When James Madison University baseball coaches first saw Kettle Run rising sophomore Joe Vogatsky pitch on a travel team in the fall of 2017, they saw a young man who had a mound presence beyond his years.
The Dukes intensified their pursuit as Vogatsky had a breakout sophomore year, going 3-4 with a 2.13 ERA in 2018.
The right-hander committed to JMU in the fall before his junior year, then put up more monster numbers, going 6-3 with a 2.24 ERA with three saves last year as the Cougars made the state tournament.
In his last two seasons, Vogatsky had 142 strikeouts in 105⅓ innings.
Glittering numbers in Vogatsky’s senior year are not going to happen. Coronavirus cancellations reduced his season to a brief scrimmage tuneup against Loudoun Valley in early March. “I threw two innings. It was clean. No hits,” he said.
But there’s no tarnishing the legacy he’s leaving.
The 6-0, 215-pound senior is Kettle Run’s third Division 1 baseball recruit in the last five years, joining current Colorado Rockies prospect Brenton Doyle, who selected VMI before backing out to attend nearby D-2 Shepherd University, and Sam Ewald, now at VMI.
As he waits for life to return to normal, Vogatsky isn’t neglecting his craft. He has a gym in his basement and a pitching mound in his backyard in New Baltimore. “He’s a workout freak. He long-tosses every day to strengthen his arm and does stretching on his own,” said Kettle Run coach Ty Thorpe.
After not using a curveball until he was 13, Vogatsky now uses that as an elite pitch, blending it with an 91 mph fastball, two-seam fastball, change-up and slider, giving him five pitches. “I love his breaking ball,” JMU pitching coach Jimmy Jackson said. “It’s a sharp, late-breaking college-level pitch.”
Current Liberty High pitching coach J.R. Royston has been Vogatsky’s personal pitching coach since the KRHS senior was 10, when Vogatsky’s dad, also named Joe, met Royston at a Little League clinic.
Royston said Vogatsky’s fastball, fastball location and change-up were early priorities. Starting around seventh grade, Vogatsky “was dying to try the curve,” Royston said. “We started with short drills. I said, ‘You get three or four curveballs’ in games. I tried to give him a number. I didn’t want to start relying on junk. If you can throw it for strikes in high school you can get a lot of outs, but it keeps the fastball from progressing,” said Royston, who teaches P.E. at M.M. Pierce Elementary.
“I give him a lot of credit for my career, he’s guided me along the way,” said Vogatsky of Royston, who played baseball at VMI with JMU head coach Marlin Ikenberry and lobbied Ikenberry on Vogatsky’s behalf.
“I was lucky to have great coaches over the years and supportive parents,” he added of mom Julie and dad Joe.
Vogatsky pitched just two games as a freshman for Kettle Run, going 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA. By his sophomore year he bulked up, saw an increase in velocity and was ready for a full load. He’s also a standout hitter who batted third and hit .403 with three home runs last year.
Thorpe said Vogatsky and catcher Jake Heenan called their own pitches.
“Joe commands his pitches. He’s in the strike zone with good enough stuff to get the batters out. He’s got that mental makeup to work a hitter. Not too many things bother him. He controls his emotions,” said Thorpe.
One of his most pivotal career moments came in 2017 when Vogatsky shined for his Sterling-based Diamond Elite travel team at a showcase tournament in Harrisonburg.
After that outing, JMU coach Ikenberry reached out to Vogatsky’s coaches and got him to call, since Ikenberry couldn’t call Vogatsky until Sept. 1 of his junior year. “I called Coach Ike first and then Jimmy. We had really good conversations. When the date opened up, it started to heat up,” Vogatsky said.
“When they call us, we are allowed to answer,” Jackson said. “He was great on the phone, an intelligent kid.”
Other NCAA Division 1 schools, some in the Atlantic Coast Conference, were interested. JMU went 31-26 in 2019 and 10-6 before the 2020 season was canceled, so Vogatsky feels he's at a Colonial Athletic Association school on the rise.
He plans to major in finance and accounting, but it’s no secret what his No. 1 job choice is.
“My realistic goals are to get in the rotation at JMU, be a weekend starter and one day get drafted,” said the highly motivated Vogatsky.