innings out but I would like to see his First Pitch Strike rate go up a lot", said Gunn. Davis registered a .286 FPS, looking for at least .500 to lengthen his stay on the mound.
The Hillhouse brothers, Alex and Landon, have been in the program for just over 2 months. Alex Hillhouse started with good location, recording 50's down the middle and arm side, but was struggling to find a strike on his glove side. "It's about mechanics and understanding why the ball goes where it does", answered Avery about the struggle. "Guys will try to throw as hard as they can to light up the gun, but as they settle in to understand accuracy, it's amazing to see their velocity go up without them trying", added Gunn. Alex Hillhouse has added 3 MPH to his fastball in just 2 months, and his accuracy never drops below 60 in all locations. He started the season with 3.2 innings pitched, with 5 strikeouts and 4 hits, allowing only 2 earned runs. He has a FPS rate of .455.
His brother Landon Hillhouse has had similar results, adding 3 MPH to his fastball in just over a month. His accuracy rate runs in the 80's across the board, and it is showing up on the mound. Landon pitched 3.2 innings for his EC Sox 12U team coached by Ben Hudspeth, recording 8 strikeouts against only 3 hits, allowing one earned run. He tossed a FPS to 12 of the 17 batters he faced, with 45 of his 67 pitches in there for a strike.
We will keep watching pitchers in the program and report back on all of the players as they begin to accumulate innings on the mound. And don't be surprised to see Avery, Alex, or both of them watching you from somewhere in the park. "We're watching", say Alex. "We will get to as many tournaments as we can when we are not coaching - but we keep up with every game".