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‘Stubborn approach’ has Evansville’s Owen at Triple-A level with Pirates

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Hunter Owen was playing in his fifth game since being promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.

The Evansville, Ind., native was facing a knuckleball pitcher for the first time.

After grounding into a fielder’s choice in his first plate appearance on Thursday, July 18, Owen belted the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the third inning from Syracuse right-hander Mickey Jannis for a two-run home run and the Indians went on to beat the Mets 9-1 at Victory Field.

“You can’t prepare for (the knuckleball),” says Owen. “You have to be willing to battle and stick to your stubborn approach.”

Owen, who swings from the right side, says that when he’s going good he looks for a pitch in a particular location and doesn’t miss it.

That kind of pitch recognition comes with repetition.

“The majority is experience — a lot of at-bats at each level,” says Owen. “The higher up you go, the better the stuff is.

“(Experience) allows you to progress as a hitter — visually and physically.”

Owen was selected out of Indiana State University in the 25th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He experienced 187 at-bats for the short-season West Virginia Black Bears in 2016. In 2017, he had 12 AB’s with the Black Bears, 291 with the Low Class-A West Virginia Power and 10 with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates.

There were 401 at-bats with the Advanced-A Bradenton (Fla.) Marauders in 2018. He opened 2019 with 235 more for the Double-A Altoona (Pa.) Curve.

Owen hit .257 with five homers and 34 runs batted in for 2016, .284 with 13 and 49 in 2017 and .262 with 18 and 60 in 2018.

At Altoona, his numbers were .298, 15 and 44 before his promotion.

The biggest difference between Double-A and Triple-A?

“The pitching,” says Owen. “Guys can throw three to four pitches wherever they want it.

“They have a better plan of how to attack you.”

Owen really learned how to play in attack mode from his head coach at Evansville Mater Dei High School and with Funkhouser American Legion Post 8Jeff Schulz (who played 40 games in the majors with the Pirates and Kansas City Royals).

“What sticks with me is the aggressiveness mentality,” says Owen. “You’re going up to the plate to do damage.

“You also want to be as much of a well-rounded player as a you can be.”

Growing up, Owen was mostly a shortstop. In high school, he was also used at second base and third base (and was also honorable mention all-state on the football field).

Indiana State head coach Mitch Hannahs told him to embrace versatility and Owen is comfortable in the infield, outfield or behind the plate.

“Any ability to crack the lineup and be versatile for my team,” says Owen. “(Hannahs) made me the ballplayer I am today — for sure.

“More than anything, he helped me grow mentally. He takes pride in having ballplayers with a lot of character that are good people.”

While he’s got 52 minor league homers, Owen does not classify himself as a pure home run hitter.

“I have gap-to-gap power,” says Owen, who is 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds. “I have the ability to drive the baseball over the wall (with a combination of bat speed and strength).”

Owen notes that every hitter has a launch angle — that’s just physics.

He sticks with the approach that’s more conducive to his swing.

“I’m hitting down through (the baseball),” says Owen, who also has 70 doubles and 12 triples in three-plus minor league seasons.

Owen, who resides in Fishers, Ind., in the off-season, began training last winter with Mike Robertson at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFIT) to increase his mobility, overall strength and speed.

“They help you maximize your physical potential,” says Owen.

Now that he’s playing home games in Indianapolis, Owen has had many family and friends in the stands and expects to see more.

“It’s super humbling to have so many people reach out who are interested in my career,” says Owen, who turns 26 Sept. 22. “The big support system behind me makes it super special.”

The youngest of former University of Evansville baseball player Steve and wife Kena Owen’s five children (following Michael, Leslie, Tyler and Mandi), Hunter took advantage of the lessons that position afforded him.

“It was awesome,” says Hunter. “I really took hold to my two brothers.”

Tyler Owen played four years of NCAA Division I baseball at Murray (Ky.) State University.

“He helped me through my high school and college career,” says Hunter of Tyler. “Picking my brother’s brain was super helpful.”

Hunter attended St. Philip Catholic School through the eighth grade and played for the school teams as well as the Southern Indiana Bombers prior to high school. He played a summer with the Jeremy Johnson-coached Evansville Razorbacks before heading off to ISU.

As a Sycamore, Owen was redshirted in 2013 then played from 2014-16. He hit .342 with nine homers and 59 RBIs, including .350, six and 47 as an all-Missouri Valley Conference outfielder in 2016.

At the time he began his pro baseball career, Owen was working toward and sport management degree and plans to complete it at some point.

Right now, he’s battling and being stubborn in his approach.

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Hunter Owen, an Evansville (Ind.) Mater Dei High School graduate who played at Indiana State University, is now with the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (Indianapolis Indians Photo)

 

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Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville), Miami U. lefty now following routine in Pirates organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Sticking to his daily routine, Zach Spears is finding out what it means to pitch as a professional.

“It’s executing what you’re trying to do and staying on top of things at all times,” says Spears, who was selected in the eighth round of the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is a 2015 graduate of Mt. Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind.

Through games on June 28, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound left-hander had made two appearances (both as a starter) for the West Virginia Black Bears of the Short-Season Class-A New York-Penn League and was 0-0 with a 2.25 earned run average, no strikeouts and two walks in four innings.

“In my routine to prepare for a start, I’m activating the arm,” says Spears. “I get the body moving before I pick up a ball. When I pick up the ball, I don’t want to have any tightness or anything like that. I do band work to get my whole entire body loose.”

Spears throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider and “circle” changeup from a three-quarter overhand arm slot. His velocity ranges from 89 to 95 mph on his fastball, 76 to 80 mph on his slider and 82 to 85 mph on his change-up.

“My fastballs have a lot of arm-side movement,” says Spears. “It’s real important to change speeds and keep the hitters off-balance.”

In three seasons at Miami, the big southpaw was 8-22 with a 4.92 ERA, 216 strikeouts and 126 walks in 212 innings. This spring, he logged 82 innings for MU.

Danny Hayden was the RedHawks head coach and Matt Davis the pitching coach.

Spears, who turned 21 June 3, remembers their advice.

“You’ve got to go about things the right way to be successful,” says Spears. “You can’t be lazy. You have to be prepared at all times to have success.”

Ryan Carr was the head coach and Brian Downs the pitching coach in Spears’ last season at Mt. Vernon.

“They told me to go out there and have fun,” says Spears. “Approach the game with a positive, hard-working attitude and just trust yourself and compete.

“It’s helped me.”

Spears has one more year of college left. He was a sport management major with a minor in marketing and management at minor.

How does he plan to use that education?

“I’d like to go into some kind of real estate,” says Spears. “It’s got a sales side I enjoy. I like to be hands-on doing things.”

Baseball life for got rolling for Spears at the Mount Vernon Optimists League. He played two years of travel ball in high school with the Pony Express.

Zach is the younger of Pat and Deb Spears’ three children. There is older brother Andy and older sister Elizabeth.

The next steps in the Pirates system are the Low Class-A West Virginia Power, High Class-A Bradenton Marauders, Double-A Altoona Curve and Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. The Black Bears play on the turf at Monongalia County Ballpark in Granville, W.Va.

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Zach Spears, a 6-foot-7 left-hander drafted out of Miami University of Ohio by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018 is now with the West Virginia Black Bears. He is a graduate of Mt. Vernon High School in Fortville, Ind. (West Virginia Black Bears Photo)

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Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville) High School and Miami University of Ohio pitcher Zach Spears (67) is now with the West Virginia Black Bears in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. (West Virginia Black Bears)

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Former Mt. Vernon (Fortville) High School and Miami University of Ohio pitcher Zach Spears (67) is now with the West Virginia Black Bears in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He was an eighth-round MLB Draft selection in 2018. (West Virginia Black Bears)

Valparaiso graduate Suiter adds Mexico to list of baseball experiences

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s funny how life and baseball works.

Jerrick Suiter is closing up shop at a GNC store in Fort Worth, Texas, when he gets a call to join the Mexican Pacific League pennant chase.

Two days later, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout is off to new experiences with the Venados de Mazatlan.

Suiter, an outfielder, corner infielder and designated hitter in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, plays his first game South of the Border Dec. 21 and goes 2-for-3 with a run batted in on Christmas Day.

“This is my first time in winter ball and first time in Mexico — ever,” says Suiter. “It’s been quite an experience. I’ve learned a lot of Spanish.

“It’s going to help me with my Latin teammates. I can feel what they were going through their first time in the States. I have a greater appreciation for that now.”

When he’s not at the stadium or heading to the gym, Suiter has found time to soak up the sun. The team has set him up in a condo 50 yards from the beach.

Recent daytime temperatures have been in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s been around 40 in north central Texas and in the single digits or lower in northwest Indiana.

Suiter, who has been used primarily as a DH since he had not been throwing much in the off-season, would like to be a part of a couple of championship before reporting to 2018 spring training at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., where he is due Feb. 19 — two weeks before his 25th birthday on March 4.

Mazatlan opened its season Oct. 11 and is closing in on the end of the regular season with hopes of winning the league and a berth in the Caribbean Series (which will bring champions from Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico).

In Mexico, Suiter has been reunited with Gerardo Alvarez, who managed the Bradenton Marauders in 2017.

After hurting his thumb at the end of spring camp, Suiter played briefly in the High Class-A Florida State League before joining the Altoona Curve of the Double-A Eastern League, where the right-handed swinger hit .285 with 10 home runs, three triples, 20 doubles and 58 runs batted in over 347 at-bats and 100 games.

Altoona beat Trenton to win EL title. Sutter had an RBI in the final game.

If the Pirates give him a promotion, Suiter would play Triple-A baseball with the Indianapolis Indians.

Suiter, who was selected in the 26th round of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft after three seasons at TCU, made an adjustment in the batter’s box in 2017.

“I was very wide and kind of low,” says Suiter of his stance. “It was killing any chance I had to put some juice into the ball. Now, I’m pretty tall, kind of (Ken) Griffey-esque with my hands a little lower. I see the ball a little bit longer and use my legs more than the rest of my body to generate some power.”

Suiter, who stands 6-foot-4 and currently weighs around 250 pounds, has been an avid lifter for years, but he is not trying to get too big.

“I don’t need to put on much size,” says Suiter, who usually reports to spring training around 250, drops five pounds by the end of camp and five or 10 more during the season. “Size in baseball doesn’t do you any good. It’s going to make you slow and not very flexible. I know how my body works and that I lose weight very quickly. I’m looking to get stronger while leaning out.”

A football, basketball and baseball standout at Valpo (he was the Northwest Indiana Times Male Athlete of the Year in 2011), Suiter got a chance to spend a lot of time on the gridiron and diamond with coach Dave Coyle.

“He was a big discipline guy,” says Suiter of Coyle. “I loved him as a coach. He wanted to the best for his team and for his players.”

Work ethic was important to Coyle just like it was to Eric Suiter, who coached Jerrick and company as they grew up playing sports.

“My dad was extremely hard on me as well as the rest of the team,” says Jerrick. “It made me into the athlete I am today. I couldn’t thank him more for it.”

Jerrick’s father lives in Valpo and mother Jeanette in Chesterton. His sister Danielle Suiter plays volleyball at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Half-brother Carter just played his first Pop Warner football season in Chesterton. Step-sister Hailey is a student at Purdue University.

Jerrick was working toward a degree in Habilitation of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing before leaving TCU early for pro baseball. He has relatives on his father’s side that are deaf or hard of hearing and knows both basic and American Sign Language.

“I started signs before I was talking,” says Suiter. “I don’t use it every single day like I should, but I know more sign language than I know Spanish, I can tell you that.”

He was planning to go back to school when Bradenton made the playoffs in 2016, which meant he would be too late for the start of the fall semester. Suiter spends his off-seasons in Fort Worth and does some hitting at TCU.

“I love the city,” says Suiter, an Indiana Bulls travel baseball alumnus who was drafted in 2011 by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school but persuaded to play at TCU by former Horned Frogs recruiting coordinator Tony Vitello (who is now on the staff at the University of Arkansas) and played for head coach Jim Schlossnagle.

“He finds a way to win,” says Suiter of Schlossnagle, who now has Kirk Saarloos as a recruiting coordinator. “He brings the right guys in there. They’ve been to Omaha (for the College World Series) every year since my junior year. Something’s going right there.”

While he long wanted to be a pro baseball player, Suiter has an affinity for the hardwood.

“Basketball has always been my favorite sport,” says Suiter. “I’m not a big NBA guy, but I love watching college basketball.”

During winter break his sophomore year at TCU, he helped coach fifth and sixth grade AAU players. Shooting around on the court was one way he warmed up for his workouts.

But he has stopped doing that.

“The Pirates are writing my paychecks every two weeks,” says Suiter. “I don’t need to be roll a ankle or jeopardize my career in baseball.”

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Jerrick Suiter, the former Valparaiso High School and Texas Christian University standout, takes a cut in 2017 for the Altoona (Pa.) Curve, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Double-A team. (David Hague Photo)