“Oh, the basketball school?” Ryan Pepiot heard it repeatedly last summer. He’d meet a teammate or opposing player in the Cape Cod League, and naturally, one of the first questions that came up was where he goes to college. Butler University, whose only NCAA baseball tournament appearance came nearly two decades ago and who has one alumnus currently on an MLB roster (sidewinding reliever Pat Neshek), isn’t exactly a national powerhouse on the diamond. Everybody remembers Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, though, leading the basketball program to back-to-back national championship appearances on the hardwood. “Surprisingly, we do have a baseball team,” Pepiot quipped.
Butler’s baseball program has improved in recent seasons, but it’s yet where it hopes to be. At 5-9 in Big East play, the Bulldogs are a longshot to qualify for the conference tournament, after sneaking in last year for the first time since joining the league in 2013. A junior who could go as early as the back half of the first round in this June’s draft, Pepiot is almost certainly in his final season on campus, unlikely to pitch in an NCAA tournament game in his career. That the university managed to bring on a pitcher of Pepiot’s caliber in the first place indicates there’s more to the baseball program than appears at first glance.
Some of it was good fortune. A Westfield, Indiana native, Pepiot grew up in the university’s backyard. Nevertheless, it would have been easy to watch such a talented player slip away. Pepiot rattles off eight Division I schools who offered him a roster spot out of high school, including Indiana University, a Big Ten powerhouse soon to lock up its third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A combination of academics and opportunity pushed him to the small school in Indianapolis instead.
“I wanted a smaller school academically, so I could actually talk to professors and not be a number in the classroom,” Pepiot explained. “I also wanted to go somewhere where I had the chance to compete to be in the starting rotation as a freshman. I didn’t want to sit around in the bullpen. I was a two-way guy in high school, and I was going to be a pitcher only for the first time. I knew I needed to pitch to get better, so I wanted to go somewhere I had a chance to pitch right away.”
Pepiot won the rotation spot he coveted, but the results were ugly. He flashed the strikeout stuff that makes him such an interesting prospect now, but he admits he lacked the finer aspects of pitching. Not surprising, given his two-way background.
“I had a terrible changeup in high school and when I came into college. I played summer ball (in the NECBL after my freshman year) and realized I needed a changeup. Hitters can hit fastballs.”
Developing a feel for his secondaries was critical, not only to keep hitters from sitting on his solid-but-not-overpowering heater, but to stay in the strike zone. “My freshman year I only had the fastball I could throw where I wanted to (consistently),” he said. “Now, I have a four-pitch mix I can throw at any time.”
That repertoire depth has piqued scouts’ interest and led to some dominating results. Featuring a fairly traditional fastball, changeup, slider, curveball toolkit, Pepiot ranks fourth in the nation in strikeouts per nine despite rather pedestrian, low-90s velocity. Some of that is fastball spin, with scouts lauding the perceived jump his fastball gets at the top of the strike zone, backed up by favorable Trackman readouts. Yet he says his success has mostly been about the changeup, the once-terrible pitch that Fangraphs’ Josh Herzenberg recently called “plus, with tumbling action and slight fade.” Pepiot agrees it’s his best offering, mostly willed through repetition.
“After my freshman summer, I did long toss with a changeup grip,” he recalled. “Now, I’ll throw it in any count- lefty, righty, it doesn’t matter. It’s a feel pitch so when I’m out of tune with it, don’t really have it, I’m just making sure I use my cues. I don’t try to push it, just let the grip do the work.”
With a platoon-neutralizing changeup and pair of breaking pitches, Pepiot can turn over a lineup multiple times in a game. Couple that with his track record of durability and well-built 6’3” frame, and he has the makings of a workhorse starter. Indeed, the Bulldogs have leaned heavily on their ace over the past three seasons, starting him 37 times. To reach that ceiling, though, Pepiot knows he needs to be more consistent around the strike zone. Some people will look at his nearly five walks per nine (both this season and throughout his college career) and assume he’s destined for the bullpen.
He’s got brief experience in that role, having relieved thirteen times for Hyannis last summer on the Cape. While Pepiot says his preparation as a reliever was different than as a starter — without knowing well in advance when he was going to pitch, he had to be more equipped to get into game shape on a dime — his results were strikingly similar. A boatload of strikeouts, a few too many walks. This, though, wasn’t against the Big East. It was against college baseball’s biggest names, even if Pepiot didn’t know exactly who.
“Honestly, when I first got there, everyone’s talking like ‘oh, that’s Spencer Torkelson, that’s Hunter Bishop, that’s Adley Rutschman,’” Pepiot laughed. “I’m there like, ‘honestly, guys, I don’t have any idea who those guys are.’ That’s probably a good thing, that I didn’t read too much into it, because those guys are really good.”
What was apparent was Pepiot was facing the best competition he ever had. Carrying a bit of a small-school chip on his shoulder, he more than held his own against the nation’s best bats, punching out 33 in 22 innings. He carried the confidence he gained from that success — and his improved stuff — with him into his junior year. “It was fun…playing against the best,” he confirmed. “I don’t go to the big school with the big stadium and the big publicity, but I’m just as good a baseball player.”
Butler baseball might not have the cache of Arizona State or Oregon State, but players like Pepiot can go a long way toward changing that reputation. Other non-Power Five schools have carved out a reputation for player development, after all. Butler needs well more than Pepiot to follow in the footsteps of Dallas Baptist or Creighton, but his pro success would go a long way toward starting that process. With Pepiot leading the way, the next Butler ace might not have to answer questions about basketball.
Stats courtesy of the Baseball Cube.