When speaking with Tanner Jacobson, get ready for a changeup. The herculean phenom, who struck out 47 batters in 31 innings for Pittsburgh Allderdice this season, is nothing like his fastball, which will blaze by you at 87 mph. A conversation with Jacobson, 17, is much quieter and slower.
“I just like being on the field,” Jacobson calmly said during a conversation at Lederman Field in Frick Park. “I really fit in this sport.”
That the teenager can identify his place within the game is understandable. He has been playing it his entire life.
After progressing through local and traveling youth leagues, the Squirrel Hill native arrived at Allderdice three years ago. As a freshman, he played on both the ninth-grade and junior varsity teams.
The only reason he did not play varsity that year “was because we had 12 seniors on that team” and freshmen were excluded, explained Jeremy Askin, Allderdice’s athletic director and head baseball coach.
But since making the varsity squad two years ago, Jacobson has undergone a transformation that has been “shocking” to him and his coaches.
“He had always been a great baseball player,” remarked Bubba Snider, Allderdice’s pitching coach. But during off-season workouts, the coach noticed something.
“He’s athletic, he listens, he’s intelligent, and he understands baseball. There were some physical mechanical issues that he had never been taught, [but] I thought he is someone I could work with,” added Snider.
So with instruction and determination, Jacobson transitioned from middle infielder, who could hit the ball “300-plus feet” to starting pitcher.
“The difference between the fall in 2016 to the pitcher he has become is absolutely extraordinary. If he can continue this growth by next year, he will be one of the top pitchers in the top division of WPIAL,” remarked Snider.
That is “the toughest level in Western Pennsylvania; a lot of these schools are twice our size,” noted Askin, before adding that 6A WPIAL includes future Division 1 college athletes and Major League prospects.
To succeed at that stage, “you have to be a pitcher and not just a hard thrower,” said Snider.
That is a distinction Jacobson recognized and took to heart. Through repetitive, relentless and often monotonous drills, the teenager corrected his own form.
As a result, “his front side is closed, he is throwing in a straight line, he has great extension, and he has great finish,” said Snider.
“With his work ethic I believe the sky’s the limit,” added the coach. “He’s only been pitching varsity baseball one year, but I believe we can get his fastball approaching 90 miles per hour.”
If that happens, and Jacobson does dominate 6A WPIAL again next season — thanks not only to his fastball, but to his changeup and curve — it will certainly lead to multiple college looks.
But even before then, people have taken notice.
“He is so smart,” said Julie Farber, Allderdice’s jewelry metal shop teacher. “When you start talking to him, his intellectual capacity is fascinating. Anything he’s tried, he has already mastered the skill. It’s like he’s perfect at it already.”
“He’s very creative,” added Wendy Kramer, another of Jacobson’s teachers. “He thinks outside of the box; he just has different ideas. He’s good at everything he does.”
On the diamond, Askin agrees. “Tanner is the only person in 6A to my knowledge who can play all nine positions on the field and excel at all of them. No matter what position, he’s the best player on the field.”
“He’s a great example of a kid who always wants to get better and works hard to get there,” added Snider.
For someone surrounded by so much praise, Jacobson shows no sign of self-importance. He said his success is a credit to his coaches. And his jersey number, 12, a number that he has worn throughout his playing days, is not a nod to his own birth. “It’s my mom’s birthday,” he explained.
And the fact that he does not go by a nickname?
“I just like to be humble,” Jacobson said.
“I think he’s wonderful,” added Farber. “He’s much more talented than he lets on to be.”
Such was evidenced when Jacobson discovered that his father had lost his wedding ring on a family fishing trip. With the remnants of his great-grandmother’s unworn 14 karat gold watch, Jacobson melted down the materials, recycled them and fashioned a new wedding band for his dad.
“He’s a special talent,” said Snider.
“In my five years of coaching I have never seen a player like him,” said Askin.
It is not just that “he’s a great player,” Jacobson is “an even better person,” added the coach.
“He is always respectful in school, in the community and on the field. He has good grades. Whatever else makes a good person, he has it. I expect big things from him.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.