Sometimes it seems like there are people who are born to dominate. These kinds of individuals appear to be blessed with some kind of superior genetic profile the majority just doesn’t possess. As a result, they seem to have an easier time reaching success then the rest of us.
But no matter how genetically gifted some people might be, it may take some time for them to figure out their purpose in life. Specifically, what they were put on this earth to be great at. It can take a few years before it clicks (Los Angeles Chargers phenom linebacker Khalil Mack didn’t start playing football until his senior year of high school!). For others, it can come much earlier than that, maybe even as soon as they learn to brush their teeth.
Austin Peterson is of the latter group. Peterson, the ace of the UConn baseball pitching staff and its Friday night starter, discovered his life’s calling while exploring the village of Cooperstown, N.Y. – the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum – as a 3-year-old. The kid from Chesterton, Ind., dreamed that one day he would be dominating on the pitcher’s mound like his idol, Justin Verlander.
While it may not be Comerica Park (or Minute Maid Park nowadays), Peterson is doing exactly that at Elliot Ballpark in Storrs, Conn. So much so that he is in the top 10 of practically every important pitching category in Division I: Wins (8). Strikeouts (94). Strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.40). Innings pitched (73.1). His Earned Run Average (ERA) of 2.95 sits just outside the top 100, but he has pitched the fourth-most innings in the country, while many of those above him have thrown only a fraction of the innings he has.
It’s not surprising that Peterson has been practically unhittable this season – after all, he has dominated the competition at each level thus far (more on this below) – but it’s how he’s doing it that is almost unheard-of these days. You see, while the 6-foot-6, 234-pound righthander may be blessed with some pretty good athletic genes, he’s not someone who overpowers hitters with a fastball in the triple digits. Rather, he sits in the low 90s and has mastered the art of changing speeds to keep hitters off balance and filling up the strike zone to limit free passes.
“If you look at the statistics of even the best of the best hitters, they’re going to get out seven-out-of-10 times,” Peterson said. “So, I try to take that mentality on the mound. I’m not going to throw 100 MPH right past these guys, but if I can fill up the [strike] zone and mix speeds well, then they can go ahead and take their singles off me. I feel like as long as I’m living around the zone and not giving them free bases, they’re not going to be able to do any real damage off me.”
If it seems like Peterson may be a little hubristic, can you really blame him? After all, he’s fighting for the guys who, like him, are trying to make a living by painting corners and buckling knees. You know, the ones who continue to be overlooked because of their inability to mimic the speeds of New York Yankees closer Ardolis Chapman and University of Tennessee hurler Ben Joyce.
It has been this way for Peterson well before he ever heard of UConn. Even as a Little Leaguer, where he often stood a couple of inches taller than everyone else, he wasn’t necessarily feared because of his overpowering fastball. It was his ability to get batters out the old-fashioned way – by keeping them guessing and staying ahead – that had opposing coaches and players praying for a rainout.
And it was the same in high school, where Peterson maybe hit 91 MPH on the radar gun one time. Yet, somehow, he still managed to end his high-school career with north of 20 wins and a sub-1.00 ERA to go along with 277 strikeouts. Some place, somewhere, Chicago Cubs legendary pitcher Greg Maddux is smiling.
While his performance was generating headlines on a local level, the speed at which it gained traction elsewhere was akin to the velocity on one of his fastballs. Peterson barely interacted with scouts at any point in high school, and the only Power-5 program to offer him a scholarship was one in his own backyard – Purdue University.
“It’s definitely cool that now that I’m up there in some of the top pitching categories in the country, I’m seeing a lot more attention from scouts,” Peterson said. “But the one thing for me is that I feel like I have been able to do this all along.”
Reporting for Purdue-ty
Peterson considers himself a college baseball savant. He got to experience the College Baseball World Series as a fan during his youth and hasn’t been able to get Omaha off his mind still today. He came of age in the early 2000s, when the University of Texas was considered the preeminent program in the nation, and, as such, became – pardon the pun – hooked on the Longhorns.
He watched as Texas, led by two-time MLB all-star closer Huston Street, won it all in 2002 and repeated the effort again only three years later. He may even have envisioned himself throwing a complete-game shutout while rocking the burnt orange and white a time or two as a youngster.
So, if you ask Peterson, because of his Longhorn fandom, Purdue wasn’t necessarily his first choice – it was his only choice. Sure, it was close to home (approximately two hours south of where he grew up), and, yes, it provided him with an opportunity to earn a world-class education. However, Purdue baseball wasn’t exactly the cream of the Big Ten (in Purdue’s defense, they did make it to an NCAA Regional in 2018, the year prior to Peterson enrolling).
But as knowledgeable as Peterson is of the game he excels at, he is also a realist. He knew he stood a better chance of hitting 100 MPH on the radar gun than receiving an offer from the Longhorns. So, he jumped at the chance – probably too quickly looking back on it – Purdue gave him and was determined to help the Boilermakers get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Peterson’s freshman year didn’t go exactly how he envisioned. While he had some successes – he led the freshman class in strikeouts, innings pitched and appearances – for someone who is driven by team wins and not individual statistics, the 2019 season was disappointing in that regard. The Boilermakers finished 12th in the conference, in front of only Penn State, so Peterson determined it was in his best interests to transfer.
“All I have ever wanted in my college experience was to win championships, compete at the highest level and be in a position to achieve my dream of playing professionally,” recalled Peterson on his decision to transfer. “Nothing against Purdue, but in order for me to reach all of those goals, I didn't feel like it was the best fit for me.”
Even though it may be hard to believe nowadays given the implementation of the transfer portal, back when Peterson decided to switch schools in 2019, he would have been required to sit out a year if he went to another Division I university to play baseball. As a way to get around that, he ended up enrolling at Wabash Valley Community College in Mount Carmel, Ill.
During the 2020 season, Peterson went 2-0, compiling a 3.05 ERA to go along with 29 strikeouts before COVID-19 ended up shutting down athletics across the country altogether. With the season cancelled, it was time for Peterson to shift his focus to picking the university that gave him the best chance to fulfill the goals he referenced above.
East Coast Vibes
Truth be told, when Peterson was looking at schools to transfer to, UConn wasn’t necessarily at the top of his list. The thought of Texas crossed his mind again, but it still seemed to be too much of a reach. Nevertheless, UConn on paper was actually a perfect match for him because it afforded him the opportunity to compete for championships and it was also on the east coast – a part of the country he fell in love with while pitching in Martha’s Vineyard during the summer of 2019.
“I basically just went to D1 Baseball’s website and started scrolling through all the conferences and put together a list of 30 schools I thought would allow me to compete at the highest level and realistically win championships. And UConn was on the list,” Peterson said. “So, I was like, you know what, I really like the east coast, so why not give UConn a shot? I emailed [UConn pitching coach/recruiting coordinator] Coach [Josh] MacDonald, and he got back to me within a day inviting me out for a visit.”
As if a baseball recruit really needs any convincing to choose UConn – after all, the coaching staff has been together longer than any other in the country, they have produced 58 players who have either been drafted or signed professional contracts, and the facilities are some of the best in the country – Peterson didn’t want to rush into a decision this time around. So, he took MacDonald up on his invitation and visited campus.
Seeing the school, listening to head coach Jim Penders describe the culture of the program, and watching the interactions between teammates, Peterson was in awe. The excitement he felt after his visit was incredible, and he knew that the only colors that would matter to him from this point forward were the national flag blue and white. And he let the coaches know he was all in.
“Everything Coach Penders said on my visit was unbelievable and I loved the way that he ran his program,” Peterson gushed. “I got to spend some time around the guys a little bit, and I just loved the way that they connected and bonded and spent time together away from the field. It was a really, really, really cool atmosphere for me, so it was something that I really wanted to be a part of.”
And #HookC fans are pretty happy that Peterson chose to become part of their beloved program. Like he did all throughout Little League and high school, he has gotten back to doing what he does best – winning ... like all the time. The Huskies are a perfect 11-0 in games he has started this season. In fact, since he entered the Huskies’ weekend rotation for the first time in February 2021, the team is 23-2.
Despite having less than two seasons under his belt in Storrs, Peterson has already entered the record books for multiple categories. His 15 wins are tied for ninth most in program history, while his 176 strikeouts rank 17th all-time. What’s more, the eight wins he has earned in 2022 alone are tied for fifth most in a season, and the 94 strikeouts he has racked up this year are 13th in Huskies annals.
Many of the guys in front of him on these lists have gone on to pitch professionally themselves – Charles Nagy, Matt Barnes, Anthony Kay and, Mason Feole to name a few – so there’s a pretty good chance Peterson will be joining them this coming July. His performance each time he has taken the hill has more than earned him the right to be drafted for the first time in his life ... but that’s the farthest thing from his mind right now.
More Work to Be Done
While it is his dream to be drafted one day, there is still some unfinished business for him to take care of before he moves on. He wants so badly the opportunity to pitch in a Huskies uniform in Omaha this June. Remember, he has already gotten to experience the excitement of the College World Series as a fan, but doing it as a player would be the ultimate cherry.
“A few teams wanted to sign me last summer, but I didn’t think their offers were what I felt I deserved, so it was an easy decision for me to return to UConn,” Peterson said. “You know, one of the main goals that I’ve always had growing up is being able to go to Omaha and play in front of that many people. That would be so unbelievable.”
As driven as Peterson is to extend his Huskies career until at minimum June 26 (or June 27 if a winner-take-all game is required), he isn’t naïve. He knows a lot of work is still left to be done in the regular season if the Huskies are to even make the BIG EAST Tournament, let alone get to Omaha. Because the BIG EAST is not considered a good baseball conference, the Huskies can’t afford to let any opportunities slip away.
And he’s not expecting it will be easy. Since UConn currently sits atop the conference standings, Peterson is well aware that they are going to get everyone’s best shot. Starting this weekend against Creighton, which is nipping at the Huskies’ heels, sitting just a game out of first place. Conference showdowns against Xavier and Georgetown await shortly thereafter.
“Our conference kind of has a reputation of not being strong in baseball, but there still are a lot of rivalries out there and beating all of these teams definitely still feels really good,” Peterson said. “Winning another [BIG EAST] championship would be unbelievable, but, you know, it's not like winning a championship is easy, by any means, no matter what conference you're in. We know that every team is going to give us their best shot, but I think that's the best part about being the team with the target on your back because we know we're going to get everybody's best and it makes everything a lot more fun.”
With the BIG EAST Tournament only three weeks away, the scariest thing about Peterson is he seems to get even better when the stakes are the highest. In the two postseason games he has started at UConn, he was won them both, giving up only two earned runs across 11.2 innings pitched. That’s bad news for the rest of the BIG EAST, and if all goes according to plan, other conferences as well.
Who’d have ever envisioned such domination was possible from a kid with a low-90s fastball? He did, and that’s all that really matters. Call it good genes. Call it an anomaly. Call it whatever you want. But the bottom line is Austin Peterson is a certified ace. And there’s no denying that.