By Gideon Rubin
By just about every objective measure, the call probably should have come much earlier.
After concluding one of the most distinguished prep pitching careers in San Diego County history, former Torrey Pines High standout Joey DeNato’s name never surfaced on the 2010 amateur draft board.
Three more excellent seasons at Indiana University — which included him pitching a shutout against Louisville in the College World Series — and still, crickets.
The call finally came last month. After a stellar senior year at Indiana that was apparently too much for professional scouts to overlook, the Philadelphia Phillies drafted DeNato in the 19th round.
DeNato was back home eating a California burrito when he got the call.
“It’s definitely very rewarding,” he said. “Every baseball player wants a chance to get drafted and play pro ball. Just the fact that I’m getting a chance is very exciting.”
The Phillies assigned DeNato to its Class A affiliate in the short-season New York-Penn League. He is 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA through his first six appearances (all in relief) with the Williamsport (Penn.) Crosscutters.
DeNato was overlooked by Major League scouts until this year because he lacks the attributes that — fairly or not — Major League scouts believe to be important in determining projectibility.
DeNato is listed as a 5-foot-10 175-pounder, and he doesn’t regularly light up radar guns.
But he has excelled at every level.
He was a high school All-American selection his senior year at Torrey Pines when he went 10-2 with a 1.15 ERA, striking out 97 batters in 73 innings and allowing just 20 walks and 58 hits.
He was 37-9 with a 2.53 ERA in four years at Indiana in which he set school career records for victories, strikeouts (297) and innings pitched (369.1).
He was projected to be drafted after going 10-2 with a 2.52 ERA as a junior.
“Last year I was upset for a little bit (after the draft), but when it didn’t happen I knew I was going back to IU and I loved it there anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me,” DeNato said. “I felt I had to prove myself someway, somehow, in order to get drafted and achieve my goals and my dreams Every single year I felt I had to get better and better and it finally happened my senior year.”
DeNato forced the issue in a senior campaign in which he put up the same type of eye-popping numbers he regularly did when he was at Torrey Pines.
DeNato finished the year among four players tied for the nation’s lead in victories after going 13-1 with a 1.82 ERA.
He struck out 81 batters allowed 91 hits and 39 walks in 109 innings.
“The stats I put up this past season could not have happened without my teammates,” DeNato insists. “I know that sounds so cliché, but it was easy pitching for Indiana this year. We had the bats, we had the gloves, and we had the bullpen. We had everything this year.”
That DeNato had his best year at Indiana after being snubbed by professional baseball’s selection process for a second time — circumstances that often trigger regression — speaks volumes about DeNato’s character, said Matt Chess, his former coach at Torrey Pines.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that, character-wise, Joey would handle it the way he did,” Chess said, “but it also doesn’t surprise me that not only did he handle it well, but that he used that additional year to figure out the game at that level to be a little bit more successful, and to become arguably one of the absolutely best players in the nation this year.”
Chess believes that DeNato deserved to be named a first-team All-American this year. DeNato was named to the third team.
“You can’t tell me he wasn’t one of the 10 best pitchers in the nation this year, but apparently the people who make those lists didn’t see it the same way I did,” Chess said. “His statistics bear that out, and you can ask anybody at IU and anybody in the Big 10 (Conference), I think they’ll agree with that statement.”
The apparent snub wasn’t the first. After his senior year at Torrey Pines, DeNato was the only All-American selection that year who wasn’t drafted.
“I think he’s going to have the last laugh in this,” Chess said. “Don’t be surprised if you see him pitching in a Major League stadium one day. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
“He’s used to being the little guy, but he’s also used to being the guy who figures out what it takes to be successful and not being defined by that — that’s part of the reason he’s been so successful.”