Michael Earley has a knack for developing elite hitters. Spencer Torkelson was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft out of Arizona State University. His hitting coach was 2006 Anderson (Ind.) High School graduate Earley. “Texas A&M hired a rising star in the coaching ranks with the addition of Mike Earley,” said former ASU coach Tracy Smith (who led the Indiana University program before his time with the Sun Devils) on the Aggies baseball website. “He is the best I’ve seen in my career at developing hitters. However, Coach Earley’s ability to build rapport by balancing toughness and genuine care for the players is what really makes him special. The Aggies are getting a good one.” Earley, 33, played one season for Brian Cleary at the University of Cincinnati, three for Smith at Indiana and spent five in the Chicago White Sox system and one in independent ball. He coached in the Pac-12 Conference at Arizona State for five seasons — the last four as hitting coach — and was hired in mid-June of 2021 to mold hitters for Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference. “I could’ve stayed at Arizona State, but I wanted to explore and see what else was out there,” says Earley, who attended the 2022 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in Chicago. “I talked to a few schools and ended up at Texas A&M. I could not be happier. It’s been a really, really fun time and a great experience. “Head coach Jim Schlossnagle was a big draw for me. I think he’s the sharpest guy in the game and he’s someone I want to learn from and work for.” Earley hit the recruiting trail right after joining the Aggies staff. Recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain directed hitters his way. “He’s really, really good at finding talent and how to communicate,” says Earley of Cain. “I try to help him as much as I can.” Coming to College Station and the Brazos Valley with his own ideas on hitting, Earley has also incorporated offensive ideas from Schlossnagle. “It’s evolving every year,” says Earley. “I don’t think I’ve ever been quite the same every year though its the same base and foundation. “I mean it’s (NCAA) Division I baseball. The SEC is a step up from the Pac-12, but there’s a lot of good teams and players in the Pac-12 as well. It’s not going to be anything too much different. It’s really a lot of hard work.” Earley enjoyed his time with Torkelson, a right-hitting third baseman in the Detroit Tigers organization. “He’s by far the best hitter I’ve work with to date,” says Earley. “If I ever work with one that again it will be like hitting the baseball lottery. “He’s a generational talent for me. What separates him is not only is he just really, really good, he’s more competitive than anyone I’ve ever been around. He’s a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant type. I’m gonna beat you and you’re not gonna beat me.” The year before Torkelson went was the top pick in the draft, lefty-hitting outfielder Hunter Bishop was taken out of ASU with the 10th overall pick by the San Francisco Giants. Arizona State has elite baseball facilities and so does Texas A&M, which plays in Blue Bell Park. Renovations are on the way for a stadium built in 2012. “The SEC has become an arms race,” says Earley, who says new seating is coming along with a fresh hitting facility and weight room. “This place is already really, really nice. “I don’t know how we’re going to upgrade it but we are and it’s going to be bigger and better. And then — I’m sure — in another 15 years we’ll probably do it all over again.” Besides Schlossnagle, associate head coach Nate Yeskie, Cain and Earley as coaches, there’s a support that with a director of baseball operations (Jason Hutchins), director of player and program development (Chuck Box), sports performance coach (Jerry McMillan) and director of video and analytics (Will Fox). Earley says analytics are very helpful when used the right way. “You don’t want paralysis by analysis,” says Earley. “You find what works for you. There’s definitely a benefit in the game for analytics, but there’s an old word called competing and that can’t get lost.” Nolan Earley, Michael’s brother, is a 2009 Anderson High graduate who played three years at the University of Southern Alabama and in the White Sox organization and independent ball (He played 96 games for the Frontier League Southern Illinois Miners in 2021). He is in Arizona running the Phoenix Hit Dogs. “It’s a development-first travel program,” says Michael Early of the organization started in 2020. “Everyone says they are, but they’re actually not. They’re just trying to win and get the trophies. We’re actually trying the develop and I think it’s a success.”
Instruct, Motivate, Inspire. Jarrett said being accessible means being there 45 minutes before practice for extra hitting cage work. It’s something that ND volunteer assistant Brad Vanderglas, who was in attendance Tuesday, knows well since he is the first coach to arrive at the office each day and the last to leave. As for studying and communicating, it’s about giving players the right information. “If you’re giving them the wrong information it’s not going to work,” said Jarrett. “You’re not going to ultimately be as successful as you would want. The older players start to figure out what works and what doesn’t. “If you want them to listen, you better give them the right stuff. You have an obligation to give them the right information. (You must) study what they do and how they do it and use your resources.” Jarrett suggests that something like a quick phone video of a player’s swing at practice and a review can be very helpful. To promote competition, especially during the winter months of what can be tedious indoor work, Jarrett keeps score with some of the drills. Motivation is not a cookie-cutter kind of thing. “It’s just one at a time and pushing the right buttons,” said Jarrett. “Like some guys can take being crawled on a little bit and some you might have to sandwich what you’re trying to message in between two good things so they don’t melt down. “If you’re not accessible and you don’t study and communicate, how can you learn what each guy needs and then give the right instruction?” J.T. Jarrett, Link’s son, is a fifth-year player at North Carolina State University. The Wolfpack’s head coach Elliott Avent, who constantly sends strong motivational and inspirational messages. Jarrett considers belief a part of inspiration. “Sometimes (players) have to think that they’re better than they are,” said Jarrett. “You almost can make them believe that they’re going to win just telling them that if we do this the right way — man — you guys we’re gonna win and win big. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you can get them to buy in and understand that this you can do. That confidence, that swagger, that belief when they walk out there, it does matter.” Jarrett gave a presentation at the 2020 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic on “Building Complete Hitters” and he shared many offensive pointers at Tuesday’s gathering. Among the concepts that he broke down was hitting approach. Jarrett, who was part of an ABCA virtual coaching clinic on hitting approach in 2020, defines approach as “a mental and physical strategy to competitive success.” Each hitter must develop their own approach. One size does not fit all. What made sense for lefty slugger Niko Kavadas did not necessarily apply to other hitters in the Irish lineup in 2021. The coach says there is no universal way to finish a swing. Hitters must be able adjust for hard stuff and off-speed pitches. “We’re just trying to flush up as many balls as we can flush up and (hitters) know that,” said Jarrett. “The line drive is the ticket. Kavadas (a Penn High School graduate who hit 22 home runs and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox) missed some and they go out (to the opposite field). The hard ground ball and the hard fly ball are productive. But the goal in this is to how hard can you hit it on a line.” Looking for his ND hitters to do damage, Jarrett says a .400 on-base percentage is elite in major college baseball and he wants his club to average seven runs per game and make a third of all hits to go for extra bases — something that’s not easy at Frank Eck Stadium where the wind tends to always be a factor. “Somebody’s got to step on some balls because you don’t get enough opportunities against good pitching to string together 12 singles,” said Jarrett, who saw the 2021 Irish average post a .379 team OBP with 7.06 runs per game and 166 extra-base hits (36.8 percent). Notre Dame opens the 2022 season Feb. 18 against Manhattan in Deland, Fla. The first home game is slated for March 15 against Valparaiso.
The next South Bend Cubs Foundation Coaches Club session in the Pepsi Stadium Club (second floor) at Four Winds Field is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 8. Notre Dame’s Rich Wallace will talk on base coaching. All are invited. Admission is free.
“Larry is charismatic and has a contagious baseball mind,” says Hester.
Hester, who followed his baseball playing career, by traveling all over the country competing in top-flight slow pitch softball tournaments, has his Charlestown players competing during IHSAA Limited Contact Period winter workouts.
“We compete internally all the time,” says Hester. “I have a good group of (10) seniors who love hard work and competing.”
Hester has been getting his Pirates to understand what it means to have love and passion for the game and and enjoying being on the team.
“A lot of that comes from Larry Owens,” says Hester.
Expecting around 24 players in the program this spring, Hester and assistants Bryan Glover, Tony Kailen, George Roberts and Brady Hester will lead a program in varsity and junior varsity competition. Of the five coaches, only Kailen is not a Charlestown graduate.
The site of the Pirates baseball field is the same that Hester knew as a player, but the facility was totally overhauled almost a decade ago.
The former practice football field was turned into a softball field and now baseball and softball share not only a hitting building but a walkway and common area with a concession stand between the two diamonds.
“There’s great energy for our games,” says Hester.
The Pirates are part of an IHSAA Class 3A sectional grouping with Brownstown Central, Corydon Central, Madison Consolidated, North Harrison, Salem, Scottsburg and Silver Creek. Charlestown has won two sectional titles — 1999 and 2009.
While Hester was a Charlestown assistant he helped establish middle school baseball. Not affiliated with the school system, games are played during the spring. This year, Hester expects one team of sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
Recent Charlestown graduates on college baseball teams include right-handed pitchers Andrew Snider (Morehead, Ky., State University) and Drew Fifer (Frontier Community College in Fairfield, Ill.).
Two current seniors — right-handed pitcher Eric Wigginton (Spalding University in Louisville) and utility infielder Matthew McCoy (Hanover, Ind., College) — have made college baseball commitments.
Two others from the Class of 2021 weighing their options are catcher Nathaniel Kimbrell and right-handed pitcher Jacob Glover.
Ronni Hester, Brian’s wife, is in retail management. Brian and Ronni have three sons — Brady (22), Dalton (18) and Boomer (13) plus one grandson. Dalton Hester is a Charlestown senior. Boomer Hester is a seventh grader who plays football, basketball, wrestling and baseball with the middle school team and the Rawlings Tigers.
“If you just show up on your high-intensity or game days, you’re not going to get much better,” says Vogt. “Guys are around other guys with high energy and motivation who do not skip drills, warm-ups and recovery.”
During the week, there are also high school players (many of whom are in travel ball tournaments Thursday through Sunday) working out, too. There is weight training, Core Velocity Belt work to emphasis the lower half and the use of PlyoCare Balls.
Each player follows an individualized workout plan based on their Driveline Baseball profile.
“Everyone does a pre-assessment,” says Vogt. “We measure strength, power and velocity and create a plan off that.”
Because of COVID-19 many of the players have not been able to get on an outside diamond in a sanctioned game for months.
Many were not able to do much in the way of throwing or lifting weights for two months.
College players saw their seasons halted in mid-March. High school players heading into college lost their campaigns altogether.
Minor League Baseball has not began its 2020 season nor has the Utica, Mich.- based USPBL .It’s uncertain when or if MiLB will get going. The USPBL has announced it will start with smaller rosters June 24 and expand when fans are allowed at games.
“It’s just a really fun time to come out here and really put all the work that me and all these guys put in throughout the week to a test,” says Polley. “It’s really cool to be able to see the guys come out here and thrive whenever they’ve made adjustments.
“It’s a time to relax and get after each other.”
Donning a T-shirt defining culture as “A wave that inspires a community to achieve greatness” (by Atlanta Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson), Polley relates to the atmosphere at PRP Baseball and Finch Creek.
“They bust your butt during the week and whenever it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” says Polley. “We don’t worry about the mechanics or the drills we’re working on throughout the week. Let’s see what you got and you make adjustments week to week.”
Polley’s focus was on having a good feel for all his pitches and moving the way they’re supposed to based on Rapsodo-aided design.
Though the timetable is unknown, Polley says being prepared to return to live baseball is the key.
“I view this as an opportunity to improve my craft,” says Polley. “I come off and throw and lift everyday to make myself better.
“Whenever it is time to show up, I’m going to be better than whenever I left.”
Polley came down with the coronavirus in March after coming back from spring training in Arizona and was unable to throw the baseball for two weeks.
For that period, he and his girlfriend stayed away from everyone else and meals were brought to the bedroom door by Polley’s parents.
With facilities shut down, he was able to train in a barn and at local parks.
“To just be a kid again was really cool,” says Polley. “As a kid, you’d go to the park with your friends and practice. You’d compete and try to get better.
“That’s all it has been this entire quarantine. You come back into a facility like (Finch Creek) ready to go.”
Vogt has noticed an attention to detail Polley.
“If the minor league season happens, he’s going to be ready to go,” says Vogt.
“This gives me a chance to compete and feel out my stuff,” says Milto. “I get a chance to improve and see what’s working and what’s not working.
“This time is kind of weird, not knowing when or if we’re going to go back. So I’m just here, seeing the competition and staying ready.”
Milto just began coming to PRP Baseball this past week after hearing about it through friends.
“I really love all that they offer,” says Milto.
While maintaining strength, Milto also makes sure he stays flexible.
“For longevity standards and being able to move well consistently for as long as possible, I think it’s important so I work on by flexibility,” says Milto. “Especially with my upper body. My lower body is naturally flexible.
“I’m working on by thoracic rotations and all that kind of stuff. It’s helped me feel good everyday.”
Milto just began adding a cutter to his pitch assortment.
“Using the cameras and the Rapsodo here is really helping me accelerate the development.
“I’m feeling it out (with the cutter). I’ve already thrown a slider. I’m trying to differentiate those two and make sure they look the same out of my hand but different coming to (the batter).”
Milto says he’s made a switch in his take on how electronic devices can help.
“At first, I didn’t buy much into the technology,” says Milto. “It was all just too much to look at. As of late, I’ve started to pay more attention to it. I’ve realized the benefits of it.
“My mentality has been to just go out there, trust my stuff and compete instead of I need to get my sinker to sink this much with this axis. But I’ve started to understand how important that stuff. You make everyone look the same until it isn’t.
“It’s immediate feedback when you’re training. You release it. You know how you felt. And you know exactly what it did.”
Gray, 25, is a right-hander who played at Columbus (Ind.) East High School, Western Michigan University, Gulf Coast Community College and Florida Gulf Coast University before being signed as a minor league free agent by the Colorado Rockies in 2019. He was released in February 2020 and reports to the Milkmen this weekend.
“I see that they get results here,” says Gray. “It’s always great to push yourself and compete with others that are good at sports.”
Gray, who has been working out with PRP Baseball since prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, counts down his pitching strengths.
“I compete. That’s a big one,” says Gray. “I throw strikes. I’m determined to get better and be the best version of myself.”
When the quarantine began, Gray had no access to a weight room.
“I did a lot of body weight stuff and keep my body there,” says Gray. “I was lifting random stuff. I was squatting with my fiancee on my back. I was finding a way to get it done.
“I knew at some point COVID was going to go away and baseball was going to be back and I needed to be ready.”
Strobel, 25, is a left-hander who played at Avon (Ind.) High School and for the final team at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. (2017) before pitching for the independent Frontier League’s Joliet (Ill.) Slammers that summer. He underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and missed the 2018 season. He appeared in 2019 with the AA’s Gary (Ind.) SouthShore RailCats. When not pitching, he’s helped coach pitchers at Avon and for the Indiana Bulls 17U White travel team.
Strobel coached at Grand Park early Friday and then scooted over to Finch Creek for PRP “Compete Day.”
“I try to mimic what we do here,” says Strobel of his pitching coach approach. “It’s mainly work hard and be safe.
“Summer ball is now acting like the high school season. It’s been about getting everyone up to speed. Some guys were not throwing over the spring. They just totally shut down. You have other guys who’ve been throwing.”
Strobel has been training with Vogt for about four years.
“I like the routine of everything,” says Strobel. “Everything’s mapped out. You know what you’re doing weeks in advance. That’s how my mind works.”
And then comes the end of the week and the chance to compete.
“Everything’s about Friday live,” says Strobel. “Everyone has a routine getting getting for Friday.”
Strobel has been told he’s on the “first call” when the USPBL expands rosters.
He was “on-ramping” in February when the pandemic came along and he switched to training at the barn before coming back to Finch Creek.
“I really didn’t have to shut down,” says Strobel. “It’s just been a long road from February and still throwing.
“I help out in any way that I can,” says Sullivan, who reached out to Vogt in the spring of 2019, interned last summer and then came on board full-time. “We mesh well together because we believe in a lot of the same sort of fundamentals when it comes to pitching and developing a pitcher.
“It helps to have an extra set of eyes and that’s where I come into play. I dealt with a lot of mechanical issues myself and my cousin help me out. That sparked me to want to do the same for other players.”
Sullivan is pursuing his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
“Once I have that, it opens up a lot more doors and opportunities for me in the baseball world,” says Sullivan. “Baseball has had a funny route to where it is today. When I grew up a lot of times you threw hard because you were blessed and had the talent.
“Now, it’s been proven that you can make improvements — whether it be in the weight room, overall health or mechanical adjustments in your throwing patterns — and can train velocity.
“A lot of people are trying to find a balance of developing the mechanical side of things while strengthening things in the weight room. They kind of go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.”
Sullivan says that if the body can’t support the force that’s being generated through it, it’s going to lead to a faster breakdown.
“That’s where the weight room comes into play,” says Sullivan. “Being able to transfer force is kind of the name of the game right now.”