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Haviland Off to Successful Start in Minors

SHAWN UN-DEAD
Hiroko Kumaki

Former Harvard ace Shawn Haviland had an impressive first year in the Oakland Athletics’ organization, with 61 strikeouts in just 54.1 innings.

If Shawn Haviland hasn’t pinched himself yet, it’s because he has always imagined himself at this point: still doing what he loves, still holding onto a chance to pitch his way, rung-by-rung, up the ladder of a major league baseball organization.

After being drafted by the Oakland A’s organization in the 33rd round of June’s Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, the recent graduate and former Harvard hurler turned in an impressive season for the Vancouver Canadians, Oakland’s Northwest League Class ‘A’ affiliate.

Haviland’s first two years in crimson and white seemed to seal his status as a sure-fire draft pick when he was ready to leave Harvard. His 2006 sophomore campaign, which earned him Ivy League Pitcher of the Year honors, saw him throw a complete game in each of his five league starts en route to a 0.73 league ERA.

His senior season numbers, though, weren’t the eye-catching stuff of most draftees-to-be—even out of the Ivy League. His 5.46 ERA was the highest of his career, and his hits, home runs, and batting average-against figures were all career highs. What’s more, his below-average velocity wasn’t going to have any scouts double-checking their radar guns.

But Harvard head coach Joe Walsh never doubted that his ace’s name would be called come June.

“Shawn didn’t really have any ups and downs,” Walsh insists. “I wasn’t surprised when he got drafted. I’d like to think that his being the number-one guy during his four years here at Harvard would get him some notice.”

It did. After watching Haviland hold his own against Big Ten program Ohio State during the Crimson’s four-game set in Florida last March, A’s scouts liked what they saw. Enough to put aside the subpar senior season and the high-80s fastball and make a west-coaster out of the Farmington, Conn. native.

“It was the intangibles that our scouts really liked,” says Oakland Assistant General Manager David Forst. “Our report said that this guy had confidence, was poised on the mound, and when you get down to the later rounds you’re looking for somebody to compete.”

“There’s a lot of guys throwing 95, 96 [miles per hour], but plenty of guys who can’t hit 90 and are pitching in the bigs,” Walsh adds. “[Haviland] throws strike one, he holds runners, he fields his position. He always comes with the heart of a lion. There’s a lot there that can win ballgames.”

Haviland’s knee-buckling curveball didn’t hurt, either, and professional hitters were just as stumped by his signature hook as his former Ivy foes were. As he split time as a starter and a reliever in 18 appearances in Vancouver, the righty struck out 61 batters over 54.1 innings en route to a 3.48 ERA. In one start, he notched 10 punchouts in just four frames of work.

The Oakland powers-that-be took note, and Haviland found himself among about 10 Vancouver teammates with an invitation to the Arizona Instructional League.

“For me as a low draft pick, it was a pretty big deal to get invited because they only invite guys they think are worth trying to develop,” Haviland says. “It signified going from the 33rd round to them actually thinking of me as a prospect. It was a pretty exciting day.”

In Arizona, the goal is to fill in the gaps in the righty’s repertoire: bring up the velocity on his fastball and develop a definitive third pitch. A’s coaches greeted their low-A prospect by telling him that he couldn’t use his curveball or his splitter as long as he was there. Only fastballs and cutters were allowed.

“They want you to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Haviland says. “I think I’ve gotten better in a short amount of time.”

But for the right-hander who lives to compete—Walsh calls him a “bulldog”—the toughest part of adjusting to professional ball hasn’t been the better hitters or the work with unfamiliar pitches. It’s been the focus on the individual over the team, the decreased premium placed on winning.

“Everyone’s good friends, but it’s different in the low minors because it’s not really about how the team does,” Haviland explains. “If you’re lose a game in extra innings at Harvard, everyone’s going to be devastated. If you lose that game in Vancouver, people don’t take it as hard because they’re not playing for their school, they’re trying to do well personally so they can move up. It’s different and it makes me miss playing at Harvard where the team atmosphere is a little better.”

Recent years have seen a handful of Harvard standouts drafted into the professional ranks—the most successful being Frank Hermann ’06, who in just his third season in the minors was promoted to Cleveland’s AAA affiliate in Buffalo in July. Hermann saw his velocity rise by a few miles per hour after college, and Walsh suggests that the same thing could happen to Haviland with the transfer to warmer weather. If his one-time ace is going to ascend the ranks, though, he’ll live and die with his curveball.

“A lot of hitters coming out of high school or college that he may be competing against, they haven’t seen a curve like he has,” Walsh says. “Against the aluminum bats [used in college], if you make a mistake with that curve you can put a stewardess on it sometimes. In the pros, you can get away with it a lot more. It’s going to differentiate him.”

Instructional ball ends in two weeks, and after that normal life begins again. Haviland will try to get a job back east as he readies for spring in Kane County, Ill., where he expects to begin next season with Oakland’s full-season A affiliate.

But what’s Haviland’s ceiling? Everyone seems to agree: keep your eye on this one.

“It’s probably up to Shawn, as much as he wants to commit himself,” Forst says. “He has the stuff of a much higher guy [than his draft position], and he’ll have the opportunity to move.”

“I think I proved that I can get guys out in Vancouver, and that I was ready to move up,” Haviland says. “You never know—depending on the numbers, I could end up higher.”

No one would expect it—except maybe Haviland himself. So don’t be surprised if that moment of disbelief—that moment he finally pinches himself—never comes.

—Staff writer Emily W. Cunningham can be reached at ecunning@fas.harvard.edu
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