Tag Archives: Four-seamer

UIndy ‘late bloomer’ Rivas grows into D-II Midwest Region Pitcher of the Year

BY STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

University of Indianapolis sophomore left-hander Xavier Rivas was named 2022 American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings NCAA Division II Midwest Region Pitcher of the Year.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder in his second year in the Greyhounds starting rotation went 7-0 with a 2.24 earned run average, 128 strikeouts and 31 walks in 80 1/3 innings over 12 games. His WHIP (walks and hits allowed by innings pitched) was 0.98. Opponents hit .170 off the southpaw.
All this from someone who refers to himself as a “late bloomer.”
“The winter before my senior year I was throwing 78 to 82 mph, but I wanted to play (in college),” says Rivas, a 2020 Portage (Ind.) High School graduate. “I didn’t want to go and sit.
“I was a big kid but I hadn’t grown into my body.”
Rivas made a visit to UIndy, threw a bullpen for the coaches and was offered a spot on the team.
“The rest is history,” says Rivas, who credits several people for his ascension.
The winter before his junior year at Portage, Rivas began training with Joe Plesac (who was the pitching coach at Andrean High School Merrillville, Ind.).
“My dad go word of him through my strength coach in Valparaiso (Bub Pullins, whose son Gunnar Pullins was a senior first baseman on the Olivet Nazarene University team in 2022),” says Rivas.
At UIndy, Rivas has learned from head coach Al Ready and two pitching coaches — first Landon Hutchison and then Adam Cornwell. Trevor Forde is another Greyhounds assistant.
“He’s big on trust,” says Rivas of Ready. “He’s do anything for the players.
“It’s nice hearing his opinion. He was a real good hitter.”
Hutchison assisted the lefty with his mechanics and Cornwell with the mental side of things.
“When I came I had a real robotic back-side arm action,” says Rivas. “(Hutchison) was a big numbers guy. We used Rapsodo (cameras) and he taught me my slider.
“(Cornwell) played some pro ball and at UIndy. He’s taught me a lot. He’s helped me with some mechanical cues that added on a few miles per hour.”
Throwing from a three-quarter arm angle, Rivas employs a four-seam fastball, curve, slider and change-up.
During the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament with warm temperatures that the Greyhounds rarely saw in 2022 (he only pitched two times with the game-time thermometer reaching 60 and one start it was 17 with the wind chill), Rivas was above to get a sweat going on the mound and get his four-seamer up to 92 mph.
“We would have themes for bus rides,” says Rivas. “One time it a beach theme and we wore shorts and flip-flops. When we left Indianapolis it was in the 60s or 70s. It was in the 40s when we got there.
“That’s the nature of the beast in the Midwest. It’s bipolar weather.”
Rivas delivers his curve over the top close to 12-to-6 on the clock face.
In an attempt to “tunnel” his pitches, he wants them to look the same coming out of his hand and as they near the plate then they move in different ways.
Throwing his slider and change-up around the same speed — 80 to 84 mph — he tries to get the slider to dive down and to the right back foot of right-handed hitters. The change-up goes away from righties.
Rivas played one varsity season for Portage head coach Bob Dixon in 2019 (the 2020 season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic).
“He was an older school guy and a nice guy,” says Rivas of Dixon.
The pitcher underwent knee surgery from a wrestling injury and played junior varsity ball as a Portage sophomore.
Wrestling is a big deal in Xavier’s family. His father Jeremy Rivas went to the IHSAA State Finals three times and was a state runner-up at 125 pounds as a Portage senior in 1993.
Jeremy coached at Hobart (Ind.) High School and helped Alex Ramos to a pair of state titles (1999 at 119 and 2000 at 125) and a fifth-place finish (1998 at 119).
Xavier Rivas wrestled from sixth through ninth grade for Portage (Leroy Vega was his high school coach). A torn meniscus as a sophomore put an end to his mat career.
“I knew baseball was my future,” says Rivas, who was coaxed by friends to play football as a senior. He was a wide receiver and tight end for the Indians in the fall of 2018.
Rivas did some powerlifting as early as high school freshman, but nothing was organized.
“When I got to college I saw how strong everyone was,” says Rivas. “I’m very competitive. I wanted to be the strongest one on the team.”
He got serious about lifting and began getting workouts from friend and competitive lifter Aaron Blake and went heavy with all his lifts when there was a two-month break at UIndy during the winter of 2020-21.
“I got up to 230 pounds,” says Rivas.
A Mechanical Engineering major, Rivas expects to graduate in five years. He is heading into his true junior year. He did not get an extra year of eligibility since he was not in college during the pandemic.
He took a heavy course load during his freshman season — 18 hours — and struggled while doing all online courses and being on the road frequently with the baseball team.
“I tried to study on the bus but that didn’t work,” says Rivas.
This year has been better with in-person classes and 17 hours in the fall and 15 in the spring.
“That was much better,” says Rivas, who mentors freshmen teammates so they don’t suffer the same as he did.
This summer, Rivas is with the Northwoods League’s Wisconsin Rapids Rafters.
Looking for innings, he spent part of the summer of 2021 playing American Legion ball for the South Haven Post 502 Blaze. He spent part of the previous summer with the Midwest Irish.
Born in Hobart, Rivas grew up in South Haven and moved to Portage in the middle of his sixth grad year.
He started at South Haven Little League at 4. He was playing there and in travel ball at 9. The Portage Tribe and Morris Chiefs were two of his other travel ball teams.
Xavier’s mother is Nina Rivas. Sister Mya Rivas (18) is a 2022 Portage graduate who is headed to Purdue University.

Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis Photo)
Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis Photo)
Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis Photo)
Xavier Rivas (University of Indianapolis Photo)

Righty Gaff pursuing baseball dreams with Minnesota Twins organization

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

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.

Tanner Gaff, a graduate of Whitko Junior/Senior High School and the University of Saint Francis (Ind.), signs with the Minnesota Twins. (Minnesota Twins Photo)
Former University of Saint Francis pitcher has signed to play professional baseball with the Minnesota Twins. He trained remotely and on-site with Tread Athletics of Charlotte, N.C. (Tread Athletics Image)

Stull joins seasoned group with top-ranked Southeastern U.

By STEVE KRAH
http://www.IndianaRBI.com

At 23 and in his fifth season, Eston Stull is a college baseball veteran.
The right-handed pitcher finds himself surrounded by many other seasoned players as part of a Southeastern University team ranked No. 1 in NAIA.
“The best part of this team is humble confidence,” says Stull of the Lakeland, Fla.-based Fire. “You look in the dugout and they’re not nervous. Even if we’re down, they have the confidence that somebody is going to pick them up.
“It’s a team that almost coaches itself. Having that veteran presence has helped this team a lot.”
Stull, a 2017 graduate of Pendleton (Ind.) Heights High School, played four seasons at Indiana University-Kokomo (2018-21) while earning degrees in Finance and Management.
In 51 mound appearances (27 starts), Stull went 13-4 with a 4.57 earned run average. He amassed 187 strikeouts and 89 walks in 159 2/3 innings.
Matt Howard left the IUK program as head coach and Stull — who was granted an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic — began exploring his options.
“I reached out on Twitter,” says Stull. Those Tweets drew the attention of SEU assistant coach/recruiting director Mike Mendoza and Stull corresponded with him and head coach Adrian Dinkel while pitching in the summer of 2021 for the Northwoods League’s Kokomo Jackrabbits.
Stull decided to join a program that went 51-9 and competed in the 2021 NAIA World Series. Excluding the 2020 COVID season, Southeastern has posted four straight 50-win campaigns and is closing in on a fifth in 2022. Going into The Sun Conference tournament May 5-8 in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Fire is 47-3.
The NAIA Opening Round is slated for May 16-19. Taylor University in Upland, Ind., is one the 10 sites and the SEU could be assigned there which is about 40 miles northeast of Pendleton.
In 14 games (13 in relief), graduate student Stull is 0-0 with 0 saves and a 2.11 ERA. The righty has 32 strikeouts and seven walks in 21 1/3 innings.
Graduate assistant Connor Dailey, who was a reliever 2015-18 at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., is Southeastern’s pitching coach.
“He’s somewhat our age and easy to talk to,” says Stull of Dailey. “He trusts all of us and let’s us stick to our own routine.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Stull has made the adjustment from starter to relief pitcher.
“I think I fit better in the bullpen for this team,” says Stull, who mixes a four-seam fastball, curve, slider and change-up from a high three-quarter arm angle.
His four-seamer sits 92 to 93 mph and recently reach 97. His curve has a 12-to-6 action. He throws what he calls a “gyro” slider.
“It goes down like a reverse change-up,” says Stull. “I look at the Rapsodo (motion capture system) and try to keep the spin efficiency below 12 and the RPM’s up (he averages 2800 with the pitch).
Stull began throwing his change-up more last summer.
“I have a good shape for it,” says Stull. “It’s just finding the time to get comfortable throwing it in-game.”
Away from the diamond, Stull is working toward a Master of Business Administration and expects to take summer classes and finish as soon as possible. His coaches are looking to place him with a team.
“I want to see how far baseball will take me,” says Stull. “I don’t want to have any regrets.”
Born in Pendelton to Todd and Misty Stull, Eston grew up around the area and played what is now known as Pendleton Junior Baseball/Softball and then in travel ball, including time with the Indiana Nitro.
At Pendleton Heights, his head coach was Travis Keesling.
“I struggled my junior year and did not pitch much,” says Stull. “Coach Keesling sat me down and said you need to figure it out.”
Stull began training with Greg Vogt — first at VIP and then PRP Baseball (in Noblesville, Ind.).
“I had a great senior year,” says Stull.
He still stays in-touch with Vogt.
“I’ve reached out to him a couple of times with tips,” says Stull of the former Carmel (Ind.) High School and Anderson (Ind.) University hurler who has moved his family to Florida and added rehab pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays system to his PRP Baseball duties.
All three of Todd and Misty’s sons are in college. Eston’s younger brother Walker Stull pitches at Anderson U., and has trained with his at PRP Baseball. The youngest — Harrison Stull — is a student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Their parents have moved to Jacksonville, Fla.

Eston Stull (Southeastern University Photo)
Eston Stull (Southeastern University Photo)

Former McCutcheon, Purdue hurler Wittgren finds his groove in Cleveland bullpen

RBILOGOSMALL copy

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A change of baseball addresses meant a change in change-up approach for Nick Wittgren.

The 6-foot-3 right-handed reliever was traded from the Miami Marlins to the Cleveland Indians in February 2019.

The Tribe made a request of the former Purdue University closer and three-sport standout at McCutcheon High School — also in West Lafayette, Ind.

“When I got to Cleveland they told me my change-up plays pretty well and to throw it more to right-handers than I did in the past,” says Wittgren, who recorded a career-high 12 holds in 55 appearances and 57 2/3 relief innings. His 2.81 earned run average was 19th-lowest among American League relievers. “Roberto Perez was behind the plate and loved calling it.

“I almost felt like I threw my change-up more than I did my slider.”

Close.

According to Statcast data, Wittgren’s pitch arsenal included four pitches in 2019. He threw his four-seamer 66.4 percent of the time, slider 18.8, change-up 14.7 and curve 0.1.

“I was in my groove last year,” says Wittgren, who turns 29 on May 29. “I had my head where I needed it.”

With Miami in 2018, Statcast actually has Wittgren with a higher percentage of change-ups (15.7) as compared to sliders (12.8). Besides the four-seamer (62.7), there was also the sinker (7.5) and cutter (1.3).

With all the movement, Wittgren refers to his pitch repertoire as fastball, change-up and breaking ball.

Wittgren pitches from a three-quarter overhand arm angle. He throws across his body with his glove flaring out and whips around to deliver the baseball.

“I don’t know when I started,” says Wittgren of his mechanics. “In college I did it. It just works for me. I get the most force toward home. It’s really tough to pick up the baseball.

“To a righty I’m started with my arm behind them. It works in my favor.”

Wittgren favors sliders and four-seamers in on the hands with change-ups down and away.

“I started manipulated that pitch a little more last year,” says Wittgren of the change-up.

Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla and bullpen coach Brian Sweeney will often remind Wittgren to use that pitch.

With Cleveland, he occasionally got a chance to deliver that pitch and others to a familiar target.

Kevin Plawecki, a college teammate, was a back-up catcher with the Indians in 2019 (the Westfield (Ind.) High School graduate signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox in January).

“It was kind of cool taking it back to the good old Purdue says,” says Wittgren. “We still clicked.

“I didn’t have the change-up in college. I didn’t need it.”

Wittgren played shortstop and pitched at McCutcheon for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jake Burton.

As a Mavericks senior, Wittgren was an MVP in tennis in the fall and earned the same recognition for basketball in the winter.

Following brother Kyle’s lead, Nick took up tennis as a freshman.

“It was a good way to stay active for basketball and baseball,” says Wittgren. “It helped with footwork and conditioning and hand-eye (coordination).”

Rick Peckinpaugh was Wittgren’s head basketball coach.

“(Peckinpaugh) brought the most energy and talent out in you,” says Wittgren. “We had a group that played together really well. He was there for every single person, trying to get us better.

“It was a pleasure and a joy playing for him.”

With no college baseball offers coming in, he was thinking about bypassing his senior year on the diamond and focusing on basketball.

“I was just looking for a way to pay for college,” says Wittgren. “I was not looking at the whole picture.”

Wittgren had his sights on teaching math and coaching — either at the high school or college level.

“My mom (Lisa) is a (fourth grade) teacher,” says Wittgren. “I love kids. I love numbers.”

Burton let Wittgren know that he had baseball potential past high school.

He said, ‘you have something special, don’t waste it,’” says Wittgren of Burton’s advice.

Besides that, Burton emphasized that Wittgren was part of a large senior class and he owed it to the guys he’d been playing with since sixth grade to finish high school strong (born in Torrance, Calif., and raised in Long Beach and Cypress, Nick moved to Indiana as a sixth grader; father Andy lives in San Juan Capistrano; Nick’s other brother is Jack).

“If Jake didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here,” says Wittgren. “He saw something in me.”

A few days ago, the player and his former coach connected via FaceTime and Burton got to see Nick and Ashley Wittgren’s 14-month old son Jackson.

At McCutcheon, shortstop/pitcher Wittgren’s velocity topped out around 85 mph for most of the his senior season.

“I never took reps off in high school,” says Wittgren. “I need to do this to get better.”

His arm was tired from the workload.

With a few days off prior to sectional, Wittgren was touching 90.

Wittgren pitched in the Colt World Series in Lafayette and was scouted by McCutcheon graduate Matt Kennedy, then head coach at Parkland College. He got Wittgren to come to the junior college power in Champaign, Ill.

Seeing that the Cobras were in need of a Sunday starter, Wittgren pitched an idea to Kennedy.

He wanted to only pitch.

Wittgren recalls the response of the man he calls “KY.”

“He said that might be one of the best decisions you ever make,” says Wittgren a decade later. “I brought you in as a pitcher. I wanted you to figure it out.”

The lanky right-hander went 10-0 with 54 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings for a Parkland that placed fifth in the 2010 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series.

In the fall of his sophomore year at Purdue, Wittgren had an ulnar nerve transfer.

Boilermakers head coach Doug Schreiber wanted him to be the team’s closer in the spring of 2011.

“Whatever puts me out on that field is what I want to do,” says Wittgren, who finished 24 games and appeared in 29 with a Big Ten Conference-leading 12 saves to go with 55 strikeouts in 51 innings.

Schreiber (who later was head coach at McCutcheon and is now head coach at Purdue Fort Wayne) and assistants Ryan Sawyers and Tristan McIntyre (now head coach at McCutcheon) implored him to “trust your stuff and pound the strike zone.”

“They got me to throw certain pitches in certain counts,” says Wittgren.

He could change the batter’s eye level with fastballs up and sliders down. If he  pitched up and in, hitters would not be able to extend their arms.

Wittgren was named second-team all-conference and then went to play for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks that summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Schreiber asked Wittgren to be a closer again in 2012.

He pitched in 26 games, finishing off 25 and racked up 10 saves, setting a new Purdue all-time high with 22. He fanned 39 batters in 41 innings and was named third-team all-Big Ten. His two-year earned run average for the Boilers was 2.54.

Wittgren selected in the ninth round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Marlins and made his major league debut for Miami in 2016.

On the Cape is where Wittgren first met Ashley Crosby. She was part of the media department for the elite summer circuit.

A few years later, strength trainer Ashley did an internship with Cressy Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and she began dating Nick, who was training in south Florida with the Marlins. The relationship blossomed. The married couple now lives near Miami.

During the COVID-19 quarantine, Wittgren works out in his garage gym.

“It’s a full set-up,” says Wittgren. “There’s anything you need.

Eric (Cressy) writes my program. My wife implements them.”

Ashley Wittgren has wealth of knowledge with an MS (Master of Science) degree and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Precision Nutrition (Pn1) and TPI accreditations. She is there to help her husband correctly perform the movements and get the most out of them.

“She could apply for a big league strength job if she wanted,” says Nick of his wife. “She walks and talks me through a lift so I can get as strong as I possibly can.”

During quarantine, Wittgren throws into a backyard net. On bullpen days, he throws to catchers living in the area brought together by CSP.

During the off-season, Wittgren long tosses. But as the season approaches, he gets dialed in to pitch from 60 feet, 6 inches.

“I want my release point during the season to stay the same on everything,” says Wittgren. “I keep it on a line the whole entire time and hit (the catcher’s) knees every single time.”

NICKWITTGRENINDIANS

Nick Wittgren, a McCutcheon High School graduate who pitched at Purdue University, is now a reliever for the Cleveland Indians. He made his Major League Baseball debut in 2016 with the Miami Marlins. (Cleveland Indians Photo)

NICKWITTGRENMLB

Nick Wittgren, who played at McCutcheon High School and Purdue University, delivers the baseball for the Cleveland Indians. He excelled as a set-up reliever for the Tribe in 2019. (MLB Photo)