A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME
Brian Shaffer grew up almost a literal stone’s throw from the Mason-Dixon line.
There was never any doubt he wanted to stay on the southern side of it when he attended college.
“I’ve always wanted to come to Maryland to play baseball --- and I have absolutely no idea why --- ever since I was young,” Shaffer said. “They were the first to offer me and I jumped on it.”
It was a decision neither Shaffer nor Maryland’s baseball staff would regret. Shaffer, a junior, won the Big Ten’s pitcher of the year honors this spring. The Terrapins returned to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.
Not bad for a guy who committed to Maryland just before his senior year --- relatively late in the recruiting cycle --- and was throwing in the mid-80s when former Terp pitching coach Jim Belanger first scouted him.
“He’s a very easy guy to root for. …,” John Szefc, Shaffer’s coach at Maryland, said. “He won a game in the Big Ten Tournament last year, he’s an all-conference pitcher and he’s on the dean’s list. It’s like ‘What else can this guy do?’ He’s just been a very productive guy.”
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound Shaffer has done it as much with pinpoint control and an understanding of how to pitch as anything else. He’s also methodically made believers of people in the sport throughout his life, both while growing up in Pylesville, Md., and as a rising star at Maryland.
“All my life I was the underdog, going into everything,” Shaffer said. “Back when I played Little League, I had a lot of people tell my father that I didn’t have a future in baseball. It just kind of fueled both of us.”
In fact, when he got to North Harford High School, he was viewed more as a shortstop than a pitcher. Brought up to the varsity team as a sophomore, he didn’t pitch until a midseason game against Havre de Grace.
Even then, the conditions were not ideal.
“They had based loaded and no one out,” longtime North Harford coach Tim Larrimore recalled this week. “It was his first pitching performance and he got the side out --- I believe he struck out all three. What struck me was that he was very level-headed.”
This would become a running theme, even if Shaffer wasn’t initially blessed with eye-popping velocity. He came onto Maryland’s radar at a fall ball tryout. Unbeknownst to Shaffer, Belanger was watching as Shaffer and several other pitchers were throwing bullpens. Many of them were hitting 93 on the radar gun; Shaffer came in around 86.
But that night he got a call from Belanger, who wanted to see Shaffer pitch. Soon enough, Shaffer attended a tournament in College Park and received a scholarship offer two days later.
He texted Kevin Mooney, another former North Harford player who went on to pitch at Maryland, to tell him they would be teammates again. But as ecstatic as he was to meet a longtime goal, he outwardly remained even-keeled about it.
“He always wore Maryland sweatshirts and things like that before he got that offer,” Larrimore sad. “When he signed, he wasn’t jumping around. He just came over to me and said ‘Hey, I committed to Maryland.’ I said ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was like I was more excited than he was. I know he was, but he never showed it. He was happy, but he never went overboard.”
Shaffer wasn’t entirely sure how quickly he could make an impact at Maryland. He assumed there was a chance he might redshirt, a possibility Szefc minimized. For the most part, the Terps don’t hand out scholarship money for a player to sit the bench for a year.
Any doubt, though, was erased after a session in the fall of his freshman year
“Coach Belanger came up to me later and said ‘You hit 94 today,’” Shaffer recalled. “I was like ‘What? You have to be kidding me. I’ve never done that in my life.’”
So began a steady progression. He became part of the weekend rotation late in his freshman year, and held down the role as the Terps’ Sunday starter last season. All along, he got to watch Mike Shawaryn, one of the top pitchers in the Big Ten in 2015 and 2016, go about his business.
With Shawaryn, a fifth-round pick of the Boston Red Sox last year, now pursuing a pro career, there was a vacancy at the top of Maryland’s rotation this spring. Shaffer, coming off a season in which he ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten in victories, innings, strikeouts, earned run average and opponents’ batting average, was a logical choice to take over as the Friday starter.
Yet to his credit, his approach remains the same as before.
“I didn’t want to try to do too much,” Shaffer said. “They put me in the Friday night spot and I didn’t want that affect mentally how I would approach everything. I just wanted to take it just like I would last year as the Sunday guy.”
That mentality stands out to others in Maryland’s program. As competitive as Shaffer is, teammates and coaches rave as much about his consistency as anything.
While it doesn’t hurt to be the best pitcher in the conference, Shaffer’s steadiness goes far beyond on-field performance.
“You see a lot of players on other teams who can be a different guy every day,” redshirt junior pitcher Ryan Selmer said. “He literally comes to the field the same way every day, prepares the same way regardless if he’s starting Sunday or starting Saturday or Friday. You just see the same guy on the mound every day, and even in practice he’s the same.”
Shaffer’s bump in velocity upon arriving in college has only amplified the assets that got him to Maryland in the first place. And just as they’ve helped make him an effective college starter, they should make him especially appealing to major league organizations when his pro career begins.
“The one thing he really has that a lot of guys do not have is the ability to command the strike zone,” Szefc said. “He is just a monster strike thrower, which is a rare thing to see even at the pro level. He’s gotten to the point now where he can work in the low-to-mid 90s. If he’s doing his thing there, he’s going to have a lot of success against wood bats. What level he’ll get to, I can’t tell you. But I wouldn’t bet against him.”
For now, he stands as one of Szefc’s great recruiting success stories and a model for the sort of player the Terps hope to attract to their program.
“For us, he would be the quintessential home run guy for us in that he’s developed into being arguably our best pitcher/player in a short period of time, and he’s also a respectable student and he’s also a Maryland guy,” Szefc said. “Maryland needs guys to do that in the program if they’re going to be good at the University of Maryland.”
The 2017 season marked the Terps’ third postseason appearance in four years. Maryland reached the super regionals in both 2014 and 2015, with Shaffer starting a game in the 2015 postseason as a freshman.
For a man who always wanted to pitch for Maryland, being drafted in the 2017 MLB Draft is an extension of a dream that’s been fulfilled --- and then some --- over the last three seasons.
“I can’t wait,” Shaffer said. “Two years ago, I didn’t understand how special it was. Now it’s a whole new ballgame. It’s going to be fun to see what happens.”