GSA Spotlight: Alabama's Ben Hess

Photo: Alabama Athletics Communications

FRISCO, Texas — Ben Hess did not throw more than 36 innings in either of his first two seasons at Alabama, yet he entered his 2024 junior campaign as a preseason All-American. On Friday night at the Frisco Classic, Hess showed why he carried such a lofty billing into this spring.

Hess looked the part of a high first-round pick in his five overpowering innings of work, racking up 10 strikeouts against just one walk and one hit. He retired the first 11 Indiana hitters he faced before issuing a two-out walk in the fourth. The Hoosiers broke up his no-hit bid with a leadoff single in the fifth, but Hess proceeded to dispatch the next three batters in order, two of them via strikeouts.

“I thought Heater was unbelievable today,” Alabama coach Rob Vaughn said, referring to Hess. “Stuff was real, attacked the strike zone, it seemed like he was ahead of everybody. And when he’s good, that fastball goes straight up, and it’s just hard to get above. And that’s a good offense. I faced those guys a long time, and when I got out of [Maryland] and went to Alabama, and then I see Indiana on our schedule Week Three, I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to get away from these guys.’ Because that’s a good offense, and that’s just how good Heater was tonight.”

Indeed, Hess’ stuff was very, very good, and his performance was loud against an experienced Indiana lineup that should be the best in the Big Ten. The big righthander ran his fastball up to 98 mph in the first inning and sat comfortably at 94-97 throughout his 71-pitch outing. He spotted up very well to both sides of the plate, busting both righties and lefties on the inside corner, and he got numerous swing-throughs just above the zone with his riding heater, with spun in the 2300-2400 rpm range with 18 to 22 inches of induced vertical break. But he also showed outstanding command of his two distinct breaking balls: an 84-87 mph slider with tight tilt and a 77-80 curveball that spun in the 2600-2700 rpm range and showed big two-plane depth. Of his 10 strikeouts, four came on curveballs (including three back-door specials against lefties, and one perfectly placed breaker to the lower outside corner against a righty), five came on fastballs (mostly elevated), and one came on a front-door slider. All three pitches were very good, and he mixed them expertly, keeping the Hoosiers off balance.

“He was 95-97 with two offspeed pitches, so if you can eliminate that guy a little bit and be a two-pitch guy, you have a better chance against him, but he was obviously on tonight. He was really good, the velo was up,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said. “He was executing. We knew he was going to be predominantly glove-side to both, he was going to be glove side to righties and glove side to lefties middle-in. We tried to make the adjustment, but once you start landing the curveball along with the slider, it’s going to be a pretty tough night when you have a guy that talented commanding the fastball like that.”

A key part of Hess’ success stemmed from his ability to get ahead in counts. He threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of 17 batters and got to 0-2 counts against five of them (resulting in four strikeouts). He did not fall behind 2-0 in the count at all. His ability to assert his will with his explosive heater really allowed him to work ahead and stay in control of every at-bat.

“I thought he got in on them and I thought he pitched at the top of the zone really well,” Vaughn said. “It’s not the miss up, it’s the pitch just above the waist, and with the way his fastball works, it’s just really hard to get above. It’s a lot of foul balls and swing-and-misses. And again, that’s some dangerous hitters. Between Devin Taylor and Brock Tibbitts and Carter Mathison, I’m tired of seeing those guys. And I thought he still did a really good job of executing his pitch. Taylor smoked that one ball off him, lucky he got him in a good spot, he’s fine. But I thought he just commanded it really well, and he was ahead all night.”

Vaughn referenced Taylor’s fourth-inning comebacker, a 95 mph line drive that caught Hess “in the love-handle,” as Vaughn put it. But Hess, a physical behemoth at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, recovered in time to pounce on the ball “like a bear” — as a scout sitting near me said — and made an underhand toss to first for the out, showing poise as well as sneaky athleticism. That bottom of the fourth inning came after Hess had to sit through a 22-minute top of the fourth, as Alabama batted around for the second time in the game (he also endured an 18-minute wait in the first). But neither the lengthy waits nor the line drive off his back could stop Hess from turning in a special performance against Indiana, a program he had once committed to as a highly touted Illinois high schooler. He de-committed in 2021 — two years after originally committing to the Hoosiers — and Alabama scooped him up that June.

But Hess was derailed by a freak off-field injury as a freshman in 2022, limiting him to 33.2 innings. Then his sophomore campaign was cut short after 36.1 innings by arm soreness, so the Crimson Tide handled him carefully this fall. And then this spring, Hess’ ramp-up was delayed after he rolled his ankle while walking his dog. So Vaughn, in his first season at Alabama, had never gotten a chance to see Hess at his peak — until Friday night in Frisco.

“He threw one inning against Florida State in our [fall] scrimmage, and I think he had one other one-inning outing before that just to kind of get ready. So really, it’s about my fifth time seeing Hess pitch, and his preseason I think was about what you’d expect for a guy who hasn’t been on the mound a lot, it was OK,” Vaughn said. “But I think it was really good for him because we had traffic all over the bases [in preseason scrimmages], we had some really good at-bats, he had to kind of pitch through some stuff early against our hitters, and I think that just prepares him to rock and roll. But that guy’s as good as it gets. The fastball, it’s not just velo, but that thing just goes straight up. When he’s landing the bigger breaking ball and the hard slider, it’s a tough matchup for anybody. And I thought he was every bit of a first-rounder tonight.” is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.