MILWAUKEE — As a draft-eligible sophomore at Mississippi State last season, Ethan Small had the Milwaukee Brewers' attention but when draft day came and went, the Arizona Diamondbacks had selected him in the 26th round and Small decided to go back to Mississippi State for his redshirt junior season.
The decision couldn't have worked out better for Small, who went on to lead the Southeast Conference with 160 strikeouts, or the Brewers, who used their 2019 first-round pick, No. 28 overall, on the left-hander.
"When you're picking 28th, you don't get to plan too far ahead because you have to wait and see who gets there," Brewers scouting director Tod Johnson said Monday night. "Ethan was somebody we had our eyes on through the whole process."
Small earned SEC Pitcher of the Year honors after compiling a 9-2 record and 1.80 ERA in 16 regular-season starts. His strikeout rate of 17.8/nine innings and 0.80 WHIP ranked second nationally among NCAA Division 1 pitchers, and he punched out 10 more batters last weekend as the Bulldogs beat Central Michigan in NCAA Tournament play.
Where do I start... I’m so beyond thankful to have been embraced by such a great culture at MSU. To everyone who has reached out, thank you. I will respond as soon as I can. To the Brewers organization, thank you. From the bottom of my heart thank you. Now let’s win the thing!— Ethan Small (@E7hanS) June 4, 2019
"He throws a ton of strikes, he gets a ton of swings-and-misses," Johnson said. "He's not necessarily the hardest-throwing guy but he has velocity in there when he needs it. He's been really successful in the toughest conference in the country, especially for pitchers."
Small struck out 310 batters over 191 1/3 innings of work in four seasons on the varsity squad at Lexington (Tenn.) High School, where he was a two-time All-State selection. He chose Mississippi State over offers from Vanderbilt and Austin Peay and posted a 13.017 ERA in 15 relief appearances as a freshman.
Tommy John surgery cost him his sophomore season but Small returned to the mound in 2018 and started 18 games, going 5-4 with a 3.20 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 101 1/3 innings of work.
The procedure, once considered a red flag, is now much more common with young pitchers. Johnson said the fact that Small has not only returned to the mound but also produced for the last two seasons was encouraging.
"He's back pitching at level and that's big piece of it," Johnson said. "We're much more comfortable seeing him because he's been out on the mound. It's been three seasons since he had the surgery so we're pretty comfortable that he goes back into a normal risk bucket for us and it's not a huge factor."
Small is expected to start again Friday when the Bulldogs host either Stanford or Fresno State in an NCAA Super Regional, the last step before a possible trip to the College World Series.
Small is the first college pitcher chosen by the Brewers in the first round since 2011 when they took right-handers Taylor Jungmann (Texas) and Jed Bradley (Georgia Tech) with the Nos. 12 and 15 selections.
At No. 28, the Brewers were making their latest first-round selection since 2012, when they took Clint Coulter with the No. 27 overall pick.