As Major League Baseball’s annual first-year player draft draws near, a lot of people are excited about Riley Jepson’s rising draft stock.
Jepson and his family? Naturally. The University of the Fraser Valley baseball club, for whom Jepson plays first base and bats in the No. 3 hole? Of course. Based on feedback Cascades head coach Shawn Corness has been getting from scouts, it’s highly likely Jepson will be selected in the annual talent lottery (which runs June 4-6), perhaps within the first 15 rounds. He’s got a great shot to become UFV’s first-ever MLB draftee.
Yet another group of interested individuals, according to Corness, are also monitoring Jepson’s draft fate: opposing coaches in the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC). The 21-year-old slugger terrorized their pitchers to such an absurd degree during the recently completed season, they’re praying he gets picked, lands a satisfactory contract offer, and turns pro, never to return.
“Coaches this week were asking me about the draft and if he’s going to go, and obviously I’m thinking the chances are pretty positive,” Corness related with a chuckle. “And their comments back were, ‘Great. Can’t wait to get him out of here, because we can’t get the guy out.’”
A quick perusal of Jepson’s numbers from the 2018 campaign show why the rest of the CCBC would be glad to be rid of him. During the regular season, he led the league in batting average (.489) and walks (27), and was among the leaders in home runs (three, T-5th) and RBI (25, T-3rd).
He was even more dangerous during the Cascades’ thrilling run to the title game at the CCBC championship tournament in Kamloops, hitting .571 over six games with two home runs, three triples, 10 RBI, six walks … and just a single strikeout. Comprehensive dominance. Video-game numbers.
As he stands on the precipice of history for the UFV baseball club, it’s fascinating to consider the route Jepson traveled to get here. Jepson, who was born and raised in Salmon Arm, B.C. and played his youth sports in nearby Kamloops, was probably better-known as a teen for his hockey prowess than his baseball skill. He played two full seasons (2013-15) of junior B hockey with the Sicamous Eagles, registering 27 goals and 32 assists for 59 points in 105 games. In 2015, with his high school graduation approaching, he had offers from junior A hockey clubs in B.C., Saskatchewan and Ontario in hand.
The only post-secondary baseball squad that was talking to Jepson? Corness’s start-up program, which was set to play its inaugural season in 2015-16 as a probationary member of the CCBC. The future Cascades bench boss had seen Jepson’s skills on the diamond first-hand as the coach of Chilliwack’s midget AAA baseball team; Jepson played in the same league, for the Kamloops RiverDogs.
Ultimately, Jepson took a chance on baseball – and UFV, where he began kinesiology studies with an eye on one day becoming a physical education teacher or personal trainer.
“I was pretty big into both sports at the time, and up until late July (2015), I didn’t know where I was going to go,” he recalled. “It was the opportunity to hop in (to university studies), and play right away and be a starter. I didn’t want to be a 21-year-old freshman at some university playing hockey.”
With the draft looming, it’s hard to take issue with Jepson’s decision. Yet despite his physical gifts – he arrived at UFV standing 6’4” and tipping the scale at 210 pounds, and has since packed on 20 pounds of muscle – it wasn’t an easy process to become the CCBC’s resident Sultan of Swat.
Jepson tends to be a bit of a perfectionist, which can be a double-edged sword. While his drive to be great fuels an outstanding work ethic, he’d get highly frustrated with making outs at the plate. In a sport where even the best hitters fail two-thirds of the time, that’s not a sustainable mentality. He had to learn to cope with adversity so that one unlucky at-bat didn’t snowball and become a prolonged slump.
“He wants to be perfect at everything, wants everything to be just right,” Corness explained. “(Making outs) wasn’t acceptable to him. He thought he was going to bat 1.000. Once he understood he could let that go and that it wasn’t a bad thing – because it is a game of failure – his game just started to rise.
“It was like, ‘OK Riley … the sooner you stop beating yourself up over failures, this game is going to become very easy for you.’ About two and a half months ago, you could see the lights start to come on, and he began to understand how to accept some adversity. And then you couldn’t get the guy out.”
Jepson’s approach at the plate is now one of supreme confidence.
“Honestly, I just kind of think no one can really get me out,” he said with a chuckle. “As bad as that sounds, I think I’m better than the pitcher up there, so I’m not too worried about making an out. I know I’m going to get out sometimes, but I’m also going to get my hits.
“I’ve definitely had growth throughout my time here. I’ve gotten a lot stronger, my swing’s a lot more fluid, I’m hitting the ball everywhere (to all fields), and I’m seeing the breaking ball a lot better.”
Jepson’s progress has prompted a steady procession of MLB scouts to Chilliwack’s Fairfield Island Park to watch him in action. Corness said he’s handled the attention with a lot of maturity.
“You’d never know he’s a potential draft pick, because he’s just one of the guys and doesn’t act like he’s better than anybody,” Corness said. “I think the guys appreciate that. And they appreciate his desire to be good, and they follow that.
“His work ethic is a plus, his relationships with people are a plus. That’s what a couple of scouts have said to me after his home visits – what character he has and what a great kid he is. That goes a long way.”
Spotting big-league scouts in the stands at his games is “pretty exciting”, Jepson noted.
“It’s pretty cool to see what’s happened here in the past three years – where we’ve been and where we are now,” he said, reflecting on his tenure with the Cascades. “I’ve seen the growth in guys, and the friendships made, it’s been cool to be a part of.