Brian Shaffer calls his path to baseball success an underdog story. It’s about to add another chapter: his ultimate goal of playing the sport professionally.
Two big events in Shaffer’s baseball career are on the horizon: His final college game, which depends on how far his University of Maryland Terrapins advance in the NCAA Tournament, and this month’s amateur baseball draft, where he’ll likely be selected in the top three-to-five rounds, perhaps higher.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound, junior right-hander wasn’t always on the pro path. He was cut from several teams as a youth. Several coaches told his father, Brian, that the kid didn’t have a future in baseball.
“I wanted to not end it, but kind of slow down my baseball career from there,” said Shaffer, a Pylesville resident and North Harford High School graduate. “My dad was a big part of (overcoming) that. He helped me get back on track. And I’m here today.”
Shaffer has used the doubters as motivation, and his meteoric rise from non-drafted high school student to Maryland’s ace and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season has been impressive.
His 2.18 ERA was best among starting pitchers in the conference, and he was second in strikeouts (102) and first, by far, in innings pitched (103 1/3). He’s been named as a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the best amateur baseball player in the country. And he may have surpassed his teammate, shortstop Kevin Smith, as the Terps’ top pro prospect in this year’s draft class.
While he appreciates the accolades, Shaffer is focused on the Terrapins’ challenge in the NCAA Regionals, which begins Friday. He’ll get the ball in Maryland’s opener against the University of West Virginia in Winston-Salem, N.C.
It’s something that couldn’t have occurred if his father hadn’t believed in him, and kept guiding him toward his lofty goals.
“He’d sacrifice all of his time, so that I had a chance to play baseball somewhere,” Shaffer said of his dad. “I’ve spent so much time with him on road trips. So, he’s the one I really thank.”
Shaffer has played baseball since he was 4. He was a shortstop, but a growth spurt prompted him to try pitching. He threw his fastball in the mid-80s in high school, but reaches 90-92 mph consistently now, and can ratchet it up to the mid-90s on occasion.
His successes on the mound, though, haven’t made him forget his days at shortstop.
“I miss it so much,” Shaffer said. “I would do anything to get one more at-bat and play one more game at shortstop.”
Shaffer’s favorite player growing up was former Oriole Brian Roberts. Now, Shaffer enjoys watching San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner pitch, and he respects plenty of big leaguers. But he doesn’t try to model his game after anyone. He likes to do his own thing.
Many of his teammates, however, take their cues from Shaffer.
“He’s the same guy every single day no matter what the situation is, which is huge,” said Maryland’s junior outfielder Zach Jancarski, one of Shaffer’s closest friends. “There’s really nothing bad you can say about him as a teammate. He’s a grinder out there. He gives you everything he’s got every time he’s out on the mound. And, when he’s not, he’s just a positive, uplifting guy in the dugout.”
Shaffer said his biggest strength on the mound is his command. He prides himself on pounding the zone and throwing strikes in any situation. He said the biggest improvements he’s made since he got to College Park have been his velocity and his mentality.
He struggled with confidence for periods as a freshman. It was tough to shake those issues, so he leaned on the experience of others such as Mike Shawaryn, Maryland’s Friday night starter last season who was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the fifth round of the 2016 draft.
“The competition level is so high,” Shaffer said. “I had a lot of great teammates, like I had Mike Shawaryn, to kind of help me out a little. A lot of the older guys that I could talk to, and our coaching staff.”
When Shaffer was a freshman, he was reserved and quiet. As he’s matured, he became more vocal and has taken some younger pitchers under his wing. Shaffer said he tries to help young pitchers through tough times, such as sophomore left-hander Zach Guth and freshman lefty-hander Tyler Blohm, the Archbishop Spalding star who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors at Maryland this season.
Jancarski sees several intangibles in Shaffer that will benefit him at the next level. He doesn’t let his emotions control him. He leads by example. And he has the work ethic to succeed at the next level.
“I don’t think there’s a more hard-working guy, a pitcher, that I know in the entire country,” Jancarski said. “The way he lifts and trains in the offseason is second to none. He’s a guy that’s really invested in this whole process. He knows that he’s come a long way from where he began and that there’s a really high ceiling for him. But there’s nothing guaranteed and he has to earn it all. And he knows that he’s totally capable of that.
“And that kind of drives him every single day as a player and a person.”
(Compiled by Harrison Swartz)
The University of Maryland and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County programs have earned a spot in the NCAA tournament. UMBC got there by winning the America East Conference and earning the automatic bid, while Maryland fell two games short of the Big Ten title, but received an at-large bid. … Shaffer (North Harford) is one of 25 finalists for the Golden Spikes Award. This season, Shaffer is 7-3 and boasts a Big Ten best 1.67 ERA. … Four players from the United States Naval Academy were named to the All-ECAC (Eastern College Athletic Conference) Second Team. Receiving the nods from the regional-based ballot were senior shortstop Travis Blue, senior starting pitcher Kyle Condry, junior center fielder Logan Knowles and senior right fielder Leland Saile.
Matchup to Watch
You’ll only have to pay attention to one NCAA regional tournament this weekend as both local Division 1 teams that are still competing will be playing in Winston-Salem, N.C. The tournament is hosted by top-seed Wake Forest University, which has its own Baltimore flavor. The Demon Deacons’ first baseman is junior Gavin Sheets, a Gilman graduate and son of former Oriole, Larry Sheets.
The first game of the regional is Friday at 2 p.m. with Maryland and West Virginia facing off. Wake Forest and UMBC play at 7 on Friday night. The winner of the tournament advances to Super Regionals next week.