By JACOB HOAG
Shane McClanahan entered his third and final season pitching for the University of South Florida with the utmost confidence.
Eyes peeking toward his projected future of being a top-10 pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, he was focused on maintaining that status.
For the early part of that year, he was practically unhittable. He opened the year not allowing an earned run in his first 31 2/3 innings, and was feeling himself a little bit.
Maybe a little bit too much.
“In college, I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have in handling it all,” McClanahan said. “Personally, I think I might’ve gotten caught up in the expectations and let it get to me a little bit.
“One thing I really learned over the past year is to play the game for the right reason. Don’t pitch to get drafted, play because you love the game. Love the teammates around you. If you play the game the right way, the game sees that and things will start to go your way a little bit.”
McClanahan struggled with consistency as the season progressed and finished that year with a 5-6 record and a 3.42 ERA. With it, his draft stock plummeted from a top-10 selection to the 31st pick by the Tampa Bay Rays.
The entire process was humbling for the young lefty and taught him plenty. Since the draft, he has began his first full season in the minor leagues and ascended from Low-A Bowling Green to High-A Charlotte, where he currently resides.
In his first start with the Stone Crabs on June 12, McClanahan pitched 5 1/3 innings, allowing two earned on six hits with a season-high 10 strikeouts.
In four appearances since moving to High-A, McClanahan is 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA. It’s been a hot start for a rising prospect that regularly throws in the upper 90s.
“I feel like I get stronger as the game goes on,” McClanahan said. “I remember guys, I remember swings and I just feel like my stuff gets a little bit better as the game goes on. No matter where you are, you want to do the best you can. Playing with such a great group of guys, you want to show them you belong and you want to help them win a championship.
“I feel like a good part of this team is that we have a bunch of really good dudes and I think we’re gonna do some pretty special things here.”
McClanahan is just what teams look for. A lefty throwing 97-99 mph with good command of his fastball.
The ability to place his fastball allows him to sprinkle in his breaking ball and keep hitters off-balance, knowing they have to respect his heat.
“He’s just filling up the zone,” said teammate Jacob Plassmeyer. “He wasn’t doing bad (in Bowling Green) by any means, but here he’s been just constantly on the attack. He’s mixing pitches really well. He’s finally got his changeup working really well. The three-pitch mix is just deadly.”
For McClanahan, the fastball has always been a staple of his game.
“My fastball is what sets the tone for an entire game,” McClanahan said. “You have to pitch around that. I feel like every pitcher should pitch around their fastball because once you establish your fastball, everything else just looks that much better.”
He didn’t always have that velocity, but built it over time. While at Cape Coral High School, he was throwing 88-91 with a steady increase.
The biggest jump came after having Tommy John surgery as a freshman with USF.
McClanahan benefitted greatly from his rehab after the injury, strengthening his arm and, in turn, developing a greater appreciation for the sport while sitting out.
“After Tommy John, I kind of feel like it changed my career around just because of the rehab,” he said. “With Tommy John, we did a lot of elbow strengthening obviously, but we also did a lot of stuff that people don’t know about Tommy John rehab.
“We did a lot of form, we did a lot of back, we did a lot of core and legs. Just getting everything around it stronger because maybe the elbow wasn’t as strong or maybe it was compensating for something. But sitting out was really hard for me. I want to be on that field just as much as any other guy. It really helped me maturity wise on and off the field. Being hurt and having to sit out for over a year, you really appreciate the love you have for the game.”
Now McClanahan faces the same task every minor leaguer does. His goal is to put in the work in order to rise through the ranks to one day pitch in the major leagues.
And with each level, subtle things change in routine and in gameplay. But the goal remains the same.
“Mistakes here get hit a little bit more,” McClanahan said. “More hitters have a significantly better approach. They spit on stuff that might’ve gotten a swing before. The game’s just a little faster here. But with a good team, like I have, it makes it just a little bit easier to pitch.
“In pro ball, expectations don’t mean anything to me. Everybody around you is in the same spot as you are. Everyone wants to get to the big leagues.”
With everything he’s gone through with the injury, the junior year slump and the grind of chipping away at the minor leagues, he’s come out a more mature player with a clearer mindset. He loves the game and welcomes the battle, which he feels will keep him chugging into Double-A and beyond.
“I’ve tried to do a good job this year of controlling things and worrying only about what I can control,” he said. “I think that helps with a player, not just a pitcher or just me. Maturity-wise and keeping a good mindset helps in this game. I think maturity is what separates the big leaguers from the minor leaguers.
“You have to love what you do or it will chew you up and spit you out. This is what we all signed up for.”