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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)

 

Right-hander Ruxer doing his baseball homework

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

As a finance and accounting double major at the University of Louisville, Jared Ruxer studied figures as they relate to business.

“I’ve always liked numbers,” says Ruxer, a 2011 graduate of Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis.

Now that his business is baseball — he is a 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization — Ruxer is examining concepts like Spin Rate and Extension that are a part of TrackMan or Statcast technology.

According to MLB.com, a pitcher’s Spin Rate (SR) “represents the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released. It is measured in revolutions per minute. The amount of spin on a pitch changes its trajectory.”

For Extension (EXT), “a pitcher must begin his throwing motion while standing on the pitching rubber — which is 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. This does not mean pitches are actually thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate.

“The point at which a pitcher releases the ball is actually a few feet closer to home plate than the pitching rubber itself. Extension quantifies exactly how much closer a pitcher’s release point is to home plate.”

The higher EXT the better and the less time the hitter has to react to the pitch.

“I’ve been looking at the TrackMan data and getting an understanding of that and how to apply it,” says Ruxer, 25. “I’m getting more into the biomechanics of pitching. I’m also learning to manage the running game better and getting really good at PFP’s (Pitcher Fielding Practice) and things like that.”

Ruxer was chosen in the 29th round of the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and did not sign, opting to go to Louisville. He pitched for the Cardinals 2012-14.

He was named Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association All-America, Big East Conference Rookie of the Year and third-team all-Big East while making 16 mound appearances (14 starts) and going 8-3 with a 3.38 earned run average, 32 strikeouts and 15 walks in 77 1/3 innings.

As a sophomore in 2013, he made 19 appearances (seven starts) with a 0-1 mark and a 5.63 ERA, 35 strikeouts and 21 walks in 38 1/3 innings. Louisville went 51-14 and played in the 2013 College World Series.

Ruxer’s junior campaign in 2014 saw him make 13 starts and go 7-1 with a 2.27 ERA with 68 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings before an elbow injury ended his season. He named second-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cardinals (51-15) returned to Omaha for the 2014 College World Series.

Two days before the 2014 MLB draft, Ruxer underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery and did not pitch that summer. In the fall, he went back to Louisville and complete his degree.

The righty made his first professional pitch until 2015 with the rookie-level Orem Owlz. That initial season back, he worked 29 2/3 innings over 14 appearances (11 starts) and was 0-3 with a 4.85 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 11 walks.

“That first short season was tough,” says Ruxer. “It definitely took awhile (to bounce back from surgery). I didn’t feel like I was a 100 percent and back to myself until 18 months later. I had to pitch through it.

“I had to learn how to pitch a little more because I didn’t have all my velocity back yet.”

Ruxer split the 2016 season between the Low Class-A Burlington Bees and High Class-A Inland Empire 66ers, combining for a 4-8 record, 3.08 ERA and 29 appearances (19 starts) with 99 strikeouts and 31 walks over 111 innings.

The first full pro season was also when he was introduced to the TrackMan data.

Knowing the Angels were using it as an evaluation tool, Ruxer began doing his homework and studied ways to improve his numbers and performance.

He found that change could be made through grip, arm action and some minor mechanical cues.

“Some days the ball has a little more carry. Some days it has a little more sink on it,” says Ruxer. “You make adjustments based on that.”

On Dec. 1, 2016, the Angels traded Ruxer to the Royals. He spent most of the 2017 season with the High Class-A Wilmington Rocks, going 5-7 with a 3.45 ERA in 24 appearances (17) starts with 84 strikeouts and 29 walks in 109 2/3 innings.

In three games (one start) and six innings with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, he was 0-0 with a 16.50 ERA, one strikeout and seven walks.

Ruxer says the differences in the way he was handled by the two organizations is very slight.

“The Angels were very hands-off,” says Ruxer. “It was on me.

“The Royals were a little more proactive.”

While player development staff are there to help, Ruxer has learned that how players progress in pro baseball is largely up to them.

“It’s going on our stat sheet,” says Ruxer.

The Royals sent Ruxer to the 2017 Arizona Fall League to work on a breaking ball and he relieved in nine contests with the Surprise Saguaros. He went 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA. In 12 innings, he had 12 strikeouts and nine walks.

More than three years removed from Tommy John surgery, Ruxer is back to letting it rip on the mound.

“I’m pretty high-effort now,” says Ruxer. “I’m not holding anything back. I get a lot more results when I do that.

“There’s no reason to leave anything in the tank. There’s not too much thinking ahead. You’ve got to get the guy out standing in the box and the rest is secondary.”

Looking to his diamond past, Ruxer played in the Fall Creek Little League, where he was a teammate of current Texas Rangers minor league pitcher David Ledbetter.

Ruxer played travel ball for the Indiana Prospects at age 12 and for the Indiana Bulls at 13 and 17. From 14 to 16, he was with the Indiana Braves, a team father Jim helped organize.

At 18, Ruxer was with the Midland Redskins in Ohio. The summers after his freshmen and sophomore seasons at Louisville, he hurled for the Wareham Gatemen of the Cape Cod League.

In his three seasons at Louisville, Ruxer learned from head coach Dan McDonnell and pitching coach Roger Williams.

“(McDonnell) taught me about managing the running game, PFP’s and was a stickler for bunt defense,” says Ruxer. “(Williams) called all the (pitches). I liked that. We could just go out there and pitch and just worry about our stuff. He did all his homework on the hitters. I trusted him. I didn’t shake off too much.”

While catchers in the minor leagues are allowed to develop their pitch-calling abilities, Ruxer notes that almost all pitches in major college baseball are called by coaches.

“Their job’s on the line. They want to control the game,” says Ruxer. “I get it. They have time to read up on the hitters. You are a student-athlete. There a lot of things going on. We can’t afford to lose games.”

Ruxer played three varsity seasons at Lawrence Central. He went 5-2 as a sophomore, 6-1 as a junior and 6-1 as a senior with a total of 155 strikeouts. His final high school season saw him earned all-state, all-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference and all-Marion County honors.

Dan Roman (who is now head coach at Brownsburg High School) led the program when Ruxer was with the LC Bears.

“That was a blast,” says Ruxer. “Dan was awesome. “When it came to pitching, he showed me how to pitch to certain hitters and about reading the hitters’ swings. I learned how to attract hitters and started learning how to manage the running game.”

After an extended 2017 season, Ruxer managed to get away for some vacation and quality time with family — father Jim in a Certified Public Accountant, mother Lisa is a recently-retired as a physical education teacher at Carmel High School and younger sister Addie is life science recruiter in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University.

Ruxer will spend the rest of the off-season working out in Indianapolis. He has trained at both St. Vincent Sports Performance and the new Pro X Athlete Development. Former MLB pitcher Joe Thatcher is involved with Pro X.

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Jared Ruxer, a Lawrence Central High School and University of Louisville graduate, is a right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization. (Wilmington Blue Rocks Photo)