“If you keep your head down and you keep on grinding, take care of what you can take care of, and control what you can control, then when you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game it’s most likely going to be in your favor.”
Earlier this month I got the opportunity to talk with Clemson University commit and 4A-state champion Jake Higginbotham about everything from his upbringing as a pitcher to his approach on the mound. We even talked about a certain superstition he has on gamedays, in which he wears a pair of batman socks all day before a game.
During the conversation, the 6’-1″ senior from Buford High School in Buford, Georgia maintained a certain poise about himself. He knew exactly what to say about each issue and wasn’t afraid to say something wrong. He seemed very mature. As any baseball fan—or sports fan, for that matter—knows, young players tend to struggle more with immaturity issues than can be more harmful than any deficiency in their ability. For that reason, it is thought that a young player has a leg up on his competition when he is said to be ‘mature’.
What’s odd is that, while talking to the lefty, it just felt like he had been here before. It felt like this was expected, or he had done it a million times already—which is odd given Higginbotham’s unique route to get here.
Higginbotham (or as his teammates call him, ‘Higg’) did not actually start pitching until he was 15 years old, during his first serious year of travel baseball. That’s right, a kid who is throwing in the 90’s from the left side has only been pitching for the last three years. “Because my coach saw that I was a lefty,” Higginbotham explained, “He thought, ‘Alright he’s a lefty, we might as well try him on the mound.’”
Enter John DeVore.
As a result of needing to learn how to pitch, Higginbotham began receiving instruction from pitching Coach John DeVore. DeVore, who is in the Hall of Fame at the University of West Georgia, signed with the New York Mets out of college only to be released by the Mets due to an injury. However, DeVore continued to stick around baseball by coaching high school to college-age athletes for the next 50 years.
“I started going to John DeVore for pitching lessons, and I got pretty decent at it. He taught me how to throw a curveball and I kept on working at it,” Higginbotham described. He then went on to rave about how instrumental DeVore actually was in his upbringing as a pitcher:
“He’s the reason I’m the pitcher I am today. I give about 90% of the credit to him, he’s unbelievable as far as, you know, just encouraging me and telling me to stick with it and keep on working. He made me want to be a better pitcher, he made me love it.
He brought so much passion every time he came out there and taught me, there was so much passion you could see it. He means the world to me. I’m forever in-debt to him as far as instilling the love of baseball and the love of pitching in me. He had a huge, huge impact on me.”
At first, Higginbotham wasn’t sure if the mound was where he needed to be.
“I struggled with command when I first started,” Higginbotham explained, “So it was a working process. I knew that I loved it, I thought it was extremely fun. I wasn’t great at it, I didn’t know if it was meant to be or not but it was one of those things I enjoyed and I was willing to work at and get better at.”
However, it was under DeVore’s teaching that Higginbotham began to embrace the new position change. “I really liked it,” Higginbotham described, “It was fun. I liked being in control of the game. I’d never really been in control of the game like that—I used to play centerfield. I like being in control every pitch, it’s just something that I fell in love with.”
While Higginbotham enjoyed the control he received from pitching, it’s actually another type of control that he prides himself on.
Something that Higginbotham recognized as a strength is his ability to control his emotions. In fact when asked whether or not he wears his emotions on his sleeve, Higginbotham responded by saying it’s something he tries to avoid. “No I don’t,” the lefty described, “I try to avoid that. I was really bad at that when I was younger. I would get really emotional, really angry, and it was one of those things where I had to grow out of it—had to mature a little bit. There’s been a lot of guys that have had some positive impact on me as far as how I control myself on the mound. I’ve had a lot of good influence around me.”
One of those guys that Higginbotham described as being a good influence is Sam Clay, a former teammate who was drafted in the 4th round by the Minnesota Twins in 2014. Higginbotham credited the then-senior Clay for helping his mound presence improve from one of an immature freshman. Clay explained to Higginbotham how to act and conduct himself on the mound, as well as the importance of not showing emotions or bad body language. In fact, Higginbotham even used the same example set by Clay to help the underclassmen. “I just try to mentor the guys,” the senior described, “just like what Sam Clay did to me about how you’re supposed to act on the field.”
Another reason Higginbotham was able to begin to control his emotions was a saying he learned from his father, Mike, at a young age. Jake explained how, since he was five, his dad would tell him that he could—essentially—only control so much. “If you keep your head down and you keep on grinding,” Jake’s father would say, “take care of what you can take care of, and control what you can control, then when you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game it’s most likely going to be in your favor.”
Using this advice, Higginbotham was able to improve his mound presence. “It’s one of those things where I’m not worried about everything around me,” Higginbotham added, “I’m just zeroed in on doing my job. I feel like if I do my job to the best of my ability then I’m going to give my team an opportunity to win.”
And when it comes to the playoffs, Higginbotham takes it to another level. The southpaw has his fair share of playoff shut-outs in his career, as well as a no-hitter he threw this season against their second round opposition Perry Panthers. “Oh man, [the playoffs are] another level.” Higginbotham discussed, “It’s another level of focus, another level of energy, another level of adrenaline.”
“It’s one of those things where I don’t want to let down the team, so I’m going to come with everything I got. If it doesn’t get the job done, it doesn’t get the job done. But I’m going to leave every ounce of me on the field, every ounce of me on the mound. It’s one of those things where if I go out there and compete at the highest level in the playoffs then I think my team is going to follow suit. It’s just important to me to let my team know that I’m going to be reliable, I’m going to be there during playoffs especially. They can count on me. I want to bring a certain type of energy when I step on the mound, I want the team to be behind me. I want to have that presence to give my team the confidence to go out there and get a win.”
In fact, it was in the playoffs that Higginbotham’s biggest achievement actually took place.
“Probably my biggest achievement was throwing a 9-inning complete game sophomore year in the first round of playoffs. It was my first playoff appearance as a varsity pitcher. I threw 9 innings, gave up one hit and had 17 strikeouts. I gave up the only hit in the first inning, then no-hit them the next 8 innings. Pitching-wise, that’s probably my biggest achievement.”
But what about Higginbotham’s approach on the mound? Clearly it has worked thus far for him throughout his career in high school, as he has posted near video game regular season numbers:
The lefty described how his usual approach is to be aggressive and go right after hitters. Citing that most high-schoolers typically can’t get their bats around fast enough on his fastball, Higginbotham also described how he likes to work inside on hitters. “I attack hitters,” Higginbotham says, “I go after them, challenge them, and make them prove they can hit me.”
“I feel really confident on the mound, and I get in my own zone where it’s just me and my catcher. To me it’s just a matter of ‘I dare you to hit it, I’m gunna come after you.’ I’m not gunna go around you, it doesn’t matter who’s hitting, I’m gunna go right after them. If they hit me they hit me, I’ve got another pitch to throw to another hitter.”
Higginbotham also mentioned that he will usually throw a fastball 75% of the time, combined with a curveball that he’ll throw around 25% of the time. While he also has a change-up, Higginbotham described how he will throw it around five times a game. As a matter of fact, the diligent youngster listed his change-up as an area where he’d like to improve.
On the other side of the coin, the application of his curveball is where Higginbotham feels his greatest strength lies. By that, he means that he can throw a curveball for a strike in whatever count he needs. “I throw a lot of 2-0 curveballs, 3-2 curveballs, a lot of 2-1 curveballs.” Higginbotham explained, “I’m confident throwing it behind in counts, especially in high school where hitters aren’t ready for that. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve froze this year on a 3-2 curveball that are just sitting dead red on a fastball and I land a curveball for strike three.”
As a matter of fact, it was John DeVore who taught Higginbotham his impressive 12-6 curveball. And although DeVore passed away in 2013, Higginbotham has not forgotten all that he did for him. In fact, Higginbotham has DeVore’s name embroidered on his glove out of respect for his mentor.
However, DeVore isn’t the only one who has had a great impact on Higginbotham. The youngster added that his parents have also had a huge impact in his baseball-upbringing, and are also his biggest support system. Not to mention that Higginbotham’s favorite baseball moment—which would make his favorite pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, proud—had to do with a game pitched on Father’s Day. “My favorite baseball moment,” Higginbotham recalled, “was throwing a no-hitter on father’s day when I was 15. That was so unbelievable for me because my dad has been so instrumental in my baseball development.”
During the recruiting process, it was Jake’s parents who knew that Clemson was really where he wanted to be early on—but that’s not much of a surprise.
Speaking of the recruiting process, Higginbotham is said to have committed 10 minutes after he received an offer. As he described, that’s because he had gone on a campus tour three weeks before his recruiting trip. I went and took a little tour of the campus,” the soon to be incoming freshman explained, “about three weeks before they asked me to come visit. I told my parents that [Clemson] was where I needed to be.”
“From the facilities, to the campus, to the culture and the environment—everything about it was just unbelievable. It blew me away the second I stepped on campus, I just knew that [Clemson] was where I needed to be. I was lucky enough to get a call three weeks later asking me to come visit and I was blessed that they gave me an offer. As soon as they did, I knew that’s what I wanted to do—so I committed.”
Finally, when asked what Higginbotham’s ultimate goal for his baseball career is, the Texas Rangers fan responded that he has aspirations for the big leagues. “I want to play in the big leagues,” Higginbotham added, “for sure. That’s been my dream since I was three-years old. It’s one of those things where I’m going to do everything in my power to continue to get better so I can make it to the highest level and compete at the highest level—to say all this work wasn’t for nothing.”
And, while those goals are lofty, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the recent state champion Jake Higginbotham to one day realize them.
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