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Former McCutcheon, Purdue hurler Wittgren finds his groove in Cleveland bullpen

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

A change of baseball addresses meant a change in change-up approach for Nick Wittgren.

The 6-foot-3 right-handed reliever was traded from the Miami Marlins to the Cleveland Indians in February 2019.

The Tribe made a request of the former Purdue University closer and three-sport standout at McCutcheon High School — also in West Lafayette, Ind.

“When I got to Cleveland they told me my change-up plays pretty well and to throw it more to right-handers than I did in the past,” says Wittgren, who recorded a career-high 12 holds in 55 appearances and 57 2/3 relief innings. His 2.81 earned run average was 19th-lowest among American League relievers. “Roberto Perez was behind the plate and loved calling it.

“I almost felt like I threw my change-up more than I did my slider.”

Close.

According to Statcast data, Wittgren’s pitch arsenal included four pitches in 2019. He threw his four-seamer 66.4 percent of the time, slider 18.8, change-up 14.7 and curve 0.1.

“I was in my groove last year,” says Wittgren, who turns 29 on May 29. “I had my head where I needed it.”

With Miami in 2018, Statcast actually has Wittgren with a higher percentage of change-ups (15.7) as compared to sliders (12.8). Besides the four-seamer (62.7), there was also the sinker (7.5) and cutter (1.3).

With all the movement, Wittgren refers to his pitch repertoire as fastball, change-up and breaking ball.

Wittgren pitches from a three-quarter overhand arm angle. He throws across his body with his glove flaring out and whips around to deliver the baseball.

“I don’t know when I started,” says Wittgren of his mechanics. “In college I did it. It just works for me. I get the most force toward home. It’s really tough to pick up the baseball.

“To a righty I’m started with my arm behind them. It works in my favor.”

Wittgren favors sliders and four-seamers in on the hands with change-ups down and away.

“I started manipulated that pitch a little more last year,” says Wittgren of the change-up.

Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla and bullpen coach Brian Sweeney will often remind Wittgren to use that pitch.

With Cleveland, he occasionally got a chance to deliver that pitch and others to a familiar target.

Kevin Plawecki, a college teammate, was a back-up catcher with the Indians in 2019 (the Westfield (Ind.) High School graduate signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox in January).

“It was kind of cool taking it back to the good old Purdue says,” says Wittgren. “We still clicked.

“I didn’t have the change-up in college. I didn’t need it.”

Wittgren played shortstop and pitched at McCutcheon for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jake Burton.

As a Mavericks senior, Wittgren was an MVP in tennis in the fall and earned the same recognition for basketball in the winter.

Following brother Kyle’s lead, Nick took up tennis as a freshman.

“It was a good way to stay active for basketball and baseball,” says Wittgren. “It helped with footwork and conditioning and hand-eye (coordination).”

Rick Peckinpaugh was Wittgren’s head basketball coach.

“(Peckinpaugh) brought the most energy and talent out in you,” says Wittgren. “We had a group that played together really well. He was there for every single person, trying to get us better.

“It was a pleasure and a joy playing for him.”

With no college baseball offers coming in, he was thinking about bypassing his senior year on the diamond and focusing on basketball.

“I was just looking for a way to pay for college,” says Wittgren. “I was not looking at the whole picture.”

Wittgren had his sights on teaching math and coaching — either at the high school or college level.

“My mom (Lisa) is a (fourth grade) teacher,” says Wittgren. “I love kids. I love numbers.”

Burton let Wittgren know that he had baseball potential past high school.

He said, ‘you have something special, don’t waste it,’” says Wittgren of Burton’s advice.

Besides that, Burton emphasized that Wittgren was part of a large senior class and he owed it to the guys he’d been playing with since sixth grade to finish high school strong (born in Torrance, Calif., and raised in Long Beach and Cypress, Nick moved to Indiana as a sixth grader; father Andy lives in San Juan Capistrano; Nick’s other brother is Jack).

“If Jake didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here,” says Wittgren. “He saw something in me.”

A few days ago, the player and his former coach connected via FaceTime and Burton got to see Nick and Ashley Wittgren’s 14-month old son Jackson.

At McCutcheon, shortstop/pitcher Wittgren’s velocity topped out around 85 mph for most of the his senior season.

“I never took reps off in high school,” says Wittgren. “I need to do this to get better.”

His arm was tired from the workload.

With a few days off prior to sectional, Wittgren was touching 90.

Wittgren pitched in the Colt World Series in Lafayette and was scouted by McCutcheon graduate Matt Kennedy, then head coach at Parkland College. He got Wittgren to come to the junior college power in Champaign, Ill.

Seeing that the Cobras were in need of a Sunday starter, Wittgren pitched an idea to Kennedy.

He wanted to only pitch.

Wittgren recalls the response of the man he calls “KY.”

“He said that might be one of the best decisions you ever make,” says Wittgren a decade later. “I brought you in as a pitcher. I wanted you to figure it out.”

The lanky right-hander went 10-0 with 54 strikeouts in 60 2/3 innings for a Parkland that placed fifth in the 2010 National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series.

In the fall of his sophomore year at Purdue, Wittgren had an ulnar nerve transfer.

Boilermakers head coach Doug Schreiber wanted him to be the team’s closer in the spring of 2011.

“Whatever puts me out on that field is what I want to do,” says Wittgren, who finished 24 games and appeared in 29 with a Big Ten Conference-leading 12 saves to go with 55 strikeouts in 51 innings.

Schreiber (who later was head coach at McCutcheon and is now head coach at Purdue Fort Wayne) and assistants Ryan Sawyers and Tristan McIntyre (now head coach at McCutcheon) implored him to “trust your stuff and pound the strike zone.”

“They got me to throw certain pitches in certain counts,” says Wittgren.

He could change the batter’s eye level with fastballs up and sliders down. If he  pitched up and in, hitters would not be able to extend their arms.

Wittgren was named second-team all-conference and then went to play for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks that summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Schreiber asked Wittgren to be a closer again in 2012.

He pitched in 26 games, finishing off 25 and racked up 10 saves, setting a new Purdue all-time high with 22. He fanned 39 batters in 41 innings and was named third-team all-Big Ten. His two-year earned run average for the Boilers was 2.54.

Wittgren selected in the ninth round of the 2012 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Marlins and made his major league debut for Miami in 2016.

On the Cape is where Wittgren first met Ashley Crosby. She was part of the media department for the elite summer circuit.

A few years later, strength trainer Ashley did an internship with Cressy Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and she began dating Nick, who was training in south Florida with the Marlins. The relationship blossomed. The married couple now lives near Miami.

During the COVID-19 quarantine, Wittgren works out in his garage gym.

“It’s a full set-up,” says Wittgren. “There’s anything you need.

Eric (Cressy) writes my program. My wife implements them.”

Ashley Wittgren has wealth of knowledge with an MS (Master of Science) degree and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Precision Nutrition (Pn1) and TPI accreditations. She is there to help her husband correctly perform the movements and get the most out of them.

“She could apply for a big league strength job if she wanted,” says Nick of his wife. “She walks and talks me through a lift so I can get as strong as I possibly can.”

During quarantine, Wittgren throws into a backyard net. On bullpen days, he throws to catchers living in the area brought together by CSP.

During the off-season, Wittgren long tosses. But as the season approaches, he gets dialed in to pitch from 60 feet, 6 inches.

“I want my release point during the season to stay the same on everything,” says Wittgren. “I keep it on a line the whole entire time and hit (the catcher’s) knees every single time.”

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Nick Wittgren, a McCutcheon High School graduate who pitched at Purdue University, is now a reliever for the Cleveland Indians. He made his Major League Baseball debut in 2016 with the Miami Marlins. (Cleveland Indians Photo)

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Nick Wittgren, who played at McCutcheon High School and Purdue University, delivers the baseball for the Cleveland Indians. He excelled as a set-up reliever for the Tribe in 2019. (MLB Photo)

 

Laird’s coaching based on development, discipline, accountability

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Sean Laird knows about physical adversity.

As a senior at Kokomo (Ind.) High School, he suffered a fracture to his L4 and L5 vertebrae and had torn muscles in his back.

A four-year letterman and all-conference, all-state and Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series selection as a senior in 2005, Laird was good enough as a Wildkat (he set several KHS school records, playing for three head coach — Ed Moon in 2002, Jim Jameson in 2003 and 2004 and Steve Edwards in 2005) and a member of the Indiana Bulls (he helped the 17U team to a World Series runner-up finish in 2003 and Final Four appearance in 2004 while working with the Moore family — Craig, Jered, Quinn and Lance — plus Gary Sylvester and Mick Thornton) to play NCAA Division I baseball and showed up at the University of South Alabama hurt.

Playing through injuries, Laird logged four seasons (2006-10) for the Jaguars and hit .319 with 23 home runs, 41 doubles and 110 runs batted in. A 92 mph fastball shattered his right hand during his junior season. He played his entire senior season with tears in his labrum and rotator cuff and took Cortisone injections to get through it. There was nerve damage and bone spurs in his shoulder. Professional organizations still showed interest his last two years in Mobile, Ala.

“Doctors were saying this obviously is going to need surgery and if you want to play catch with your kids one day it’s probably better to rehab and take care of yourself,” says Laird. “That was a decision I made.

“Looking back on it now, it was all for a reason.”

That reason became seeing young men and women get stronger and be recognized for their hard work.

Laird received his bachelor’s degree in Sports Management and a master’s degree in Health with a focus on Exercise Science. 

He spent one season on the Kokomo coaching staff (2012) became a Indiana Bulls 17U coach/strength and conditioning in the summer of 2011 (a role he still fills and is assisted by Zionsville Community High School head coach Jered Moore).

After two years as strength and conditioning specialist at Westfield (Ind.) High School, he began what is now Laird’s Training LLC in 2014. In 2016, he authored “How to Build a Ballplayer.”

“It’s about how I built myself into a D-I ballplayer and all the trials and tribulations,” says Laird of the book. “I wanted to get all that stuff out of my head so I could share it and help other ballplayers conquer the same things I had to conquer.”

His coaching and life is based on three principles.

“It’s 100 percent character development, discipline and accountability,” says Laird. “People talk about what natural talent does somebody have in life. For me, if you can instill the discipline and teach kids how to hustle — whether it’s in the classroom, on the field or just in life in general — no matter what they choose do do, they’re going to be successful.

“How I run my business and how I coach is 100 percent to get them ready for that next level. That might not be professional. It might be college. It’s also the next level in life.

“Everybody’s going to go through problems in life and adversity. But if you can teach yourself how to have that discipline, you can conquer anything.”

Laird conducts speed camps and strongman training at The Bullpen Academy in Russiaville and two days at home in garage gym in Kokomo.

The 33-year-old is constantly learning.

When it comes to certifications, I’m always getting new ones. I’m always going to clinics continuing my education. If you’re not moving forward, if you’re not getting smarter, you’re regressing.

Besides his masters, Laird is a Certified Physical Preparation Specialist (which means knows how to train athletes in the weight room and in speed and agility for all sports). He also a Certified Underground Strength & Conditioning coach through Zach Even-Esh and is certified in Body Tempering (recovery) and Pn1 (Precision Nutrition).

“I try to formulate an eating plan for each athlete,” says Laird. “Most kids that come to see me are trying to gain muscle.”

Laird says the field of strength and conditioning is ever-changing.

When he was in high school, it was about putting on as much mass as possible and the lifts were power clean, bench press and squat.

“Those are great movements,” says Laird. “But it’s like anything else in life. If you’re only staying in one lane, you’re very limited in your potential.

“The main job for a strength coach is to keep athletes healthy. If we can’t keep them healthy, they can’t be on the field.”

The goal is to make sure the athlete moves their bodies correctly and are taught the proper movement patterns — with and without a load.

“We make sure it’s going to help him with his sport and — ultimately — make him a better athlete,” says Laird.

At South Alabama, Laird played for head coach Steve Kittrell and assistant Alan Luckie. Kittrell is now coaching softball at Spring Hill College in Mobile and Luckie is still at USA.

“Coach Kittrell was definitely a blue-collar type guy,” says Laird. “He focused on the little things.

“He was really a big mind in the game. So many guys learned so much from him.”

Among those were former Bulls Quinn Moore and Jeff Cunningham and future big leaguers Adam Lind (Anderson Highland High School graduate) and David Freese.

Laird took all the information gathered as a player and from his schooling and cultivated my own coaching culture and atmosphere.

Sean and Lauren Laird were high school sweethearts. The couple has three children — Scarlett (3), Crash Levi (18 months) and Arya (born Oct. 24). Crash is named for Kevin Costner’s character in the 1988 movie “Bull Durham.”

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Sean Laird is a head coach for the Indiana Bulls 17 Black travel baseball team.

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Sean Laird, coach of the Indiana Bulls 17 Black travel baseball team and owner of Laird’s Training LLC, spends a moment with his two oldest children Scarlett and Crash Levi.

SEANLAURAARYALAIRDSean and Lauren Laird welcomed Arya to their family Oct. 24, 2019.

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The Lairds (from left): Lauren, Crash Levi, Scarlett and Sean. Arya was born Oct. 24, 2019.

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Sean Laird is the founder and owner of Laird’s Training LLC and head coach for the Indiana Bulls 17 Black travel team. He is a graduate of Kokomo (Ind.) High School and has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Alabama.