Austin Vernon received just one college baseball offer during the recruiting process in high school. North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, offered the instate right-handed prep pitcher a partial scholarship offer.
Vernon was familiar with the NCCU coaching staff. His brother, Andrew, pitched at NCCU before the Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the 2016 MLB draft.
Vernon is now in his fourth year at NCCU. He missed the pandemic-shortened 2020 season recovering from arm surgery. Vernon was eligible for the 2020 draft and received interest from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies in the last round of the five-round draft, he said. He also garnered attention as an undrafted free agent last year.
Despite the professional interest, Vernon returned to NCCU. He wanted to prove to scouts that he was fully healthy and could handle a starting pitcher’s workload for the first time in his collegiate career.
The decision to pitch at the college level this spring could pay off for Vernon. The right-hander is a prospect for July’s draft and projects as a potential top-10-round pick.
“It is pretty exciting to see where I have come from now and see how much I have developed,” Vernon said. “At the end of the day, hard work pays off. I have done what people have told me to do and continued to work on stuff to improve.”
Vernon mostly pitched out of the bullpen in his first two years at NCCU. He posted a 4.64 ERA with 73 strikeouts and 40 walks allowed in 64 innings in his first two years.
Vernon’s best performance came in the summer after his sophomore year in 2019. He pitched in the prestigious Cape Cod League, recording a 3.92 ERA with 31 strikeouts and nine walks allowed in 20 2/3 innings as a reliever.
After missing the 2020 season recovering from his injury, Vernon briefly pitched in the Texas Collegiate League last summer. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings while recording 10 strikeouts and allowing two walks.
Vernon has worked exclusively as a starter this season, posting a 1.53 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 12 walks allowed in 17 2/3 innings.
Vernon is a 6-foot-8, 270-pound right-handed pitcher who throws a four-seam fastball, curveball, changeup and slider from a long arm action and deceptive delivery. His delivery features some effort.
His mid-to-high-90s fastball, which has hit 100 mph in the past, is his best pitch and features some tailing action. Vernon’s curveball is his best outpitch and it consistently generates swings and misses. He has an above-average feel for the breaking pitch.
Vernon has confidence in his changeup and describes it as his second-best secondary pitch.
“I would say my biggest strength is being able to throw three pitches consistently every game and maintain my velo,” Vernon said.
His slider has featured potential in the past, but Vernon hasn’t regained the feel and confidence he had in the pitch pre-injury since recovering and returning to the mound, he said.
Vernon hopes to cut down on his walks and refine his pitches over the remainder of the season. He also wants to show scouts that he can serve as an effective starting pitcher long-term.
“The main thing I would like to do better is throw more strikes,” Vernon said. “I want to command the zone because I feel like I could do that a lot better, which will allow me to go deeper into games. That is my biggest key is attacking the zone early. I also just want to throw more off-speed pitches for strikes.”
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for six years. He has interviewed 253 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, MLB.com and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he has appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.