By STEVE KRAH
Tanner Gaff grew up in Whitley County, Ind., as a middle infielder who moved to the corners as he got older.
The right-hander doubled as a pitcher.
A 2016 graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School in South Whitley, Gaff went to the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne and was a two-way player until his last season — the extra year granted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had a pretty good year,” says Gaff, who employed Driveline Baseball training methods and increased his velocity going into 2021.
As a pitcher-only in ’21, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder made 14 mound appearances and went 8-2 with a 4.15 earned run average and 92 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings. USF went 34-22, setting a school record for single-season victories.
Gaff, who earned a degree in Business Management with a Sports concentration in 2020, still wanted to see how far pitching could take him.
“I had heard nothing but good things about Tread (Athletics),” says Gaff of the business specializing in online performance coaching. He began training remotely with Tread in the summer of 2021.
When Connor Lawhead left the Saint Francis coaching staff and went back to his native Washington, the Cougars were in need of a pitching coach. Gaff filled that role and was part of a staff featuring head coach Dustin Butcher and assistant Kristian Gayday while still honing his own skills.
Then came the time to go to Charlotte, N.C., and train with Tread in-house, which he did from February to May of 2022.
“Butch was happy for me,” says Gaff of Butcher’s willingness to let him pursue his dreams. “He was all for me furthering my baseball career.”
With the help of Tread, Gaff posted videos of him pitching to social media and got the attention of the Minnesota Twins. On May 20, he signed with that organization and is now in Fort Myers gearing up for the Florida Complex League season which opens June 6. The next two steps up the minor league ladder are with the Low-A Florida State League’s Fort Myers Mighty Mussels and High-A Midwest League’s Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels.
Throwing from a high three-quarter arm slot, Gaff possesses a four-seam fastball, slider/cutter, curve and splitter (split-finger fastball).
“My four-seamer has ‘plus’ carry and sits at 91 to 94,” says Gaff, 24. “I’m always looking to gain mph.
When it’s right, his slider is delivered about 80 mph.
“My splitter is one of my most promising pitches,” says Gaff. “I get good swing-and-miss with it.
“I threw it in middle school though I didn’t know it was called a splitter at the time. I’ve always had it in my back pocket. The movement patterns are always consistent. Sometimes it’s left. Sometimes right.”
At Tread, Gaff used TrackMan cameras to learned how to manipulate his splitter and other pitches.
Born in Columbia City to James and Debra Gaff, Tanner spent his youth on a 40-acre farm (20 acres of farmland and 20 acres of wetlands) about 10 minutes from Columbia City, Larwill and South Whitley.
He played in the South Whitley youth league until about sixth grade then travel ball with a homegrown team later the Ken Jones-coached Flippin’ Frogs and Cam Brannock-coached Summit City Sluggers.
As a middle schooler, Gaff was on a Pony League travel team that was coached by then-Whitko head coach Erik Hisner (now at Eastern of Greentown).
“That helped us with high school,” says Gaff, who had some teammates go on to win the Wildcats’ first sectional title in 2017. “We kept our core together.”
Gaff played two years at USF for head coach Greg Roberts and then assistant Butcher took over the program.
“(Roberts) was a really nice guy,” says Gaff. “He cared about his players. Butch is a great coach, but an even better person.
“He changed the culture. Saint Francis wasn’t always typically known as a good baseball school.”
Tanner has two older married sisters — Starr Kane and Isis Ivy.