ASU pitcher Will Levine turning heads after returning with strong arm, focus
TEMPE – With almost every championship-caliber team, a player unexpectedly bursts onto the scene and makes an impact that nobody saw coming.
Arizona State baseball coach Tracy Smith already has an idea who that player might be this season for a Sun Devils team ranked third nationally in the preseason by Baseball America that is expected to contend for a spot in the College World Series and a national championship.
“I’m going to say one of the biggest surprises, if not the biggest, has been Will Levine coming back,” said Smith, whose team opens its season Friday.
He seems an unlikely candidate. Levine, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore right-handed pitcher from Mission Viejo, California, had “a little bit of an up and down” season as a freshman, in his words.
He pitched only 16 ⅔ innings with an ERA of 7.02 while walking more hitters (14) than he punched out (11).
But during ASU’s fall season, the once timid freshman turned heads from the first time he took the mound, lighting up the radar gun.
“(He) came back his first outing in the fall and was sitting mid-to-whatever 90s, and I’m just like ‘OK,’” Smith said of Levine’s new-found velocity.
First baseman Spencer Torkelson, a possible No. 1 overall pick in the next MLB Draft, couldn’t believe his eyes.
“I mean, it was like September and we’re kind of just coming back from summer and all of a sudden we’re in our first intersquad (game) and Will Levine’s throwing 95 and I’m like ‘All right, here we go. This is going to be a tough fall,’” Torkelson said, grinning.
Levine’s teammates had good reason to be surprised. As a freshman his fastball sat in the 87-89 mph range, while occasionally reaching 90 on the gun. Now, he consistently hits 92-94 mph, reaching as high as 96 mph during the fall.
He looked like a completely new pitcher.
“I had to face him, and he came out in his first outing and I was like ‘what the heck was that?’” said catcher Sam Ferri.
It didn’t happen overnight. Levine worked diligently after last season ended and focused on both the mental and physical aspects of pitching.
Strength and mechanics
First, he knew he needed to get stronger.
“For me it was mostly just kind of focusing really hard on my strength part of my game,” Levine said. “The weights part.”
Levine and Jason Robbins, ASU’s strength and conditioning coach, recently looked over Levine’s results in the weight room, “and it was like, my maxes have kind of gone up incredibly,” Levine said.
As Levine left to play summer ball in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, he knew his workout regimen had to be altered, especially if he wanted to carve out a role for himself with the Devils in 2020.
Lifting had to become a bigger part of his routine.
“I knew going into the summer that was going to be the way to essentially make me stay at this program, make me able to play here again, and get stronger,” he said.
Luckily for Levine, he had a familiar face as a source of encouragement and support during his summer in New England.
“Luke La Flam kept telling me ‘Just get used to lifting every day, you’ll be fine,’” Levine said of his fellow ASU right-hander. “Having Luke there, too, was nice.”
The two pitched for the Mystic Schooners of the NECBL, and having La Flam constantly in his ear paid off for Levine.
“Once I got used to lifting every day I started getting insanely stronger,” he said. “I gained 20 pounds, and so I think that translated into the velocity part of it.”
And he noticed his enhanced strength translated into improved mechanics.
“From being stronger, my mechanics were a lot better fluid and (I) can handle a little bit more,” he said. “They’re not perfect, nobody’s perfect, but I think that went into it a lot.”
Once back in Tempe, Levine and pitching coach Jason Kelly continued to work on improving those mechanics to ensure he throws more strikes and commands his four pitches.
“If we can keep him in the zone and really focus on the competition part of it, then he’s as good as anybody we’ve got back there,” Kelly said.
Levine knows how vital staying around the zone is for him. His increase in velocity to 96 mph is just a number without the ability to locate pitches.
“What I’m looking for is (91 to 93) in the zone. That’s perfect, with the off-speed,” he said. “You can throw as hard as you want in this conference and it could get hit really far.”
The Mental Side
There were times during Levine’s freshman season that he felt overwhelmed. He felt the moment was too large for him, and he would overthink the situation.
“For me it was definitely the ‘Holy crap, I’m here! Look at this stadium! I don’t know what to do, like I’m so lost, all these guys are so good,’” he said.
Those thoughts led to struggles on the mound and Levine was relegated to mostly mop-up-duty for most of 2019, only coming in when games were out of hand.
But on a late-April evening the Devils found themselves down by nine runs in the second inning at Washington after then-ace Alec Marsh had his worst start of the season. Levine was called upon to stop the bleeding.
That’s when everything started to turn around for him.
Levine tossed 3 ⅔ scoreless frames, allowing just two hits and keeping the Huskies completely off-balance for the duration of his outing. It was just his third scoreless appearance of the season, and his first that came in multi-inning fashion.
“I remember that outing very well,” Levine said with a big smile. “For me that was the outing that kind of made me realize I could definitely compete at this level here and compete in the Pac-12.”
“That was just a flash of what he brings to the table every day,” Ferri said, adding that now it’s a matter of Levine “just going out there and replicating those outings.”
Levine’s mindset before entering that game was different than in some previous outings when he let the moment get the best of him.
“You get to a point where you just stop caring, or you’ve been beaten down so much you’re like ‘You know what, here I am. This is what I’ve got. I’ve got nothing to lose,’” he said. “It took me almost a whole year to realize that I’m just as good as these guys, and I can play just as good as these guys, too.”
The difference in Levine’s in-game mentality led him to devote himself to learning the mental side of the game. He read books, practiced different exercises and soaked information about the mental tactics that worked best for him, “really researching what gives me anxiety, what gives me certain things,” he said. “And that’s what’s been helping me a lot … kind of researching on my own and coming up with my own methods to handle things.”
Has it helped?
“Absolutely,” Levine said. “It’s actually not even just on the mound; just everyday life. Everyday life has been improved for me.”
With junior right-hander RJ Dabovich moving to the closer’s role, and the starting pitching shaping up to be sturdy and deep, Levine could carve out a significant role bridging the gap in middle relief.
“If he can give us those innings in the middle and get us to the Dabovich’s of the world, that’s going to be a huge role for us,” Smith said. “The quality of those middle innings are going to be, to me, closer stuff. So it’s going to be fun to see that and he’s one of the guys certainly in the mix for that.”
Levine hopes to play an important middle-relief role, but he will fill whatever role Smith believes will help the team.
“In my eyes, it’s whenever I get the phone call to come in, I’ll do whatever they want, it doesn’t matter to me as long as I can help the guys win. That’s all I care about.”
When Levine jogs out of the bullpen this spring, Sun Devil baseball fans might wonder if they’re seeing the same player they did last season.
“He’s come back on a mission,” Smith said.