There no doubt have been more than a few fans who have watched South Alabama’s Jeremy Lee pitch this season who have done a double-take when glancing at the roster to discover he is just a freshman.
His poise and confidence on the mound, along with the fact he is the Jaguars’ designated Friday night starter — pitching the first game of a three-game conference series, considered the key game of the series and usually featuring the No. 1 starter for both teams — would suggest he is a more seasoned member of the team.
But with a big-breaking curveball and a fastball that registers 95 mph, along with a competitive and confident approach to each mound appearance, Lee, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound right-hander from Selma, has quickly become one of South Alabama’s top performers this season.
“Since the day he stepped foot on campus he was good enough, and he’s been a better version of himself since he started in the fall,” Jags’ head coach Mark Calvi said of Lee. “There are big things ahead in that boy’s future here.”
Pitching coach Brad Phillips, who recruited Lee out of Morgan Academy in Selma, received a phone call suggesting he take a look at a player on the Morgan Academy team — a player other than Lee. He took the suggestion and headed out to see the team play in a doubleheader. He left already convinced there was a player on the team he wanted to be a future Jaguar, and it only took a few pitches to convince him to make Lee a recruiting priority.
“I got a phone call about a kid, one of Jeremy’s teammates, and he was a really good player,” Phillips said. “And I had heard a little bit about Jeremy, too. So when I got to the game I saw the first game and Jeremy pitched that game and the kid I was there to see was playing the second game.
“After that first game, I was thinking this kid [Lee] is special. I fell in love with him that night and continued the process and he was very mature through the whole [recruiting] thing. I think Jeremy knew what he wanted as far as where he wanted to end up and what he wanted from the school he would choose, and we offered that. We hung in there and we were patient with him and we were very, very, very fortunate to land him here at South.
“I tell you, he’s one of a kind. The mental makeup, what he offers from a pitch standpoint is obvious, everybody sees that. But as a kid, the mentality he has — it’s hard enough to be a Friday night guy, much less to be a Friday night guy as a freshman — and he’s embraced the role and so far nothing has seemed too big for him. That’s the more impressive part to me more than anything else — what kind of kid he is, and watching him pitch with all the pressure on him and seeing what he can do.”
Phillips said he knew from the start Lee could be the Jags’ Friday night starter his first year after seeing him pitch at Morgan Academy.
“I was a little biased from the recruiting process; I thought he could be that guy two years ago,” he said. “I really did. I thought through the recruiting process all along that he could be a Friday night guy. Once he got here, he proved me right. We got his feet wet early in that first appearance [one inning against Southeast Missouri in the season opener], just threw him right in there, and I think that was great for him. He has taken off since then.”
It is also rare to see a freshman, who arrived with just a two-pitch combination (fastball, curveball) to be placed in such an important role in the starting rotation, but it further adds to Lee’s building legacy.
“Number one is his stuff. When you’re throwing 93-95 [mph] and the breaking ball that he throws, just that two-pitch combo in itself is good enough [to be a Friday night starter],” Phillips said. “But he’s starting to add some things [changeup and slider]. But the first outing [the first start against Southern Miss] you could just see it in his eyes [he was ready].
“He was nervous [against Southeast Missouri (SEMO)], but his first start against Southern Miss his demeanor was totally, totally different; [it was] what I was used to seeing through the recruiting process. Nothing fazes him. He’s just oozing with confidence and it shows. From a physical demeanor, you can see that he is very confident in who he is as a person and as a pitcher.”
Heading into this weekend’s games, Lee has a 3-2 record in 10 appearances, eight as a starter. He has a 3.10 earned run average and has struck out 66 batters in 49.1 innings pitched. He has issued only nine walks and has had only one hit by pitch to his credit this season. Opponents are batting just .210 against him.
In the season opener Feb. 19, he pitched one inning, allowing one hit, striking out one and allowing no walks or runs in facing four batters and throwing just 13 pitches. He got his first start Feb. 23 against Southern Miss. Lee pitched seven innings, striking out eight, allowing just three hits with no runs or walks. He threw 101 pitches.
Last Friday night, used in relief because he had pitched the previous Sunday when weather forced games to move back a couple of days, Lee threw 1.1 innings and picked up the save in the Jags’ win over Georgia State. He faced the minimum of four batters over that stretch, striking out two.
“I’ve had some good outings and some outings that I would like to improve on,” Lee said. “I’m settling down and finding out who I am. The very first outing I came in in relief against SEMO, the very first game of the year, and the butterflies were going everywhere, but that one inning definitely helped me kind of calm my nerves before I started that next Tuesday against Southern Miss. Ever since then I feel like I’ve been a lot calmer. Having some success early kind of helped me get things rolling early this season.”
Lee said he expected the jump from high school to college would be big but he prepared for that and noted he feels comfortable with the transition he has made thus far.
“All the players on these teams were the best players at their high schools, so one through nine [in the lineup] there’s no slouch. You have to make good pitches to all of them,” he said. “There’s room for improvement — there always is.”
His aim is to add a couple more pitches to his arsenal in an effort to stay ahead of hitters and force them to consider other pitches that could come their way from him instead of just the fastball and curveball.
“I’m working on a changeup,” Lee said. “That’s going to be my next big step in my development as a pitcher is developing a changeup and being able to throw it in the same counts as my curveball and my fastball. The fastball has come along; the velo [velocity] has come up quite a bit and just trying to hold it throughout the game is going to be huge.”
Calvi said he believes Lee adding new pitches will only make him a better, more effective pitcher.
“He’s fit in since Day 1,” Calvi said. “The talent is there. We saw it recruiting him and he’s gotten better. He was 88-91 [mph] in high school with that really good curveball, and now he’s 94-95. He’s such a humble, just low-key kid who works extremely hard, and you can see it.
“He’s working on a slider and basically he’s a two-pitch guy with the curveball and fastball, but he’s working on a third and fourth pitch. Once those two other pitches [come through], when he’s got two other options, especially the third time through a lineup, that’s something that will be the point of emphasis with him going forward. But right now, I couldn’t be more pleased with Jeremy Lee. Obviously, you see the numbers — he’s just been outstanding — but he’s just the most humble, composed, great teammate; it’s hard not to love that kid.”
Lee won’t be rushed to add the slider and changeup to his pitches, Calvi said, though the changeup is already being used occasionally.
“It’s hard because as coaches you’re trying to see what a kid does really well and what he needs to do to be elite,” Calvi said. “We want to get to the College World Series, and four pitches are a better option than two … That also means that that third time through maybe a hitter has only seen his curveball twice, that we could replace the curveball with a slider and a changeup, and then he can go heavy on the breaking ball the third time through and get us into the leverage innings, the seventh and eighth innings.
“That’s what Friday night guys do. That’s the next step for Jeremy, having confidence in his third and fourth pitches and then using them. He’s brought them out a couple of times, some good and some not so good. His changeup is good, it’s just a matter of throwing it a little bit more. But when you have that good a breaking ball it’s hard to go to Pitch 3 and 4. So when those other two pitches develop he’s going to be hell on wheels.”
How good can Lee be? Phillips believes his future is quite bright.
“You hear there’s no ceiling for him, you hear those cliches, but I really do think he’s got a very, very bright future when it comes to the game of baseball,” Phillips said. “He’s still got to do it, and there’s a way to go in his career and he has to keep proving it over and over, and I don’t want to make any speculations as to where he could end up. But I do believe he could have a very long baseball career if he continues on the pace he’s going right now.”
For the moment, Lee himself is soaking up all the experience he is being offered this season and looking forward to his next appearance.
“I just like the adrenaline,” he said of his favorite thing about playing baseball. “When I go out there I feel like I can do anything … It definitely felt that way from the get-go in my first appearance in relief against SEMO. I felt like I was shaking, and that feeling will never go away. I think it’s always going to be there.”
This page is available to our local subscribers. Click here to join us today and get the latest local news from local reporters written for local readers. The best deal is found by clicking here. Check it out now.