Maryland ace Jake Stinnett made a $70,000 gamble with his baseball career last summer, when he turned down the Pittsburgh Pirates' bid to sign him as a 29th-round draft pick and returned for his senior season.
The downside was minimal. Falter as a senior, and he'd begin the same climb from anonymity to the big leagues as he would have in the Pirates system, only one year later.
The upside for both team and player has proven greater. Stinnett will take the ball Thursday in the Terps' opening round game against No. 3 seed Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C. It's Maryland's first appearance in the ACC tourney since 2005.
"We're trying to build something special, and to do that, you need special players," Maryland coach John Szefc said. "He's certainly a special player."
"He took a really mature route," Szefc added. "So many of these young guys now are in such a rush to get their pro careers started. The culture now is so fast, there's no patience at all. To his credit, I think he's really done it the right way. He's taken his time, he's let the process work a little bit and he's reaping the benefits of it."
Stinnett, a second-team All-ACC pitcher, went 6-6 with a 2.53 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 96 innings this season, anchoring a strong rotation that also includes Jake Drossner (4-1, 2.18 ERA) and Mike Shawaryn (9-3, 2.96). The group has led the Terps (34-19) to within one win of a school record, and they have a shot at earning the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 1971.
After that, Stinnett will launch into a professional career that he delayed a year under the belief this standout senior season was possible.
"I just thought I had a lot more room to develop, and [it] still would give me an opportunity to go back and get that much closer to getting my college degree and at the same time, develop more as a pitcher," Stinnett said. "To maybe show people that … I could be someone that they're very interested in."
His stock has soared in evaluators' eyes. Stinnett rolled through the ACC schedule with primarily a two-pitch mix. His fastball, which sat 92-93 mph in his home finale on April 2, has reportedly been up to 95 mph consistently. But his true out pitch is a wipeout slider, which sits between 82-84 mph with late bite and can be located early in the count and buried late for strikeouts.
He said his seldom-used changeup is around where his slider was last year — "a work in progress [with] flashes of being good, but just not consistent." His smooth arm action and athleticism lead scouts to believe he can develop a changeup as a third pitch, and as a result, remain a starter at the next level.
An American League scout who saw Stinnett earlier this year said his stuff was "pretty crisp" with better command than in 2013. But his senior status makes Stinnett an interesting case under new MLB draft rules.
Stinnett is seen as a good value pick, considering he's an early-round talent who has less negotiating leverage because he can't return to school. Seniors are typically viewed as finished products in baseball, but Stinnett, 22, has what scouts would deem a young arm.
Stinnett pitched sparingly as a third baseman at Rancho Buena Vista High in California. As a freshman at Maryland in 2011, he made 40 starts at third, hitting a team-leading five home runs, but with a .174 batting average. He also made five appearances on the mound.
The next year, playing time waned. With his draft year approaching and his options limited at Maryland, Stinnett chose to focus solely on pitching that summer with the Danbury Westerners in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
"It was time to focus on one or the other, and stop trying to focus on both of them," Stinnett said. "I felt like I wasn't getting much better at either of them."
Westerners manager Jamie Shevchik said it was easy to see Stinnett's future was on the mound.
"Right from the very first day we had him on the field, you could see his athleticism," Shevchik said. "Ultimately, that athleticism has translated him to being such a good pitcher."
Stinnett assumed closer duties in his junior season, and he made seven relief appearances before moving to Maryland's rotation. He compiled a 6-5 record with a 2.83 ERA and two saves in 88 2/3 innings as a junior, then brought his developing arsenal to the Cape Cod Baseball League to polish his repertoire against the top college players in the country.
Outside of a July 25 start in which he allowed one hit in seven shutout innings, Stinnett struggled to miss bats on the Cape.
"To get better, you've got to get out of your comfort zone, and that's what he did," Szefc said.
Szefc, the second-year Terps coach, got a much more polished pitcher this spring. Stinnett burst onto the national scene when he threw a no-hitter against Massachusetts on March 1. On March 21, North Carolina State came to College Park for a marquee matchup between Stinnett and Carlos Rodon, a junior lefty who entered the year as the top candidate to be the No. 1 pick in June's draft. Rodon struggled with his control and velocity in that outing, while Stinnett struck out 14 in eight scoreless innings.
Just as important to Szefc is Stinnett's contribution off the field, where he said his top pitcher is a leader.
Stinnett said he relishes his role as the staff's ace.
"I enjoy being the guy on the team, someone the pitching staff looks up to," he said. "They try to learn from that guy, and I enjoy being that guy. I try to set a good example for them and then when it's Friday, it's time to compete. That's something I've always loved to do."
ACC baseball tournament
The ACC tournament began with play-in games Tuesday, when the lowest four seeds in the 10-team field played for the finals spots in each of two pools. The remaining four teams in Pool A and Pool B play each other in a round-robin format. The team with the best record in each pool earns a spot in Sunday's championship game.
No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 3 Virginia — Thursday, 11 a.m
No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 2 Florida State — Friday, 11 a.m.
No. 6 Maryland vs No. 7 North Carolina — Saturday, 3 p.m.
Championship — Sunday, 1 p.m.