For some pitchers, the strikeout is almost a byproduct of making good pitches, rather than the intended outcome. Some guys don't care if they record an out via strikeout or groundout of flyout, as long as they get the out.
Elon's Kyle Brnovich is not one of those guys. It's no accident the sophomore righthander leads college baseball with 75 strikeouts through just 47 innings.
"The biggest thing is he's a competitor. I've been doing this for 22 years here, and he's probably the biggest competitor I can remember," Elon coach Mike Kennedy said. "He likes to strike guys out, and he tries to do it. You can't argue with the numbers. Sometimes as a coach you're like, 'Let's pitch to contact more and keep that pitch count down,' but he doesn't like contact, he doesn't like guys to hit off him. It's like a personal challenge for him to strike you out."
That mentality made me think of 2011 Golden Spikes Award winner Trevor Bauer, who told me that spring, "I like making hitters look stupid. That's fun." Bauer never gave in, always sought the strikeout, and led the nation in Ks two years in a row. In his famous 2011 campaign, Bauer averaged a national-best 13.37 strikeouts per nine innings.
Brnovich is currently averaging 14.36 strikeouts per nine.
"I coached with Team USA in 2009, and Bauer was on that staff," Kennedy said. "It's a great comparison. It's a very, very similar mentality, no question. Bauer knew he was good, and Brno has a lot of that in him too, that's what makes him special."
Of course, the other main reason Brnovich is a strikeout machine is that, like Bauer, he can really spin a breaking ball. That's his trademark pitch, and it's a serious weapon.
"It's hard to describe because he doesn't throw many of them the same. He adds and subtracts, he can throw it 82, he can throw it 74 - it does a lot of crazy stuff," Kennedy said. "The thing is sometimes you call a breaking ball, you're hoping he throws this breaking ball and he throws that breaking ball. It's slider velocity with a curveball break. It's not a traditional breaking ball, and I think that's why it's so successful. He does a lot of things with it, you can't describe it. It's really that good."
Brnovich's ability to manipulate the shape and speed of his breaking ball is rare, and he also "commands it like crazy," in Kennedy's words. But he's far from a one-trick pony. He also has good feel for a changeup that is effective against lefties, and Kennedy said it can be just as good as his breaking ball when he's really got it going. His 90-92 mph fastball is plenty firm enough to keep hitters from sitting on the offspeed stuff.
When Elon recruited Brnovich at Georgia's Kings Ridge Christian High School, he was a skinny, projectable righty with an 86 mph fastball. He had plenty of success, helping lead his team to back-to-back Georgia 6A state titles in 2014 and '15, then leading the state with 135 strikeouts in 72 innings as a senior in 2016. But Kennedy said Brnovich drew interest from bigger power-five schools that wanted him to walk on; Elon landed him by making a stronger commitment to him.
"We got in there and got a chance to see him back-to-back outings, he threw extremely well. We thought the breaking ball was really special, so we gave him a great scholarship, and I think that's what he was looking for," Kennedy said. "I think he likes our school size, a lot of what's going on here in terms of the mentality. The commitment for him was I think the biggest thing - a commitment comes with an opportunity." When Brnovich returned to campus after the holiday break in January of his freshman year, his fastball velocity started to jump, which took him to another level.
"All of a sudden he was 88-89 and able to locate it," Kennedy said. "And now he's 90-92 just about every time, and I think there's another jump in there. The arm works, he's got a little bit of effort in there and creates a little deception, but watch the arm swing and arm path, it works good. There's still room on his frame to put on some good weight, and he could pitch at 92-94 maybe. I don't think that's a stretch."
But that's a matter for down the road. In the short term, Brnovich's stuff is plenty good enough to dominate Division I hitters. Last week against red-hot College of Charleston, Brnovich racked up 14 strikeouts over 7 1/3 innings, allowing just one run on two hits to lead the Phoenix to a 9-3 win. That improved him to 4-0, 1.53 on the season, with 75 strikeouts, 19 walks, and a .156 opponents' batting average in 47 innings. He was already very good last year, when he went 6-5, 3.10 with 103 strikeouts in 90 innings to earn Colonial Athletic Association rookie of the year honors - but he's taken his game to another level as a sophomore. A day Brnovich shut down CofC, fellow prized sophomore righty George Kirby worked 5 2/3 strong innings to help lead the Phoenix to a 7-5 win, clinching a huge CAA series for the Phoenix. After starting the season 2-6, Elon has gone 15-6 since. The offense has found its stride, and the defense is very strong up the middle, led by rifle-armed shortstop Ryne Ogren (also the team's leading hitter at .378), talented center fielder Zach Evers (.322) and powerful second baseman Cam Devanney (.313 with 4 HR, 19 RBI). The bullpen has a pair of lights-out late-inning options in righty Robbie Welhaf (2.51 in 32.1 IP) and lefty Jared Wetherbee (1.80 in 15 IP), both of whom attack hitters at 90-93 with good breaking balls.
So after a few disappointing seasons marred by a seemingly endless parade of injuries, Elon is finally healthy and dangerous, with its best club since the last of its 14-straight 30-plus-win seasons in 2013. In fact, this may be the best Elon team since it won 40-plus games three times in four years from 2006-09.
And the biggest reason this team could be special is the duo of Brnovich and Kirby (5-1, 2.29), though sinkerballer Ryan Conroy (1-2, 2.80) is no slouch on Sundays either. But very few staffs in college baseball can match the pure talent Elon is running out on the mound every Friday and Saturday, which gives the Phoenix a great chance to win every weekend series, especially when combined with the Welhaf-Wetherbee bullpen pair. If Brnovich is Elon's Bauer, then Kirby is its Gerrit Cole, a flame-thrower with a fastball that regularly sits 95-96, and sat 96-98 against Georgia Southern, according to Kennedy. That's not to say Brnovich and Kirby are going to be two of the top three picks in the draft next year, like Cole and Bauer were - Kirby needs to continue to refine his secondary stuff, though he flashes an above-average changeup and a solid curveball that he's learning to throw with more power, while Brnovich doesn't have Bauer's fastball velocity. But like Bauer and Cole, Brnovich and Kirby really push each other.
"You really feel good about what's going to happen on a Friday and a Saturday, I can tell you that," Kennedy said. "Our guys play with confidence when they're out there; you have a chance to do some damage if you have guys on the front end like that. It's nice to be able to run those two dudes out there. And they both came in as freshmen together, so they're growing together, learning together, kind of feed off each other. It's fun to watch. I think there's a good battle between those guys - who's our Friday guy, so to speak? It's a good competition, and they make each other better."
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