Before the Big Eight begat the Big 12, their baseball players swung big bats. Now the league is up in arms. In its 12-year history, the Big 12 has had 15 pitchers selected in the first round, or the first supplementary round, of the annual amateur baseball draft. A handful of candidates figure to be taken when the next draft is held June 9-10. Theories abound for everything in baseball, but what explains the Big 12 rise on the pitching mound? Baylor coach Steve Smith said he believes it could be geographical. "Baseball is so strong in Texas and Oklahoma,” said Smith, in his 15th season leading the Bears. "That probably has a lot to do with it, not to disparage the Midwest because there are a lot of really good arms up there.” Smith will get no argument from seventh-year Kansas coach Ritch Price. "Without question, I think this is best pitching conference in the country,” Price said. "I give the Texas and Oklahoma guys a lot of credit for that because they pitch with a fastball like a professional does. That’s why you see velocity ranges that are just amazing.” During this week’s Big 12 Tournament at Bricktown Ballpark, radar readings have frequented the low-90s, and sometimes have reached the mid-90s. "In California ... You see guys pitching at 88 and 89 and they’re slider, slider, slider,” said Price, who was at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo for eight years prior to joining the Jayhawks. "That’s the biggest difference I’ve seen from California to the Midwest is how people pitch with a fastball here, and I think that develops people with better arms.” Kansas State coach Brad Hill speaks like, well, every Big 12 coach speaks in every sport. "I think it’s the lure of playing in the Big 12,” Hill said of the stellar pitching. "Our conference has that kind of national prominence. Kids want to be part of the Big 12. They see the stadiums. They see the crowds. They see the atmospheres. I think that’s all attractive for kids. They want to be in this area. "You see success everywhere in the Big 12. There is a tradition of developing pitchers in our conference.” Smith has been with the Big 12 since its inception in 1997. "This always has been a power conference,” Smith said, "but I think it’s changing a little bit. The guys with the really good arms are pitching. They’re bigger and stronger.” Smith used 6-foot-3, 210-pound Oklahoma junior right-hander Andrew Doyle as Exhibit A. "When we played Oklahoma (April 24) and Doyle started the game, I was looking at the radar and he was at 85 or 86 (mph) for about four or five pitches,” Smith said. "I thought, ‘Wow, we finally found somebody with a fastball we can handle.’ "Then all the sudden, six or seven pitches later, he was at 95. I realized, ‘Doggone, this guy is pitching backwards. He’s throwing changeups and sliders early, then finishing with fastballs.’ That is a big-league approach to pitching.” The Big 12 frequently has a handful of high-draft pitching prospects before each season. By the end of that season, some prospects have slipped while others have emerged. This season was no different. Kansas State junior right-hander A.J. Morris was 4-4 with 6.04 ERA last season. This year, Morris is 13-1 with a 1.84 ERA. "Morris?” Smith said with a smile and a shrug. "I don’t know what got into him.” Hill sheepishly pleaded ignorance. "Hey, I don’t know,” Hill said. "I don’t know if the coaches knew something. I wish I could tell you.” Price served as a Team USA assistant under Oral Roberts coach Rob Walton last summer when four Big 12 pitchers on the squad were projected first-rounders — Tyler Lyons and Andrew Oliver from Oklahoma State, Missouri’s Kyle Gibson and Baylor’s Kendal Volz. "There are incredible arms in this conference,” Price said. The conference’s name pitchers ran hot and cold this season (see chart). Missouri’s Aaron Crow, an unsigned first-round selection a year ago, also is a top-5 draft candidate, and don’t forget about Morris. "I think he’s got a great chance (of becoming a first-rounder),” Hill said of Morris. "You don’t know what scouts are thinking, but if I were a scout I’d take him. I’ll tell you that right now.” John Rohde: 475-3099. John Rohde can be heard Monday-Friday from 6-7 p.m. on The Sports Animal Network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.
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