John O’Reilly Helps Explain the Advantages and Disadvantages of Pitching in a Cold Weather State

When covering the amateur draft here, we often mention players who are labeled as being from “cold weather states”. Most people who read this site are from the Pittsburgh area, so I’m sure that they know that players from their state fall into that group. Being from New Jersey and playing a lot of baseball while growing up, I have a pretty good idea of why being from a cold weather state is notable when talking about draft picks. I didn’t have a second favorite sport as a kid, unless you count trying to convince my friends that is wasn’t too cold out for baseball, as being a sport. I never played any organized baseball after high school, so I elicited the help of a pitcher from the Pirates to better explain what it’s like being from a cold weather state.

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed right-handed pitcher John O’Reilly as a non-drafted free agent back in June. He’s the perfect player to help with this subject. He was born in upstate New Jersey, about an hour north of my hometown of Kearny (home of Dots Miller), which is considered to be in north NJ. O’Reilly played high school ball for four seasons, the last three on the varsity squad. He also put in four years of soccer and was pretty good at it, serving as his team’s captain at one point and making the All-County team as a senior. One last fun fact about me and it’s that Kearny has been called Soccertown, USA (you can look that up), but I never liked the sport. My brief time in soccer was a lot like my batting in baseball, hit the ball as hard as I could and let other people chase it.

O’Reilly went to Rutgers for the next four years, staying close to home in north New Jersey. Even when he played summer ball, he was in the Cape Cod League for one year and the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League the next year for Adirondack, which is in New York. I think 22 years of playing in and around north NJ makes him a pretty good person to talk about the subject of cold weather baseball, as it pertains to the draft.

Before getting to O’Reilly’s contribution, the first thing to explain is why scouts and draft experts feel the need to mention that a player is from a cold weather state. They use it as a shorthand way of saying that a player’s baseball season is much shorter than your players coming out of big baseball states like Florida, Texas, Georgia and California. When our draft coverage starts in mid-February, some of the high school players are just getting their season started. Two months later, when we are mentioning mock drafts more often, kids from the cold weather states are being seen for the first time that year by scouts. I’ve heard of high school seasons in some states lasting a total of six weeks, not including playoffs.

There are three majors takeaways from those shorter seasons for high school players in particular. The first one is that a short schedule doesn’t give scouts many chances to see a player, so one bad day can mean a lot more for a cold weather player. The second one is that the ability to scout potential is a lot more important. The third is that stats are almost meaningless due to sample size and level of competition. The shorter schedule and fewer looks both need no explanation, so we can go a little more in depth in the other two takeaways.

John O’Reilly at 6’5″ is a great example of scouting potential. You often hear the term “projectability” and a 6’5″ pitcher from a cold weather state is going to get that label every time. O’Reilly has a page on Perfect Game that dates back to 2014, when he was already fully grown (height-wise) and weighed 190 pounds. As a senior in high school, he was throwing 87 MPH. It’s almost a surprise that he didn’t get drafted out of high school because that’s a scout’s dream. Finding a tall prep pitcher from upstate NJ with athleticism, room to fill out and he can throw 87 MPH? The scouts think about the muscle they can add and what you could possibly get from him once he starts playing from March to September instead of mid-April to late May.

Scouts have to look at what these cold weather kids can do in the future, using projection more than current stuff. We heard that Shane Baz hit 99 MPH when he was drafted out of high school in Texas. We didn’t see 99 MPH as a pro. He was still considered projectable, but it’s more about maintaining velocity longer and improving secondary pitches with a case like him. With a player like O’Reilly, you’re looking at the potential for added velocity once he starts playing more often. There is an upside to the cold weather players and it’s a fresher arm. You can guarantee that your average pitcher from Florida has more miles on his arm than the average kid from Pennsylvania.

As far as stats not being important, that’s due to the small sample size and level of competition. If some kid has six weeks of baseball to impress scouts, it also means he’s playing against kids who have the same amount of playing time to improve their game. There’s also the fact that one bad game for a pitcher can skew stats for the season. One small injury can cost a player a chuck of his season as well. Jack Herman, who looks like a hidden gem for the Pirates in the 30th round this year, was only hidden because an injury cost him half of his junior season. Then some poor results when he returned, stuck in the minds of scouts following him.

The stats can also work the other way. Brendan McKay, who was put on a pitching clinic in the Pittsburgh area during his senior year in high school, was considered to be fifth round potential by some sources. That’s not bad obviously, but 71.2 straight scoreless innings over two seasons should get you some better attention. His issue according to some of the scouting reports was that he didn’t have a lot of room to fill out and didn’t have the best velocity. The level of competition, plus his perceived lack of projection, made the pitching performance not much more than a footnote for scouts. McKay went on to be a high first round pick three years later out of Louisville.

You have projection and a fresh arm working in the favor of cold weather pitchers, but the lack of playing time and stuff (pitches/velocity/control) can also work against them. The playing time angle also works for hitters due to lack of at-bats that can’t be completely replaced by time in the batting cages. That’s somewhat tempered now by the fact that scouts also like to see them play other sports, which leads to more athleticism when you’re working other muscles.

Back to O’Reilly, who pitched for four seasons at Rutgers in the starting rotation, before pitching in relief in the GCL and Bristol after signing with the Pirates. I was able to get a great scouting report on him immediately after he signed and it showed that the projectable pitcher did add to his velocity before joining the Pirates. He went from hitting 87 MPH in high school, to sitting 88-90, topping out at 92 MPH. As you will see below, that progress didn’t reach its peak in college.

The one thing about him, as you can see in the top picture and the shot just below that Wilbur Miller took before he made his pro debut, is that he still has some decent physical projection left. That’s rare to see from someone going into their age 23 season, without some injuries in their past to help explain it. O’Reilly pitched over 350 innings in college between Rutgers and summer ball, so health was never an issue. He has put on about eight pounds of good weight already since joining pro ball.

I was going to take quotes from O’Reilly and put them into the article like a normal player feature, but I decided to leave his answer together as one long addition to the article because it worked well as a story.

Cold Weather Baseball

by John O’Reilly

Everyone knows cold weather baseball has some disadvantages, but it does have some advantages as well. Rather than having the privilege of long tossing on the beach under the Florida sun, we throw into a net with the heat blasting after shoveling snow all morning. Now this might seem like a disadvantage to us northern players; however, I think it works both ways. Although we do not physically benefit from having limited space and time to throw, it allows us to form a mental edge, a sense of grittiness that cannot be taught.

Growing up I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. Due to weather restrictions, playing baseball year round was never possible, and I am glad for that. Being able to play other sports at different times of the year allowed me to not only become more athletic, but also helped me realize how much I loved playing baseball more than anything else.

The New Jersey high school baseball season is less than two months long, only allowing for about six or seven starts without any playoffs. This being said, even the best pitcher who could throw a complete game (seven innings) every start would only get 49 innings. This prevented many scouting opportunities for us as we pitched less often in game scenarios.

In terms of getting scouted both collegiate and professionally, living in a place like New Jersey made things a little more difficult. In high school, we would start scrimmages in early March which is still fairly cold here. Both my junior and senior year we traveled down to the jersey shore to compete against different schools, yet each time it snowed as we were playing.

(snow photo courtesy of John O’Reilly)

Being born and raised in Northvale, New Jersey, I always felt a great deal of pride for my state, which is one of the many reasons I attended Rutgers University. Rutgers was joining the Big 10 conference my freshman year, which meant playing in cold venues across the country such as Michigan, Chicago, Minnesota, and Ohio. Thankfully, my junior year at Rutgers, the university was able to build a brand new indoor facility just for us which will pay dividends to the future of that program.

Previous to that, we would have intrasquad scrimmages in the parking lots outside the football stadium because that was the only place that would be plowed. My junior season at Rutgers we had a game scheduled at home in Piscataway the last week in February and sure enough, it snowed that week. Along with some field staff, we pitchers spent some of our practice breaking up ice on the warning track using our cleats and bats. Experiences like these are something I laugh about now, but I also realize how it gave us the opportunity to come together as a team and do something kind of silly that southern schools would never have to do.

Being a baseball player in this part of the country may be tough for our physical development, but it also allows us to be more projectable, as our raw, untapped talents are still being discovered. In high school, I was a tall skinny kid that threw about 85-87 MPH which allowed colleges to have interest in me. Once in college I took care of my body a little better and gained some weight and my velocity rose each season, ranging anywhere from 88-92 MPH my senior year. In my first short season of professional baseball, being down in Bristol, my velocity very rarely dipped below 90 MPH, mostly sitting 91-92 MPH.

Although this may be because of various reasons, I feel it was due to the increase of throwing that Joey Seaver had us doing. Because of this consistent trend of velocity increase throughout my career, I am excited to see what a full year of professional baseball has in store for me. Thankfully Spring Training is just around the corner, but until then, you can find me up here in New Jersey, throwing into nets and shoveling snow.

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John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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