Never heard of Stetson University before this week? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
After a pair of former Hatters baseball stars picked up two of the most prestigious awards in Major League Baseball over the last few days, Stetson shouldn’t be so unknown anymore.
Stetson products Jacob deGrom of the Mets and Corey Kluber of the Indians were voted the NL Rookie of the Year and the AL Cy Young, respectively. Both played their college ball at the tiny private school of about 2,500 students located in DeLand, Fla., about 45 minutes northeast of Orlando.
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Neither Kluber nor deGrom was initially drafted out of high school, but by the time they’d gone through the Stetson program, headed by longtime manager Pete Dunn, both had rocketed up draft boards. Kluber was picked by the Padres in the fourth round of the 2007 draft and deGrom went to the Mets in the ninth round in 2010.
Both pitchers left Stetson after their junior seasons, so there was no doubt that they each had potential to excel. But Dunn says he never could have anticipated that Kluber and deGrom would become the stars that they are today. It’s not a matter of not believing in his guys — just consideration for history.
“I won’t say it was a long shot, but it was certainly something that nobody could have predicted,” Dunn told FOX Sports in a phone interview Wednesday night. “It’s very gratifying. Somebody put it in perspective the other day and said, ‘Did you know that if those two guys win those awards — the last time that was done by two guys from the same school was 1975 when (USC’s) Fred Lynn and Tom Seaver won?’"
Playing for the Red Sox, Lynn was the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP in ’75, while Seaver won the NL Cy pitching for the Mets.
“I mean, wow,” Dunn continued. “Not only was that a long time ago, it certainly doesn’t happen very often, but from an enrollment standpoint, we’re one of the smallest Division I schools in the nation, out of almost 300. I think that makes it even more impressive that we got these kids here, that we recruited them and they developed, and now they’re at the pinnacle of their profession.”
deGrom was a local kid, from nearby DeLeon Springs, and was initially recruited to play at Stetson as a shortstop. He did that well for two seasons, but also had the best arm on the team, and by his junior year, Dunn realized he needed deGrom on the mound as badly as he needed him in the infield.
“He could throw strikes in his sleep,” Dunn said. “He didn’t have to throw bullpens, he didn’t have to work real hard at it, he had great command, had a good fastball and a pretty good breaking ball.”
Initially, the plan was to use deGrom as a closer so that he could remain the team’s everyday shortstop. But after a few weeks in that role, deGrom had only a handful of appearances and just two saves, so Dunn moved him to the rotation in order to get more use out of his new stud on the mound.
“He was wasting away in the bullpen, and our starting pitching was not living up to expectations,” Dunn said. “I sat down with my staff and said, ‘Our best chance to win on Friday night is (pitching our) shortstop,’ so we made the decision to bring him in and say, ‘Listen, we need you out there on Friday nights.’ Of course, his first question was, ‘Well, can I still play short?’”
The answer to that question was essentially, “yes and no.” Dunn allowed deGrom to occasionally play his desired infield position, and said he could bat as a pitcher and DH when he wasn’t in the field. But pitching would be his main focus from that point forward — a pretty wise move, with the benefit of hindsight.
Despite a loss to future White Sox ace Chris Sale and Florida Gulf Coast — a game in which deGrom hit his only homer of the year, off of Sale — deGrom had made his impact.
“He opened a lot of eyes for the remainder of the year, and a lot of scouts came in to see him who hadn’t really seen much of him early,” Dunn said of deGrom, who started 12 games that season and went 4-5 with a 4.48 ERA. “Word got around, through the scouting network, that he was throwing really well … and the rest is history.”
As for Kluber, he ended up at Stetson by a stroke of luck.
A pitcher at Coppell High School in Texas, near Dallas, Kluber wouldn’t have normally ended up on the radar of a program like the Hatters. But Dunn had sent his recruiting coordinator to a tournament in Jupiter, Fla., to check out a player out of Dade County who had been recommended by a major donor.
The scout came back with an unexpected evaluation.
“When he came back, he said, ‘Well I can tell you two things: No. 1, the guy that you sent me to see is not the guy, and he can’t play for us. But the guy pitching against him is the real deal,’” Dunn said. “He said, ‘There’s this kid out of Texas named Kluber, and I really, really like him.’”
It turned out that Kluber’s parents had a condo in Florida — sometimes that’s all the connection you need — and before they knew it, Kluber had committed to move halfway across the country to play in the Sunshine State.
During Kluber’s freshman year, he made 20 appearances, but just one start, going 2-2 with an unimpressive 7.82 ERA in 25 1/3 innings. He would quickly improve with age. As a sophomore, Kluber was moved to the starting rotation and went 6-5 with a 3.61 ERA in 17 appearances, 14 of them starts.
Kluber’s junior year would turn out to be his last campaign at Stetson, and for good reason. That season, as the team’s regular Friday night starter, he took the mound 17 times and went 12-2 with a 2.05 ERA, with 117 strikeouts and just 36 walks in 114 innings.
In his final collegiate start before going pro, Kluber threw his first career shutout in a 12-0 win over Bethune-Cookman at an NCAA regional in Tallahassee, Fla. The Hatters were eliminated in their next game, finishing 42-21.
“I say this in all honesty,” Dunn said. “We’re not going to lure those kids that are going to be top three-round draft picks. They’re not going to come to Stetson. A couple years ago, Florida had two kids on their staff that were first-round draft picks, but we’re not going to get those kids.
“So we have to bring in … kids that we think can develop in the program and come out better. I think (deGrom and Kluber) are two classic examples of that.”
Just this past weekend, Kluber was actually back in DeLand, where he and Braves third baseman Chris Johnson, another former Stetson star, were inducted into the school’s athletics Hall of Fame. deGrom hasn’t been inducted yet and wasn’t at the ceremony in support of his fellow big league Hatters — he got married Saturday, so he gets a pass — but it seems safe to say that his time will come soon.
Now, looking back, the only shame for Dunn is that he couldn’t have had Kluber and deGrom at the same time, but going forward, he has no intention of letting recruits forget where two of baseball’s best got their start.
“We’ve got two pitchers who won the highest honors in Major League Baseball, so certainly, if we’re worth our salt, we’ve got to ride that horse pretty good,” Dunn said. “But I can’t even imagine (if we could have had) deGrom in the mix with (Johnson) and Corey. That would have really been special. I don’t know if we’d have ever lost the first two games of a series.”