Gophers junior ace Tom Windle’s slider is so good, sometimes Kurt Schlangen has trouble catching it.
“It’s unhittable. When he throws his best one, it’s filthy,” said Schlangen, the Gophers’ senior catcher. “It’s a touch pitch to catch sometimes.”
The slider, which Windle refers to as his “out pitch,” has caught the eye of Major League Baseball scouts. He’s projected to be selected in the first three rounds of the 2013 MLB draft.
The pitch has also helped him become one of the best arms in the Big Ten. Windle is 6-2 with a 1.82 ERA — second best in the conference among starters — in 11 starts this season.
He’s thrown four complete games, and his 69 strikeouts also rank second in the Big Ten.
Windle flashed brilliance as a freshman in 2011 and was one of Minnesota’s top relievers.
He was slated to move into the rotation for the 2012 season, but a nagging arm injury kept him in the bullpen.
It wasn’t until last summer, playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League, that Windle finally flourished as a starter.
“The competition I was playing with, even on my own team, helped a lot,” Windle said. “[I was] able to grow with some of the top players in the country.”
Windle started seven games in the league for the Brewster Whitecaps and finished the summer 3-2 with a 2.52 ERA.
Scouts took notice, and Windle said they’d watch him pitch on a regular basis, though he was never approached by any.
A dominant March cemented Windle’s status as a big-league prospect.
In that month, Windle threw the program’s first no-hitter since 1993 and tossed three complete games.
Pro scouts flocked to the Metrodome to watch Windle pitch against projected top-10 pick Sean Manaea of Indiana State on March 15. Both starters dominated en route to a complete game, but Manaea allowed one fewer run and got the win.
Windle knows he’s being eyed as a draft pick, but he said he doesn’t think about it much.
“It’s obviously something that’s coming up, but right now on the [Gophers], that’s what’s important,” he said.
The draft process is nothing new for Windle.
After a dominant senior season at Osseo High School, Windle was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 28th round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
Windle said the White Sox never offered him a contract, and he continued his career at Minnesota, where pitching coach Todd Oakes has overseen his development.
“He’s steadily got a little bit better each year,” Oakes said. “To have him in our rotation this third year is crucial to our pitching staff.”
Oakes said Windle came into the program as a pretty mature and responsible kid with a strong foundation.
“It’s been more of a polish job, polishing up on the little things,” Oakes said.
One of those little things was the development of a changeup to complement Windle’s slider and fastball.
As a reliever, Windle only needed the slider and fastball. The changeup has been reliable for him as a starter, and Windle called it “a nice add to my repertoire.”
Windle’s bag of pitches starts with his fastball. He consistently throws it in the low-90s, and it’s topped out at 94 mph this season.
Then comes the slider.
“He’s got what I call a swing-and-miss slider,” Oakes said. “Some guys got more of a pitch-to-contact breaking ball.”
Windle’s slider breaks away from left-handed hitters and down and in against righties.
“If they can have a breaking ball that’s effective against right-handed hitters, that’s key,” Oakes said. “That pitch separates him.”
Schlangen said it’s easy to call a game when Windle is on the mound.
“He can throw any of his pitches for strikes,” Schlangen said. “His stuff is so good, sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter what the situation is. You can call any pitch.”
The Gophers will rely on Windle’s pitches for the remainder of the season. They sit atop the Big Ten standings with two series to play, and Windle has set the tone all year with strong outings on Fridays.
“He’s given us a chance in just about every game he’s pitched on Friday,” Minnesota head coach John Anderson said. “We’ve won every series in the league. He’s a factor in that.”