Willoughby signs with Colorado Rockies
Nearly every young baseball player aspires to play at the major-league level, and while most come to realize that dream is out of reach, some go on to fulfill it.
Seth Willoughby, a 2009 Watterson High School graduate, has taken another step toward realizing his dream, as he was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round (138th overall) of Major League Baseball's first-year player draft held June 4-6.
Willoughby spent the last three seasons pitching for Xavier University and has the distinction of being the highest draftee in program history. The Musketeers' previous highest pick was Rich Donnelly, who was the 158th overall pick by the New York Yankees in 1967.
"I always wanted to play baseball at the highest level I could," Willoughby said. "When I was in grade school and high school, playing summer ball, my goal was always to play Division I baseball. Once I got there, I wanted to play professionally."
Willoughby will forego his senior season at Xavier after signing a contract with the Rockies on June 12. He is expected to report to the Tri-City Dust Devils, the Rockies' Class A, short-season affiliate in Pasco, Wash.
He was recruited by Xavier as an infielder but quickly was moved to the pitching staff.
"In high school, I was pretty much recruited as a position player," he said from Denver while waiting to undergo a physical for the Rockies. "I pitched every once in a while and my senior year I threw, but I wasn't really known as a pitcher. Once I got to Xavier, they asked me if I pitched, and I said I had a little bit."
Little did Willoughby know that the course of his baseball career would change drastically during fall ball his freshman year, when he threw for his coaches.
"I threw a bullpen (session) and they told me they were going to use me," he said. "My first outing was at Tennessee and I think I got one guy out and I walked three guys, maybe hit a guy and gave up three runs.
"I definitely wasn't ready for it, but I worked on it a little bit and halfway through the season I started closing for Xavier."
In three seasons with the Musketeers, Willoughby posted a program-record 28 career saves, with a 6-7 record, 3.25 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings.
This spring, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-hander went 2-1 with 12 saves and had a 1.01 ERA and 44 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings and was named second-team all-Atlantic 10 Conference, as the Musketeers finished 28-28 for their sixth consecutive 20-win season.
At the plate this spring, Willoughby hit .421 with three RBI, five runs and one home run in 19 at-bats. In three seasons with the Musketeers, he batted .320 with 42 RBI, 38 runs and six home runs in 225 at-bats.
A bit of misfortune this year may have aided Willoughby in being drafted as high as he was.
In February, during the first series of the season, he broke the hamate bone in his left hand while taking a swing in a game against North Carolina. The injury sidelined him as an infielder and hitter, essentially allowing him to concentrate on his pitching.
"I was the No. 4 hitter and was supposed to be one of the best hitters on the team," Willoughby said. "I was going to be able to help the offense and it was really hard watching the team, knowing I could've helped them.
"But it was actually a bit of a blessing because I was able to focus on pitching. I got to work on a lot of things and I figured some things out that I really hadn't the year before. I started throwing a lot harder because I was rested. I bumped it up to around 93 to 95 (mph) and I touched 96 once."
During his first pitching session in front of the Xavier coaches in the fall of 2009, Willoughby said he topped out around 86 mph.
Watterson coach Scott Manahan has watched his former player's progress from afar. As a senior pitcher and shortstop with the Eagles, Willoughby went 5-1 with a 3.02 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 44 innings and batted .359 with six home runs, 27 RBI and 29 runs and was named first-team all-CCL and all-district in Division II.
"He's the exact type of kid you want," Manahan said. "He was very good academically and did very well at college, too.
"I was really impressed because he broke a bone and continued to pitch. Some guys would say they couldn't catch the ball and shut it down. What does he do? He makes himself a better pitcher. It's a good story for kids out there about perseverance and things like that."
When he was younger, Willoughby had a slender build and admired former Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel. It wasn't until his frame began to fill out and he started throwing harder that he saw himself as a pitcher with pro potential.
"After I started throwing hard, a couple weeks into the season my coach (Xavier pitching coach Nick Otte) was telling me I'd have an opportunity to play this year after college," he said. "That's when it kind of dawned on me I may have a chance to play as a pitcher.
"I was a pretty good pitcher my freshman and sophomore years, but after working with coach Otte so much this year, it made me a lot better. I was more consistent and he helped me fall into a routine that I wasn't able to (observe) when I was in the field."