Sam Clay went undrafted when he came out of Buford High in 2012.
Signability, not talent, was the issue with the left-hander.
Clay was already set to continue his baseball career at Georgia Tech while pursuing his education, and he had little reason to compromise on his draft preferences.
Two years later, Clay is reaping the rewards of his patience.
The Minnesota Twins selected the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Yellow Jackets reliever in the fourth round (110th overall) of the MLB First-Year Player Draft on Friday, following a sophomore season in which he went 4-1 with a 1.26 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 57 innings.
“It was definitely a great decision,” Clay said of his choice to attend Georgia Tech. “I’ve gotten so much more experience by going to Tech and seeing much more experienced hitters. It helped me prepare myself a little bit better and made me a much better pitcher.”
Clay’s climb up the draft boards this year coincided with his rising numbers on the radar gun.
After consistently clocking in the high 80s to low 90s, the left-hander found a new gear during a three-game series against Wake Forest in March.
His fastball began topping out at 95 miles per hour.
“I really noticed it in my second outing against Wake Forest,” Clay said. “I felt like I was throwing it pretty good, and I was told by one of our managers that I was throwing 93 to 95. I just knew if I kept on throwing that hard I’d keep pitching well.”
And he did.
The extra velocity helped Clay move past a rocky freshman season that saw him post a 6.94 ERA in 23 1/3 innings — a far cry from the 1.29 ERA and 102 strikeouts he racked up in 65 innings as a senior in Buford’s starting rotation.
He held opposing hitters to a .197 batting average in 31 appearances out of the Georgia Tech bullpen this season and recorded a team-high eight saves.
“Left-handers throwing around the 95 (mph) range are pretty rare,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “He found a role as that reliever-closer type guy for Georgia Tech and embraced it. Really, his maturity has helped him find that extra velocity.”
Clay points to confidence as the main factor in his return to form. He acknowledged that his faith in his abilities briefly suffered during his first season with the Yellow Jackets.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence my freshman fall because I hadn’t really faced that good of hitters,” he said. “I got smacked around a little bit and it kind of shot me down a little bit.
“I came out in the spring and just decided I was going to throw as hard as I can and make them beat me. Once I started having a couple of good outings, it just carried me throughout the season.”
His success has also positioned him to make a difficult choice.
Clay was thrilled about being drafted so high by the Twins, when only two years ago he might not have gone higher than the middle rounds if he'd been willing to turn pro.
But the Yellow Jackets are coming off their second ACC championship in the past three years, and Clay raves about the team chemistry the group enjoyed this year.
The 20-year-old biology major could opt to return to Georgia Tech, where he has two years of eligibility remaining.
He was only eligible for the 2014 draft as a college sophomore because he will turn 21 on June 21.
“It’s definitely a tough decision,” Clay said. “I’m really going to sit on it, talk to my parents and figure out what is the best route is for me.”
Clay’s future home might not be the only aspect of his future in question. Though he’s thrived in his role as a reliever with the Yellow Jackets, the left-hander said there is still a part of him that would like to return to the starting rotation.
He hasn’t had an opportunity to start since his freshman season.
“I would like to be a starter — I loved starting in high school,” Clay said. “I only got one chance in college so far, but I also do not mind coming out of the pen. I had a lot of success from there this year.”