Athletic history is being made in Columbus, Ind. Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus has been approved for NAIA status in 2022-23. The Crimson Pride are up and running with three programs — baseball, softball and cross country — and more sports are planned. The first official baseball practice was held Tuesday, Sept. 6 on the youth diamonds at CERA Sports Park & Campground in Columbus. “The City of Columbus as a whole never had collegiate sports,” says Scott Bickel, IUPUC’s first head baseball coach. “We need Columbus and their business partners to support us for us to continue to grow.” IUPUC is a sister school to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and offers Indiana and Purdue degrees at in-state tuition rates. An independent pilot program that will not be eligible for NAIA postseason play in the first year, the IUPUC Crimson Pride hopes to get into an athletic conference — preferably the River States Conference (which includes national power Indiana University Southeast plus Indiana University-Kokomo and Oakland City University). The baseball roster currently numbers 44 and the goal is 55 in order to have full varsity and junior varsity schedules. “We want to give them an opportunity to compete for a position,” says Bickel. “We’re going to need to play at a highly-respected level to compete for conference championships. “The main thing we have to do now is install everything. Everything is new to everybody.” Former pitcher/outfielder Bickel was Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North-South All-Star Series participant for Huntington North in 2006 and earned IHSBCA all-state honorable mention in both 2005 and 2006. Among Bickel’s classmates and teammates were Chris Kramer, Andrew Drummond and Jarod Hammel. Kramer went on to play basketball at Purdue University and in the pro ranks. Drummond set offensive records at Huntington (Ind.) University. Hammel also played at HU and is in his second stint as Huntington North head baseball coach. Bickel played two years each at Huntington North for Chad Daugherty and Russ Degitz (Chad’s younger brother Kyle Daugherty was an assistant) and Greg Roberts at the University of Saint Francis, an NAIA school in Fort Wayne. Bickel is a first-time head coach with coaching experience as Roberts’ hitting coach for one season at Saint Francis (2016-17) and four campaigns at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast in Fort Wayne (2019-22) doing a number of things for head coaches Lance Hershberger and Connor Wilkins. Others Ivy Tech coaches include Javier DeJesus (who gave pitching lessons to high schooler Bickel), Mark Flueckiger, Drew Buffenbarger, Benny Clark, Tony Gorgai, Jeff Griffith, Densil Brumfield and Seth Sorenson. “I have Lance Hershberger to thank for taking a chance with me and offering me an opportunity to network with a great baseball town,” says Bickel. “I really grew my knowledge base from our relationships, and I wouldn’t be here without them.” In some way or other, Bickel says he has also been impacted by Brent Alwine (Indiana Tech and Indiana Summer Collegiate League) Matt Brumbaugh (Fort Wayne Northrop), Patrick Collins-Bride (Indiana Tech), Mark Delagarza (Summit City Sluggers), Steve Devine (Indiana Tech), Rich Dunno (Ground Force Sports), Jason Garrett (Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger), Zach Huttie (Indiana Tech/World Baseball Academy), Rick Davis (Strike Zone Training Center), Manny Lopez (The Diamond/Fort Wayne Diamondbacks), Kip McWilliams (Indiana Tech) and Mike Nutter (Fort Wayne TinCaps). The 2017-18 Ivy Tech team — aka “The Dirty Dozen” for the 12 players left at season’s end — went 25-18 in that inaugural season. Bickel came along in 2018-19 and saw those players move on to four-year schools. In 2017-18, Bickel was an assistant at Fort Wayne Snider High School. Marc Skelton and Bruce Meyer led the Panthers varsity and assistants included Tim McCrady and Josh Clinkenbeard (who is now Snider head coach). The last two years, Bickel was a player-coach for the Richard Brown-owned Jackers, which qualified for the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series in both seasons. While living in Colorado. Bickel met future wife Allie (the couple celebrates six years of marriage Oct. 15), started a business and played baseball. Bickel holds degrees in Secondary Education for Mathematics and Mild Intervention from Saint Francis (2011) and a Masters of Athletic Administration and Coaching from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. (2021). The IUPUC staff also includes pitching coach Zach McClellan (who is also the school’s Director of Athletics and a former big league pitcher), Mac Kido and Tyler Dunbar and is likely to expand. Kido, a 2016 graduate of Edgewood High School in Ellettsville, Ind., briefly attended Manchester University in North Manchester, Ind., and has coached at Edgewood and travel ball at the Tier Ten Sports Campus in Spencer, Ind. He will coach Crimson Pride hitters. Dunbar, a 2019 graduate of North Daviess High School in Elnora, Ind., played briefly at Hanover (Ind.) College and transferred to IUPUC to finish his degree in Elementary Education. He has coached travel ball for Demand Command. He will serve infield coach/assistant baserunning coach for the Crimson Pride. “I’ll be mentoring and shepherding Coach Kido and Coach Dunbar the best I can,” says Bickel. “That’s a big goal for me. “I want to give them the autonomy they need to be successful.” Bickel will work with catchers and outfielders. An exhibition game with Ivy Tech Northeast is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 8 at Fort Wayne’s Shoaff Park. IUPUC is to open its 2023 season and play its first-ever games Feb. 10-11 against Huntington University in Tuscaloosa, Ala. New Foresters head coach Thad Frame is a 2004 Huntington North graduate, which means he was a Vikings senior when Bickel was a sophomore.
Jeff Mault affirms that the body’s lower half is the foundation of baseball.
When instructing pitchers or hitters at Extra Mile Baseball in a pole barn next to his rural home near Kimmel, Ind., the former college and professional player talks a lot about the important part played by biggest muscle groups.
“I’m a mechanics guy,” says Mault, who had close to 20 lessons on his schedule this week and counts third baseman/second baseman and Wright State University commit Jake Shirk (Fort Wayne Carroll High School Class of 2020) and left-handed pitcher/first baseman and University of Kentucky commit Carter Gilbert (Northridge Class of 2022). “Hips is where it’s at with pitchers. I don’t care about the arm slot. If you can do what I want you to do, your arm will not hurt. Period.
“I had one of the very first ones,” says Mault. “It’s awesome.
“I wish I had it when I was playing.”
A right-handed pitcher and right fielder in high school then pitcher-only after that, Mault played for Tim Schemerhorn at West Noble (the Chargers won the IHSAA Class 3A Lakeland Sectional in 1998 then lost 7-5 to Northridge in the first round of the Wawasee Sectional with smoke-throwing Mault and Doug McDonald as the top two pitchers).
Mault got the ball up to 92 mph in high school.
“I didn’t have anything else,” says Mault. “I had a curve that curved when it wanted to. I couldn’t throw a change-up.
“My theory was throw hard in case they missed it. That’s how I pitched.”
“It seemed like home,” says Mault. “It’s out in the middle of nowhere with cornfields.”
Mault grew up on a farm and still tends to chores at his in-law’s place in Wawaka, Ind., besides a full work week as parts/service advisor at Burnworth & Zollars Auto Group in Ligonier and having a half dozen lawns to mow.
Mault was a medical redshirt his freshmen year at Olney Central after a hairline tear was found in his ulnar collateral ligament, which is similar to the injury that leads to Tommy John surgery.
“(Surgery) was not even suggested,” says Mault. “Tommy John doesn’t make you throw harder. It’s the rehab (which for Mault took about nine months).
“The next year was a mental block. I just didn’t feel comfortable throwing hard.”
In his third year at OCC, Mault was back to normal and the Blue Knights won 39 games.
Olney played in a fall tournament at Austin Peay State. Governors head coach Gary McClure was looking for a closer so Conley used starter Mault to finish two games.
Once at Austin Peay State, Mault set the single-season school record with 10 saves in 2003. In his senior year (2004), he alternated closing and starting until he accumulated the three saves he needed for what made him at the time the Governors’ career saves leader.
Springfield/Ozark Ducks manager Greg Tagert offered Mault a chance to play with that independent professional team. He instead went for what turned out to be a very brief stint with the Gateway Grizzlies.
“I pitched in one game and they let me go,” says Mault. “When there’s money involved, it’s cut-throat.
“But if not for that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. Everything works out.”
Mault was released the following year in spring training.
“I worked out with Triple-A,” says Mault. “I was on the field for two hours and got called back in and they let me go. That was rough.
“But I was still going to play.”
He came back to Noble County and worked on the farm then finished college in fall of 2004.
In 2006, Tagert was in his second season as manager of the Gary SouthShore RailCats and brought Mault aboard. The righty went 0-2 in eight games (six in relief) with five strikeouts and five walks in 18 1/3 innings with a 4.91 ERA.
Mault was reunited with former Olney Central assistant Andy Haines in 2007. At that point he was manager of the Windy City ThunderBolts in Crestwood, Ill., and is now hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers. The pitcher went 3-0 in 11 contests (eight in relief) with 21 K’s and 17 walks in 24 1/3 innings and a 3.70 ERA before his pro career came to a close at 26.
Jeff and Abbey Mault have two children — daughter Cora (9) and son Casyn (6). Abbey is an Arts teacher at Central Noble Junior/Senior High School in Albion, Ind.
Jeff Mault, who pitched at West Noble High School in Ligonier, Ind., Olney (Ill.) Central College and Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn., was signed by the Seattle Mariners and pitched in Everett, Wash., in 2005. (Everett AquaSox Photo)
Jeff Mault, a former college and professional pitcher, offers instruction at Extra Mile Baseball in Kimmel, Ind.
Being a maker of tools, Rich Dunno looks at pitching a baseball with an engineering mind.
“I’m always looking for the bigger, better, faster things,” says Dunno, a Fort Wayne-based toolmaker and baseball coach who spoke about pitching mechanics Dec. 15 at the Huntington North Hot Stove as a guest of new Vikings head coach Mark Flueckiger. “Pitching mechanics is so broad and so variable. But there are absolutes — things that I see that every pitcher does in their own certain way.”
One of these absolutes is the ability to transfer energy during the kinetic sequence that is pitching a baseball.
“What we want to do is have the hips open before the upper body,” says Dunno. “That’s what they call separation and is a big part of keeping the arm healthy and maximizing velocity. That’s one of the transfers of energy.”
Dunno says the biggest transfer of energy comes at heel plant.
When done correctly, the energy results in more velocity coming out of the arm.
“If we fly open, we never get the effect of that extra torque that’s going to cause us to go harder because the lack of separation,” says Dunno. “Any time we open early, the early hip rotation will cause that arm to drag.
“It puts excessive stress on the inner part of your shoulder and the medial part of your elbow — your UCL area.”
Dunno recommends the book, “The Arm” by Jeff Passan for those who want to know about the history of arm injuries in baseball.
If pitchers transfer energy in an efficient way to create velocity and have pin-point control have a better chance of sustained success.
As a pitcher himself at Fort Wayne North Side High School and then in college, Dunno would let it fly.
“I never knew where it was going,” says Dunno. “There has to be a mixture of velocity and control.”
Dunno has traveled all over the country to talk with pitching experts such as Tom House and Ron Wolforth and has studied thousands of deliveries. He shares his knowledge with his pitching pupils.
Left-hander Andrew Saalfrank, who was Big Ten Conference Pitcher of the Year at Indiana University and was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and D.J. Moore of Huntington U., who was being scouted by a several teams, are both Dunno students.
“My goal is to keep these guys as efficient as possible with the least amount of arm stress along with maximizing velocity,” says Dunno. “That’s what it’s all about.”
When working with young hurlers, the first thing Dunno does is videotapes them throwing out of the windup and the stretch.
“Whatever sticks out in my mind as a visual, that’s what we initially work on,” says Dunno. “Before anything else, I look at what the glove arm is doing. “(The front arm) allows us to stayed closed on the front side and be a lot more consistent.”
Dunno refers to what the forearm and elbow is doing during the delivery as blocking and the forearm should be showing for as long as possible.
“To this day, I hear coaches say point your glove and throw,” says Dunno. “I don’t like the mitt being the boss. I want the elbow to be the boss.”
Dunno talks about having a strong elevated front side during the delivery.
What about the glove?
“My pitchers direct it right into the arm pit when they’re done that keeps the front side consistent,” says Dunno. “It’s right in the nest.”
Since the lead arm and the throwing arm are connected in the motion, if the path of the glove is inconsistent then so, too, will the release point be inconsistent.
“You hear it all the time: Consistency. Consistency. Consistency,” says Dunno. “Scouts are looking for repeatable mechanics. If you can’t repeat them, you’re never going to be consistent with any pitch.”
During Dunno’s research, he came to learn the importance of the drop-and-drive and how the lower half of the body can add speed to a pitch.
Dunno is the inventor of King Of The Hill, Queen Of The Hill and King Of The Swing ground force trainers and the devices are used by several professional and college teams. He’s invited to MLB camps to educate their coaches on how and the benefits of training with the King of the Hill.
The president of Ground Force Sports, Dunno gets to the go to Major League Baseball spring training each year to confer with some of baseball’s top minds.
“You want to ride the back side as long as you can,” says Dunno. “It all plays into late explosion.”
The device helps the user to keep from rotating their hips too early.
“You keep the back side flexed so you can drive through the front leg,” says Dunno. “Force plate data is showing the high-velocity pitchers are getting more force off the back side than other pitchers and they land a lot harder.”
Now is the time of year that Dunno travels to various clinics. He was recently at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Convention in Atlantic City and NFCA clinic in Chicago and will be at the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention Jan. 2-5, 2020 in Nashville.
Rich Dunno’s King Of The Hill ground force trainers are used throughout professional and college baseball.
Rich Dunno has even introduced his King Of The Hill trainer in Canada.
The Washington Nationals use the King Of The Hill ground force trainer, invented by Fort Wayne’s Rich Dunno.
The San Francisco Giants also use the King Of The Hill ground force trainer, developed by Rich Dunno of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Rich Dunno talks about baseball pitching mechanics at the Huntington North Hot Stove clinic session on Dec. 2015, 2019. He is a toolmaker and coach who has intensely studied how to pitch for efficient and optimum velocity and control. (Steve Krah Photo)
That attention was on display as Hershberger talked about “Vision As It Pertains to Hitting in Baseball” during the Huntington North Hot Stove clinic session hosted Sunday, Dec. 1 by new Vikings head coach Mark Flueckiger.
Hershberger, with the assistance of Ivy Tech players Grant Hershberger (his son) and Connor Knoblauch, presented information and a number of drills designed to help hitters improve the way they use their eyes.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of vision in baseball,” says Hershberger, who has led the Titans to a 58-32 mark in the first two years of the Ivy Tech program. “If you think it’s not important, try playing the game with your eyes closed.
“It’s the most overlooked and under appreciated skill in the game.”
Hershberger broke his talk into four areas:
• Tee and drill work.
• Live hitting.
“A lot of this vision stuff is really focus,” says Hershberger. “I’m not an optometrist. I can’t give you a prescription for glasses.
“But I can give you some things that will focus on baseball.”
Hershberger said the first place to start is make sure that players can see well. They may need to see an eye doctor or simply commit to wearing their contacts or glasses to improve their vision and performance.
“Don’t take any of that for granted,” says Hershberger. “There is something to that.”
Hershberger talked about the dominant eye vs. back eye and used a water bottle at the edge of the stage as a visual.
He invited the audience to mimic the players and make a triangle with their fingers and put the bottle in the middle.
In closing one eye, the bottle will move outside or close to edge of the triangle.
Closing the other one will make the bottle stay inside the triangle.
The latter will be the dominant eye.
Hershberger says that if the dominant eye is the one closest to the pitcher, they should be fine. If the back eye is dominant then twisting the head to face the pitcher with both eyes is the way to go.
“Here’s one thing about (dominant eye),” says Hershberger. “You can’t change that. I can’t give you any drills. I can’t give you anything to work to change that.”
Rather than concentrating on something they can’t fix, Ivy Tech works on the back eye.
“We make sure our hitters see the pitcher, the ball, the window with their back eye,” says Hershberger. “We’ll do short toss or tee work with the front eye closed.”
For about $1.79, an eye patch can be purchased at the craft store and can be worn for these types of drills, including batting practice.
Hershberger brought out the Brock String, a device that is used in vision therapy that is a 4-foot piece of rope with colored tape every six inches.
“We’ll have our guys focus on that,” says Hershberger. “We usually tie it off on a fence or a post and put it at an angle to simulate the angle of the pitch.
“During this drill, all (the player) sees are the colors. He doesn’t see anything else. He goes up and he goes back down.
“We go for a minute and you should do it five or six times.”
Another vision drill is Thumbs Up.
Players stand apart at distances up to 60 feet with one thumb in the air and they alternate focus on the thumbs.
“We go for a minute. They don’t listen to anything. They don’t see anything (else). That’s all they see. His thumb. Their thumb.
“You do it five or six times a week and you do it all year long, you’ll get better. Your sight may not get better, but your focus will get better on what you’re doing.
“If they’re doing it right, they should have a headache when they’re done.”
In his decades around sports, Hershberger has found that athletes have not really changed.
“I hear it all the time: ‘I can’t coach kids the same way I did 30 years ago,’” says Hershberger. “I don’t believe that. I think the people that have changed are the guys in my shoes, the coaches.
“Kids will work up or down to your expectations.”
The difference now is that the coaches are better with communication.
“I explain why we do it,” says Hershberger. “I put it in a package (of drills) that makes sense to them. Here’s what we’re doing and here’s why we’re doing it.”
Hershberger talked about the importance of seeing the ball early and late.
“There’s 60 feet, 6 inches between the pitcher and the catcher,” says Hershberger. “Everybody sees the ball somewhere along that path. Usually somewhere in the middle.
“They don’t focus on the pitcher real well so they don’t see it out of his hand and know what’s coming. Then they try to guesstimate where it’s going and swing to that spot.
“Good hitters see the ball early and they see it late.”
Hoping it will help his team with vision, Hershberger has had underside of the bill on all Ivy Tech batting helmets painted white to reflect all waves of light.
“Theoretically, we may be able to see a little bit better,” says Hershberger. “I’m trying to do anything I can to get any advantage I can.
“It surely won’t hurt.”
The Titans use drills to track the baseball with their eyes.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen at taking a pitch,” says Hershberger. “He would track everything into the (catcher’s) glove.
“We want our guys to track the ball.”
The player feeding the ball presents it in the “window” aka arm slot than rolls it and the batters follows it until it stops.
“You’ve got to walk before you run,” says Hershberger. “What we’re teaching there is that ridiculous attention to detail.
“You’re setting the tone for focusing on the ball.”
Ivy Tech has a bag of gimmicks — balls with colors, numbers etc., that are used in these vision drills that are packaged together with other movements in a logical way.
When balls are tossed, the batter can call out whether it is big or small, yellow or white, fastball, curveball or change-up, in, middle or out.
“He is hunting the ball in his hand,” says Hershberger. “None of this is earth-shattering but, hopefully, in the context of how you use it, it’s good.”
With the tee, Hershberger has hitters — swinging a conventional bat, paddle or piece of PVC pipe — load, stride and take it to contact then stop.
“We want them to see the bat hit the ball,” says Hershberger. “Out front on the top half. I’m not a launch angle guy.”
Then the hitter takes a half swing and contacts the ball.
“We’re working on focus,” says Hershberger. “We’re not working on mechanics ofthe swing.”
Hershberger offered some other tips about tee work not related to focus.
“Always have a home plate when you’re working on the tee,” says Hershberger. “If you don’t have one, use your hat or your glove. You have to have a reference point.”
The tee is moved around depending what pitch is being worked on.
“Your swing doesn’t change,” says Hershberger. “Your point of contact and turn does.”
Tee placement will almost always vary by player.
“When they’re partners in these drills and the tee never moves from guy to guy, I’m suspect,” says Hershberger. “Oh, you’ve both got the same swing!?
“It’s more likely you’re both being lazy.
“If you don’t move it and set it up for your swing, you’re practicing somebody else’s swing and you’re getting nothing out of it. You have to set it up and be meticulous.
“Ridiculous attention to detail.”
Rapid Fire involves hitting ball after ball post-stride.
“Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!,” says Hershberger. “That’s the logical progression of what we’ve been doing.
“He’s seeing that bat hit that ball.”
Hershberger notes that the hitters’ head does not track the ball off his bat.
“You stay down in there,” says Hershberger, who has been known to take away a practice at-bat of a hitter who tracks the flight of the ball.
Vision and focus is used at Ivy Tech to work on pitch recognition.
The batter quickly calls out the type of pitch — fastball, curveball, change-up — out of the “window.”
In another drill, players who recognize fastball will go quick to the ball and pull it. If it’s a breaking, they will stay back.
There’s also a variation where they learn to sit on a fastball and adjust to a breaking pitch. This combines soft toss and the tee. The soft toss ball or the one on the tee can be hit depending on location — all the while maintaining focus.
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.
Zach McKinstry started thinking about baseball — really thinking about it — as a youngster in Fort Wayne.
Alex McKinstry started talking with his middle child about the intricacies of the game as he practiced his craft year-round. It was a thrill to be able to swing the bat during the winter thanks to Rich Dunno and his indoor facility.
“Growing up around the game, I felt I was ahead of the kids in Fort Wayne with baseball,” says Zach, now 23 and a middle infielder in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. “I got to play it almost all year-round. That was was really nice.”
Zach was born in Toledo, Ohio, but moved with the family to Fort Wayne before elementary school. He started at Holy Cross Little League then played travel baseball from 10 on. First, there was the Summit City Thunder then Summit City Sluggers, Strike Zone Spiders and Manny Lopez-led Fort Wayne Cubs (now the Fort Wayne Diamondbacks).
Zach McKinstry played football and baseball at North Side, graduating in 2014. He then played two stellar seasons at Central Michigan University, earning co-team MVP honors in his final season of 2016 after hitting .325 with 10 doubles, two triples, 31 runs batted in and 12 stolen bases. Over two years, he hit .321 with 14 doubles, five triples, 45 RBIs and 20 pilfered bags.
McKinstry started the 2018 campaign at Great Lakes and is now back with Rancho Cucamonga. In a combined 39 games, the left-handed swinger is hitting .388 with three home runs, eight doubles, two triples and nine RBIs.
Mostly a shortstop at Great Lakes, he has seen more action at second base with the Quakes. Rancho Cucamonga has a highly-touted shortstop in Gavin Lux and a top-notch second baseman in Omar Estevez.
Going back to his younger days, McKinstry counts his Baseball I.Q. as one of his strengths.
“It’s being able to think the game on my own and having a feel for the game of baseball,” says McKinstry. “I understand what’s going on.
“My best tool is on tool and defense. I have the arm for throwing the ball across the diamond.”
As a batter, he’s been used in the Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9 slots in the order.
“I’m a get-on-base kind of guy,” says McKinstry, who carries a .526 on-base percentage for 2018 and .365 for his pro career. “I get on for guys who can hit the ball hard in the air.”
Steve Jaksa was Central Michigan’s head coach during McKinstry’s time with the Chippewas.
“He had a passion for the game,” says McKinstry. “He carried himself very professionally. He knew what he needed to do to win baseball games and he taught me how to be a winner.
“He also taught how to take your losses and use them to you advantage — learn from what you did wrong and what you could have done differently.”
Though Jaksa did not name captains for 2016, McKinstry was considered one that spring.
“He taught me how to be a leader,” says McKinstry of Jaksa, who led leadership training in the off-season. “I really value him for that.
“He let me carry that team a little bit.”
Coming out of his shell, McKinstry developed the ability to speak to a roomful of ballplayers as well as go one-on-one.
“He could always rely on me to go to a freshman.” says McKinstry.
Besides Zach and the two Alexes, the McKinstry family features wife/mother Tracy (who is employed at James Medical) and daughter/sister Haley. The latter was a soccer player at North Side.
Zach McKinstry, a Fort Wayne North Side High School graduate who played at Central Michigan University, is now in the Los Angeles Dodgers system with the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes. (Steve Saenz Photo)
Zach McKinstry, who went to high school and played youth and travel baseball in Fort Wayne, Ind., was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016 and now plays with the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Quakes. (Steve Saenz Photo)
An Indiana baseball man and toolmaker has combined his know-how in both areas to create a training device that has been embraced by professional and college teams.
Rich Dunno, a former college and current youth coach and owner and CEO of Ground Force Sports in Fort Wayne, has been making the King of The Hill to promote the importance of leg drive in the pitching motion.
Dunno says proper leg drive increases velocity and decreases stress on the pitching arm.
“As a pitching coach, I always knew you needed to use the legs,” says Dunno, who once led hurlers at Glen Oaks Community College in Centreville, Mich., and still gives lessons. “Back then it was called leg drive, now it’s more or less known as ground force.”
In working with young pitchers, he noticed that as they pushed the indoor mound back with their back leg their speed went up.
Dunno took his engineering background to develop a device that would let the pitchers know when they were properly getting the load on their back leg to transfer energy through the kinetic chain which ended with them delivering the baseball.
“There is an auditory reward,” says Dunno. “When they hear (the pop of the plate moving back), they know they’re doing it right.
“It’s like Pavlov’s Dogs. Everytime they heard that bell — ding, ding, ding — he knew it was time to eat.
“Even in the big leagues, they want to hear that noise. If you don’t do it correctly, you don’t hear anything.”
The device, which has gone through some evolution in the four years since Dunno began tinkering the with the concept, has an adjustable spring that can be tightened to increase the force it takes to move the mound back.
“More and more, they are finding out that the healthier pitchers use the ground force through that (kinetic) chain,” says Dunno. “They did studies that showed faster throwers created more force off the back leg. We want energy in that front foot that cause the hips to rotate.
Dunno was at Wrigley Field in Chicago last week meeting with San Diego bullpen coach Doug Bochtler, hitting coach Alan Zinter and was introduced to the Padres bench coach.
“(Zinter) and Mark McGwire say they love it because the kids can not only feel themselves doing it, but hear themselves,” says Dunno. “They know instantly whether they’re doing it right.”
Noting that “mass times acceleration equals power,” some strong hitters can get away with moving their upper body and “squashing the bug” while driving the ball.
“Some of the smaller guys like (Javier) Baez and (Bryce) Harper, they have to create more kinetic energy — getting the hips and upper body to rotate to create that power. If you see a video, watch what they do. Their back leg comes off the ground because they are accelerating so fast.”
A handle makes it mobile to place on mounds, in batter’s boxes, wherever.
Dunno has a couple of patents and he is entertaining an appearance on the Shark Tank TV show.
With the same process of transferring energy in mind, Dunno has devised a Queen of the Hill for fast pitch softball and he is working on trainers for football, track and other sports.
He has even come up with a line of tacky, all-weather “bat snot” — an answer to pine tar sticks — to give hitters a better grip.
The King of the Hill leg drive trainer, devised by Fort Wayne-based coach and toolmaker Rich Dunno of Ground Force Sports, has been adopted by many Major League Baseball organizations and college programs. (Ground Force Sports Photo)
The blogger meets Rich Dunno, creator of The King of the Hill, King of the Swing, Queen of the Hill and more.