Jeff Criswell: Learning how to be a champion

Thursday, April 9, 2020 - 6:01pm

Junior right-hander Jeff Criswell made a habit of earning quality starts and going deep into games this season.

Junior right-hander Jeff Criswell made a habit of earning quality starts and going deep into games this season. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Former Michigan left-hander Jim Abbott knows pitching better than most.

A two-time Big Ten Champion, Abbott went on to a storied 11-year major league career, finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1991. So when he praises junior right-hander Jeff Criswell, it makes you stop and think of what the future could hold.

“Well he’s big, and he’s strong. I’ll tell you that,” Abbott told The Daily.

Abbott spoke to Criswell last month when the then-No.16 Wolverines took the field against Pepperdine near Abbott’s home in California. Abbott’s praise of Michigan’s ace began with his physicality.

Criswell stands at an imposing 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, a stature that draws immediate attention from opposing batters in addition to Abbott — a former two-time Big Ten Champion and MLB All-Star. 

With such prototypical size comes natural advantages. Criswell’s large frame and long arms provide him with an elevated velocity ceiling and the desirable ability to throw the ball downhill. These traits drew the attention of Michigan coach Erik Bakich and other college coaches to Portage to scout Criswell four years ago, but they were only the beginning of Abbott’s praise.

“He’s definitely got the body of a pitcher, but I started watching him last year on TV and he was so impressive,” Abbott said. “Their poise, all those pitchers last year, they had a chance to kind of go up against some of the best in the country and, and the way he and Tommy Henry and (Karl Kauffman) stepped up ... so I had a chance to watch him on TV.

“I was stunned at their poise, at their development as pitchers. Their mechanics, mechanical excellence, and then the repertoire of pitches for college pitchers. It just was really, really impressive.”

Praise from Abbott inherently bears weight given that the left-hander followed his successful Michigan career with a successful professional stint, which Criswell seeks to do, but pitching for the Wolverines is not the only connection between the two hurlers. The pair have another jersey in common — that of Team USA.

Abbott was the last Michigan player to play for Team USA before Criswell donned the stars and stripes last summer. During Criswell’s stint with the Collegiate National Team, Abbott saw in Criswell much of what he himself learned pitching for the senior team.

“I remember the competitiveness most of all with Jeff,” Abbott said. “I think what I really love about him is he's a competitor, you know. Even when things aren't going well for him out there, he wants to stay in the ballgame.

While Criswell had a competitive nature long before trading maize and blue for red, white and blue for a summer, he notes that competition was a primary focus last summer. He explained that his time with the Collegiate National Team was less about developing his fastball and pick-off move and much more about trying to win games. 

There is undoubtedly a place for working on technique and skills when it comes to developing a great pitcher, and rightfully so, but Abbott contends that at a certain point, the work becomes much more mental.

“(Bert Blyleven) told me one time … a starting pitcher in the major leagues would have, say, 35 starts in (a season),” Abbott said. “And he said five of those starts will be what we call dial a pitch, you know, everything you throw is going where you want it. You know, you really, you’re just in that zone, you can’t do anything wrong. And another five starts will be terrible. Nothing you do can save you, you know, you just cannot find it. It’s just not there. It just happens. You just have those outings.

“He said, the bulk of your season and the bulk of your career can be found within those 25 games in between. When you don’t have your best stuff, and you don't have your worst stuff. But what do you make of it? What do you make of those games? How do you give your team a chance to win?”

Those 25 games are when the mental side of a pitcher’s make-up comes into play. Baseball may have unlimited timeouts at the college level, but no one can stop the game long enough to throw an extra bullpen session. So pitchers must focus on staying composed, making the best pitch they can every time they step back on the mound and attacking batters mano a mano. 

Games like the 25 per season that Abbott talked about, like the Pepperdine game that Criswell experienced are inevitable, so pitchers can only differentiate themselves by how they handle situations in those games. 

And Criswell has a defined plan.

“For me, I just step off the mound and take my hat off, wipe the sweat off my forehead, put the hat back on, step back on the back of the rubber and take a big, deep breath,” Criswell said. “Maybe get a couple swipes across rubber my with my cleat, take a big, deep breath. Step back on the mound and lock it back in on the catcher.”

For Criswell, this routine has yielded great results. He has made a habit of earning quality starts and going deep into games regardless of whether or not he has his best stuff, a trend that makes him an ideal ace for a contending program like Michigan.

If Criswell returns for his senior season in 2021, he will have to make a lot of starts against strong opposition for Michigan to repeat its run to Omaha from a year ago. And, even amid a spring of uncertainty, he says that he and his classmates do not want to leave Michigan without a Big Ten Title and a National Championship, so he’ll need to earn those wins in the middle 25 starts.

Ultimately, it comes down to what Criswell said his national team coach taught him.

“You’ve gotta want it more than the guy across from you,” Criswell said, “to want to win more than your opponent.”