For two seasons, opponents knew exactly what they were going to see from Mitchell Woelfle.
The Janesville Craig pitcher had ridden his fastball to two first-team all-Big Eight Conference honors, despite the fact opposing hitters saw a steady dose of heat.
In his final season, Woelfle was determined to add another dimension to his game.
Armed with a better breaking pitch, he finished his senior year with a 10-1 record—his lone loss coming 1-0 on an unearned run—and a 1.00 earned run average in 63 innings pitched.
Woelfle was named first-team all-Big Eight for the third consecutive year and was named second-team all-state by the coaches association. And he is The Gazette’s 2019 area baseball player of the year.
“He had above-average velocity for a high school pitcher ... but in his last year, you could tell his curveball wasn’t just a hope-to-get-it-over pitch. It was a pitch that could get guys out and you had to respect it,” Craig coach Victor Herbst said. “He was a multi-pitch guy, and that made him really effective. You couldn’t just sit back on fastballs and hope you caught up to them.”
Despite already finding plenty of success early on at the high school level, taking another step forward as a senior was a main priority, Woelfle said.
He admitted that after a dazzling sophomore year, he went into his junior campaign feeling good enough that he did not put forth 100 percent of his effort in the offseason.
“Looking back, I probably took a step back going from my sophomore to junior year, and I was a little bummed out about that,” Woelfle said. “I realized the (high school) days were getting shorter and I might as well give it all I’ve got.”
Part of his offseason training included tinkering with his pitching grips. He also knew he needed to bring an off-speed pitch with him to the mound as he neared joining the Air Force baseball team.
“I actually developed a curveball that I could consistently throw for strikes,” he said. “To have more than one pitch now keeps hitters off balance.”
Previously, Woelfle had relied on keeping batters guessing by peppering his fastballs all over the strike zone—and often even getting them to chase it outside the zone.
The fastball remained his best weapon, but teams this season at the very least saw something new.
“Most teams knew what I had going in. This would be their third year seeing me,” said Woelfle, who departed town this weekend, bound for basic training at Air Force. “They knew I had an above-average fastball and that my off-speed was questionable depending on the day.
“So I really had to work to get the corners, work on your location and command of the fastball.”
The result of adding in an off-speed pitch was a strikeout rate of more than one per inning—65 total in 63 frames. Forty-two of those 65 punchouts came on swinging strikes.
Woelfle walked 14 batters but kept his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) below 1.00. Batters hit just .212 against him.
He amassed half of Craig’s 20 victories on the season and helped the Cougars win the Big Eight title and reach the No. 1 ranking in the state in Division 1 for much of the spring season.
“We tweaked his curveball so he could throw it harder and sharper. It was more compact and around the plate,” Herbst said. “We didn’t use the split-finger a ton, but it was there as a changeup.
“You could just see the development process occurring for him. He’s a competitor, and to have a full arsenal of pitches made him tough.”
Woelfle said he began falling in love with pitching when he was just 9 years old and taking the mound for the first time.
In those days, Woelfle said, he was always one of the tallest players in his age group, making him a menacing figure on the mound—especially considering he threw the ball harder than anyone else.
Many of his peers caught up with him, size-wise, but few every truly caught up to his fastball, and that helped him land a spot pitching at the next level.
“I realized I wanted to play college baseball when I was about 15,” Woelfe said. “I was playing for my team in GRB (Greg Reinhard Baseball Academy), and I was throwing harder than most kids there. That kind of made me realize I had the opportunity to go play college baseball.”
Woelfle had offers from Saint Louis, Memphis, Milwaukee, Xavier, Creighton, Penn, Brown and Colombia.
He chose to play baseball while also committing to serve his country.
“All of them had positives and negatives,” Woelfle said. “But I felt like Air Force was the most different one out of all of them. Having the opportunity to serve your country and get a high-level education and play baseball—it had the best of everything.”
Opponents in the Mountain West Conference will know Woelfle’s fastball is coming, so he said he’ll continue to work on his off-speed pitches at the next level.
Through a dazzling high school career and impressive senior campaign, however, Woelfle has already shown he’s not afraid to put in the work.