GSA Spotlight: West Virginia's JJ Wetherholt

When JJ Wetherholt – a natural righthander – was about 6 years old, he saw his older brother, Brandon, take lefty swings.

Wetherholt decided to emulate his big bro, and he’s been a lefty-only hitter ever since.

Good thing.

Wetherholt, a 20-year-old true sophomore second baseman for the West Virginia Mountaineers, entered this week ranked second in the nation in hits (64), fourth in steals (27 in 31 attempts), fifth in batting average (.451) and ninth in doubles (16).

As it turns out, Wetherholt’s boyhood decision to swing lefty has proven to be pivotal.

“I’m right-eye dominant,” said Wetherholt, a 5-11, 190-pounder. “I’m better suited to the left side.”

Brandon Wetherholt, who is four years older than JJ, is now a lefty-swinging outfielder at Gannon University, a Division II program in Erie, Pennsylvania.

A graduate student at Gannon, Brandon Wetherholt is obviously proud of his younger brother.

“I’m glad he thinks I played a role in his career,” Brandon said. “But he’s just a freak athlete.”

Indeed, JJ Wetherholt played football and basketball into middle school before quitting those sports to focus on baseball.

“In football, he was getting 30 carries a game as a running back, and he was making 15 tackles as a safety,” Brandon said. “In basketball, by the time he was in the third grade, his team had plays drawn up for him in which he would pull up and hit 3-pointers.

“And in baseball, he always had better contact skills than I did, although I had more power because I’m older.

“But by the time I got to college, I saw video of his power. … Now I don’t have anything on the kid.”

Not many college players do have something on JJ Wetherholt, who entered this week leading the Big 12 Conference in batting average, hits and steals. He’s also the Big 12’s toughest player to strike out.

Wetherholt, who is the son of Mike and Holly, isn’t afraid to swim against the proverbial current. He was born in Baltimore, which explains why he is a Ravens fan, even though he was raised in Steelers Country (Mars, Pennsylvania).

In addition, Wetherholt grew up just 20 miles from the University of Pittsburgh campus. Yet, he signed with perhaps Pitt’s biggest rival, West Virginia.

It didn’t hurt that West Virginia is coached by Randy Mazey, who is also from Western Pennsylvania -- Johnstown, Pa., to be specific.

Mazey and his staff started tracking Wetherholt early. As a freshman at Mars High, Wetherholt won the job as starting shortstop and leadoff batter. The Mars Fightin’ Planets had a loaded roster that year with four players besides Wetherholt who went on to play Division I baseball, including Will Bednar (Mississippi State); Jack Anderson (Pitt); Frank Craska (Lafayette/Quinnipiac); and Joey Craska (NJIT).

Andy Bednar, who coached Mars that year, said he knew Wetherholt was special – even as a 5-foot-7, 155-pound freshman on a team that made it all the way to the state quarterfinals that year.

“JJ’s hands and bat speed were unbelievable,” Bednar said. “He belonged.”

Following that season, Wetherholt committed to West Virginia. Among other things, Wetherholt liked the location – out of state but not too far that he couldn’t drive home in two hours.

“I had talked to the coaches at Pitt and Kent State, but they didn’t offer me in time,” Wetherholt said. “I jumped the gun and signed with West Virginia.”

Jason Thompson, who coached Wetherholt for his final two years at Mars High, said the WVU recruitment was low profile.

“He wasn’t trying to chase a name (university),” Thompson said.

Wetherholt doesn’t come off as bitter.

But, if he feels like he has to prove himself to doubters, you couldn’t blame him.

“I wasn’t highly recruited – nobody knew who I was,” Wetherholt said. “Part of that is because I didn’t compete in showcase events. Those events cost a lot of money.”

That, then, is how a player slips below the proverbial radar.

But he didn’t remain undetected for long.

Indeed, Wetherholt made the Big 12’s All-Freshman team last year, starting 53 of his 54 games while splitting his time between third base and second base.

Wetherholf was such an immediate success that he homered on his first career at-bat, going deep in a 13-8 win over Central Michigan last. year.

“I fell behind in the count 0-2 in that at-bat,” Wetherholt said. “I was nervous. My legs were shaking. I was thinking, ‘Good Lord, am I going to strike out in my first at-bat?’

“The next thing I knew, I was running around the bases, screaming.”

Wetherholt went on last year to hit .308 with a team-high 17 doubles, one triple, five homers, 39 RBIs, 51 runs and an .882 OPS. He also stole 15 bases in 23 attempts.

Tevin Tucker, West Virginia’s graduate student/starting shortstop, said he and his teammates starting noticing Wetherholt in the fall of his freshman year.

During a Mountaineers scrimmage, Wetherholt went 5-for-5 with two homers, one triple, one double and one single.

“I said, ‘Wow, this freshman just went for the cycle, and he didn’t even say anything,’” Tucker said. “It opened our eyes.”

Wetherholt has continued to get better. He has eight homers and a 1.264 OPS so far this year. That’s three more homers than he had all of last season, and his OPS is up by 382 points.

He has improved defensively, too. By ditching third base and playing what he says is his natural position at second exclusively this season, Wetherholt has improved his fielding percentage from .920 to .969.

Although he is currently out after stealing second base last week and jamming his left thumb, Wetherholt is expected back soon, perhaps this weekend.

When he does return, Wetherholt – who is a finance major – figures to continue to use his impressive brain power on the field just like he does in the classroom.

Thompson calls Wetherholt an “intellectual” – even on the field.

“In high school, after he got a hit, you could see him reviewing his swing, trying to learn,” Thompson said. “He sees the game differently, and that’s what happened against Arizona.”

Thompson was referring to West Virginia’s 6-5 win over Arizona earlier this year on Feb. 24 in which Wetherholt snapped a tie score by a straight steal of home in the top of the 11th inning.

That play happened after Wetherholt noticed Arizona righthander Trevor Long putting his head down before delivering to the plate.

Wetherholt led off the 11th with a double and then stole third. With two outs and an 0-2 count on the batter, Wetherholt saw Long’s head down and took off. Long threw home, but his toss was high and went off the glove of catcher Tommy Splaine.

“That play was emotional,” Wetherholt said. “I talked to (third-base coach Steve Sabins about stealing home), but not a lot of words were said. (Mazey and Sabins) saw what I saw, and, with two strikes, I thought: ‘Might as well go crazy.’

“It was really emotional. I think it was my first steal of home since I was 12.”

Wetherholt finished that game 3-for-6 with a homer, a double, a single, two steals, two runs and two RBIs, and that’s the kind of across-the-board impact he is capable of having on games.

Tucker said Wetherholt’s bat-to-ball skills are “one of a kind”, and he added that he rarely sees the Mountaineers second baseman take an off-balance swing.

Mazey, meanwhile, marvels at Wetherholt’s consistency.

“JJ has tremendous vision and hand-eye coordination,” Mazey said. “Those are difference-maker (traits).

“He sees all pitches, and he hits to all fields.” is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.