South Jersey sprouts a bumper crop of pitchers

Some top pitchers this season include (from left) Cherokee's Sean Kelly; Gloucester Catholic's Mike Shawaryn; St. Augustine's Chris Oakley; Bishop Eustace's Zac Gallen; Eastern's Steve Priolo. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Some top pitchers this season include (from left) Cherokee's Sean Kelly; Gloucester Catholic's Mike Shawaryn; St. Augustine's Chris Oakley; Bishop Eustace's Zac Gallen; Eastern's Steve Priolo. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 26, 2013

Major-league baseball historians refer to the first 20 years of the 20th century as the "Dead Ball Era."

South Jersey baseball has entered the "Live Arm Era."

Both time periods have stressed the same aspects of the sport: fielding, baserunning, situational hitting and, most of all, the performance of the guys on the pitching mound.

"There are just so many good arms out there," Bishop Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said. "I'm not sure I've ever seen this many who are this good."

Combined with last season's rule change that reduced the "trampoline effect" of composite bats - an equipment switch that lessened the power of the rebound of the ball off the bat - the emergence of so many accomplished pitchers has transformed the sport.

Stronger pitchers facing hitters with duller bats makes for shorter, closer, lower-scoring games, which only increase the value of the athletes who literally and figuratively stand above the rest on the top of that hill.

"It just makes for better baseball," Millville coach Roy Hallenbeck said. "The games are faster, everybody is alert, and strategy becomes much more of a factor."

While the change in bats has altered college and high school baseball across the country - in the college game, home runs were down nearly 50 percent from the previous season when the new bats were introduced in 2011 - the big news in South Jersey baseball this season is the proliferation of top pitchers.

Eleven senior pitchers have signed with or committed to Division I college programs: Bishop Eustace's Zac Gallen (North Carolina), St. Augustine Prep's Chris Oakley (North Carolina), Gloucester Catholic's Mike Shawaryn (Maryland), Cherokee's Sean Kelly (Rutgers), Eastern's Steve Priolo (Marist), Shawnee's Nick Montefusco (Pitt), Lenape's Kevin Milley (Delaware), Delsea's Nick Freijomil (Long Island), Clearview's Dave Young (Lehigh), Clearview's Matt Pennell (Binghamton), and Ocean City's Beau Hall (Georgetown).

The rest of this season's senior class includes accomplished pitchers such as Washington Township's Billy Grubb (7-1 with a 2.16 ERA last season) and Burlington City's Pedro Perez (7-2, 0.98 ERA, 111 strikeouts in 56 innings) as well as Cherry Hill East's Zach Lang, a Bloomsburg (Pa.) recruit, and Haddon Township's Pat Burns and Haddonfield's Jason Cavanaugh, each of whom won eight games as a junior.

"It's crazy," Gallen said of the pitching talent in South Jersey. "My brother [former Bishop Eustace star pitcher Jay Gallen] and I were just talking about that. I guess the travel-ball side of the game has given kids up here exposure to the talent everywhere else and caused them to work twice as hard."

If anything, this year's junior class includes even livelier arms, led by St. Augustine Prep's Joey Gatto, who has committed to North Carolina, and Delsea's Bryan Dobzanski. The two righthanders have fastballs that touch 90 m.p.h., and both have been projected as potential high-round picks in the 2014 major-league baseball draft.

The junior class also includes Hammonton righthander Justin Smith, who went 10-1 as a sophomore to lead the Blue Devils to their first South Jersey title, and Bishop Eustace lefthander Devin Smeltzer, who struck out 21 in just 14 innings last season and has drawn major recruiting interest from South Carolina, among other programs.

Other juniors of note are Gloucester Catholic's Steve Mondile (4-0, 1.43 ERA) and Mike Mercer (3-0, 1.25); Cherry Hill East's Nick DiEva, who has committed to Stony Brook; and St. Augustine Prep lefty Zach Warren.

And the highlight of last season might have been the work of freshman pitcher John Murphy of Gloucester Catholic. Murphy went 7-2 with a 1.39 ERA and pitched a three-hitter with eight strikeouts and zero walks in a 4-1 victory over nationally ranked Don Bosco Prep in the Non-Public A state championship game.

"I don't think I've ever seen multiple top-line guys [pitchers] like Gloucester Catholic," Cherry Hill West coach Dan McMaster said after his team faced the Rams in a recent scrimmage. And Gloucester Catholic didn't have Shawaryn pitch that day.

Baseball people point to the explosion of AAU travel teams - which expose youngsters as young as eight years old to competition across the country - the growth of indoor practice facilities, and the emphasis on personal training as reasons for the rise of the "Live Arm Era" in South Jersey.

"Kids are just so polished," Tropiano said. "They get so much exposure and so much training at such a young age."

Cherokee's Kelly believes young pitchers have benefited from the opening of so many indoor training facilities in the last five to 10 years.

"Kids are so advanced now," Kelly said. "There's so many indoor facilities, you pretty much can throw all year long. You build arm strength and work on your mechanics all year."

Delsea coach Tom Carney, whose pitching staff this season will feature Freijomil as well as Dobzanski, says pitchers benefit more from increased training than hitters who are given the same amount of time and attention.

"It's repetition," Carney said of pitching. "Hitters have to react and make adjustments. Pitchers have to hit spots.

"It's all about the mechanics. If you have the ability to work and train and practice and you can develop the ability to put the ball where it needs to be more often than not, you are going to be successful."

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