Jeff Criswell has excelled throughout his collegiate baseball career at the University of Michigan.
Criswell, a right-handed pitcher, immediately factored into Michigan’s pitching staff as a freshman where he thrived out of the bullpen in 2018. He moved to the rotation last year as a sophomore and was one of the best No. 3 starters in the country.
Last season, Michigan made an improbable run through the NCAA Tournament and fell one victory short of capturing the College World Series, losing in the decisive Game 3 to Vanderbilt. Criswell slid back into a relief role during the College World Series and was a weapon for the Wolverines.
In his first two years, Criswell learned from starting pitchers Tommy Henry and Karl Kaufmann, who were second-round picks in the 2019 MLB draft. Now with Henry and Kaufmann in pro ball, Criswell will serve as Michigan’s top starter this spring.
“Those guys were awesome and were like the two older brothers I never had,” Criswell said. “Those two were returning starters and I was the new guy in the role last year. They did a really, really good job bringing me in and showing me the ropes after pitching in the bullpen my freshman year.”
Criswell likely will be the next Michigan pitcher to hear his name called early in the draft, as he’s a top prospect for June’s draft. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior right-hander is a projected second-round pick entering this spring but could vault into first-round consideration with a strong season.
Nearly three years ago, Criswell, a Michigan native, would have been an early-round selection out of high school but honored his commitment to Michigan. His desire to attend college and play baseball collegiately drove his decision to bypass professional baseball at the time, he said.
Criswell doesn’t regret his decision. He’s enjoyed his first two years at Michigan and hopes to make a lasting impact on the program this year.
If Criswell is drafted in June, he’d follow in his father’s footsteps of playing pro baseball. His father Brian was a 17th-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in the 1984 draft and spent five years playing in the minor leagues.
“I want to be the best,” Criswell said. “I’m a competitive person by nature, and I fell in love with the game at a very young age. My dad played professionally, and I have always strived to be the best at whatever aspect of my life I am going through. Baseball is a big part of my life and my family. I always want to compete and be better than the next guy.”
In 2018, Criswell recorded a 2.23 ERA with 32 strikeouts and 19 walks allowed in 32 1/3 innings of relief. He moved into the rotation and continued to overpower hitters, posting a 2.72 ERA with 116 strikeouts and 50 walks allowed in 106 innings last year.
Criswell is a workhorse who has strong build and an effective mix of pitches. He throws a four-seam fastball, slider and changeup from a low-effort delivery. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he typically maintains that velocity late into starts.
He’s refined all three offerings into above-average pitches in his first 2½ years at Michigan.
“I would say my durability has been a big strength of mine,” Criswell said. “I have always tried to take the ball when it’s given to me and gone out there and competed regardless of what the situation might be.”
Coming out of Portage Central High School in Portage, Michigan, Criswell’s secondary pitches consisted of a splitter and 12-6 curveball. Once he arrived at Michigan, Criswell changed his off-speed pitches to his current offerings based on analytical data that showed a slider and changeup would play off his fastball more effectively, he said.
He worked with Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter to develop a feel and consistency for the changeup and slider. He didn’t have much trouble adjusting to the changeup, as he had prior experience throwing the pitch. Criswell threw a changeup growing up but switched to a splitter in high school. He occasionally threw a changeup just to keep a familiarity with it throughout his prep career, he said.
This season, Criswell hopes to show an improvement in his command to limit the amount of walks he issues.
The Wolverines enter this spring as one of the top teams in the country and have the potential to make another deep postseason run this spring. They return a talented roster headlined by Criswell and outfielders Jesse Franklin and Jordan Nwogu.
Although Criswell hopes to experience some personal improvement, his top priority is the team’s success.
“I want to win a national championship,” Criswell said. “That’s the end goal for everyone here. When you go that far last year and fall short, it’s the only thing on your mind. I just want to do whatever I can to help us get back there.”
Read more stories on top 2020 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for five years. He’s interviewed 191 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.