Bright sunshine and 4,792 fans – most of them kids on summer camp field trips – burst into Hammons Field on Wednesday morning. With first-place Springfield clinging to a narrow lead over Arkansas in the Texas League North first-half race, the environment offered a stark contrast for the club’s newest member.

Cooper Hjerpe appeared in 21 games in Peoria (High-A) the past two seasons, and after he struck out five batters in four scoreless innings at Fort Wayne on June 6, the Cardinals’ 2022 first round pick from Oregon State was ready to leave the last-place Chiefs behind.

“It feels good, I mean, to start my career in Peoria and then start there this year – its kind of like almost a broken record. To finally get out of there and experience another part of the Cardinals’ organization, it’s obviously a huge step,” he said before Wednesday’s game.

Hjerpe flashed filthy movement from a self-described “funky” delivery, but the lefty’s Double-A debut was marred by lack of control and Northwest Arkansas hitters made him pay.

Hjerpe issued four walks and surrendered four hits and five earned runs over 2.2 innings, taking the loss in a 7-2 defeat.  Most of the damage came in the third inning after Hjerpe gave two free passes to load the bases before Dillan Shrum’s 3-run double cleared them.

Photo Credit – PJ Maigi

 

There were positives to build on, too.

The southpaw had Peyton Wilson picked off in the first inning, but first baseman R.J. Yeager’s throw to second was high and Wilson was credited with a stolen base. Hjerpe caught Shrum looking to end the first and struck out two more in a scoreless second inning.

Hjerpe’s ability to miss bats at Oregon State was legendary.

He led the NCAA with 161 strikeouts in 2022, a program record for the baseball powerhouse in Corvallis. One of Hjerpe’s performances with the Beavers had Bob Gibson flair.

Stanford would reach the 2022 College World Series with a lineup full of future MLB draft picks, but in the Pac-12 regular season game on April 1, Hjerpe gave them fits. He struck out 17 Cardinal batters over eight scoreless innings and 118 pitches.

Stanford won 1-0 in extra innings, with future Peoria teammate Quinn Mathews earning the save.

“I don’t remember much from (that game),” he said. “I remember the result, but when I was out there pitching, it was kind of like a blur. I was in that flow-state, tunnel vision – I just know everything was on and I was dialed-in, and everything was working for me that day.”

Hjerpe throws a four-seam fastball from a deceptive arm slot, a cutter, slider, and circle changeup. The cutter was a work-in-progress from college that used to “blend in” with his slider but since he turned pro, the pitch has developed into a consistent weapon. Hjerpe said his changeup has less ride this season and is “diving under the barrel” of hitters.

Oregon State pitching coach Rich Dorman called pitches for Hjerpe in college and the 23-year-old had to adjust to calling his own game.

Photo Credit PJ Maigi

 

“A couple of my first (pro) outings, it was like trying to figure out how to read swings – try not to get too robotic in certain pitch counts,” he said.

The Cardinals have been cautious with Hjerpe’s workload following elbow surgery in 2023 that cleaned up a “loose body” in his pitching arm. None of his 12 starts this season have gone deeper than four innings and his highest pitch count was 67 on April 25.

“Whatever his pitch count was in Peoria, is what we’re going to continue – is what we’re going to continue to build him up, according to that,” Springfield manager Jose Leger said.

Cooper’s K/9 rate continues to impress; he’s averaging 13 strikeouts per game in 2024. But the BB/9 rate (5.4 per game) is a concern in the hitter-friendly Texas League.

“I like him, he’s funky – if he’s able to command the strike zone, with that funky delivery, its going to be uncomfortable for (opposing) hitters.”

 

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll

Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505