After Taylor Clarke was not drafted on Monday night, the first night of the Major League Baseball draft (which ended on pick 75), he was pretty sure he would be the first player chosen on Day 2, to kick of the third round, by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He and some friends gathered Tuesday afternoon at his parents’ home in Ashburn, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., and set up a TV to receive MLB.com’s webcast.
“We kind of knew the Diamondbacks were going to take me with that pick,” Clarke said just a couple hours after becoming the 76th overall pick and the first player with an ASN-affiliated school. “But it’s a pretty surreal feeling. You know you’re going to be drafted, but you don’t actually believe it until you see your name and picture up on the TV. … It’s a dream come true.”
On Wednesday, Clarke was named one of three finalists for the National Pitcher of the Year. His next stop is Scottsdale, Ariz., where he will join other rookies at the Diamondbacks’ spring training facility. But the College of Charleston standout, who posted some of the best pitching numbers in all of college baseball, didn’t get there without some detours.
After leading his Virginia high school team deep into the Class AA state playoffs to cap his senior year in 2011, he moved on to Towson University in Maryland, where he tossed 46 innings as a freshman in the spring of 2012. All part of the plan, right?
Not so fast.
That first season at Towson came with some arm discomfort, extended rest and, eventually in January 2013, Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm. If that wasn’t depressing enough, while he was in the middle of rehab, the school announced the baseball program would be eliminated after the 2013 season. Even though the state ultimately found funding to save the sport, Clarke and some of his teammates had already initiated the transfer process. That’s how Clarke wound up completing his rehab in South Carolina, and eventually rewarding coach Monte Lee with two superlative seasons, the highlight being a complete-game, 18-strikeout performance against Radford in March.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better two years out of a starting pitcher,” Lee said just moments after Clarke was chosen by Arizona. “It’s hard to imagine you can have a guy who can give you the kind of production that Clarke did. He had the best year in school history. There’s nothing else he could have done for us.”
After a solid first season with the Cougars in 2014, Clarke’s velocity rose from the upper 80s to the low-to-mid 90s this year. He finished his redshirt junior campaign with a 13-1 record, a 1.73 ERA and 143 strikeouts in just over 114 innings. His last appearance for Charleston came when he went seven innings in the Cougars’ 7-6 win over Auburn to open the NCAA regional in Tallahassee late last month.
“The biggest difference between last year and this year is he was in the second year removed from Tommy John and he would touch 95 mph. all year long,” Lee said. In a conversation about what makes a successful pitcher in pro baseball, Lee noted that Clarke’s ability to command three strong pitches will be a differentiator. “He can move the ball around as well as anybody I’ve ever had, and he’s got a power slider,” Lee said.
Clarke knew he had pitched well last season, but he credits the 2014 summer as the key to his increased velocity – he didn’t throw much, but he focused on an overall fitness regimen that put him in position for a great final season at Charleston.
“There were points where I would get discouraged, when I wasn’t coming back as quick,” he said. “You’re not getting the same feel for your pitches coming back from surgery, but [it was] never so much that I felt like was time to hang it up. It was just stuff you had to overcome. It all came together in the fall of 2014. I just felt much stronger than the year before.”
While some projections had Clarke lasting until the fifth round, Arizona was thrilled to snag Clarke early. “We didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t want to be looking up and all of a sudden we didn’t get him with the next pick. That’s how much we liked him,” said Deric Ladnier, the organization’s scouting director. “Not that I’m a statistical person, but his statistics back-up his ability.”
Ladnier said the Diamondbacks will limit Clarke’s innings this summer, but the team is excited to see how he grows in an organization that targeted starting pitching in this year’s draft.
Lee will miss Clarke, but isn’t too worried that his team’s run of NCAA postseason appearances will end. In fact, he’s looking for Bailey Ober, who posted a 10-3 record as a freshman, to rebound from elbow surgery after sitting out this season.
As far as Clarke goes, he’ll always remember his two seasons in Charleston as the place where he got his career back on track. “It was great playing there. It was a blessing to be able to transfer down there, and how it all worked out,” he said. “It was awesome playing for those coaches and with those players. I’ll always love Charleston, especially the city. It will always be a place I want to come back and visit.”