Franklin coach Larry Meekins believes it's not a coincidence that the number of outstanding pitchers in the metro area is at a high point as more and more high school pitchers seek personal instruction and strength training in the offseason.
Meekins, who serves as a pitching coach at former Oriole Larry Sheets' Players School and Clinic in Westminster, said he is amazed at the number of parents who are seeking personal instruction for their kids.
"When I started with Larry seven to eight years ago, I thought it might not be worth it for kids to get the extra personal instruction, but I was wrong," said Meekins, an All-Metro pitcher at Franklin in 1970 who went on to pitch at Clemson and in the minor leagues. "But today's kids are very responsive to clinics for instruction and conditioning.
"Larry tells them that today as far as going a long way in baseball, that their chances are against the world, a one-in-a-billion shot with so many other countries and the islands producing players. They need to do everything they can to gain an edge."
As a result, scores of clinics and schools have popped up all over the state to meet the demand of today's high school players.
Catonsville's Adam Kolarek, a first-team All-Metro selection last season, is among those who sought an edge through strength training. Kolarek, a left-hander, worked out in the offseason at Perform Fit in Lutherville, which is run by former Orioles strength coach Tim Bishop.
By lifting weights and engaging in a series of strength-building exercises, Kolarek, 6 feet 3, went from 185 pounds to 200.
"I feel so much stronger, and it has to help my pitching and batting," said Kolarek, who is headed to Maryland and hopes to pitch and play outfield. "It was a commitment, but it was worth it. I think there are so many good pitchers out there because we have developed a passion for pitching. Many of us pitched in Little League, summer ball and high school and have had a lot of fun doing it."
Among an exceptional group of returning pitchers is junior Tyler Hibbs, the All-Metro Player of the Year who led Arundel to a 10th state title, and then was a key player on Team USA, which won the Junior Olympic 16-and-under Double-A Pan-Am games in Venezuela.
"I've always been the ace on my team growing up," said Hibbs, who started as a freshman at Arundel and has 18 wins in two seasons. "The idea is to keep getting better, and I think more guys are working harder in the offseason to do that with weightlifting and running at school."
Hibbs, 5 feet 11, is another player who has worked hard to get stronger, going from 150 pounds to 165.
"Winning 13 games again [in a season] might be hard to do, so my goals are to go undefeated and hit .500," said Hibbs, who was 13-1 last year.
In addition to conditioning, personal instruction can include the addition of pitches such as a changeup or slider, or the newest pitch that has become popular at the high school level - the splitter.
"I think the splitter is the best pitch to teach because it's not hard on the arm and can be a devastating pitch," said Meekins, who set state records when he played at Franklin, including 12 career shutouts and 53 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings.
"It's like a slider in that it sinks," he added. "You hold it like a two-seam fastball and ram it back into the first two fingers with the thumb on the bottom seam. It has a reverse tumbling action of your fastball."
Arundel coach Bernie Walter, who has a record 566 wins and 10 state titles, shows that the instructors aren't always in agreement. He favors the slider over the splitter.
"If taught the right way, the slider will not hurt your arm," said Walter, who taught the pitch to Hibbs. "It's an easy pitch to throw. I don't think the splitter will necessarily help a lot of guys at the next level as the slider. I think it's more important to develop velocity, control and delivery before anything, and a lot of kids are doing that in the offseason."
A list of the top returning pitchers in the metro area, including five who have college baseball scholarships.
*Alex Bechta, Centennial, senior
Andrew Cunningham, North Harford, senior
*Paul DeVito, Archbishop Spalding, junior Brian Ellis, Poly, senior
Shane Eyler, F.S. Key, senior
Brett Harman, Westminster, senior (Maryland)
Austin Harclerode, Centennial, senior
Tyler Hibbs, Arundel, junior
Kevin Jacob, Parkville, senior (Ga. Tech)
*Adam Kolarek, Catonsville, senior (Maryland)
Louey Mari, St. Paul's, senior
Chris Moore, Chesapeake-AA, senior
Drew Permison, Oakland Mills, senior
Mark Peterson, Franklin, senior
Shawn Pleffner, Arundel, senior
Ryan Rivers, Eastern Tech, senior (UNC-Charlotte)
Garrett Weinhold, Fallston, sophomore
*Ben Winter, Centennial, junior
Joe Yermal, McDonogh, senior (UNC-Charlotte)