It only took one inning of one game.
Allen Webster was a 6-foot-2 senior at McMichael (N.C.) High School in 2008. The 18-year-old was a slick shortstop, but a sheepish hitter. He had meager short term plans—graduate high school and head off to Rockingham Community College in Wentworth, N.C., to work on his game.
Then, in the second-to-last game of his senior year in high school, everything changed. Webster was typically relied on to come in and pitch during late-inning situations for McMichael. He’d walk over from shortstop, reach back, and fire whatever he could muster toward the plate.
He was, of course, a shortstop, not a pitcher.
“I was never really a go-to pitcher,” Webster now says. “I would just go out there and throw. I never really had any coaching at it.”
Except in that late-season game, two eyes widened in the stands as Webster hurled his fastball-curveball combo toward the plate. One after another, 91- to 92-mph fastballs flung from a fresh arm that hadn’t been overburdened by years of heavy use. A local scout, visiting to study a different ballplayer, took notice. He reported back to Los Angeles Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White.
Webster made another pitching appearance in McMichael’s season finale to show a bit more.
With that, plans were adjusted.
Webster wouldn’t be donning the green and white of Rockingham Community College. Dodger blue sounded far better. The night before the 2008 Major League Baseball draft, Los Angeles called Webster and gave him a heads up—he’d be drafted by the Dodgers, and he’d be drafted as a pitcher.
Four years later, Allen Webster is the No. 2-rated prospect in the Dodgers’ farm system and rated as the 95th-best overall prospect by Baseball America. Quickly rising through the Los Angeles system, he’ll be the opening-day starter for the Chattanooga Lookouts on Thursday when the Tennessee Smokies visit AT&T Field.
“They took a chance on him and it’s been great,” said Lookouts manager Carlos Subero Tuesday during the team’s media day festivities. “The arm is there. He’s got all the talent. It’s just a matter of putting the whole package together.”
Webster’s 17 starts in Chattanooga last season resulted in a 6-3 record and a 5.04 ERA. There was progress. Pieces of the package fell in place. Now a few more need to drop.
“He’s here to toe the rubber more and get some more game reps and innings,” said Lookouts pitching coach Chuck Crim. “If he gets the command on his fastball to where he’s completely comfortable, he could go to the big leagues right now. That’s how good his stuff is.”
Having worked through instructional leagues, minicamps and four full seasons in the minor league circuit, Webster now relies on four quality pitches. The 22-year-old hammers the zone with fastballs clocked between 92 and 96 mph with sink and movement that Crim says, “You can’t teach.” He complements it with a curveball, a slider and what Crim calls “a wipeout change-up” that hovers around 80 and serves as his out pitch.
“Everything from his mechanics, to his pitch quality—it’s all coming together,” Crim said.
Gone are the days of winding and firing blindly. Before moving up to Double-A ball with the Lookouts, Webster went 5-2 with a 2.33 ERA in nine starts with Single-A Rancho Cucamonga. He struck out 62 batters and allowed 46 hits in 54 innings.
That’s the jump the Dodgers are looking for in 2012.
Given Webster’s career arc, that might be exactly what they get.
“I’m a totally different pitcher than when I first got in,” he said. “I’m a more mature pitcher. I’m starting to learn what to do with the batters. The more I throw, the more I see stuff.”
And there’s no guarantee how long Webster will be seen in Chattanooga.
“He has an MLB-caliber arm,” Subero said. “It’s about consistency. Each level is about how consistent you are. It’s not about one game. It’s a process where you have to keep that consistency over a certain number of games and show us that you’re ready for the next level. I think that will be the case with Allen and it won’t be surprising if (he reaches the major leagues) this year.”