Nick Dean arrived at Maryland in 2019 like most freshman pitchers. He didn’t throw particularly hard, wasn’t motivated in the weight room and lacked the necessary confidence in himself.
Pitching coach Mike Morrison, a former pitcher and College World Series winner at Coastal Carolina who also spent three seasons in the minor leagues, said that’s normal for young pitchers and takes time to develop. Sometimes, he said, it never does.
“It’s hard for guys coming into college to understand the importance of the weight room when you’ve always been the best player on your team,” Morrison said. “You’ve got to be the best player in the country, no longer the best player on your team, to get paid.”
Morrison was brought to College Park this offseason, so he hasn’t been alongside Dean through the entirety of his Maryland career. Head coach Rob Vaughn has.
“We all believed in Nick Dean more than Nick Dean believed in Nick Dean when he first got here,” Vaughn said. “I’ve just seen Nicky grow so much.”
Where Dean has grown the most, Vaughn and Morrison believe, is his ability to mix his four pitches effectively. Dean’s repertoire of a low-90s fastball, mid-80s cutter, high-70s changeup and low-70s breaking ball is unlike any at the college level because he feels confident using any of them in any game situation.
“There’s a bunch of college kids that have [four pitch repertoires] but they don’t have the confidence to throw them in any count,” Morrison said. “Anytime you have options, it gives you a chance. When all four of them are on, it’s dangerous. You’re kind of like ‘Oh God, that guy’s the best pitcher in the country’, which he might be.”
Dean wasn’t always as confident in his pitches as he is now. In years past, he felt more comfortable throwing some pitches to righties than to lefties and vice versa. He primarily relied on the changeup as a crutch, the curveball was used more as a pitch that can be landed for easy strikes when behind in a count and the fastball was down in the 80s.
Dean’s newfound interest in the weight room and getting stronger was what led to the increase in fastball velocity, Morrison said.
“He knows that in order to get drafted highly, he’s going to have to add a few miles an hour,” Morrison said. “I always make jokes that he’s got some definition in his biceps now and he’s starting to look bigger. He actually enjoys going in the weight room now. He’s bigger, he’s thicker, and it’s exciting.”
The increase in fastball velocity has helped Dean’s other pitches, too. The changeup appears even faster — teammate Troy Schreffler Jr. said he has yet to hit Dean’s changeup — and the breaking pitches are more difficult to pick up on.
The breaking pitch, typically a curveball, has been the pitch Dean’s worked on the most since the end of last season. After his wrist injury that forced him to miss the 2021 postseason, he adjusted his grip in an attempt to make the spin tighter and get more whiffs.
“The breaking ball, once I eventually could get back to throwing, I just focused on switching up the grip a little bit and having a little tighter spin to it, because before it was pretty loopy and you’d see it right out of the hand,” Dean told reporters after his scoreless seven inning outing against Campbell in February. “So [I’ve made] some big steps that way.”
Morrison yearned to see the curveball become a pitch Dean felt confident using with two strikes. The biggest change has been the arm speed used when throwing it, which has helped it become a put-away pitch to both right and left-handed hitters and turns it almost into a slider with two strikes, the first year pitching coach said.
“We talked a lot in the fall about how it doesn’t need to be the epitome of that pitch, like it can be landed for strikes but also you can rip it and get swing and misses with it,” Morrison said. “When you’re that good with your fastball like Dean is, any other secondary pitches are going to develop into a plus pitch. It’s all about him staying tight with his arm and throwing it with aggression. It’s just a matter of arm speeding the heck out of it instead of trying to land it for a strike.”
Perhaps Dean’s best pitch is the changeup, and it’s been that way since high school. At Bensalem High School in Pennsylvania, he switched from a circle-change grip to a more traditional one.
That change has taken him from an under-recruited high schooler to the preseason pitcher of the year in a power conference entering his third season.
“In high school, I honestly didn’t have a really good feel for it because I went just a standard circle change, but I slid my thumb to the bottom of the ball and that was just the deal breaker for me,” Dean said. “It really helped it a lot.”
Naturally, Dean began to depend on the pitch a little too much for Morrison and Vaughn’s liking. They got to work to help him correct that.
“There’s no need to show guys extremely early and over and over again because, like any pitch in baseball, if you continue to use it it’s going to become more hittable,” Morrison said. “It’s harder to throw 50 really good changeups, but you can throw 30 of them at a really high level.”
Part of Dean’s growth has been the aforementioned development of mixing his pitches better and expanding the spots he’s comfortable using them in. Like the curveball, the changeup has taken a step forward, too.
Coinciding with an uptick in fastball velocity, Dean’s changeup has become one of the best pitches at the college level, and a pitch Morrison trusts to get out of a jam.
“I tell him every Friday night: ‘when in doubt, shake to your changeup’,” Morrison said. “It’s never the wrong pitch because it is so good. A good changeup, it’s just something guys just have. It’s not really a coachable thing. He almost likes throwing it more to right handed hitters, which is completely blasphemous to me. I’ve never even seen that. It makes it relatively easy for me to call pitches on Friday nights. I always tell him: ‘I can’t call the wrong pitch, you can just not execute it correctly.’ He always loves that.”
Becoming the team’s ace doesn’t come without its responsibilities. One of which is mentoring younger pitchers.
Dean, Morrison and Saturday and Sunday starters Ryan Ramsey and Jason Savacool share a group text where they exchange tips, advice and pitching secrets.
“Those guys genuinely care about each other,” Morrison said.
The real mentoring comes during practice and bullpen sessions. Dean – who Morrison said is not a vocal leader, rather a lead by example type – is watched closely during practices by Ramsey, Savacool and younger pitchers.
“They want to throw hella changeups all the time now,” Morrison said. “It makes it fun for me when arguably the best pitcher in the program is someone that all your younger guys are trying to learn from. That’s the dream kid to coach.”