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Return to college swing helps Mets catcher Plawecki

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Six seasons into his professional baseball career, Kevin Plawecki went back to his college days and it helped him finish strong at the plate in 2017.

For the year, the former Purdue University catcher hit .328 in 64 games at Triple-A Las Vegas and .260 in 37 games (.348 in his last 10 appearances) with the big-league New York Mets.

Plawecki wore a Boilermakers uniform for three seasons (2010-12) and credits assistant coach Jeff Duncan (now head coach at Kent State University) for guiding his offensive game.

“(Duncan) got my swing where it needed to be in college,” says Plawecki, a right-hander. “He’s one of the best hitting coaches I’ve ever worked with. “He’s very relatable and very good at explaining what he believes in. He had been hitting to the middle of the field and the right side. He had me staying under my legs (with a wide stance). I drifted quite a bit in college and got away with it (even in the minors) because my hands worked so well.

“In the majors, I got exposed. Over the years, my stance got narrow and my hands were moving a lot.”

So with the help of Mets hitting coach Kevin Long (who moved on after the 2017 season), Plawecki studied films of his Purdue at-bats.

He again spread out his stance and his swing became shorter and more compact.

“It really allowed me to use my whole body, especially my legs,” says Plawecki, who turns 27 Feb. 26. “I had been getting more and more upright and it was causing more movement in my head, legs and hands. I was trying to be too perfect.”

It’s that swing he polished at Purdue that helped the 2009 Westfield High School graduate have a super 2012 campaign. That spring, he hit .359 with 47 runs batted in was second team All-America by Baseball America, Perfect Game USA and College Baseball Insider, finished as a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award as the nation’s top collegiate catcher, semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy and became the Boilers’ first Big Ten Conference Player of the Year. He was also chosen as Most Outstanding Player in the Big Ten tournament and Purdue’s Male Athlete of the Year.

Plawecki struck out 29 times in 638 career at-bats with the Boilers.

The Mets made Plawecki a compensation pick in the first round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He was the third-highest Purdue player selected in program history. Only right-handed pitcher and Brebeuf Jesuit graduate Sherard Clinkscales (31st in 1992) and outfielder and Anderson Madison Heights graduate Jermaine Allensworth (34th in 1993) were picked earlier.

Plawecki was also Purdue’s highest draftee since 6-foot-6 right-hander and Mishawaka High School graduate Chadd Blasko was picked 36th overall in 2002.

The catcher made his MLB debut on April 21, 2015. He split time between the Mets and Triple-A in 2015, 2016 and 2017, playing a total of 158 games in the big leagues. He was on the Mets postseason roster for the National League Division Series, National League Championship Series and World Series, but did not see any game action.

In 2011 at Purdue, Plawecki hit .341 and drove in 39. He started 55 games — 45 at catcher, six at designated hitter and four at first base. The first-team all-Big Ten selection was a Johnny Bench Award semifinalist. That summer, played for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks of the Cape Cod League

His first collegiate season (2010), Plawecki led the the Boilers in batting average (.343) and established a Purdue freshman record for RBIs (53). He played 54 games and started 52 times, primarily at catcher. He was named a Freshman All-American by both Collegiate Baseball and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. His summer team was the Richmond (Ind.) RiverRats of the Prospect League.

Doug Schreiber was head coach at Purdue during Plawecki’s stay in West Lafayette.

“He was a hard-nosed guy,” says Plawecki of Schreiber (now head coach at McCutcheon High School). “He didn’t take a whole lot of crap from anybody. People respected him. He was always at the morning workouts with us. That goes a long way. He may not have been lifting, but he was up there grinding with us. He fought for us. He had our backs. That’s why we were so successful at Purdue.”

Plawecki grew up a Bolier fan. Several family members, including father Jeff (who was a member of the golf team), mother Lynne and brother Aaron, are Purdue graduates. Aaron is scheduled to complete graduate school at Northwestern University in December.

During Kevin’s freshmen year at Purdue, he met soccer player Tayler Francel and they married in 2015. The Plaweckis are spending their off-season in Arizona, where they are closer to her family in San Diego. He lifts weights four days a week and plans to begin throwing and hitting again in early January before heading to spring training with the Mets in Florida.

Plawecki, who was born in Hinsdale, Ill., and moved to central Indiana about the time he was beginning school, played travel baseball for the Westfield Indians in his early years then the Indiana Bulls and Indiana Dirt Bags before heading to Purdue.

He played many positions growing up, but settled in at catcher as a Westfield sophomore and got pointers from former Purdue backstop Mike Hansen, who is now on the Shamrocks coaching staff led by Ryan Bunnell.

“He helped me with drill work and set the foundation,” says Plawecki, who was part of Westfield’s IHSAA Class 4A state runner-up team in 2009. He was a two-time all-Indy North, all-Hoosiers Crossroads Conference and all-Hamilton County selection and earned four varsity letters in baseball at Westfield and was a team captain as a junior and senior. “I got bored everywhere else. I was not being very good anywhere else and a pretty good catcher. I like the involvement and challenge it brings.”

He gives many propers to his high school head coach.

“Burnell taught me ab out accountability,” says Plawecki. “I was just a young kid at the time, trying to find my way and stay out of trouble. That’s where my work ethic started. It started with those early-morning workouts. We were working hard and letting the results take care of themselves. I learned a lot from him — on and off the field.”

Now, Plawecki not only shares the field but catches some of the best pitchers in baseball. There’s Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo in the starting mix.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Plawecki of receiving the collection of aces. “It makes my job a lot easier. It also brings high expectations. Last year, we couldn’t stay healthy.”

Why all the injuries?

“It’s pretty crazy,” says Plawecki. I’ve never seen anything like it. If we could pin-point it as players or as trainers, we would have done it. Good thing is it’s just one year. We’ll learn from last year and be ready to go.”

Travis d’Arnaud, who played 112 games and hit .244 for the Mets in 2017, is ahead of Plawecki for the top spot on the The off-season MLB.com depth chart.

Can Plawecki win the starting job?

“I just try to go out and play and have fun,” says Plawecki. “I want to take advantage of the opportunity that given day. Leave that decision up to (the Mets).”

Mickey Calloway, who was pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians in 2017, is now the Mets manager. He has been quoted as saying he is considering letting starters go through the order twice before going to the bullpen. Some say this approach could tax the bullpen.

“He’s in-tune with pitching and what it takes to stay healthy,” says Plawecki. “If he thinks that’s the route to stay healthy then that’s what we’ll do. I don’t know if there is a perfect pitch count or innings limit. Everyone’s body is different.

“The success he had in Cleveland with those pitchers speaks volumes.”

Sabermetrics and analytics have become a big part of baseball. Data is used to decide where teams are going to position their defense against certain hitters.

“We don’t look at (the analytics) as much,” says Plawecki. “We’ve got a lot on our plates learning the weaknesses of the other players.”

Plawecki says the coaches are the ones who move the defenders. As a catcher, he calls the signals in stealing situations. Bunt coverages are called by the third baseman.

KEVINPLAWECKIMETS

Kevin Plawecki, a 2009 Westfield High School graduate and former Purdue University standout, is a catcher with the New York Mets. (New York Mets Photo)

 

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Manaea continues to make adjustments as part of Oakland rotation

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Succeeding in baseball involves a series of adjustments.

Sean Manaea knows this to be true from experience.

A starting pitcher for the Oakland Athletics, Manaea (pronounced muh-NYE-uh) has made — and will continue to make — the necessary changes to be effective on a Major League Baseball mound.

“It’s been a winding road,” says Manaea, a northwest Indiana native who was selected in the first round of the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of Indiana State University by the Kansas City Royals and made his big-league debut with Oakland in 2016. “When I first got to pro ball I was trying to strike out the world and go max effort. But I found that I can’t sustain that so I toned it down.

“But I toned it down too much and was getting lit up. I’m still trying to find that happy medium and have some gas left at the end of the game.”

The 6-foot-5 left-hander who played three seasons at South Central (Union Mills) High School and his senior year at Andrean High School (helping the 59ers win the 2010 IHSAA Class 3A state championship) has been known to reach 97 mph on the radar gun, but strives to mix velocity and deception to get hitters out.

“I threw a four-seam fastball about 75 percent of the time (in 2017),” says Manaea, who turns 26 on Feb. 1. “At the end of 2016, I started messing with two-seamer.”

What better — velocity or movement?

“A combination of both is the best,” says Manaea. “You don’t have to throw 97 to 100 mph every pitch to get guys out. The main thing is to be able to throw strikes no matter what kind of movement you have.”

When Manaea’s slider is biting down it provides plenty of swings and misses and groundball outs.

“That’s the pitch I need to get down and throw for a strike,” says Manaea. “That’s one of my main focuses this off-season.”

Taking advantage of the weather and the ability to work out with Athletics trainers at the team’s spring training complex, Manaea spends his winters in Arizona.

“Being physically fit throughout the season is going to help me,” says Manaea. “I played all of 2016 at 255 pounds and felt sluggish and had trouble recovering between starts. Last year, I was at 230 to 235 (after losing appetite while dialing in the proper dose for attention-deficit disorder medication) and I lost muscle and had trouble with recovery. I feel that if I’m at 240 to 245, that’s about right.”

Manaea says his twisting delivery has looked the same most of his life with one exception.

While in the Royals system in 2014, he was asked to pitch more over the top and more direct to the plate.

“It worked out for a little bit,” says Manaea. “But I was thinking about it way to too much. I went back to what was natural to me.

“Everything is a learning process. I feel like I’m on the right track. I’m trying to find it again and be more consistent. I do not want to be not be overly rotational or over the top.”

Making 29 appearances (all starts), the tall southpaw went 12-10 with a 4.37 earned run average. In 158 2/3 innings, he struck out 140 and walked 55. In 2016, all but one of his 25 appearances were starts. He was 7-9 with a 3.86 ERA. He fanned 124 and walked 37 in 144 2/3 innings.

As of this writing, MLB.com lists Manaea No. 1 on the Oakland depth chart among starting pitchers.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me,” says Manaea. “At the end of the day, all I want to do is win b all games and get to the World Series and win that. It doesn’t matter if I’m the No. 5 guy or the No. 1 guy. It’s all the same to me. If we all pull together this is a team that can do something special.”

The 2017 Athletics finished in the basement of the American League West (the same division occupied by the world-champion Houston Astros). It was the sixth full season as Oakland manager for Bob Melvin.

While Manaea has picked up in-game advice from the manager and other pointers from his pitching coach (currently Scott Emerson) or bullpen coaches (currently Philip Pohl and Jeremy Dowdy), the ultimate responsibility for his performance falls on him.

“At big league level, you’ve got to have your own routines,” says Manaea. “The pitching coach is there to have you. But you have to make adjustments on your own. You self-diagnose problems along the way. At the end of the day, you’re the one making those pitches.”

Manaea, who is of American Samoa heritage, was born in Valparaiso to Faaloloi and Opal Manaea and grew up in Wanatah. He played for Kevin Hannon and Ron King at South Central. He took part in the first All-Indiana Crossroads Showcase Series after his junior year before transferring and joining coach Dave Pishkur at Andrean.

Sean draws comparisons from Melvin to Pishkur.

“They are both into stats and doing things the right way,” says Manaea, who was 4-0 with a 1.73 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 16 walks in 24 1/3 innings in 2010. “(Pishkur) is one of the favorite coaches of all-time. He taught us to be on-time and polite to other people. It goes outside of baseball. He was a very much professional coach. He is considered one of the best in Indiana and you can see why.

“He loves the game of baseball and wants to pass it on to the younger generation. He’s definitely a student of the game.”

Pishkur has amassed more than 900 victories at Andrean since 1980. The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer has led five Class 3A state champions (2005, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015) and one 3A state runner-up (2004).

“He knows how he wants done in the classroom and on the baseball field,” says Manaea of Pishkur. “He wants things done the best way possible. You must give it your best every single practice and every time you are on the mound.

“Andrean helped me out with my academics. They got on me about being more productive. Baseball definitely came second at the time.”

Manaea played for head coach Rick Heller and assistants Tyler Herbst and Brian Smiley at Indiana State University.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at today without those coaches,” says Manaea. “PFP’s (pitchers’ fielding practice) was the bane of my existence. I just couldn’t do it. (Heller) just wanted the best for me.”

There was adjusting to be done in college after his stellar high school career.

“The fall of my freshmen year (2010), I was only throwing 82 to 85 mph, but I was getting hitters out,” says Manaea. “Then in the winter, after working out for the first time on a structured program I saw my velocity jump. I hit 90 mph for the first time. It was one of those milestones.

“My freshmen season wasn’t that great (5-5, 4.32 ERA, 82 K’s, 48 walks, 83 1/3 innings), but I was maturing as a pitcher.”

In the summer of 2010, Manaea played for the Dubois County Bombers when that Huntingburg, Indiana-based team was in the Prospect League. He drew the attention of pro scouts at the all-star game with his 93 mph stuff and was named league MVP.

“My sophomore year (at ISU) was a little better (5-3, 3.34 ERA, 115 K’s, 37 walks, 115 innings),” says Manaea. “Then I had a really good summer on Cad Cod (5-1, 1.22 ERA, 85 K’s, seven walks in 51 2/3 innings with the Hyannis Harbor Hawks). That was when I realized I could play professional baseball.”

In his last season with the Sycamores, the lefty went 5-4 with a 1.47 ERA. He whiffed 93 and walked 27 in 73 1/3 innings and was drafted in the first round by the Royals.

He was with the KC organization until being traded to the Athletics in July 2015 with Aaron Brooks for Ben Zobrist.

2017 Oakland Athletics Photo Day

Sean Manaea is a left-handed starting pitcher for the Oakland Athletics. The former South Central (Union Mills) High School, Andrean High School and Indiana State University player made his Major League Baseball debut with Oakland in 2016. (Oakland Athletics Photo)