Expectations were high this season for University of Oregon pitcher Brac Warren, both personally and externally. But the Rosebud native and Miles City Outlaws product harbors misgivings about the way he performed as a hard-throwing Pac-12 relief pitcher.
His statistics weren’t lousy. Considering the back injury he sustained in the winter — a bulging L5-S1 disc that left him “barely able to walk,” he said — Warren, a junior, still managed a 1-0 record with 28 strikeouts and a 4.56 earned-run average in 23.2 innings for the Ducks. He gave up only two extra-base hits.
Still, it was a far cry from the lofty outlook that had Warren on the preseason watchlist for the Stopper of the Year award, which is given to the top relief pitcher in Division I by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
Warren instead spent the season in survival mode after remedying his injury with rounds of precise physical therapy.
“I was proud of myself for just getting back. It was good to be out there,” said Warren, a 2014 graduate of Custer County District High School in Miles City. “But I didn’t really have the year I wanted or was expecting to have.”
Warren appeared in 22 games, tied for second-most on the Ducks’ pitching staff. With a fastball that topped out at 97 mph, a slider that he considers his best off-speed pitch, a curveball that’s “pretty good” and a changeup that could still become a solid fourth pitch, Warren was called upon by Oregon coach George Horton in various situations.
Warren said he’s learned a great deal under Horton, who previously led Cal State Fullerton to six College World Series appearances, including a national championship win in 2004.
Horton coached the Ducks to a 30-25 mark this year. Their season ended last week when they dropped two of three versus UCLA.
Right now, Warren has good stuff. But he wants great stuff. His ultimate goal is to become a starter, but he has pitched primarily in relief in his three seasons in the Pac-12. There’s a reason for that: Command and control.
When he’s spotting his slider, Warren says that’s when he can be at his best. But consistent command has eluded him at times, though he says he’s grown since his days with the Outlaws, a highly regarded club team that also produced left-handed pitcher Caleb Frare, an 11th-round draft pick in 2012 who is still in the Yankees' system.
“Since coming in as a freshman, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was kind of all over the place as a pitcher,” Warren said. “I threw hard, and that’s what got me (to Oregon).
“I think over the past three years they’ve helped me develop my command, but probably the biggest thing I’ve worked on is my mentality. I feel like that has been one of my biggest accomplishments and what I’ve improved on the most.”
During his senior season with the Miles City boys basketball team, Warren had a knack for heroics. He sent the Cowboys to their first Class A state tournament with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that toppled Glendive at the Eastern A divisional tournament.
It helped end Miles City’s 11-year state tournament drought.
Still, baseball has always been Warren’s first love. Both he and his brother Cade, a non-roster freshman with No. 1-ranked Oregon State, both thrived on the diamond. Now, Brac Warren finds himself within reach of his next objective — a professional baseball contract.
Warren said he expects to be selected in the MLB first-year player draft in June. Which round? Of that he’s not sure, but in the end it will factor into his decision of whether to sign professionally or return to Oregon for his senior season.
Warren knows this: The fact that his fastball was jumping into the upper 90s at the end of this season will raise his draft stock. Horton, it can be pointed out, has produced 125 MLB draft picks in his career as a collegiate coach.
If it comes to it, Warren knows which direction he’s leaning.
“You never know what’s going to happen, but I do expect to get drafted,” he said. “I just don’t know where. I have an advisor and we’re pretty positive that I’ll get picked up somewhere along the line. Ideally I’d like to go in the top 10 (rounds), but we’ll see what happens.
“That’s always been my goal, not only to pitch professionally but to make it to the major leagues. I’m leaning more toward signing (professionally). If it goes really bad at the draft then I’m open to coming back for another year and finishing my degree.”