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New Indiana pitching coach Parker places premium on development

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin Parker has been on the job as Indiana University baseball pitching coach for about three months.

The Fort Wayne, Ind., native, who spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons at the University of Central Florida after five campaigns at alma mater Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has spent his time in Bloomington learning what makes each of his IU players tick and then creating an individualized program to maximize their potential.

“With (Hoosiers head) coach (Jeff) Mercer and I, it’s very individualistic development,” says Parker, who was a teammate of Mercer’s at Wright State. “It’s very much tailored toward their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all.”

Parker is taking the time to know his pitchers’ personalities as well as the pitches they throw.

“A lot of this fall has been self-scouting,” says Parker as IU comes near the end of a 12-week fall practice period. “You have to get to know them to be able to put together a plan for each of them.

“As a player, all you want is feel like your coaches are invested in your career. You want to make them feel like they’re leaving each day excited about getting better. Then they’re willing to come to work the next day.”

Relationships are key.

“We want to run a family program,” says Parker. “You build trust that way. That’s the name of the game when it comes to development.

“When you want to base your program off development, you have to gain the trust. You have to get to know them. You have to spend time with them.”

The team was invited after Tuesday’s practice to watch Game 1 of the World Series together.

Parker, Mercer and recruiting coordinator Dan Held have been identifying potential new Indiana players.

But they are also working to give the current ones their best chance at success.

“Recruiting is incredibly important,” says Parker. “We hope to do that at a high level. We’ve already got a great start.

“Development is kind of the second pillar.”

Looking at the fall roster, pitchers who saw the most playing time with the Hoosiers during the 2018 season are Pauly Milto (79 2/3 innings), Cameron Beauchamp (52 1/3), Cal Krueger (44 2/3), Andrew Saalfrank (35 2/3), Tommy Sommer (29 1/3) and Connor Manous (24).

Senior Milto (Roncalli High School graduate), junior Krueger (Jasper) and sophomore Manous (Munster) are right-handers. Juniors Beauchamp (Peru) and Saalfrank (Heritage) and sophomore Sommer (Carmel) are lefties.

Milto and Beauchamp were primarily used as starters last spring while Beauchamp, Saalfrank, Sommer and Manous were mostly relievers. All of Krueger’s 27 came out of the bullpen.

Born in Fort Wayne to Brent and Ranelle Parker and the older brother of eventual big league pitcher Jarrod Parker, Justin played Wildcat Baseball and at Elmhurst Little League as well as for a local travel team.

Parker was with the Indiana Bulls at 17 and 18. Among his teammates were future big league pitchers Lance Lynn, Tommy Hunter and Josh Lindblom.

In four seasons at Wayne High School, Parker was a right-handed pitcher and shortstop for Generals head coach Tim Gaskill.

Parker picked up on Gaskill’s emphasis on work ethic and putting in the reps.

“Baseball is such a game of repetition,” says Parker. “Confidence is hard to come by without success unless you’re willing to prepare.

“(Gaskill) used to talk about getting your confidence from the work you’ve put in. You trust that work is greater than the opponent. If you’re willing to work at that level, you ought to be confident regardless of your success.”

Parker was selected in the 43rd round of the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins as a right-handed pitcher at Wayne.

He had been an IHSAA Class 3A all-stater, hitting .498 with six home runs and 22 stolen bases as a Wayne senior, but opted to go to college.

Playing at Wright State for Raiders head coach Rob Cooper, Parker was a two-time all-Horizon League honoree (2007 at designated hitter, 2008 at shortstop) and was drafted again in 2008 in the sixth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks as a shortstop.

Parker played at Yakima, Wash., in 2008. He logged 91 games for the South Bend (Ind.) Silver Hawks in 2009 and was with the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2010 and Minnesota Twins system in 2011.

When his playing career was complete, he went back to Wright State to finish his Organizational Leadership degree and was offered a spot on the coaching staff. He worked with head coaches Cooper then Greg Lovelady. Parker followed Lovelady to Central Florida.

“(Lovelady) is one of the most down-to-earth, easy-to-play-for players’ coaches,” says Parker. “Guys just feel comfortable playing for him.

“Baseball is a hard game to play. Sometimes — as coaches — we can forget that. We (as coaches) haven’t played in a long time.

“Coach Lovelady was good at getting guys to play free and easy. There was no tension or pressure from the coaching staff.

“We have to be relatable. We have to be identifiable. We have to have patience. Those are all things I’ve taken from him.”

What are Parker’s strengths as a coach?

“Understanding the game,” says Parker. “I’ve seen it at a high level from both sides. I’m more patient as a pitching coach because I’ve been at a higher level as a position player. I think I can see things in pitchers from the eyes of a hitter.

“I’ll always tell guys the truth. I’ll always hold them accountable. I’m very detailed and very unassuming. I’m very thorough with an individualized program. Those things have helped the guys I’ve worked with have successful careers.”

Parker, 31, has coached 12 MLB draft selections, including five in the first 10 rounds. He sent nine arms to the pro ranks in just two seasons at UCF.

Justin and Angela Parker will celebrate four years of marriage in November.

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Justin Parker is the pitching coach at Indiana University. The 2019 season will be his first with the Hoosiers. (Indiana University Photo)BLOOMINGTON, IN - 2018.08.23 - Headshot

New Indiana University pitching coach Justin Parker shows his players how to do things during a fall practice. (Indiana University Photo)

 

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Long-time coach Lehr prepares pitchers through Power Alley Baseball Academy

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

What Jay Lehr enjoys most about coaching baseball is passing along his wisdom to pitchers.

So the seasoned instructor has decided cease fielding travel teams — he ran the Aces Baseball Club out of Hamilton County Sports Complex in Noblesville, Ind., for six years —  to focus on pitching instruction.

The Carmel, Ind., resident and president of Power Alley Baseball Academy, teaches individuals and teams at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville and at Mooresville (Ind.) High School

Lehr calls himself a “mechanical nerd.”

Factoring in body type and age, gets pitchers to repeat their deliveries and throw strikes by starting at the feed and working their way up.

Concepts like ground force, lift (balance point), direction with the hip (center of gravity), hand separation, release point and finish are covered.

“The goal is to have pitchers become their own best coach so they can fix themselves,” says Lehr. “Pitching’s boring. You have to do the same thing over and over again.”

Unlike hitters, who can swing the bats hundreds of times a day, pitchers have to build muscle memory using dry runs and reps without delivering the ball.

“It’s like tee work for hitters,” says Lehr. “You’re no good to anybody if you can’t get anybody out.

“And you need to make reps count. There are only so many bullets. You want a career or a season?”

While the baseball world is obsessed with velocity, Lehr would rather see pitchers who can establish the fastball and locate it.

“Throw 83 (mph) with sink and cut,” says Lehr. “I enjoy that. Hopefully, that will come back.”

Lehr likes to challenge his pitchers to throw no more than three pitches per batter.

When working with a group, he likes to end a session with a competition.

Sometimes, they play H-O-R-S-E.

“The first pitcher throws a fastball on the inside corner,” says Lehr. “Everyone else has to do it or they’ve got an ‘H.’

“You want to try to hit a spot and have a purpose every time you throw a ball.”

At the younger ages, Lehr teaches a four-seam, two-seam and no-seam fastball.

Generally, the four-seamer has glove-side movement and is elevated for the batter to chase it.

The two-seamer produces arm-side action.

The no-seam goes down in the strike zone.

If they can command the fastball, Lehr will mix in change-up grips.

“It’s a fine line to when you start the breaking ball,” says Lehr. “I won’t teach it until they can command the fastball and the change-up.”

For all pitchers, the idea is to upset the hitter’s timing.

This can be done through perceived velocity.

By hiding the ball and releasing it late, pitchers can deceive the hitter.

“It’s all about late movement and command,” says Lehr. “And the most important (ball-strike) count is 1-1. Whoever wins the 1-1 battle is way ahead. You’ve got to trust that process (as a pitcher). Commit to a pitch and finish it.”

Lehr says players should be leery about lifting weights too young and should be getting advice from someone who is certified or holds a degree in strength training.

A 1986 Carmel High School graduate, Lehr played one season at Chiplola College in Marianna, Fla., and three at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. His head coaches with the Pumas were Dennis Seitz and Mike Moyzis.

He was coach at the beginning of the Indiana Bulls‘ run and was an instructor when Chris Estep founded Roundtripper Sports Academy in 1993.

Lehr was Carmel pitching coach for seven seasons. He was on Eric Lentz’s staff, served one season as interim head coach then was an assistant to Dan Roman.

Mitch Roman, Dan’s son and a Chicago White Sox minor leaguer, is also a Power Alley instructor as is former big league corner infielder and current Philadelphia Phillies fielding coordinator Chris Truby, former Carmel and Notre Dame player Kyle Fiala and former Triple-A outfielder John Tejeck.

Last spring, Lehr was pitching coach for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Rich Andriole at Guerin Catholic High School in Carmel.

Jay is married to Amy and his two stepchildren — Brandon Stevens and Megann Blea.

Stevens played for Andriole’s IHSAA state champions at Indianapolis Cathedral in 2007. The catcher/pitcher went on to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., Parkland College in Champaign, Ill., and the University of Indianapolis and dabbled in independent professional baseball. He is married with a 1-year-old and works as a roofing salesman in Jasper, Ind.

Megann is married to U.S. Army captain/engineer Dustin Blea and resides in Missouri.

Big league right-handers and Brownsburg (Ind.) High School graduates Lance Lynn and Drew Storen have been working on pitching with Lehr since they were in grade school.

Lynn, 31, made his Major League Baseball debut in 2011 and pitched for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees in 2018.

Storen, 31, first appeared in an MLB game in 2010 and pitched for the 2017 Cincinnati Reds. The Carmel, Ind., resident missed the 2018 season after having Tommy John elbow surgery. The free agent is exploring his options for 2019.

“Lance has God-given ability,” says Lehr of Lynn. “He’s loose and has the same delivery he’s had since 12 years old. It’s clean and simple.”

A move from the first base side of the rubber closer to the middle helped Lynn excel in the second half in 2018.

Lehr plans to meet Lynn and his strength coach this winter in Nashville, Tenn.

“Drew is very meticulous,” says Lehr of Storen. “He was smaller when he was young so he had to learn how to get people out.

“He did not throw hard until his junior year of high school.

“Once strength caught up to him, the velocity came.”

By then, Storen already knew how to repeat his delivery.

“Drew has a knowledge of the kinetic chain and how it works,” says Lehr. “He has has proprioception (the sense that deals with sensations of body position, posture, balance and motion).

Lehr says Pete Page and Bobby Pierce are the men who taught him the love of the game.

The late Page coached at the Carmel Dads’ Club started a travel program that became the Carmel Pups.

Pierce was head coach at Chipola and retired from Troy (Ala.) University.

JAYLEHR

Jay Lehr is the president of Power Alley Baseball Academy and lead pitching instructor. He conducts individual and team lessons at Finch Creek Fieldhouse in Noblesville, Ind., and at Mooresville (Ind.) High School. He has been working with big league pitchers Lance Lynn and Drew Storen since they were kids.

Son of former Bethel coach Hutcheon now in Indians organization

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Dane Hutcheon has found himself on Indiana soil again this summer — in two different professional baseball uniforms.

Hutcheon, the son of former Bethel College head baseball coach Mike Hutcheon, played for the independent Lake Erie (Ohio) Crushers at Evansville in July.

Now back in affiliated ball with the Lake County (Ohio) Captains in the Cleveland Indians organization, Dane has been taking to the diamond during the current series in Fort Wayne.

Hutcheon recently turned 24, but he was just 7 and the team batboy when the Bethel Pilots ventured from Mishawaka, Ind., to Celina, Ohio, and won the 2002 National Christian College Athletic Association national championship.

Mike Hutcheon, who had been a graduate assistant at Mississippi State University under Hall of Fame coach Ron Polk (1988-89), led Bethel for four seasons (2000-03) then went back to his native Colorado and was head coach at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for seven seasons (2004-10) and later three at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood for three (2014-16).

Dane Hutcheon was born in McKinney, Texas and moved with his family to Jackson, Miss., when his father became head baseball coach at Belhaven University, a post he held for five seasons (1995-99) before going to Bethel.

While in northern Indiana, Dane played at what is now known as Harris Baseball Softball in Granger.

A 2013 graduate of Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, where he played for Glenn Millhauser, Dane played college baseball at the University of Montevallo (Ala.) for Chandler Rose (who was an assistant to Mike Hutcheon at Air Force).

“In a way it was like playing for my dad,” says Dane Hutcheon of his time with Rose. “To this day, he’s one of my mentors.

“(Millhauser) was another great guy. I’ve had a lot of luck with coaches.”

After three seasons at Montevallo (2014-16) where he played shortstop and hit .310 with three home runs, four triples, 30 doubles, 83 runs batted in, 132 runs scored and 28 stolen bases, Dane Hutcheon was selected in the 29th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins.

Hutcheon played for the Short Season Class-A Gulf Coast League Twins in parts of 2016 and 2017 and also with the High-A Fort Myers Miracle in 2017.

The Twins released him in March 2018 and he hooked on with Lake Erie, where he hit .305 with three homers, 29 RBIs and 16 stolen bases as a Frontier League all-star and caught the attention of an Indians scout.

The lefty-swinging 5-foot-9, 177-pounder then moved his base of operations from the west side of Cleveland to the east. His first game with Lake County in the Low Class-A Midwest League was Aug. 21. In his first nine games with the Captains, he hit .300 with nine singles, three RBIs and one stolen base.

“Every one in awhile I squeak a home run out but, other than that, I do whatever I can to try to help the team,” says Hutcheon. “I wasn’t always the fastest or never really had any power (as a youngster). But as I got older and filled out body, things happened in the way they did.

“I was kind of a late bloomer in a way.”

A shortstop in college and second baseman in the Twins system, he has been used at third base so far this summer.

“I have a decent arm and I’m able to move,” says Hutcheon. “It’s been awesome to play other positions. I get to see how it all works.”

Throughout his baseball career, Mike Hutcheon has been Dane Hutcheon’s rock.

“My dad has always been that guy that I could go to if things are going good or bad,” says Hutcheon. “He tells me that there’s so much more than life than just the game. It’s helped me relax. He’s always there to give me pointers. He keeps me strong in my faith. He’s just a great guy to have as a mentor.

“He’s always just a phone call away to help put things into perspective and calm me down when I need it.”

Mike and Laura Hutcheon have four children — Manie, Dane, Gigi and Hal. Dane’s older sister works in Arizona. His younger sister is in college. His younger brother is a baseball player at student at Discovery Canyon Campus High School in Colorado Springs. Laura Hutcheon is the cheerleading coach at Air Force.

“We’re a family full of athletes,” says Dane Hutcheon.

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Dane Hutcheon, son of former Bethel College baseball head coach Mike Hutcheon, recently joined the Lake County (Ohio) Captains of the Cleveland Indians organization. Dane was a youngster when his father’s 2002 Bethel team won a National Christian College Athletic Association national championship. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Delta, Ball State alum Nichols nearing baseball broadcast milestone with Dayton Dragons

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BY STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

An Indiana native is about to reach a baseball broadcasting milestone with an Ohio-based team in Michigan.

Tom Nichols, a Muncie native, will work his 4,000th minor league game (radio and television combined) on Wednesday, Aug. 8, if the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons of the Low Class-A Midwest League are not rained out between now and then.

All Dragons games (140 during the regular season) are broadcast on WONE 980 AM and http://www.daytondragons.com.

In his 31st season as a baseball play-by-play announcer and his 11th in Dayton, Nichols is in some rare company.

Jim Weber (Toledo Mud Hens) and Howard Kellman (Indianapolis Indians) have been at the mike for more than 40 years and have done upwards of 6,000 games apiece.

Larry Ward (Chattanooga Lookouts) has been on the call for more than 35 years.

By his calculations, Nichols trails Curt Bloom (Birmingham Barons) by a few games. He counts Bloom as his longest friendship in the business. Though Bloom is a year older than Nichols, they share the same birthday — Feb. 9. They first crossed paths in the Carolina League and then for years in the Southern League.

“I’m sure I’m in the top 10, but not sure if I’m in the top five,” says Nichols of the longest current radio voices in the minors.

Nichols, 54, was born in Muncie, Ind. At age 7, he became a fan of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”

Al Michaels was the Reds play-by-play from 1971-73 and young Tom only missed games when he was playing himself.

Marty Brenneman took over Michaels’ role in 1974 and is still the No. 1 man in the Reds booth. For years, he was paired with former Cincy pitcher Joe Nuxhall.

“You used to be able to your ride bike through neighborhood and listen to the game because someone would have Marty and Joe on there porch,” says Nichols. “In those days, only 10 or 15 games were televised.”

Another way to keep up with the Reds — and baseball — in the ‘70s was by subscribing to The Sporting News. The publication came in the mail each Friday and Nichols devoured the box scores and stories after getting home on the school bus.

He played baseball at Delta High School in Muncie, where he graduated in 1982.

While at Ball State University, where he got his diploma in telecommunications in 1986, Nichols called high school football, basketball and baseball for WWHC in Hartford City and one season of Ball State baseball for WERK in Muncie.

He was the news director WLBC in Muncie for almost three years after college when he got his professional baseball broadcasting break.

Getting up the nerve to call Kellman for some advice, he was presented with the opportunity to be a No. 2 voice when musician duties took away.

Nichols did that during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard Kellman for giving me that opportunity,” says Nichols, who has taken the opportunity to pay it forward mentoring young broadcasters as they serve as his second during Dayton home radio broadcasts, take the whole game when Nichols is on the TV side and work extensively in media relations.

“I do that because somebody did it for me,” says Nichols. “We’ve had one every year. Many have gone on to be No. 1’s.”

Owen Serey was in Dayton in 2008 and went on to be the voice of the Midwest League’s South Bend Silver Hawks.

Jason Kempf was with Nichols and the Dragons in 2017 and 2018 and is now the No. 1 for the MWL’s Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa.

Others who assisted Nichols in Dayton and moved on to lead play-by-play roles include Mike Couzens (Fort Wayne and now with ESPN), Brendan Gulick (Delmarva and now in Cleveland area radio), Keith Raad (Staten Island) and Alex Vispoli (Winston-Salem, Frisco and then the Ivy League).

Bill Spaulding has carved his niche in the broadcasting world by calling Olympic sports for NBC.

While Nichols is with the Dayton all-year and does many things including speaking engagements and has come to thoroughly enjoy audience Q&A’s, the Dragons No. 2 position is seasonal — March-to-September.

Nichols’ first No. 1 gig was with the Kinston (N.C.) Indians of the Carolina League, where he worked for the 1990 season. Jim Thome (just inducted into the Ball Hall of Fame) led the future big leaguers on the Cleveland Indians-affiliated team. A couple others of note were Curtis Leskanic and Robert Person.

He came the Midwest League to lead airings of Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs games in 1991-92. There, he got frequently have former Harry Caray sideman Jimmy Piersall as his analyst.

“He had a tremendous knowledge of the game and was very colorful person,” says Nichols of Piersall. A Chicago Cubs farm team at the time, Nichols followed the exploits of future MLB players Brant Brown, Mike Harkey and Amaury Telemaco.

Moving over to the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Wizards (Minnesota Twins), Nichols surveyed action from since-razed Memorial Stadium — aka “The Castle” — and saw future big leaguers LaTroy Hawkins (who went into the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in January), Torii Hunter, Corey Koskie, Matt Lawton and A.J. Pierzysnki come through town from 1993-96.

Nichols’ career path took him south to present diamond descriptions to fans of the Mobile (Ala.) BayBears (San Diego Padres) from 1997-2004. Matt Clement, Doug Dascenzo, Brian Lawrence and Jake Peavy were among those on their way to the majors. Lawrence is now the pitching coach for the Midwest League’s South Bend Cubs.

During much of the time Nichols was in Mobile, he was also an executive director for a franchise management company — Victory Sports Group.

From 2005-07, Nichols was director of broadcasting of the Gary SouthShore RailCats of the independent Northern League. Jermaine Allensworth, an Anderson, Ind., product who had played in the bigs, was with Gary in 2006-07.

Nichols took his current position — Director of Media Relations & Broadcasting at Dayton Dragons Professional Baseball — prior to the 2008 campaign. Dayton’s affiliation with the Reds was one of the things that attracted him about the job.

Over the years, he has got to have former Reds sit in with him. That list features Todd Benzinger, Tommy Helms, Lee May, Ron OesterJim O’Toole and many more.

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was on the TV broadcast with Nichols this season.

“That was a thrill for me,” says Nichols, who was also pleased when he got to regularly interact with one of his boyhood idols — Ken Griffey Sr., when the former Red was Dayton’s hitting coach in 2010.

Indiana’s own Tucker Barnhart (who was with Brenneman and others for the 2018 Reds Caravan stop in Muncie) plus Zach Cozart, Didi Gregorius, Billy Hamilton and many others have been Dragons and later big leaguers during Nichols’ tenure.

When a Cincinnati player makes a rehabilitation appearance with Dayton and the Reds don’t play at the same time, flagship WLW often picks up the Dragons broadcast.

In his one game on the Reds Radio Network, Nichols worked the 2017 Reds Futures Game with color man Jeff Brantley and former Cincy broadcaster Jim Kelch.

“Put this one in the win column” is the phrase Nichols uses to cap every Dayton victory.

He says he may have subconsciously picked up descriptive phrases from all those years of listening to Reds broadcasts and recordings of them on his parent’s living room stereo.

But other than the win-capper, Nichols makes it a point not to have signal calls.

He had the belief reinforced by Ernie Harwell when they spent the day and worked side-by-side with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the 1994 Midwest League All-Star Game in Fort Wayne.

“He told me, ‘People tune in for the game, not for you,” says Nichols of Harwell. “When you put yourself ahead of the game, you’re cheating your listeners.”

Nichols does not cheat on his homework either.

“Preparation is key,” says Nichols. “I believe in that strongly.

“That’s the most important thing. The more experience you get, the better you get at preparing.”

Nichols gathers plenty of facts and has them at the ready to use during the game. He knows that he has a three-hour broadcast to fill. On the road, that’s solo. He familiarizes himself with players and coaches and any pertinent storylines around the Dragons or the opponent.

He has at his ready a sheet full of the “last time” nuggets. Who was the last Dayton player to go 4-for-4 or hit three home runs in a game? His list tells him.

For the past two decades, Nichols has been using a ledger-sized scorebook that he devised with the help of veteran Adams, Blackford and Wells County radio man Bill Morris. It gives him room to right in facts about each player, including key statistics. For opponents, he will list things like their college and draft round.

“This way you’re not looking through a media guide,” says Nichols. “Without wasted time, you can quickly mention how many homers has if he just hit another one.

“It is time-consuming. But if you’re willing to put in the time, there will be rewards.”

The most rewarding thing to Nichols is spending time with family.

His parents — Tom Sr. and Fran Nichols — are retired and live in a country house outside Muncie during the summer months and in Marco Island, Fla., other parts of the year. He was a firefighter in Muncie and she an accountant.

Tom Jr. is the oldest of three. There’s also brother David Nichols and sister Kelli (Nichols) Dulaney.

David Nichols is a former Delta basketball player who was one year ahead of Matt Painter (now the Purdue head men’s basketball coach) and played hoops at Huntington University. He works in claims resolution in Indianapolis.

“David is the better athlete,” says Tom Jr., who was inducted into the Delaware County Athletic Hall of Fame in the coaches, contributors, media, officials category in 2009. “I was very average.”

Uncle Tom is close with David’s two children — Kaylee Nichols (a volleyball player at DePauw University in Greencastle) and Matthew Nichols (a former Delta basketball player).

Kelli is employed by Delaware County 911.

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With his trusty ledger-sized scorebook in front of him, Tom Nichols broadcasts a Dayton (Ohio) Dragons baseball game. He is in his 31st season as a play-by-play man — 11th with Dayton — and is nearing his 4,000th game broadcast, most of those on radio and about 200 for Dayton on television. (Dayton Dragons Photo)

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Tom Nichols, a graduate of Delta High School and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does a stand-up during a Dayton Dragons telecast. Nichols has been doing minor league baseball play-by-play since 1988 and has been a No. 1 voice since 1990. He started in Dayton 2008. (Dayton Dragons)

Mercer moves to Indiana; Hall speaks highly for their time together at Wright State

 

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Mercer has been hired as the new head baseball coach at Indiana University after enjoying success at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Mercer’s 2017-18 WSU season included NCAA Division I baseball’s first-ever full-time mental skills coach in Diamyn Hall.

Hall, 24, is grateful for his chance to serve with Mercer.

“It was an incredible opportunity to work with him because I learned a lot of things about business and player development from our conversations throughout the course of the season,” says Hall. “He’s a mastermind when it comes to understanding how to bring on staff members with multiple strengths in specific areas.

“He provided me with the freedom to incorporate the mental game in many new and innovative ways throughout the course of the year. I appreciated it greatly because I like to incorporate the mental game in a unique fashion, different from most traditional ways.”

Mercer gave Hall responsibility and let him use his creativity.

“I’ll never forget his message to me when I came on staff in the fall: I’m going to give you the freedom to apply whatever you feel necessary. But, at the end of the day, I expect you to get it done in the best way possible,” says Hall. “I’m very excited for him, his wife and his newborn. He will be a great father because he embodies the definition of working hard, toughness and doing the right things in order to achieve success and dream goals.

“Anybody that knows his story and has gotten to know him understands that not only has he earned this, but he deserves it. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be one of the best head coaches in the country very soon. I’m extremely confident he will take Indiana University to an even higher level.”

Mercer, an Indiana native, spoke highly about Hall to IndianaRBI as the Raiders were making a push toward the Horizon League title and a berth in the NCAA Stanford Regional.

Looking at the numbers, Wright State improved in many categories from 2017 to 2018 with the addition of the focus on the mental game.

In batting, the 2017 Raiders (38-21 overall, 23-5 in the Horizon League) hit .260 as a team with 519 hits, 37 home runs, 26 triples, 106 doubles, 339 runs scored,  228 walks, 431 strikeouts, a .349 on-base percentage and went 130-of-161 in stolen base attempts. In pitching, WSU had a staff earned run average of 3.70 with 16 saves, 423 strikeouts and 192 walks.

Compare the 2018 offensive stats and Wright State (39-18, 22-6) was better in batting average (.294), hits (574), home runs (42), doubles (120), runs scored (435), walks (268), strikeouts (325), on-base percentage (.394). While the Raiders stole fewer bases, they had a higher success rate at 110-of-128 (85.9 percent) than 2017 (80.7 percent).

Crediting the mental game, Horizon League Player of the Year Gabe Snyder went from hitting .289 with 13 home runs, 17 doubles, 49 runs batted in and .570 slugging percentage in 2017 to .359 with 15 homers, 20 doubles, 73 RBIs and slugged .668 in 2018 — his fourth season at Wright State. The 6-foot-5 lefty-swinging first baseman was selected in the 21st round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins.

What will Hall do moving forward now that Mercer is gone to IU?

“I will go back to my individual improvement process and re-evaluate last year and find the areas that need to be improved on with the mental game for the 2018-19 season. In order for our players to continue developing their mental game, I must hold myself accountable for continuing to improve and develop my coaching strategies, teachings and processes.

“I learned a lot this past year and I’m very excited to get back to work.”

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Wright State University head coach Jeff Mercer (left) brought in Diamyn Hall (right) as NCAA Division I baseball’s first full-time mental skills coach in 2017-18. Mercer recently took the head coaching post at Indiana University. (Wright State University Photo)

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Jeff Mercer is introduced as the new head baseball coach at Indiana University. He came from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. (Indiana University Photo)

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Diamyn Hall, the full-time mental skills coach for Wright State University baseball, shares his knowledge with a Raiders player in 2017-18. Hall is working now to improve on his methods and teachings for 2018-19. (Wright State University Photo)

Twins right-hander Gibson keeps on dodging bats at a high rate

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Mixing a power slider, curve and fastball, Minnesota Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson pitched seven shutout innings Tuesday, May 29 in Kansas City.

The 6-foot-6 native of Greenfield, Ind., recorded a no-decision while lowering his 2018 season earned run average to 3.57.

According to Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press, Gibson went to a three-ball count on just three of 27 batters faced with getting a first-pitch strike on 16 of them on his way to eight strikeouts and one walk. He surrendered five hits (three singles).

The former University of Missouri hurler was making his 16th career start against the KC Royals.

He has been one of the best swing-and-miss men in baseball. Some call it the “whiff” factor.

One source says he has Major League Baseball’s No. 1 slider and No. 3 curve.

Harold Gibson, Kyle’s father, made the trek from Greenfield to Kauffman Stadium see his son pitch.

That’s not far from where Harold took a brand-new Indiana Bandits 10U select team back in the mid-90’s.

“Kansas City is kind of where it started,” says Harold Gibson. “We started our first team when Kyle was 8 and his cousin (Austin Gibson) was 7. Little did we know what were were getting into.”

The Bandits went to a tournament at the Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee, Kan., essentially a suburb of KC.

Even though they lost every game by the 10-run rule, Harold and Sharon Gibson and the other adults were impressed with how they were treated and the passion for the game and knew they would come back.

They were also were sure they had made the right decision in breaking away from the local youth league.

“What an experience,” says Harold. “Our kids loved it.”

Not that the bold move was easy.

Little League had strict boundaries back then. Select teams were not allowed to use their their players, facilities and or play against any of their teams.

At that time, Gibson and company knew of no select teams in Indiana younger than age 13.

“We were taking a chance,” says Harold, who took the knowledge he learned from former Greenfield-Central High School coach Terry Fox (now athletic director at Indianapolis Cathedral) while serving on his coaching staff in the late ’80s and early ’90s and applied it to younger players, including his son and nephew. “God has a huge hand in all of this, but I also give a lot of credit to Terry. I learned so much about coaching from him. I can’t thank him enough.”

That first year, the Bandits played almost 50 games. The next year, they got into the Southwest Ohio League — the third-biggest select circuit in the country. The Indiana boys traveled to Cincinnati and league teams came to Greenfield.

Along the way, the Bandits went about building a training facility and held mandatory workouts up to five nights a week.

Practice was the priority and not playing games.

“It’s not the kids’ fault, but they’re just not learning,” says Harold. “Kids need to learn to pitch and catch. They need to learn the mental part of the game.

“We (must) have coaches that know how to teach it. Playing it the right way is the most fun for everyone.”

By the time Harold stepped away from the organization a decade ago, there were around 18 teams.

Fast forward to the present day, where Kyle Gibson is 30 and has 138 games of big league experience — all as a starter.

Harold has seen his son continue to hone his craft and gain confidence against major league batters.

“It’s all that maturation process, learning what it takes to set up hitters,” says Harold. “It’s making adjustments in games.

“They’ve told him all along to trust his stuff. I don’t think you know the full meaning of that until you throw it up there and guys miss it.

“Last year, he figured out that his fastball is good enough to get guys out. A player has to figure out if his stuff will play (in the majors).”

Kyle Gibson figured out that if he could command his fastball, it would make his breaking pitches more effective.

The big righty was throwing almost every pitch down in the zone. But has started enjoying success using the upper part and having his slider stay in the zone longer.

“Last year, Kyle had one of the best rates of swinging at balls out of the zone,” says Harold. “Consequently, hitters were going up there and just taking.”

Having Lance Lynn (who is slated to start Saturday, June 2) as a rotation mate has also helped.

The former Brownsburg High School standout throws about four different fastballs with differing speeds.

“Throwing a 93 mph fastball all the time, that’s the wrong thing to do,” says Harold.

After coaching Greenfield-Central’s junior varsity and helping establish off-season pitching workouts and in-season practice planning, Harold decided to step away at the end of the 2018 season.

Harold tries to attend Kyle’s starts when it’s within a drive of 10 or so hours (his son’s next turn is Sunday against Cleveland in Minneapolis and there’s a chance to see Kyle’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Hayden).

But with work and also having grandchildren in Louisville (Kyle’s older sister Holly lives there), it’s not always possible for Harold or his wife to be there in-person.

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Kyle Gibson (left) and father Harold Gibson meet up in Baltimore early in the 2018 season. Kyle is a pitcher in Minnesota’s staring rotation. Harold traveled from his home in Greenfield, Ind.

‘Walking medical phenomenon’ Barrett on quest to return to Nationals staff

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Aaron Barrett still has a hard time believing that he broke his humerus — that long bone in the arm that runs from the shoulder to the elbow — while pitching a baseball.

Barrett, an Evansville native and Washington Nationals reliever, was on his way back from Tommy John reconstructive surgery on his elbow (Sept. 3, 2015 by Dr. James Andrews). Things seemed to be progressing well 11 months after the procedure.

The power right-hander was one week from being sent on a rehab assignment in 2016 when snap! — his arm broke on the 11th pitch of a 20-toss simulated game.

“I went into shock,” says Barrett of the painful moment. “It’s crazy the amount of force and torque I used to break that major bone.

“I must’ve thrown that one pitch very hard.”

Doctors told Barrett that he is the first to break the humerus after Tommy John surgery.

“I’m a walking medical phenomenon,” says Barrett, who debuted in the big leagues with Washington in 2014 and made his last MLB appearance in 2015.

And now he’s working to make a comeback.

Turned from a starter to a reliever in his first professional season (2010), Barrett made the big league team out of 2014 spring training and appeared in 50 games and was 3-0 with a 2.66 earned run average, 49 strikeouts and 20 walks in 40 2/3 innings while also pitching in 10 games and 10 innings at Triple-A Syracuse.

In 2015, Barrett made 40 MLB appearances and was 3-3 with a 4.60 ERA. He fanned 35 and walked seven in 29 innings, but landed on the 15-day disabled list with a right biceps strain in both June and August.

“I was pitching nearly everyday and I was in pain for two or three weeks before I went on the DL,” says Barrett, who was soon transferred to the 60-day list. “Being a reliever, throwing everyday is part of the grind.”

Along the way, it was discovered that Barrett had a 90-percent tear in his Ulnar Collateral Ligament and so he underwent the reconstruction then he had his next setback.

But Barrett, signed to a two-year contract by the Nationals to rehab, began throwing again last summer and has worked hard at the club’s training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla.

He now finds himself close to getting closer to the road back to the majors.

Barrett and other players rehabbing injuries have been competing in extended spring training camp games against other organizations along the Space Coast.

“I’m building arm strength and knocking the rust off,” says Barrett. “I hope to go north on a rehab assignment the next few weeks.”

Washington has full-season affiliates in Hagerstown (Low Single-A), Potomac (High Single-A), Harrisburg (Double-A) and Syracuse (Triple-A) and Barrett expects that his assignments will come as a progression.

Barrett — aka “The Bear” — has stayed connected to his buddies in the big leagues and watches the broadcast of nearly every Nationals game.

“I still have many close friends on the team, guys I came up in the farm system with,” says Barrett.

The 6-foot-4 righty holds the distinction of being selected four times in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft — in the 44th round in 2006 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the 20th round in 2008 by the Minnesota Twins, in the 27th round in 2009 by the Texas Rangers and in the ninth round in 2010 by the Nationals.

Barrett explains why he kept going back into the draft.

“The money was not enough for me to turn away from college,” says Barrett. “I wanted to finish my (liberal arts) degree (three minors — history, sociology and park and recreational management — equals a major). “I  was a ninth-round senior. That’s pretty good. It all worked out.”

Barrett is a 2006 graduate of Evansville Central High School, where he played for coach Jason Engelbrecht. He played two seasons at Wabash Valley College (2007, 2008) in Mount Carmel, Ill., for coach Rob Fournier and two seasons at the University of Mississippi (2009, 2010) for coach Mike Bianco.

Using Barrett some out of the bullpen, Bianco discovered that his stuff played up and he was able to let it go in shorter mound stints.

After turning pro, Barrett developed the mindset of throwing several times a week.

“With the intensity of the later innings, I thrived,” says Barrett.

In 2012, he broke out while pitching in Low-A, High-A and the Arizona Fall League. He was in Double-A and in 2013 and then got the call from Triple-A to the majors in 2014.

The middle son of Dave and Jackie Barrett, Aaron played at Golfmoor Little League on Evansville’s west side before his family moved to the north side where he took to the diamonds of the Highland Baseball Club.

As a 13-year-old, Barrett was on a team that went to Nebraska and won a national championship. Among his teammates was Preston Mattingly, son of Don Mattingly and still one of Aaron’s best friends, and Adam Champion.

Preston Mattingly was a first-round MLB draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and played in the minor until 2011.

Champion played four years at the University Arkansas-Little Rock and then two years in the minors and two in independent baseball.

Ryan Barrett, Aaron’s older brother, graduated form Evansville Central in 2003 and played shortstop for four years at the University of Evansville.

Younger brother Drew Barrett was a left-handed-hitting infielder who played two years at Wabash Valley and two at Lindsey Wilson College (Columbia, Ky.).

Two cousins — Evansville Central graduate Jason Barrett and Evansville Reitz Memorial graduate Zach Barrett — also went on college baseball — Jason at Ball State and Zach at Olney (Ill.) Central College and Middle Tennessee State University.

“Evansville is such a good baseball town,” says Barrett. “The state of Indiana doesn’t give it enough credit for how good of a baseball town it is.”

While working on the baseball field to make his hometown proud, Aaron is also spending quality time with wife Kendyl and 7-month-old daughter Kollyns.

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Aaron Barrett, an Evansville native, is working to get back to the big leagues with the Washington Nationals after breaking his humerus while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow surgery. (Washington Nationals Photo)