March 26, 2015 at 7:36 AM
During much of his college career, injuries ensured that Karsten Whitson wasn’t the pitcher he was when he bet on himself and turned down millions from the San Diego Padres as the ninth overall pick to attend the University of Florida in 2010.
But the confidence that allowed him to do so never wavered, even through shoulder issues that robbed him of a collegiate season and dropped him to Boston in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft.
Now, with the benefit of the Red Sox’ shoulder strengthening program and a clean bill of health, Whitson is getting back to physically being that pitcher on the mound, too, having regained the fastball and arsenal befitting of someone with his pedigree last year at the Fall Instructional League.
“I tell people, ‘Instructs, that’s me. That’s kind of who I am,’ ” he said. And it’s probably been a little while—I know it’s been a little while, maybe a year or two since I’ve been that guy.”
“I don’t think that anything that’s happened up to this point has wavered my confidence at all,” he said. “There’s been some ups and downs—every player’s going to go through that in their career. Unfortunately for me, it was kind of at a younger stage in my career. But I think those experiences are going to help me get through future years.”
Whitson was one of the top prep pitchers in the country entering the 2010 draft, with a stint on the loaded 18U National Team alongside Red Sox prospects Garin Cecchini and Sean Coyle as well as current big leaguers Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Kevin Gausman.
Whitson reportedly turned down a $2.1-million signing bonus, opting instead to try to improve his lot while playing at his home state’s flagship school.
“I think just growing up kind of always having that confidence in myself, being able to perform on some of the bigger stages growing up,” he said. “I just really wanted to be a part of the program in Florida, and I think it was a great experience that I had. At the end of the day, it’s nothing that I would ever do over.”
He looked on track to maintain his first-round pedigree as a freshman in 2011, when he earned the Perfect Game Freshman Pitcher of the Year award with an 8-1 record and a 2.40 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 97 1/3 innings.
After a summer in the Cape Cod League, Whitson began dealing with shoulder issues that limited him to 33 1/3 innings in 14 appearances as a sophomore, and just ahead of the 2013 season, Whitson had shoulder surgery and missed his junior season.
“I had an internal impingement, so Dr. [James] Andrews did my surgery,” he said. “It was kind of exploratory, but he went in there and found the reason for my pain and kind of relieved me of some of that.”
He returned to pitch as a redshirt junior in 2014, posting a 3.86 ERA in 37 1/3 innings as he worked his way back to health. When the Red Sox selected him in the 11th round, they made it clear that that wasn’t the Whitson they wanted.
Whitson said: “It was really nice to get here in an organization and have them say, ‘Hey, we didn’t draft you off of who you’ve been the last two years. We’re taking a chance on you, we believe in you, and we want you to take the time to get back to where you were.’”
That process began in Lowell, where Whitson made four appearances and pitched seven total innings before his game action was replaced by side work. There, he developed a rapport with Lowell pitching coach Walter Miranda, whom he said he trusted from the start.
“I just sat down with him, let him tell me about himself and we’d go from there,” Miranda said. “It was a guy that was high-profile. He had a setback with the surgery, but I know why he was high-profile. He has good mechanics and a good arm.”
“I had some different things I was fighting mentally and in my mechanics, and I was able to open up to him on things that I was battling,” Whitson said. “He was able to kind of just give me my space and let me just take care of it, but he was always there and I was able to do a bunch of early work with him, get out work on mechanics and just kind of do my things. He was very helpful, and still is today.”
While in Lowell, Whitson used his bullpens to refine his mechanics, and most importantly, strengthened his shoulder. He and Miranda said the team’s strength program was crucial to his improvement from what he was at Florida.
“Now it’s just kind of maintaining it, knowing what it takes to stay healthy,” he said. “Every pitcher is going to have some things here or there that kind of get in the way, so for me it’s just about doing what I can to stay healthy.
Fortunately for Whiston, he—and the Red Sox—have seen what it looks like when he does. After sitting in the high-80s with his fastball in Lowell, he looked a different pitcher at the Fall Instructional League. Down in Fort Myers last October, he was sitting 92-94 mph, grabbing 96 mph, and working with a hard slider and changeup.
“Instructs was an extension of the season,” he said. “It was good to be healthy and be myself then, and kind of show some flashes of who I can be. Now it’s just building up to that.”
Photo by Dave Letizi
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.