Chipley is a panhandle town with 3,766 residents and 11 police officers.
For nearly his entire life, Andy Compton has called it home. He graduated from Chipley High in 1982, played baseball a half-hour away at Chipola College and ultimately returned to his alma mater to coach baseball, basketball and football.
“It’s where I’ve always wanted to be,” he said.
Compton is in his 24th season as a baseball coach at Chipley and still has difficulty matching words to the best player he has ever coached.
In 2007, sophomore pitcher Karsten Whitson came to Chipley from Bartow. His grandparents’ health was declining and his mother was from the area.
His father, Kent, played college basketball at Chipola and roomed with Compton.
“Karsten was not in favor of the move, but he understood why we needed to relocate,” Melissa Whitson said in an email.
Bartow’s loss was Chipley’s treasure. Whitson stood out immediately, but he made his biggest stride his junior year after adding a slider to his repertoire, striking out 73 batters in 42.1 innings with a 1.49 ERA. After committing to Florida and head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, his recruitment took on a more major-league feel.
In August, the calls flooded into Chipley High from scouts wanting to know when and where Whitson would be pitching.
Compton said as many as 30 scouts would be at every game, forcing the school to clear out a section behind home plate to accommodate them.
“It wouldn’t matter if we were here or on the road,” he said.
“Wherever he pitched, they were there.”
In the 2010 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Whitson was picked No. 9 overall by the San Diego Padres.
By the signing deadline, Whitson’s contract offer reached $2.1 million.
Median income for a household in Chipley is $21,686. Whitson’s mother teaches at Roulhac Middle School, and his father is self-employed in the electrical business.
The deadline passed without a deal, making Whitson just the fourth top-10 draft pick in the past 10 years to not sign his contract.
Kendall Rogers, managing editor of baseball scouting service Perfect Game, said decisions like Whitson’s ultimately come down to family.
“In his situation, I think he factored it down to a Florida education,” Rogers said. “Obviously it surpassed what the Padres wanted to offer him.”
Right-handed pitcher Wade Townsend, a No. 8 pick in 2004, turned down the Baltimore Orioles before being drafted No. 8 by the Tampa Bay Rays the following year. Townsend’s minor-league run ended in 2010, and he is now a professional poker player.
Three picks before Whitson was taken in 2010, right-handed pitcher Barret Loux was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks but failed a physical and is now in Single-A for the Texas Rangers. Both pitched in college.
Another top-10 pick, righty Aaron Crow turned down a deal in 2008 out of Missouri, but signed with Kansas City in 2009 after being drafted 12th.
He is the only one so far to make it to the majors.
Since 2001, 43 high school players have been drafted in the top 10 — only Whitson has decided against signing.
His mother admitted it was tough to see her son bypass a chance at professional baseball.
“He always says, ‘It wasn’t coach O’Sullivan’s job to entice him away from the Padres, it was the Padres’ job to entice him away from coach O’Sullivan and the UF program,’” his mom said.
Whitson was in classes at Florida one week after rejecting his MLB contract.
Any regrets he may have had about not going pro ended quickly. During the fall of his freshman year, he told Yahoo! Sports he was glad he chose Florida, saying he “hardly could walk” after the first week of college workouts and may have not been ready for a professional regimen.
But once spring came around, Whitson mended into Gainesville in spectacular fashion. He was immediately injected into the weekend rotation, serving as the Sunday follow-up to right-hander Hudson Randall and left-hander Brian Johnson.
For the Gators, the combination worked well.
In his first year of college ball, Whitson was held to limited pitch counts by O’Sullivan.
The use of Randall — who ranked third in the Southeastern Conference with 124.1 innings pitched — as a Friday night starter kept Florida’s best relievers fresh to support Whitson.
As a freshman, Whitson averaged about five innings per start and went his deepest in a 6.2-inning outing against Alabama on April 24.
“Sully was really protective of me last year, and I’m grateful for that,” Whitson said.
While Whitson’s pitch counts were contained by O’Sullivan, his innings were often self-limited.
Whitson, a strikeout pitcher, tended to rely too much on his fastball as an out pitch and let batters consistently take him deep into counts.
He finished fifth in the SEC in strikeouts (92) and sixth in ERA (2.40) but was angered at times by early exits from games.
“You could tell in the dugout when they would take him out of a game, he was frustrated,” Compton said. “He’s a guy that really wants to go.”
Regardless, Whitson’s freshman year was an overwhelming success. He was named a Freshman All-American by Baseball America, and Perfect Game named him the National Freshman Pitcher of the Year. He finished 8-1, surrendering just a .235 batting average to opposing hitters.
“You look at the developing he’s already done under Sully both physically and mentally,” Rogers said. “He’s become a better pitcher.”
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Whitson is no longer the 19-year-old known solely for spurning a $2.1 million opportunity.
Now a sophomore, he will be facing an expanded role in 2012.
Most noticeably, he will be moved from Sunday starter to Saturday starter and will see his work load increase.
“He’s got one year under his belt,” Randall said.
“That’s a huge year to have under your belt.
“He’s just going to have more experience, learning how to hold runners better, get deeper into games hopefully.”
O’Sullivan feels that Whitson’s greatest strides will come in the usage of his secondary pitches.
If he can learn to better control his slider and rely less on his fastball, it will only make the scouts drool more.
“He looks a little more comfortable,” Johnson said.
“You don’t have to worry about the freshman thing. You know what’s coming and you know what to expect.”
At Saturday’s scrimmage, Whitson made a lone mistake when he allowed senior right fielder Preston Tucker to deposit a ball past the McKethan Stadium visitor’s bullpen in right-center field.
Whitson recovered to strike out the side, notching three of his six punch-outs on the day. He threw 68 pitches to complete the five innings.
During the 2011 regular season, Whitson pitched five innings or fewer nine times and averaged 78.3 pitches.
“I try not to put too many expectations on him,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s got his own expectations. … He’s in a good place right now.”
When Whitson decided against signing his contract in 2010, it was easy to question what there was to gain.
For those closest to him, the decision is no mystery.
Whitson would like to be a legitimate four-pitch guy when he re-enters the draft.
He wants to iron out any possible maturity issues, a common byproduct of three or four years of living on your own.
He would like a faster road to the majors, something high school pitchers don’t typically get.
He doesn’t want to be No. 9 after his junior season.
He wants to be the best.
Rogers sees that happening.
“He has all the natural tools; he has all the mechanical tools,” Rogers said. “He’s a freak athlete. He’s a freak pitcher.”
“Obviously, he’s going to be a very good prospect next year, probably No. 1 overall.”