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Pitchers often are evaluated by numbers: by their earned-run average or by the speed of their fastball or by their ratio of strikeouts to walks.
But those decimals and ratios fail to measure something just as important: the sweat, how hard a pitcher will work to have the best ERA or the best control.
Such hard work is what enabled Ethan Cox to be an all-conference pitcher last season for West Brunswick High School, and that hard work will allow him to continue his baseball career at Appalachian State University.
Cox, a 6-foot, 150-pound left-hander, is a recruited walk-on for the Mountaineers, and ASU coach Chris Pollard said he is confident Cox will make a successful adjustment to college baseball.
“He’s a guy who’s had to work to get to where he is,” he said. “Guys who have that natural ability and things come easy for them, sometimes it’s a harder adjustment when they get to college. But he’s a guy that’s had to work really hard to get to where he’s gotten this year. I think that’s really going to help him as he makes that jump to the next level.”
“He’s just been a workaholic for four years,” WBHS baseball coach Mike Alderson said. “It didn’t come natural to him. He had to work for it. Those kinds of athletes you appreciate. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s been a great student, a leader in the school, a leader on the field. He’s just a class act.”
For Cox, the chance to go to ASU and play baseball is an ideal situation.
“I’ve been wanting to go to Appalachian my whole life,” he said. “When the opportunity to play baseball came, it was just a plus. I applied there and got accepted without baseball—and when that came along with it, it was a dream come true.”
Cox, who turns 18 in August, has always been a year younger than most of his competitors. Combine that with his slight physical stature and it becomes clear why Cox has had to battle to earn a starting role.
As a junior, Cox’s college prospects were bleak.
“I had a really rough season,” he said. “I had a hard time finding the strike zone. I’m really young for my grade. That’s always a disadvantage when it comes to sports. I’ve just always had to work hard to catch up with other people in my grade. This year, I’ve managed to throw strikes.”
Cox was 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA. In 70 innings, he struck out 82 and walked 19. He was an all-conference selection.
Cox said his teammates also were a big part of his successful senior year.
“We had a great defense behind us, which, of course, means everything,” he said. “Also what helped me out was having Aaron Evans. The latter part of the season I’d put him in a lot of tough situations (as a reliever) and, of course, he’d hold them (to no runs) and be a great closer. That helped me out, tremendously.”
Cox worked tirelessly to improve his pitching. He played soccer in high school, and that helped get Evans in shape for baseball and also strengthened his legs. Once the season ended, he trained for baseball.
“Soccer got over on a Wednesday,” Cox said, “and coach (Alderson) made me get out there and start baseball (workouts) that Friday.”
For Cox, there were two highlights his senior season.
One occurred in the Easter tournament in a 5-0 victory over North Brunswick.
“I played Legion baseball with all those guys,” he said about the Scorpions. “I think I pitched the whole game, gave up three hits and had 10 strikeouts. It was just one of my better performances. Beating your friends just makes it that much more special.”
The other highlight came against Laney High School.
“I pitched eight complete innings and started the ninth,” he said. “Once again, I got Aaron in a tough situation: bases loaded and no outs. And he shut them down.”
WBHS won 1-0.
The game also was a highlight for Alderson.
“When I said he was a competitor,” Alderson said, “he had the bases loaded and no outs in the first inning and got out of it.”
“I couldn’t find the strike zone,” Cox said. “I think I hit one batter, a guy got a base hit and then I hit another one.”
Cox ended the inning by striking out the next three batters. That is even more impressive considering his fastball is 81 mph.
“I don’t throw it very hard,” Cox said. “I just try to keep them off balance and pitch backward and play smart against them. Whenever I see better hitters, if you keep them off balance, they don’t know what pitch is coming. You can make your fastball at 81 mph look 90 if you throw it in the right spots. It’s all about location.”
Cox’s confidence was bolstered by his play this summer for Brunswick County Post 68 in American Legion baseball.
“(Wilmington) Post 10 has a fella that plays for the College of Charleston and another who plays for UNCW, and I’ve fared well against both of them,” Cox said.
Post 68 finished 17-5, its best season in many years. Cox was 3-1 with 3.24 ERA. In 25 innings pitched, he walked 12, struck out 19 and gave up 24 hits.
This fall, as a recruited walk-on at ASU, “Ethan is going to be treated just the same as any other signed player that we have,” Pollard said. “He’s a guy that comes in with a good understanding of how to pitch at this level. He commands the strike zone very well. He has a very good pickoff move. He comes in more of finished product than some of the other guys that we recruit. All that’s beyond the obvious—which is that he’s left-handed and that was a real priority for us in the recruiting process.”
ASU is coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 30 victories.
“We’ve been knocking on the door of having an opportunity to go to an NCAA regional the last couple of years,” Pollard said. “We’re moving into a $5 million stadium and we’re excited about that. We return a lot of the key elements from a team that’s been pretty successful the last couple of years. One of the areas where we had to get better was in the bullpen, and one of the areas where we felt we needed to get better was in left-handed pitching, and we think Ethan may be a big part of filing both of those needs.”
“They know I don’t throw very hard,” Cox said, “but since I’m left-handed, that helps. I throw a lot of curveballs, and they’re generally very accurate, which helps me out a lot.”
“Jamie Moyer has pitched 22 years in the big leagues with an 81-mph fastball,” Pollard said. “So I think there are certain guys who have to rely on velocity to be successful and there are other guys who rely on location and movement. If you have those two things, and you’re left-handed, you can have a lot of success.
Cox thinks he may be used as a relief pitcher in the middle innings.
“You have your starting pitchers who throw harder, and then they’ll bring me in for an inning or so, which will slow it down from the left side, then they’ll bring in a closer throwing 94. They’re going from high 80s to low 80s to mid 90s. It’s almost impossible to adjust to for a hitter.”
Pollard is undecided about how he will use Cox.
“It’s too early to try to pigeonhole anybody or define their role before we allow that to play itself out in the fall,” he said. “But I think if you ask me right now how we envision his role developing, I think he could be very valuable coming in key situations facing left-handers, because he is a strike-thrower. You don’t have to worry about him coming in and not throwing strikes. And we have some starting pitchers who are right-handed, higher velocity guys, guys who (throw) 89 mph, 92 mph when they’re on. To go from a 6-foot-4 right-hander throwing 91 mph to a 5-11 left-hander throwing 81, that’s a big timing adjustment for a hitter to have to make. And I think that’s where Ethan can have success.”
Alderson is confident Cox can be a successful pitcher in college.
“I’m hoping he goes up there and carries on the same work habits and attitude,” he said. “I hope the coaches up there see that, because we know that he didn’t throw really hard. But that bulldog competitiveness in him is his forte. I’m sure he’ll go up there and do the very best he can. I think he’ll get some playing time.”
Playing time or not, Cox is happy to be at ASU. He followed the advice of brother Austin, a third baseman on the 2004 WBHS state championship baseball team.
“He’s always told me don’t sacrifice the school you want to go to for a sport because a sport is only going to last for so long,” Cox said. “Education is what’s going to get you through life.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Appalachian. I’ve always told my coaches and my parents that. I’m not going to sacrifice the school I want to go to for baseball. The opportunity to do both is unreal.”
That kind of balance is important to Pollard.
“He strikes me as a really great person on top of what he brings to the team,” Pollard said. “We tell everybody we don’t just recruit players, we recruit people, we recruit families. And Ethan has a great family around him. And he’s a guy whose had to work to get to where he is. Guys that have that natural ability and things have come easy for them, sometimes it’s a harder adjustment when they get to college. But he’s a guy that’s had to work really hard to get to where he’s gotten this year. I think that’s really going to help him as he makes that jump to the next level.”
MICHAEL PAUL is the sports editor at the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or at email@example.com.