After overcoming serious elbow injury, Blue Jays' top pick is thriving
TORONTO -- The future appears bright for Max Pentecost after the Blue Jays selected the college catcher with the No. 11 pick of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. But it wasn't that long ago there were some doubts about whether his career would ever get off the ground.
Pentecost suffered a series of bizarre injuries to his right elbow that almost completely derailed his future in the sport. The problems began during his sophomore season and continued up until graduation. The final diagnosis was a fractured olecranon, which is the bony tip of the elbow that most people would never know the name of.
It's still not clear how the injury was originally sustained, but once the problem surfaced it took more than two years for the condition to get resolved once and for all.
"They said, 'Let it heal and rest,'" Pentecost said of the doctor's orders from 2011. "So I did that and it happened again my junior year -- and they pretty much said the same thing, 'Maybe we didn't let it heal long enough.' My senior year, it did the same thing -- and at this point, they said it's going to take something besides rest to heal it.
"So we went ahead and got two screws put in. They chipped away ... put the screws in there, and ever since I haven't had a problem with it."
The scariest part of the injury is that it cost Pentecost an opportunity to turn pro. Even with the elbow issues, Pentecost was a 2011 Southeast All-Region pick, a four-time All-Region selection and was the Georgia State hitter of the year. In an abbreviated senior season, he posted a .295 average with three home runs, eight doubles and 16 runs batted in.
That was enough to pique the interest of the Rangers, who selected Pentecost with their seventh-round pick in the 2011 Draft. They knew about the injury. But once the club took a closer look at his medicals, there were some additional concerns. A fractured olecranon is the type of injury regular doctors see quite often, but in baseball circles it's extremely rare.
At the time, the best-known case of an olecranon injury came when Detroit right-hander Joel Zumaya fractured his in 2010. Zumaya never fully recovered, and his pitching career ultimately came to an end. Texas was concerned about Pentecost suffering a similar fate and asked that a special clause be put into the contract to protect the organization.
That left Pentecost with the choice of turning pro with very little long-term security or fulfilling his commitment to Kennesaw State University.
"It was a really tough decision, and I came really close to signing," Pentecost said. "It was down to the day before I moved into my college apartment, whether or not I was going to sign. It ended up, they put a 90-day clause in my contract -- and at that point, there was only one or two players in MLB that had the surgery.
"Honestly, I didn't know whether it was going to heal or not. At that point, I was still in the cast. ... I looked at it, I can go to college and work on a degree and, if anything, I can show them I can play three or four years without the injury recurring."
Pentecost went on to a full recovery and has since eliminated any lingering doubts teams had about his elbow. After splitting the catching duties in 2012, Pentecost became the regular starter the following year and proceeded to hit .302 with a .374 on-base percentage, three homers and 30 RBIs in 57 games.
It was a breakthrough season, but the real turning point came later that summer in the Cape Cod League. He received the Pat Sorenti MVP Award, after assuming a starring role with the Bourne Braves. Pentecost accounted for almost a fifth of his team's runs and finished third in the league with a .346 batting average. He also ranked in the top five in the league with six home runs, 29 RBIs and a .963 OPS.
The performance came as Pentecost was about to enter his junior year at KSU. He was once again eligible for the Draft, and all of the scouts around baseball were taking notice. The Cape Cod League was where the Blue Jays first expressed serious interest, and it was no longer a matter of if Pentecost would be taken by a team, but how high in the Draft he would go.
"I think that was the whole reason I am where I am today," Pentecost said of his experience in Cape Cod. "Going up there, no one really knew who I was, had never even heard of Kennesaw State. Going up there, I felt like I was going to have to prove myself and prove my game just to prove who I am.
"I made a lot of changes to my game, really played hard, enjoyed it. The overall experience, it was just a blast. The atmosphere was great, the fans were great, the coaches and teams were unreal. The quality of players up there was nothing like I've experienced before -- and being able to play the way I did, that really changed my whole outlook on baseball."
Pentecost returned to KSU in the fall and proceeded to hit .418 with nine homers, 58 RBIs and a 1.104 OPS in 63 games. He was named a candidate for the Johnny Bench Award, which is handed out annually to the NCAA's top catcher, and recently led the Owls to a Cinderella run in the playoffs. The Owls advanced to the NCAA Super Regional for the first time in school history and came up just short of the College World Series with a tough loss to Louisville on Saturday night.
Saturday night's loss still likely stings, but Pentecost can take some solace in the fact that he's about to get down to business. The first task at hand will be coming to terms with the Blue Jays -- with the recommended slot value for the No. 11 pick listed at $2,888,300. At that point, Pentecost could then head to the Minor Leagues -- and it sounds like he's very eager to get the process underway.
"I can't wait to get out there and go play," Pentecost said. "I think there will be one day where I have to clean out my locker and find a ride home, just because my parents had to move me out of my apartment while we were coming to the Super Regional. It's going to be a quick turnaround, get back there and play, and start working on my dream."