Tag Archives: Lakewood BlueClaws

Coachability, athleticism help Kelzer make splash in two sports

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jake Kelzer casts a pretty imposing figure on a pitching mound.

At 6-foot-7 and close to 250 pounds, he looks like he means business when he comes out of the bullpen late in a game.

As a right-hander in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, he plays with intensity and swagger.

But it wasn’t always that way for the Bloomington, Ind., native.

Kelzer recalls being a freshman swimmer at Bloomington High School South.

“I was not really that good,” says Kelzer, who is now 24. “I was tall and lanky and skin and bones. I was 6-6 and maybe 160. That’s pretty skinny for someone that tall.”

With time, Kelzer filled out his frame.

With encouragement from his coaches, he became a fierce competitor — no matter the sport. He swam and played baseball at South for four years and football for his first three.

He gained even more confidence when he was allowed to pursue the mound and the pool at Indiana University.

Kelzer was a two-time high school All-American swimmer. He was a part of state championship relay teams (200 freestyle in 2011 and 2012 and 400 freestyle in 2012) and placed fifth in the 50 freestyle (2012) while helping Bloomington to runner-up finishes in his junior and senior seasons.

Kyle Ruth was the Panthers head coach in Kelzer’s sophomore and junior seasons. Kirk Grand was an assistant in 2010-11 and head coach in 2011-12.

“Swimming is a sport where you stare at a line at the bottom of a pool,” says Kelzer of Ruth and Grand. “They were young and brought new styles and techniques. They kept things really exciting and competitive among the swimmers.”

As a South baseball player, Kelzer was impacted by head coach Phil Kluesner.

“He taught me the basics of baseball and how to compete,” says Kelzer. “You have to battle from the beginning to the end of the game. (Kluesner) brought the intensity every single day. It got pass down to all of his players.”

Kelzer went to IU with the idea of swimming and playing baseball.

“I was going to give it a shot for first two years and juggle both,” says Kelzer. “It happened I picked (baseball) my sophomore year.”

When then-Hoosiers head baseball coach Tracy Smith opted to redshirt him as a freshman, he was able to concentrate on swimming. He did that for one season.

“I look back at it now and was a genius idea,” says Kelzer. “It was really smart move on (Smith’s) part. It gave me another year of leverage. I had that experience of being a college athlete for a year with swimming.”

While Smith’s team was moving toward a 2013 College World Series appearance, Kelzer was learning lessons in the water in a program led by Ray Looze.

“He really knows his stuff,” says Kelzer of Looze. “He knows how to push each individual swimmer to their absolute limits.”

Baseball came back into Kelzer’s life his second year in college. He went on to pitched three seasons at Indiana (2014-16), going 8-10 with eight saves and a 3.09 earned run average.

He made 25 mound appearances (all in relief) in 2014, 17 (11 starts) in 2015 and 22 (all in relief) in 2016. He threw a total of 145 2/3 innings with 149 strikeouts and 52 walks.

Smith put Kelzer in a starting role at the beginning of the season when Kyle Hart was not yet available after having Tommy John surgery.

Before Smith and Brandon Higelin left after the 2014 season to become head coach and pitching coach at Arizona State University, they imparted wisdom to Kelzer.

“Tracy is a really, really good coach,” says Kelzer. “He’s not just coach, he’s a teacher.

“It was a bigger learning curve with Higgy. I had not pitched for a year so I was that piece of clay he was able to mold into any pitcher he wanted me to be.”

Higelin is now director of baseball operations at the University of Arizona.

Chris Lemonis came on as Hoosiers head baseball coach and brought Kyle Bunn on as pitching coach, beginning in 2015.

Kelzer credits Lemonis for helping him form the mindset of a dominant pitcher.

“If you’re team scores you some runs, you go out there and have shutdown innings,” says Kelzer. “You have to have that fearless attitude and that swagger. You act like you belong out there. (Lemonis) gave me the confidence to own up to my responsibilities on the mound.

“Bunn took (the mold started by Higelin) and helped me be what would be best for me.”

All the while, Kelzer listened and put his knowledge into action.

“I like to think I was a very coachable athlete,” says Kelzer. “I was able to hone in on what the coaches were saying. That was one of the key reasons I was able to compete at such a high level in two sports.

“And there’s always that God-given talent of being 6-foot-7.”

Since he was past 21, Kelzer draft eligible after his first two collegiate seasons. He was picked in the 22nd round of the 2014 draft by the New York Yankees and in the 14th round of the 2015 draft by the Chicago Cubs, but opted to go back to school each time.

The first time he passed on pro ball, he was just getting back into the game.

“I needed to develop as a person,” says Kelzer. “I was still pretty young. I was 21.”

The second time, he wanted to prove he could have a better college season.

Kelzer selected in the 18th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Phillies.

The big righty spent parts of 2016 and 2017 with the Williamsport (Pa.) Crosscutters in the short-season New York-Penn League and finished the 2017 season with the Low Class-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws.

To date, Kelzer has made 32 appearances (all in relief) and is 2-2 with three saves. He has 43 strikeouts and 18 walks in 42 1/3 innings with a 4.89 ERA.

While starters have a routine leading up to their next appearance, relievers have to always be ready to go.

“You have no idea when you’re going to be throwing,” says Kelzer. “You have to be 100 percent focused every single game.”

The youngest of Tom and Roberta Kelzer’s three children after Sarah and Hannah, Jake grew up playing many sports. He started playing baseball as a little kid, but his only travel baseball year was at 15.

“Dad never wanted me to get worn out or sick of the game,” says Kelzer. “Looking back at it it was beneficial to my career in baseball.”

With an eye on his long-term future, Kelzer is to graduate Dec. 16 with a Business Management degree from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“I like where that management can take me,” says Kelzer. “I like that leadership role and that competitive feeling.”

Having his schooling complete also gives the reliever a sense of relief.

“It’s always nice to have that lifted off your shoulders so you can focus on baseball,” says Kelzer. “That’s going to be my life after this weekend. That’s going to be a great feeling.”

Before heading to Florida for spring training, Kelzer has been working out at IU.

“Lemonis opens up everything to us,” says Kelzer, who is reunited with strength and conditioning coach Will Alli. “It’s something cool IU does for its returning athletes. Many have to go out and join a gym. I’m extremely blessed with that.”

Kelzer goes through a program set up by the Phillies and Alli adds in his exercises.

“It’s about staying active and healthy,” says Kelzer. “Show up at spring training and be able to crush everything. That’s the main goal.”

JAKEKELZER

Jake Kelzer, a 2012 Bloomington High School South graduate, helped win state titles as a swimmer and was good enough in both sports to swim and play baseball at Indiana University. He started his pro career in the Philadelphia Phillies system in 2016. (Lakewood BlueClaws Photo)

 

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Wagner continues to hone his baseball broadcasting craft

rbilogosmall

By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A baseball broadcaster’s life is more than calling the action on the field.

Relationships must be built with players, coaches and managers.

Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School (1999) and Indiana State University (2003) who is in his 11th season as the play-by-play voice of the Triple-A International League’s Buffalo Bisons, says it is in the relationships area where he has made his greatest improvement.

“I have a little bit more of a feel of how to operate a clubhouse,” says Wagner. “It’s been one of my major strengths in the last few years. That took awhile by learning and doing. There’s no road map. Every clubhouse is different.

“To do a baseball job really, really well, you’re going to have to know the dynamic of that clubhouse and the people that are within those walls so you can relay that on the air.”

Wagner has learned to be sensitive as he prepares to inform and entertain his radio or TV audience.

Every player has a different backstory.

“Some are excited to be at Triple-A and will talk to you until they are blue in the face,” says Wagner. “There are guys who fight for that 25-man job at the end of the bench coming away from spring training that are so disappointed that they are at Triple-A.”

Others are caught in the numbers crunch and are not happy about it. Rosters are constantly in flux between a Triple-A and major league team (in Buffalo’s case, the Toronto Blue Jays).

“There’s a certain feel, I think, and broadcasters and media people have to have to be respectful of that buffer zone,” says Wagner. “But, at the same time, you have to do a job.”

It’s all about mutual respect.

Take the case of Joe Biagini, who pitched out of the bullpen for Toronto in 2016 and started in 2017 before being sent to Buffalo, where he made his debut Monday, Aug. 7.

Wagner had never met the 6-foot-5 right-hander.

“You don’t want to ambush a guy in the middle of the clubhouse,” says Wagner.

The play-by-play man introduced himself to the pitcher before the game in Indianapolis. In a brief conversation, Wagner learned about Biagini’s travels and his expectations for the outing.

“I knew he was going to throw less than 50 pitches,” says Wagner. “I got little nuggets where I could have credibility on the air.”

In the case of Wagner and his broadcast partners (Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Duke McGuire and Pat Malacaro), they are not digging for dirt, but those interesting details to share with listeners and viewers on various platforms, including ESPN 1520 AM (the team’s flagship), WGGO 1590 AM, WOEN 1360 AM, Spectrum Sports in Buffalo or online.

“We don’t break news,” says Wagner. “We’re not a broadcast network. We’re employees of the team. We’re respectful of all that stuff.”

Wagner operates with sensitivity and clarity.

“Sometimes guys’ careers are in the balance and it’s what you may know ahead of time,” says Wagner. “You have that access to the team day in and day out. You’re the eyes and the ears and you have to tie it all together.”

Wagner wants the Bisons broadcast to be a “constant and enjoyable listen.”

Consistency and quality is helped by familiarity. Wagner and analyst McGuire have been paired for a decade.

“I know when Duke wants to talk,” says Wagner. “That goes a long way in how our broadcast sounds. There’s a certain comfortability in the way the Bisons broadcast sounds.

“That makes it sustainable whether it is the excitement of Opening Day; it’s April and where we’re coming out of the gate strong all the way to those 8-23 June games that I’ve had to endure … You can’t get too high. You can’t get too low .. You hopefully show up, call a good game, you’re mechanically sound and people enjoy all 27 outs.”

The aim is for a first-class product each time the Bisons take to the air or the net.

“I’m trying to treat it like a major league broadcast every night because that’s where I want to be,” says Wagner. “I want to be in a big league booth. Finding things that are interesting for them hopefully reinforces what I’m trying to do.”

The mediums for Bisons baseball have changed since Wagner called games for the Single-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws in 2004 and even since he did his first Bisons game in 2007.

“We were sending box scores and game stories via fax,” says Wagner of his early days. “Now, if you’re a reporter or a news agency, you’re not waiting on a box score. You’re  looking at my Twitter feed (@benwag247) or the team’s Twitter feed (@BuffaloBisons).”

Wagner has also watched analytics become more important and technology expand with the advent of TrackMan, which allows teams to measure and quantify things like the release point of a pitcher, number of revolutions of a pitch and a hitter’s tendencies.

“We have guys that travel with us that cut up every at-bat, every pitching sequence and are uploading it to major league sites,” says Wagner. “They’re harnessing all this data.”

When calling games, Wagner often writes the question “Why?” at the top of his scorebook.

He puts himself in the listener’s place.

Why are you supposed to be listening to this game?

Why are you still tuning in to this game?

Why is this at-bat important?

Why is this pitch important?

“I remind myself and then remind the listener,” says Wagner. “I’m trying to harness their attention in a world that has no attention span. Especially in baseball, we have to keep rehashing why these things are important.”

Wagner catches himself asking these questions while watching afternoon Major League Baseball games that have turned one-sided.

“How would I keep the game interesting?,” says Wagner. “That’s my challenge.”

While he occasionally has time for a longer story, he keeps things flowing.

“I look at it as though everything out of my mouth has to be condensed to 140 characters,” says Wagner. “Every little nugget about a guy, every play — in terms of description — has to be short and concise and really to the point.”

Wagner has been with Buffalo through three affiliations — Cleveland Indians, New York Mets and now Toronto.

Canadians often come to Buffalo to shop, dine or go to sporting events like Bisons baseball. The Peace Bridge is 5 minutes from Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field and it’s less than 100 miles from Coca-Cola Field to Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays.

The relationship with the Mets provided wide exposure on SportsNet New York.

“There were days the Mets were off and the Bisons were home and they’d broadcast our games and (viewers) could see the prospects and get an idea of what’s going on down on the farm,” says Wagner. “We were trying to get some excitement built around the young players coming up.”

Rogers Communications owns the Blue Jays and has several media platforms to broadcast games for Canada’s lone big league team.

Wagner is a frequent contributor to Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto.

“Guys on the Blue Jays broadcast — Jerry Howarth, Joe Siddal and Mike Wilner — have been stalwarts when it comes to supporting the affiliation. Because of that, they bring me in.”

Wagner and Howarth jockey emails back and forth all the time.

“I may know a guy is on the move, but he has no idea because he is focused in on the 25 men who are on the roster in Toronto that day,” says Wagner.

When Taylor Cole was called up to pitch the Jays, Wagner was able to provide some interesting perspective on the 6-1 right-hander.

“I’ve seen him pitch six times already,” says Wagner of a player who had been hurt then moved through the Toronto system. “I was able to share that information.”

Wagner does speaking engagements on behalf of the Bisons during the off-season and also does play-by-play for college football and basketball.

BENWAGNER

Ben Wagner, a graduate of Fairfield High School and Indiana State University, is in his 11th season at play-by-play voice of the Buffalo Bisons. Buffalo is a Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Steve Krah Photo)