Tag Archives: Johnny Bench Award

Former Hanover Central, Nebraska catcher Wilkening now catcher in Phillies organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jesse Wilkening remembers well the advice given by Doug Nelson, his head baseball coach at Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind.

“Have some fun,” says Wilkening, a 2015 Hanover Central graduate and first-year professional in the Philadelphia Phillies organization (he was selected in the 14th round the 2018 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft). “Let the game just be the game. Don’t let it get too big. Play for your school, the people around you and yourself.

“I love where I’m from. That was pretty easy for me to do.”

Wilkening had plenty of fun and success with the Hanover Central Wildcats, setting the Indiana prep record for career hits with 206.

“It is very cool to have that (record),” says Wilkening, who finished his HC career with a .516 average, 20 home runs and 156 runs batted in. “But they are meant to be broken. Hopefully, one day someone will go out and do it.”

Wilkening was by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 28th round of the 2015 MLB Draft, but decided to accept an offer to play at the University of Nebraska.

From the time he visited the Lincoln, Neb., campus, it just clicked for him.

Continuing his academic performance from high school, he was named to the Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll three times and Academic All-Big Ten twice as a criminal justice major and business minor. Three semesters short of graduating, he plans to keep working toward his degree in the off-season.

During his time with the Darin Erstad-coached Cornhuskers, he was also named to the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team three times for his part in community service.

“It’s very important,” says Wilkening of his helping at charity events, talking to school children and visiting hospitals. “They give so much to us, we have to give something back.”

On the field, the righty-swinging catcher performed well for Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad — particularly in his junior season of 2018.

Playing in 52 games, Wilkening hit .372 with nine home runs, 14 doubles and 56 RBI and was named ABCA/Rawlings First-Team All-Region and Second-Team All-Big Ten.

He was on the Johnny Bench Award Watch List in both 2017 and 2018. The award goes to the top catcher in NCAA Division I baseball.

What makes the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder a good catcher?

“I’m very good with leadership,” says Wilkening. “I’m a pretty personable guy. I work with the pitchers and can be one of them. That’s huge.

“I know their strengths and weaknesses and how to calm them down or pump them up. I know what to say to them in different situations throughout the game.”

In the batter’s box, Wilkening has learned to be disciplined.

“I’m swinging at good pitches and having quality at-bats,” says Wilkening. “I don’t worry about the outcome.

“Hard barrel contact is a win for me no matter where it goes.”

In his short time in pro ball with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League‘s Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters, Wilkening sees the biggest differences from college ball are wood bats vs. metal bats, the language barrier (many pro players are from Spanish-speaking countries) and the uncertainty of player movement.

Wilkening got his baseball start at Cedar Lake Little League and played for several travel teams through his high school years, including Playmakers, Region Rippers, The Future, Northwest Indiana Shockers, Indiana Bulls, Prairie Gravel and — for one tournament — Evoshield Seminoles. He played in Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association Underclass World Championships for Evoshield in 2013 and the WWBA 17U National Championships in 2014 for Prairie Gravel.

Based in Hinsdale, Ill., about 50 miles from Cedar Lake, Prairie Gravel is owned by Al Oremus. Wilkening’s coaches were Sam Sorce and Mike Casey.

Jesse is the son of Todd and Julie Wilkening. His father has been fire chief in Cedar Lake for about a decade.

What comes next in the Phillies system? The Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws, Clearwater (Fla.) Threshers, Reading (Pa.) Fightin Phils and Lehigh Valley (Pa.) IronPigs.

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Jesse Wilkening, a former Hanover Central High School and University of Nebraska player, is now a catcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization with the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters. (Williamsport Crosscutters Photo)

 

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Return to college swing helps Mets catcher Plawecki

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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.

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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)

 

Phegley finding his way in baseball with Athletics

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Much was expected from baseball-playing Josh Phegley at an early age.

Sharing the same diamond with older brother John and his classmates, Josh was challenged.

Helping give that extra push was the boys’ father and coach — John.

“My dad was one of my biggest influences,” says Phegley, a Terre Haute native and catcher with the Oakland Athletics. “He wasn’t going to be the coach who just played his son. He was super hard on me and my brother. He expected you to be the leader and cornerstone of the field every time we were on the field.

“That’s what molded my brother and I into really good players.”

Josh’s early diamond path was supported by parents John and Joan and took him from Terre Haute North Little League to Terre Haute Babe Ruth League All-StarsT and travel baseball stints with the Terre Haute Indians (organized by his father) and the Indy Bulldogs.

Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was one of the few freshmen to play varsity baseball for coach Shawn Turner at Terre Haute North Vigo High School. In order to make that happen, Josh had to change positions.

While he had done some catching as a young player, he was a shortstop, center fielder and pitcher as he approached high school.

The Patriots had a need behind the plate and Turner led Josh know that was his ticket to varsity playing time as a frosh.

“It almost suited me perfectly. I stopped growing up and started getting wider,” says Phegley. “I have that build to be a catcher and I just wanted to be a varsity high school player.”

That’s when they went to a friend of the family. Brian Dorsett was a star at Terre Haute North Vigo and Indiana State University who went on to be a catcher in the majors for eight seasons. He still lived in town.

Dorsett had helped a young Josh with hitting lessons and Dorsett’s oldest daughter, Abby, was in Josh’s class. The Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Famer agreed to help young Phegley with his catching skills.

“We tried to utilize all the resources we could find,” says Phegley. “Having an ex-major leaguer catcher in the same town was pretty beneficial for me.”

That spring he played in a lineup that included nine players who would go on to play NCAA Division I baseball. Besides the Phegley boys — Josh (Indiana) and John (Purdue) —  some of those include Blake Holler (Stanford), Max Hutson (Wichita State), John Cummins (Purdue) and Chris Macke (Ohio State).

Left-hander Holler was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels and pitched two seasons of minor league baseball.

Phegley played four seasons for Turner (who moved on to Richmond) and spent three high school summers with Terre Haute American Legion Post 346, managed by John Hayes.

Post 346 brought together the best players from Terre Haute North Vigo and their three closest rivals — Terre Haute South Vigo, West Vigo and Northview.

“(Hayes) was all about having fun and enjoy the guys around you,” says Phegley. “Playing unselfishly and having fun — that’s how you can become successful. American Legion baseball is the most fun I’ve had in the summertime.”

The summer after high school graduation in 2006, Phegley and Post 346 finished second to Metairie, La., in the American Legion World Series. The young backstop also earned MVP honors at the IHSBCA All-Star Series and was named as Indiana’s Mr. Baseball.

Phegley’s last season at Terre Haute North was the first for Tracy Smith as head baseball coach at Indiana University and Phegley became the first player he signed to play for the Hoosiers.

Smith (who is now head baseball coach at Arizona State University) also liked to have fun, but insisted that his players know about accountability and responsibility.

“College baseball is a different animal,” says Phegley. “There’s a lot of work and you have to take care of things (academically) so you can play. Going to school and a heavy (NCAA) D-I schedule is hard to handle.”

Smith emphasized the importance of doing it all.”

“Being a leader on the team means taking care of everything,” says Phegley. “It’s being organized and put together and being a good example for the other guys. Causing us to run extra sprints after practice because I turned an assignment in late is nothing to be proud of.”

As an IU freshman, Phegley started 42 times as the team’s primary catcher. As a sophomore, the right-handed hitter finished second in the nation with a .438 average and was a second-team All-American and Johnny Bench Award finalist. As a junior, he was named Big Ten Player of the Year by Rivals.com and was a Johnny Bench Award and Golden Spikes Award semifinalist. He was selected as a supplemental pick in the first round of the 2009 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago White Sox.

That’s when he began to see what a challenge baseball can really present.

“It doesn’t hurt to be drafted kind of high (38th overall) and knowing (the White Sox) were going to take the time and give you opportunities,” says Phegley. “They expect some ups and downs. That’s just baseball. You need to learn how to control the downs as well as the ups. You want to stay even keel and respect the process of the development.”

It’s easier said than done.

“You see a lot of guys getting lost in the minor leagues,” says Phegley. “It takes some years to get through it. I got drafted in 2009 and made my major league debut in 2013. You can get lost and forget what the final goal is

“Baseball is a game surrounded by failure. You can get consumed in day-to-day stats. It’s such a mental grind (especially in the ow minors). It can beat you up pretty good. It seems so far away. There are so many guys in front of you. How do I beat the masses that get drafted every year and get to the big leagues?”

Phegley got a serious surprise in his second pro season. In 2010, he was limited to just 48 games due to Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), a rare autoimmune disorder that lowers platelet count.

“Out of nowhere my body started killing my own platelets,” says Phegley. “We battled through that 2010 season, doing different treatments to try to get back on the field. They took out my spleen in November 2010 and it totally flipped it back. It’s always in the back of my head. It can come back.”

When Phegley came back, he began to rise through the White Sox system, finishing at Triple-A in 2011, playing the whole 2012 campaign there and then seeing his first MLB action July 5, 2013. He made 65 appearances with Chicago in 2013 and and spent most of 2014 at Triple-A Charlotte.

Two weeks before Christmas in 2014, Phegley was traded along with Chris Bassitt, Marcus Semien and Rangel Ravelo to the Athletics for Jeff Samardzija and Michael Ynoa. Phegley was in 73 games with Oakland in 2015, 25 in 2016 and 57 in 2017.

Phegley hit .256 with a home run and 10 RBI in 2016, a season shortened due to two stints on the disabled list with a strained right knee.

He spent two stints on the disabled list and one one the paternity list in 2017. Josh and Jessica Phegley, who married in 2012, have a daughter and son — Stella (2 1/2) and Calvin (4 months). They have resided in Noblesville since April 2015. The couple met while Josh was living with Smith and training in Bloomington and Jessica was finishing graduate school at IU. She has three degrees (psychology, nursing and a masters in health promotion).

Josh’s older sister, Jennifer, also lives in the Indianapolis area. As a college softball player at St. Mary-of-the-Woods 2003-06, she stole 58 bases (26 her senior season for the Pomeroys).

One of Phegley’s Oakland teammates is Valparaiso-born Sean Manaea.

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Josh Phegley, a 2006 Terre Haute North Vigo High School and former Indiana University standout, is now a catcher with the Oakland Athletics. He made his Major League Baseball debut with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. (Oakland Athletics Photo)