Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Madison Bumgarner are all top-tier left handed pitchers at the MLB level. Penn State junior pitcher Taylor Lehman is built in a similar mold with stuff that’s suited for pro ball — and it’s the hulking pitcher who’ll be leaned on to be that lefty horse of the starting rotation for the Penn State baseball team.
The Keystone Oaks high school graduate faces the challenge of being tabbed as the premier ace that coach Rob Cooper envisioned he would become when he arrived on campus in 2014. The Pittsburgh native was originally drafted by the Miami Marlins in the 34th round of the 2014 MLB draft, but chose to come to Happy Valley instead. Coming out of high school, Lehman was ranked the sixth most sought after overall prospect in the state of Pennsylvania and the number one left handed pitcher.
After taking the ball as a sophomore in the team’s 2015 opener in the Cuba Friendship Baseball Tournament, Lehman turned some heads with his impressive numbers over the course of the year. He finished second on the team in strikeouts and innings pitched with 57 2/3 innings and was also tied for the team lead in starts.
With nearly 126 innings of experience under his belt, the seasoned veteran stays level headed while on the rubber — a trait that’s crucial to any good pitcher’s success. “I’m kind of reserved,” Lehman said. “There is stuff that will pump me up, but sometimes I keep it to myself. When you’re in a jam and get that third out of an inning sometimes you get carried away, but it’s a good emotion.”
Now in his third year in the rotation, Lehman was able to see improvement in is numbers from his freshman to sophomore campaigns. In 2016 he was able to cut his ERA by nearly two runs while increasing his number of strikeouts and improving his W/9 (walks per nine innings). At 6-foot-8, 225 lbs, the southpaw is an imposing figure on the mound — and he wants to continue using that to his advantage. With the mound adding an extra ten inches to Lehman’s stature, it’s hard not to imagine what opposing hitters think when they step into the batter’s box. Lehman says despite his height, he goes about his business the same way for each hitter — but lets his imposing figure serve as an intimidation factor from time to time.
Lehman’s developed quite nicely, but the most important strides he’s made come in the numbers department. The towering lefty entered coach Cooper’s program sitting between 86-88mph with his fastball, but since adding 20 lbs and an extra inch to his height he’s seen his fastball make an impressive jump. Nowadays, he averages between 88-92mph — topping out at 93mph. The increased velocity in his fastball has turned Lehman into a reliable arm for the Nittany Lions, but the development of his off-speed pitches can bring him to an elite level.
He’s seen his changeup leap from 73mph to its current rate of 80-82mph, but his slider has the potential to be his knockout pitch this season. A slider is any lefty’s secret weapon, and Lehman’s 80mph zinger will feature a bit more break than it has in the past. If he’s to make his expected jump into elite company, there’s a good chance it’ll be because of this pitch.
The Lions finished last season with a 28-27 record to notch the program’s first winning season in four years — but still fell one game short of the conference tournament. Lehman tasted success, but now he wants more. “Being one game over .500 was nice but not very satisfying for us,” Lehman said. “We want to make the Big Ten tournament this year.”
Coach Cooper hasn’t announced who will open the season on the mound Feb. 17 when Penn State takes on top ranked TCU, but Lehman is ready for the challenge if called upon. Between his experience and budding skill set, he could be the one who helps lead the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten tournament since 2012.