Eastern High School in Pekin, Ind., is less than two months away from its 2023 baseball season. While also assisting with the school’s varsity boys basketball team, Lincoln Jones is getting ready for his second season as head baseball coach. During the fall IHSAA Limited Contact Period, Jones had high school and junior high athletes in simulated game-like situations. He recorded things like first-to-time, stolen base and POP times and exit velocity off the tee. “We wanted to get measurable data points so we could see that growth or lack there of,” says Jones. “Sometimes it’s just as motivating to see a lack of growth compared to your peers as it is to see your numbers jump. “Numbers speak to the kids today. They resonate.” Eastern (enrollment around 420) is a member of the Mid-Southern Conference (with Austin, Brownstown Central, Charlestown, Corydon Central, North Harrison, Salem, Scottsburg and Silver Creek). The Musketeers are part of an IHSAA Class 2A sectional grouping in 2023 with Clarksville, Crawford County, Paoli and Providence. Eastern has won four sectional titles — the last in 2012. Eastern players began throwing Feb 2. A Limited Contact Period devoted an hour to throwing and an hour to hitting. Most of the weight training takes place during the school day. Jones, who teaches at EHS, says the participation across Eastern athletics is in a down cycle. The Musketeers wound up with 13 players in the program at the end of the 2022 baseball season and none of them were seniors. The only player gone from that group — Martin Lewen — transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. It was not usual for four or five freshmen to be in the starting lineup. The bulk of the expected returnees for 2023 will be in the Class of 2025. “We’re spending some time down at our youth levels — the fifth through eighth grade ranks,” says Jones. “We’re trying to drive some interest there and get our numbers back to where you’d like to see them in the 24 range where you could split into a JV and varsity on a given night and send 12 both ways.” Jones has the Musketeers employing a “pressure offense.” “We’re probably not going to have a bunch of guys hitting the ball out of the yard and you can’t really rely on that year in and year out. I want to put pressure on the defense and put the ball in-play, bunt the ball, steal bases. We want to have high (Baseball) I.Q. guys who can read situations like dirt ball reads. You can really take advantage of the next 90 feet. “Defensively, you don’t have to make the flashy plays. If you field the ball that comes to you and catch the ball that’s in the air you’re going to have success. The metric that Jones tracks for moundsmen is 67 percent strikes. “My pitching philosophy has always been ‘9 vs. 1,’” says Jones. “There’s nine guys on defense vs. one hitter. You’re at an advantage if you can get it across the plate and give your defense a chance to do some work.” Faith plays a major part in why Jones is a coach. “Baseball is cool,” says Jones. “Ultimately, it’s an avenue to teach kids and have an impact. From a great picture, my biggest mission is to make Jesus known.” Jones’ 2023 assistants are Mike Lawson with volunteers Rick Snelling, Shane Miller and Landon Snelling. Eastern plays and practices on-campus on Larry Ingram Field. The facility is named after the longtime coach. Three years ago, the infield was resurfaced and leveled. A turf halo was placed around the plate area. “The field is kind of unique,” says Jones. “It’s cut into the side of a hill. People sit on the berm to watch the game. It drains pretty well.” There is a junior high baseball program in the Eastern community. Seventh and eighth graders play in the spring and summer. Younger players learn the game at East Washington Baseball/Softball Association. Recent Eastern graduates who went on to college baseball include the Class of 2020’s Rhett Pennington (Greenville University) and the Class of 2021’s Snyder Pennington (Franklin College) and Cauy Motsinger (Vincennes University). Jones is a 2011 graduate of North Harrison High School in Ramsey, Ind., and played four years of baseball, four years of basketball and three years of tennis. The Cougars head baseball coach was former University of Southern Indiana player Gregg Oppel. “He instilled a work ethic in us that was second to none,” says Jones of Oppel. “He brought that old school grit. He was more discipline-oriented and wanted to make his presence known. He was an authority figure. “I learned a lot in my four years under him.” Bart Bigham coached Jones on the tennis court and was also his junior varsity basketball coach. “My coaching style probably mimics his more closely than anybody else,” says Jones. “I always appreciated the way he handled his business. He was very laid-back and mild-mannered. He expected you to get your work done. That’s the environment I work well under. I was going to push myself more so than any coach was going to push me.” Jones played baseball at Franklin (Ind.) College for head coach Lance Marshall. Grant Bellak (now head coach at Hanover, Ind., College) was an assistant. Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Phil Webster was Grizzlies pitching coach Jones’ freshman year. Former Vanderbilt University/Libscomb University player Richie Goodenow was in that role for his sophomore through senior seasons. After earning a Business degree from Franklin in 2015, Jones worked for four years at his father’s shop — Jones Machine & Tool — while also coaching at North Harrison. He was with junior high basketball and baseball teams and then baseball squads at the high school. He earned transition to teaching certification online from Taylor University and taught and coached on former college roommate Brent Ingram’s staff at West Washington before going to Eastern and assisting Jeff Pennington for one season before taking over the Musketeers program. On the boys basketball side, Jones has coached the eighth grade and junior varsity and is now a varsity assistant to Ray Weatherford. Lincoln and wife Dallas (a University of South Carolina graduate) were wed in 2017 and had their daughter — Raleigh — in 2020. The couple met while she was doing an internship with the 2014 Louisville Bats. The Jones family has long been Louisville Redbirds/Bats season ticket holders.
A former big leaguer living in southern Indiana is sharing his knowledge with young professionals. Kevin Mahar, who played at Lincoln Trail College (Robinson, Ill.) for head coach Mitch Hannahs (now head coach at Indiana State University) and at Indiana University for head coach Bob Morgan and briefly as a center fielder with the 2007 Texas Rangers, lives in Jasper, Ind., and has been a coach in the Cincinnati Reds organization since 2013. The 2022 season saw Mahar roving from level to level, including the big leagues, as outfield/baserunning coordinator and has been told he will be in that position in 2023. “Baserunning is about being aggressive and smart,” says Mahar. “We look for the ball in the dirt, take an extra 90 feet. “We put pressure on the pitcher and the defense.” The message to outfielders is straightforward. “Catch the ball,” says Mahar, who also teaches about getting in position, anticipation, reaction and game situations. “A lot of the stuff we do now is detail-oriented,” says Mahar. “We have drills that focus on technique and tempo.” Mahar has worked with players along with Reds special assistant and former Reds flycatcher Eric Davis. “He was an exceptional outfielder and was around a lot,” says Mahar of the man who played 17 MLB seasons. “Our goal is to make sure each player in exceptional at who they are. They all have a lot of ability, but each individual is different. We want to make them the best version of themselves and reach their capabilities. “We are not trying to create robots in the outfield. We allow them to play free out there.” Mahar was born in Pontiac, Mich., but grew up in Midland, Mich. “Jasper is very similar,” says Mahar. “Midland is a big, big sports town.” Among the sports in the town near Saginaw Bay and Michigan’s “thumb” are baseball, hockey and football. Mahar graduated from Midland High School in 1999 (he helped the Chemics to a Class A state title in 1998) then spent one year with Hannahs at Lincoln Trail and four with Morgan at Indiana (one as a redshirt). He earned second-team all-Big Ten Conference honors in 2004 before signing that year as a free agent with the Rangers. “He was great,” says Mahar of Hannahs. “We was a baseball guy. He knew how to get the best of (his players).” With adopted son Malik Chatman a defensive back on the Indiana State football team, Mahar still has occasional contact with Hannahs. “(Coach Morgan) was very, very detail-oriented,” says Mahar. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for him holding me accountable for my actions.” The 6-foot-5 Mahar was in the Rangers system through 2007, played for both the independent Kansas City T-Bones and in the Philadelphia Phillies organization in 2008 and was with the Phillies through 2010. He was mostly a first baseman his last two seasons. He assisted Andy McClain at Brebeuf Jesuit School in Indianapolis in 2011 and Jay Lehr at Carmel (Ind.) High School in 2012. McClain is now head coach at Indianapolis North Central and Lehr is a lead pitching instructor with several pro clients at Pro X Athlete Development in Westfield, Ind. Kevin and wife Atalie moved from Indianapolis to Dubois County — where she is from — about the time he joined the Reds. Atalie Mahar is employed by Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools and is a Health and Occupational Services teacher. There are three other children in the Mahar household — eighth grader Stella (13), fourth grader Nash (10) and Cecilia (1). Mahar, who recently got home from instructional league at Arizona, will be spending time with family while also teaching lessons a few days a week and planning for the 2023 season prior to gearing up for spring training after the first of the year. Mahar was hitting coach at Billings (Mont.) in 2013 and 2014 and hitting coach at Daytona Beach (Fla.) in 2015. After being away from coaching in 2016, he spent the next three seasons (2017-19) as bench coach at Dayton (Ohio) and was at the Reds summer camp then alternate site during the COVID-19 season of 2020. He was bench/gameplanning coach for Louisville (Ky.) in 2021. With the Bats, he gathered advanced scouting reports with information on opponent’s hot and cold zones and tendencies. Mahar has soaked up information along the way. He’s picked up things from many. Among them are Davis, Willie Harris, Juan Samuel, Billy Hatcher and Delino DeShields. These five played in more than 7,200 big league games. “I had some great coaches coming up and I continue to keep learning,” says Mahar. “There are always new techniques and new ways to reach kids. I’ve adapted drills I saw other organizations doing while I was roving.” Mahar also sees the way his players learn. Preferences include Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic (VARK). “You learn how to reach each kid,” says Mahar. “Once you understand that, it makes our lives as coaches easier.”
Three years after graduating from Carroll High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., Hayden Jones is bigger and stronger and more mature. Jones, who signed last week as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds out of Illinois State University, says his biggest growth since his prep days has come on the mental side. That’s why he wanted to go to college first instead of pursuing his pro career right away. “I put the dollar amount so high no one was going to sign me (out of high school),” says Jones, who turned 21 on April 27. “I’ve learned to accept failure when it comes, knowing its not going to be the end of the world.” Hayden, whose father Ken Jones was drafted as a catcher by the San Diego Padres in the 33rd round of the 1995 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and is now a Purdue Fort Wayne assistant coach and grandfather Bill Jones (who died in November 2015) was a founding member and longtime executive director of the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and selected as an IHSBCA Hall of Famer in 1982, played for Dave Ginder at Carroll. The lefty swinger and earned four letters while garnering IHSBCA all-state honors three times and being selected as MVP of the 2018 IHSBCA North/South All-Star Series. Hayden’s uncle, Brad Jones, lettered in baseball at Ball State University. His son, Tyler Jones, played at the University of Dayton in 2021. Cousin Chris Menzie was a baseball letterwinner at Huntington (Ind.) University. Jennifer Jones is Hayden’s mother. Hayden Jones spent his freshmen season at Mississippi State University in 2019, appearing in 27 games (14 starts) and hitting .224 (11-of-49) with one home run, four doubles, five runs batted in, five runs scored and a .636 OPS (.269 on-base percentage plus .367 slugging average). His fielding percentage with the Chris Lemonis-coached Bulldogs was .971 with 64 putouts, three assists and two errors. Because of NCAA Division I transfer rules, he had to sit out the 2020 season. In 2021 at Illinois State, he played in 38 games (31 starts) and hit .230 (28-of-122) with five homers, two triples, six doubles, 28 RBIs and 15 runs. His OPS was .730 (.296/.434). He also fielded at a .990 clip with 182 putouts, 21 assists and two errors. “I loved Mississippi State,” says Jones. “My girlfriend (Savannah Shinn) still lives down there. It just wasn’t a fit (baseball-wise).” At ISU, Jones worked with Redbirds head coach and former big league catcher Steve Holm. Jones’ mechanics were changed back to where he had been while working with his father in high school. “It all clicked from there,” says Jones. “I was growing and maturing and understanding the game at a faster pace.” To Jones, blocking, receiving and controlling the opponents’ running game are important. But overall baseball knowledge is a major key to catching. “My dad and grandpa gave me that big piece,” says Jones. “You need that support staff. Now they can let go and let the Reds do the magic. I text my dad every single night. He’s learning from me now.” Playing 18 games this summer in the new MLB Draft League with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Niles, Ohio), Jones hit .237 (9-of-38) with one homer, one double, seven RBIs, six runs and .725 OPS (.383/.342). He learned from manager Coco Crisp and coach Ron Mahay — both former big leaguers. While he still has years of eligibility left, Jones decided now was the time to move forward as a baseball player. “I was ready,” says Jones, who was draft eligible three years out of high school. “I wanted to get my career going and get my foot in the door.” Jones’ name was not called during the 20-round 2021 MLB Draft. The phone did ring five minutes after its conclusion with his agent telling him that Reds senior director of player personnel Jeff Graupe wanted the catcher. In short order, he was traveling to Goodyear, Ariz., to take a physical and sign his contract with scouting supervisor Andy Stack. “It was not the money I was expecting, but you don’t make your money until you get to the big leagues,” says Jones, who has began training. He and other free agents and draftees will see if the Reds assign them to the Arizona League, send them out to an affiliate (Low Class-A Daytona, Fla., Tortugas, High Class-A Dayton, Ohio, Dragons, Double-A Chattanooga, Tenn., Lookouts, Triple-A Louisville, Ky., Bats) or just keep working at camp. “Nobody knows what to expect,” says Jones. “It’s where they need help in the organization.” Jones spent the summer of 2020 with the Brent McNeil-coached Turf Monsters in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind. Among those running the CSL were Phil Wade and Blake Hibler, who coached Jones on Team Indiana in the Fall of 2016 and 2017. Outside the all-star series, Jones was at Mississippi State in the summer of 2018. He was the New England Collegiate Baseball League’s Newport (R.I.) Gulls in 2019. Jones was pursuing a Recreation and Park Administration at Illinois State. He says he could complete it in another year.
The 24-year-old shared his knowledge Sunday, Dec. 1 as the lead-off speaker for the Huntington North Hot Stove clinics hosted by new Vikings head coach Mark Flueckiger, who coached VanMeter as a youngster.
“My view on hitting has changed so much throughout my career, my life, whatever,” says VanMeter, who made his Major League Baseball debut May 5, 2019 and hit .237 with eight home runs and 23 runs batted in over 95 games with the Reds. “I don’t hit the same now as I did when I was 12. I don’t hit the same now as I did when I was in high school or even two years ago when I was in the minor leagues.”
“Just want to build a solid foundation, work from the ground up and really focus on contact,” says VanMeter. “You want to get a good base, be short to the ball and get the barrel to the ball. Keep it really simple the younger you are.”
VanMeter says things begin to change in the early teens. That’s when hitters can begin to driving the ball and not just making contact.
“A lot of it is dependent on what your physicality is,” says VanMeter. “I was small (5-foot-7 and around 120 pounds at 15), but I had a really good foundation to build on.”
VanMeter, who turns 25 March 10, 2020, says that at the highest levels of the game, it is important to get the ball in the air to produce runs.
“For a lot of youth players and youth coaches that can get misinterpreted,” says VanMeter. “When I talk about getting the ball in the air it’s not about hitting a pop-up. You want to drive the ball in the air.
“You get to a certain age and balls on the ground are outs for the most part.”
At younger ages, players with speed are often encouraged to hit the ball on the ground to beat the throw to first or hope for an error by the defense.
“That’s a really bad skill set because it’s really hard to break habits the older you get,” says VanMeter. “If by the time you get to high school all you do is hit ground balls, you’re not going to have a lot of success.
“It’s really hard to break that pattern of what you’ve been doing the last three to four years.”
When giving lessons, VanMeter has even been known to make his hitters do push-ups when they hit grounders in the batting cage.
VanMeter says he does not pretend that he has hitting around figured out, but he does have core principles.
At an early age, he worked at his craft.
“I spent a lot of time trying to get better at hitting,” says VanMeter. “I spent a lot of time in the cage.”
VanMeter notes that when it comes to cage work, tees are for mechanics and flips or batting practice is for things like game situations, timing, and pitch recognition.
“If you struggle hitting off the tee, you need to make some mechanical changes,” says VanMeter. “The ball ain’t moving.
“You should be really good at hitting the ball off the tee.”
“Coming up through high school and my first few years in the minor leagues, I was a big bat-to-ball guy,” says VanMeter. “I was steep in the (strike) zone. I was really only concentrating on getting the barrel to the ball because that’s what I was taught growing up.
“Obviously, it worked for me.”
VanMeter has learned to hit the ball out front and put it in the air pull-side.
“The best hitters pull the ball 70 percent of the time,” says VanMeter, who rejects the idea that hitters must go to the opposite field. “Youth hitters are behind the 8-ball when they get to college or into professional baseball. They don’t know how to pull the ball. It’s been drilled into the their head. They’ve got to hit the ball the other way.
“There are not many guys unless they are (New York Yankees slugger) Aaron Judge who can consistently hit home runs to the opposite field gap. You’ve got to learn to pull the ball first before you learn to hit the ball the other way.
“Pulling the ball is not hitting duck hooks down the third base line. It’s hitting a back spin ball into the left-center gap if I’m a right-handed hitter. For a left-handed hitter, it’s the right-center gap. That’s where the damage is going to be done.”
The pitch that’s down and away in the zone is hard to pull. That’s a pitcher’s pitch. Moving closer to the plate will bring that pitch closer to the hitter’s attack zone and the change to do damage.
“Damage is what makes you a good player,” says VanMeter. “It’s being able to produce runs.
“Baseball is all about producing runs and limiting runs. If you can do those two things, you’ll play for a long time.”
VanMeter advises youth players to get better at strike zone recognition and that starts in BP.
“You should only swing at strikes in the cage,” says VanMeter. “It’s not just swing the bat at every pitch.
“You need to take a breather. It’s not rapid fire.”
VanMeter recalls that he was 8 when a lesson taught to him by Sluggers founder Mark Delagarza.
“He said baseball is not a cardio sport,” says VanMeter. “You should not be getting your heart rate up when you’re swinging a bat.
“In my opinion, between every swing you should step out, take a deep breath and step back in just like a real game.”
Growing up, Josh spent countless hours taking cuts off his father, Greg VanMeter. And they weren’t all fastballs. There were also breaking balls and change-ups.
“We want to feel good, but at the end of the day, we have to challenge ourselves, too, to become better hitters,” says Van Meter. “You should treat BP more like a game.”
VanMeter says he can see MLB teams hiring independent pitchers to throw batting practice in simulated game situations.
To see pitches, recognize placement, spin and more, big league hitters often stand in during bullpen sessions.
“If we’re facing a guy with a really good breaking ball, I would go stand in on Trevor Bauer’s bullpen because all Trevor wants to throw is breaking balls,” says VanMeter. “You don’t even have to swing. You don’t even need a bat. All you’re doing is training your eyes.”
In recognizing the strike zone, the left-handed-hitting Van Meter splits home plate into thirds — outer, middle and inner.
“It’s about hunting an area in the zone that we want to attack,” says VanMeter. “It’s really hard to hit three pitches (fastball, breaking ball and change-up) in every zone.
“You can hit a fastball pretty much in any zone if you’re on fastball timing. But if (the pitcher) throws a breaking ball and I’m on a fastball , it’s going to be really hard to hit no matter what anybody says. Everybody says, ‘sit hard, you can adjust to soft.’ That’s not as easy as it sounds.
“Knowing the zones and knowing what you’re good at can be a really positive strength.”
VanMeter says that most high school pitchers command the zone away from the hitter.
“Knowing that, I’m going to sit out over the plate because it gives me the best chance to succeed,” says VanMeter. “The key to being a really good hitter is being able to sit out over the plate and take (the inside pitch) for a strike.”
Most will foul that pitch into their foot.
Having a plan when you go to the plate is another one of the biggest keys you can have,” says VanMeter. “You’ve got to be smart to be a hitter.
“It’s not dumb luck.”
The idea is to get into hitter’s counts (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1) and avoid pitcher’s counts (0-1, 0-2, 1-2).
VanMeter did that often last spring with Triple-A Louisville. At the time he was called up in May, he was hitting .336 with 13 home runs, 31 RBI, 17 walks and 23 strikeouts. On April 29 in Toledo, he slugged three homers and drove in eight runs.
Up with the Reds, VanMeter began to learn the importance of being ready to hit the first pitch.
“I’ve always been a patient hitter,” says VanMeter. “I’m not a guy who’s afraid to take a strike or get to two strikes
“(Big league pitchers) are way to good for you to take a first-pitch cookie right down the middle. be ready to hit that first pitch. It’s all a mindset.”
VanMeter, who had smacked his first major league homer off St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas July 20 in Cincinnati, remembers a pre-game conversation with Cincinnati hitting coach Turner Ward on Aug. 31 with the Reds facing the Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha in the second game of a doubleheader in St. Louis.
“Why do I feel scared to make an out on the first pitch of an at-bat?,” says VanMeter, recalling his question to Ward.
He was told that the question was not stupid since VanMeter is an elite bat-to-ball hitter who regularly puts the ball in play, is good with two strikes and walks a fair amount.
“Sometimes you just have to choose your spot,” says VanMeter. “(I decided) I’m going to look for a fastball up in the zone (against Wacha) and I’m just going to swing. Sure enough, I get a fastball up and I hit it out of the park on the first pitch of the game.
“What hitting comes down to is giving yourself the best chance to succeed.”
VanMeter has come to make an “A” swing and avoid a “panic” swing.
“We want to get our best swing off every time we swing the bat — every time,” says VanMeter. “We don’t want to compromise our swing just to make contact.”
Taking a panic swing just to make contact can often be worse than missing the ball altogether. A hitter can be in a 1-0 count, get out over his front foot on a breaking ball and hit a weak dribbler to the right side.
“Now you’re taking a right turn back to the dugout,” says VanMeter. “You’ve got to train yourself to take your best swing every time no matter what.”
Hitters must commit to a plan and trust their swing.
“With those silly mistakes we make, we don’t really trust ourselves to get our best swing off and have a productive at-bat,” says VanMeter.
It also takes confidence, but this can’t be given.
VanMeter had a parent ask if he could give his kid confidence.
“No, I can’t funnel your kid confidence,” says VanMeter of his response. “Confidence comes from preparation.
“If you prepare, you’re going to be confident.”
What about a timing mechanism?
“Timing is not about getting your (front) foot down,” says VanMeter. “Your foot’s going to get down before you ever swing the bat. I’m never going to swing with my lead foot off the ground.
“When do I pick my foot off the ground? That’s the biggest thing. When you pick your foot off the ground, you’re going to go regardless.
“I pick my foot off the ground when the pitcher separates his hands. That all comes into sync. I want to make my forward move when his arm is starting to come forward.”
VanMeter now stands straight up and just goes forward, but knows that younger hitters need a lode as a way to generate power.
“Your legs will always be the strongest part of your body, but especially at that age,” says VanMeter. “High school kids are not in the weight room enough.”
As a professional, VanMeter goes against conventional wisdom and uses the straight bar bench press in his training.
“The less reps, the more weight the better,” says VanMeter. “I do two max effort days a week (build up to a one-rep max) and two dynamic effort days a week (more of a speed program).
“The only way you’re going to get stronger is by doing max effort work. You’re not going to get crazy strong by doing three sets of 12. That’s just not how it works. You’ve got to lift heavy to get strong.
“When it comes to baseball, you’ve got to train speed and power because that’s the kind of sport it is.
“My cardio is playing basketball. You’ll never see me on a treadmill or running sprints. Baseball is not a cardio sport. It’s a power sport. It’s a short-interval sport.
“The biggest measurement when it comes to running in baseball is can you get from first from the home on a double in the gap?”
Baseball players are graded by five tools — speed, power, hitting for average, fielding and arm strength.
But there is also a sixth tool — intangibles. The Reds saw that in VanMeter, who was drafted as a shortstop but has played second base, third base, left field, right field and first base in their system.
“It’s being a winning player, knowing the game, being a good teammate, being a good leader,” says VanMeter. “When you get to the big leagues, those things matter. In the minor leagues, it’s all about (the five) tools.”
This past year, VanMeter got to meet one of his idols — 10-year big leaguer and 2006 World Series MVP with the Cardinals David Eckstein — and asked him how he did what he did at 5-8, 165.
“I just grinded day in an day out,” says VanMeter of Eckstein’s response. “I was a good teammate. I was a winner.
That attracted the attention of the University of Pittsburgh and he hurled for the Panthers in 2015, going 1-0, striking out seven and walking three in 16 innings (all in relief). Pitt’s head coach was Joe Jordano with Jerry Oakes as pitching Coach.
Wishing to change his delivery to more of a three-quarter overhand, Campbell transferred to Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel, Ill., where his head coach was Rob Fournier.
His 2016 performance at the junior college — 4-3 with five saves, 2.52 earned run average, 37 strikeouts and 11 walks and 35 2/3 innings in 25 games (all out of the bullpen) — got Campbell a spot back at the NCAA Division I level with the University of Illinois-Chicago.
With the UIC Flames, Campbell made 16 mound appearances (14 in relief) and went 1-1 with a 3.00 earned run average, 17 strikeouts and 11 walks in 24 innings in 2017.
Working with head coach/pitching coach Mike Dee, Campbell was a starter in all 13 of his 2018 games and went 7-3 with a 1.53 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 19 walks in 94 innings as the Horizon League Pitcher of the Year.
“He’s so strong and has the endurance,” says Lehr, who was Carmel head coach during Campbell’s sophomore year and pitching coach under Dan Roman during his junior and senior campaigns. “You don’t see a lot of sidearmers start, but he has that workhorse mentality. He has a very loose arm so he’s able to (move his release point around).”
Why the change to a higher release?
“I just didn’t feel confident in my stuff when I was down low,” says Campbell, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder. “Over the last three years, I’ve found this arm slot and gotten more consistent with it.”
Campbell, 22, throws a two-seam fastball that sinks and runs and gets up to 95 mph, a slider and a “Vulcan” change-up. The ball is held with his middle finger and ring finger to the side of the ball and the index finger toward the top and pronates at release to give it that heavy sink.
Big league pitchers Lance Lynn and Drew Storen also train at Power Alley in the off-season and served as mentors for Campbell.
“It’s been nice for him to get that quality information before he got drafted — what to focus on and not to focus on,” says Lehr. “Ryan has a tremendous work ethic and great support at home.
Ryan’s parents are Bruce and Lora Campbell. His four older siblings are Andrew Campbell, Sean Campbell and Brent Baker.
“As a pitcher, he has short memory when it comes to putting things behind him,” says Lehr. “He doesn’t let stuff get to him. He moves on.”
A two-time scholar athlete at Carmel, Campbell was an information decision sciences in college.
To say there’s a lot of travel in the Pioneer League is an understatement. For Billings, it’s 519 miles to Ogden, Utah, 592 to Orem, Utah, and 659 to Grand Junction, Colo.
The closest trips are 219 miles to Great Falls, Mont., 240 to Helena, Mont., 343 to Missoula, Mont., and 345 to Idaho Falls, Idaho.