The stories of Cooper Hjerpe’s feats at Woodland High School are so outlandish, it’s almost as if they’ve been exaggerated over the years, like tales from anglers snatching fish out of nearby Putah Creek.
The lanky left-hander was so dominant, they say, he went 13-1 with 233 strikeouts in two prep seasons.
His stuff was so overpowering, they insist, he once tossed three consecutive no-hitters, ending the surreal stretch with a perfect game.
He was such a special athlete, they swear, he struck out all 15 batters he faced and belted three home runs in that five-inning perfect game, finishing the memorable performance at legendary Clark Field by crushing his final homer off the roof of a church beyond right field.
“He actually hit a ball farther than the church, but it went foul,” said Joe Whitehead, who coached the future Oregon State Beavers ace at Woodland. “Then he hit the church.”
Clark Field is a venerable ballpark about 25 miles northwest of Sacramento, and it has hosted plenty of baseball royalty over the years. Joe DiMaggio played a weekend doubleheader there in 1934. Charlie “The Mechanical Man” Gehringer visited for a pair of games in 1931. During a remarkable two-week stretch in 1932, eight future Hall of Famers roamed the grounds, including Mel Ott, Arky Vaughan and Pie Traynor. More recently, Woodland alum Dustin Pedroia played there before his legendary Boston Red Sox career.
But among all the baseball luminaries, Hjerpe and that 15-strikeout, three-homer perfect game still stand out.
“He was the best overall player I got to coach,” Whitehead said, “and probably the best high school player I’ve ever seen.”
Of course, the exploits don’t seem all that far-fetched to Oregon State baseball fans. With a unique and deceptive throwing motion, bulldog mound presence and evolving four-pitch arsenal, Hjerpe has bloomed into perhaps the best pitcher in college baseball and one of the fastest-rising prospects in this year’s Major League Baseball draft.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore is a semifinalist for two of college baseball’s most prestigious honors, the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy. Multiple draft experts, including those from MLB.com, The Athletic and Prospects Live, are forecasting that Hjerpe will be a first-round selection in this summer’s draft, which explains why 39 scouts representing 25 different teams stopped by Goss Stadium earlier this month to watch one of his starts.
“He’s going to be pitching for a long time, making truckloads of money and winning World Series rings,” Oregon State pitching coach Rich Dorman said. “That kid, he’s a big leaguer. There’s a reason why he’s having the success he’s had — because he’s that good.”
But before Hjerpe scores the keys to that truckload of money, he has unfinished business at Oregon State and a daydream he hopes to turn into a reality.
A BULLDOG COMEDIAN
It was at the end of an Oregon State practice last fall, shortly before players and coaches went their separate ways for the day, when Hjerpe morphed into teammate Justin Thorsteinson.
Hjerpe meandered to the plate deliberately at Goss Stadium, settled into the box, and took a big, exaggerated swing. He stomped around the bases like a Clydesdale, embellishing each step and each sway, as the entire team howled in laughter.
“JT’s a big guy, with heavy feet,” coach Mitch Canham said, chuckling. “He stepped in there, took a swing and started running the bases. He just had all the guys rolling.”
Such spectacles have become commonplace around the Oregon State clubhouse, where Hjerpe’s sense of humor has helped lighten the stress and monotony of a 54-game season.
He regularly drops dry one-liners in casual conversation, usually off the cuff, and often when people least expect them. He recites movie lines incessantly. He lives in a Corvallis house with fellow pitchers Jake Pfennigs, Jacob Kmatz and AJ Lattery, and the good-natured taunting and back-and-forth banter is endless.
When the mood strikes — and it often does — Hjerpe loves few things more than digging into his bag of impersonations. And no one is immune.
“He’s always mocking someone on the team,” catcher Gavin Logan said. “The way they talk or what they say. He keeps it pretty light, so he’s fun to be around.”
Hjerpe does a spot-on impersonation of pitching coach Rich Dorman’s jog. He nails an impression of former UFC fighter Wanderlei “The Axe Murder” Silva. He loves to mimic Lattery. Even umpires are fair game.
Earlier this season, umpire Jeffrey Macias ejected Tennessee coach Tony Vitello in what has become a memorable moment in college baseball circles. Within days, Hjerpe was rehashing the scene at practice, using Dorman as a coaching prop and ejecting him from the field. With over-the-top theatrics, Hjerpe looped his arm at Dorman in a “you’re outta here” motion, and the coach beelined for Hjerpe, bumping him in the chest. Hjerpe flailed backward, screaming and pointing.
It was one of those you-had-to-be-there moments. And those who were there couldn’t stop laughing.
“It was hilarious,” Dorman said, giggling at the thought. “Coop is one of the funniest players I’ve ever coached.”
There is perhaps only one thing impervious to Hjerpe’s humor — the day he starts. Hjerpe shows up to the field a few hours before the first pitch, toting a pregame sandwich, and it’s as if he’s impersonating someone else. Hjerpe is “all business,” Dorman said, and he’s learned to “get the heck out of the kid’s way.”
“I have to remind myself every Friday, don’t mess with Coop,” Pfennigs said. “All other days, we have fun, we joke around. But when he’s starting, he’s very competitive, very locked in. You have to give him his space.”
Hjerpe’s quick wit and easygoing smile are replaced by a stoic, bulldog intensity. Routine innings are celebrated with steely-eyed focus. Big strikeouts are punctuated with fist pumps and flexes. Occasionally, after a few bad pitches or when he strolls to the dugout after the rare tough inning, Hjerpe will raise his glove over his face and scream a few choice words.
“His composure on the mound is incredible,” Logan said. “He just kind of gets that look in his eyes to go out there and dominate everyone with every pitch he has.”
VISIT TO DRIVELINE CHANGES EVERYTHING
But while the competitiveness has always been there, the dominance has not.
Hjerpe finished last season with a 3-6 record and 4.21 ERA. He often struggled to throw his off-speed pitches for strikes and went too deep into counts, which drove up his pitch count. He lasted five or more innings in just five of 16 starts last season.
But three offseason developments changed everything. He grew stronger, adding 10 pounds of muscle under new strength coach Mike Henriques. He became more efficient, answering a challenge from Dorman to embrace a new mantra of “four pitches or less.” And, perhaps most important, he overhauled his throwing routine and retooled his arsenal of pitches after a monthlong visit to Seattle and Driveline, a company that uses a data-driven approach to foster improvement in players.
Hjerpe, Pfennigs, Lattery, Will Frisch and Ben Ferrer visited Driveline together over the summer to gain insight into the biomechanics and analytics of pitching. When they arrived, specialists attached a barrage of electrodes and suction cups to their bodies and put them through a bullpen session. Then the specialists analyzed their throwing motions and pitch arsenals with high-speed cameras and other technology, taking the data to offer a variety of tweaks.
Hjerpe has a funky delivery in which he kicks his front leg high, twirls his body around, and releases the ball at a uniquely low angle, hiding it from batters until the last second.
Taking this into account, Driveline told him to ditch his curveball, feature a slider and tinker with a cutter.
“They basically said it would be a lot harder for me to get a 12-6 break on my curveball because I throw the ball from (such a low slot),” Hjerpe said. “So I’m drawing the slider now based off my arm slot and it’s been much more effective, just because of how it planes with the fastball.”
Driveline also suggested a new seven-day throwing schedule that tweaked bullpen sessions, weight-lifting regimens and even recovery routines. The results have been striking. Hjerpe gained velocity on his fastball, retooled his changeup, started throwing a lethal slider and added a cutter. He said he’s never felt stronger or more confident.
“I remember catching his first live outing of the year and he was touching 96, 97,” Logan said. “I was like, “Oh, God, this is going to be an interesting year.’ I almost feel bad for hitters.”
Hjerpe has been mostly untouchable in his third college season, compiling a 9-2 record and 2.36 ERA in 84 innings, while emerging as an All-America candidate. He owns the third-most wins in the nation, boasts the fourth-most strikeouts (135) and has the 10th-best WHIP (0.88).
In 14 starts, he has allowed four or fewer hits nine times and recorded 10 or more strikeouts seven times. Even in defeat, he has been dominant. During an April loss at Utah, Hjerpe took a perfect game into the seventh inning and finished with nine strikeouts. In a May loss to UCLA, he allowed just three hits and finished with 10 strikeouts. And in one of his three no-decisions, an extra-inning loss to Stanford, Hjerpe tossed eight scoreless innings and had 17 strikeouts — the most in college baseball this season and tied for the most in Oregon State history.
For a program steeped in a rich pitching tradition, Hjerpe’s season is among the best. His 135 strikeouts ranks second on OSU’s all-time single-season list behind Luke Heimlich (159 in 2018), propelling him into a tie for 10th place on career strikeout list with 249.
“He’s the best pitcher in college baseball,” teammate Garret Forrester said earlier this season, “and he’ll definitely be a first-round draft pick.”
OMAHA ON THE MIND
A vision has been popping into Hjerpe’s head in recent weeks, a daydream really, and it makes tiny goosebumps sprout up and down his skin.
Hjerpe steps to the mound, raises his glove in front of his face and peers toward home plate. Twenty-thousand fans gaze at him from all directions, creating a buzz unlike any other he has experienced.
He’s in Omaha at Rosenblatt Stadium. It’s Game 1 of the College World Series. And Hjerpe is leading the Beavers in their chase for a fourth national championship.
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, “he said last month. “I’ve never been to Omaha. But I can just feel that aura and that energy, and I just can’t wait to be a part of that.”
The fourth-ranked Beavers (41-13), who will open play in the inaugural Pac-12 baseball tournament Wednesday in Scottsdale, Arizona, are on the doorstep of a top eight national seed in the postseason. Hjerpe is three weekends away from living out that daydream.
He’s come a long way from those days at Woodland High School and Clark Field, where he tossed perfect games and hit home runs off churches.
But for those who watched the feats back then, it’s not the least bit surprising.
“I still carry around a couple cards that scouts gave me years ago when they scouted him in high school,” Whitehead said. “The day he’s drafted, I want to give them to his mom and dad. I think it’s kind of a cool memory, something special from his past. We all knew this would happen one day.”