Indiana Nitro — a travel baseball organization launched in the central part of the state — has had 164 college commits and five Major League Baseball draft selections since 2014. Among Nitro alums who went on to pro baseball are Zach Britton (Toronto Blue Jays system), Matt Gorski (Pittsburgh Pirates), Niko Kavadas (Boston Red Sox), Devin Mann (Los Angeles Dodgers), Tommy Sommer (Chicago White Sox) and Zack Thompson (St. Louis Cardinals). The Nitro fielded more than 20 teams — spring, summer and fall — at the 8U to 17U levels in recent seasons. The group has earned many victories and championships and competed in multiple states. It all began with a single 11U team that took to the diamond in 2010. Tim Burns, whose sons Brendan and Brock were playing travel ball, was exploring diamond opportunities for his boys when he was approached by some fathers about coaching a team. With the idea of being able to control development and practice schedules, the elder Burns agreed and led that first Nitro squad, featuring Brock. Most of the players were from Hamilton County — one of the exceptions being Batesville’s Britton. Brock Burns is now on the football team at Ball State University as an outside linebacker while Brendan Burns was a right-handed pitcher for BSU baseball; Tim Burns is a graduate of Ball State where his major was Telecommunications. Both Burns brothers are Hamilton Southeastern High School graduates — Brendan in 2014 and Brock in 2017. Most games in 2010 were played in central Indiana and the team went 50-5 with five tournament titles. Eleven of the 12 players on that first team went on to play at the collegiate level. Tammy Burns, Tim’s wife, told him that he did not have the time to head a travel organization. Yet momentum kept on building. “Kids wanted to play,” says Burns. Parents and players gathered and voted on a team name — Burns presented around 300 choices found on Google — and team colors. The Nitro wound up donning Athletic Gold and Cardinal Red and uses explosive terms like Bombs and Gas on social media. In 2011, the Nitro had four teams. The number went to seven in 2012 then 11 in 2013. It jumped to 20 in 2014 (the first year the organization had a high school age team). “The snowball got big,” says Burns. “It took on a life of its own.” The mantra of the Nitro is “Advancing players to the next level.” That came to mean grooming them to play high school baseball and then — for those who wished to do so — college baseball. “It’s a very complex recruiting process that we came up with over the years,” says Burns, a 1982 graduate of South Newton High School in Kentland, Ind., who grew up on the diamonds of Goodland, Ind., and counted Tracy Smith (who went on to coach at Miami University-Middletown, Miami University, Indiana University and Arizona State University) as a teammate. “You dive deep into it and build relationships with college coaches and recruiters. “Learning how to help these kids get recruited was important to our board (of directors) and and organization.” Nitro staffers work the phones on behalf of their players and are constantly seeking talent and getting ready for the next thing. “It’s a year-round job,” says Burns, who is employed in sales for Bally Sports Indiana (the Indiana Pacers TV Network). “There’s so much behind the scenes in the off-season. It keeps the board and volunteers busy.” Randy Poiry has been on the board since the beginning. Two sons — catcher Rutger Poiry (Lincoln Trail College and Eastern Kentucky University) and right-handed pitcher Carter Poiry (Murray State University and Quinnipiac University) — played for the Nitro. Directors are Chris Poland (daily operations and high school age teams) and Dan Rodgers (ages 8-14). Jared Poland, son of Chris, is at the University of Louisville. Nathan Rodgers (Carmel High School Class of 2024) played for his father on the Nitro 14U Gold team in 2021. Burns, who coached the Nitro 16U Gold team to a 26-9-1 mark in 2021 and will move up to coach the 17U Gold squad in 2022, gets players from near and far. “We don’t care where they come from,” says Burns. “We want good kids from good families who want to put in the work.” Nitro players train at Pro X Athlete Development on the Grand Park campus in Westfield, Ind. A membership is included with fees. Burns counts four nephews — South Newton graduates Jarrett Hammel and Jay Hammel and Benton Central High school alums Payton Hall and Conner Hall — among former Nitro players. Former Saint Joseph’s College and Valparaiso right-hander Jarrett Hammel is now head baseball coach at Benton Central. Jay Hammel is a righty pitcher at Quincy (Ill.) University. Payton Hall is an outfielder at Oakland City (Ind.) University after transferring from the University of Southern Indiana. Former middle infielder Connor Hall is an Aviation Management student at Indiana State University.
Founded in 1991 with play beginning in 1992, the Bulls brought together the state’s elite for top-flight competition and exposure to college coaches and professional scouts and that continues to this day.
Craig Moore coached Blackford High School in Hartford City, Ind., to IHSAA state runner-up finishes in 1977 and 1978.
The East Gary (Ind.) High School graduate also coached Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) to success while it transitioned from NAIA to NCAA Division I and was a Brownsburg (Ind.) High School assistant.
Moore was brought to the Bulls for the second season.
“Craig is the best talent evaluator I’ve ever seen,” says Dave Taylor, one of the Bulls founders and first coaches. “He had an amazing, uncanny ability to size up talent quickly.
“He’s one of the greatest recruiters I’ve ever seen and had tremendous enthusiasm. I’d run through a wall for that guy. (Players had) great loyalty for him. He was very demanding. But he loved his guys and they loved him.”
Taylor played baseball at Southmont High School and captained the Wabash College team in 1983 then went to law school and began coaching Babe Ruth baseball at the state championship level.
He soon learned something.
“Indiana was not a baseball state,” says Taylor. “It was very provincial and very hometown-based — even American Legion was geographically-limited.
“The baseball world tended to be dominated by towns with size and tradition. There was not a lot of great baseball beyond that. There was nowhere for a great player to go.”
Ohio and Kentucky had elite travel baseball since the 1960’s, but not Indiana.
“We were behind,” says Taylor. “There was no high level of competition in Indiana for the elite.”
Taylor notes that the 1992 Major League Baseball Player Draft had just one selection from Indiana — Jay County High School graduate Shane White in the 24th round by the Chicago Cubs — while Ohio had more than 100 with over half that number out of the Cincinnati area alone.
When a national tournament rolled around, Taylor coached the Indiana representative. Open tryouts were held and there were players from all over the state, though most came from central Indiana.
Indiana lost in the medal round in Tallahassee, Fla., getting beat by eventual champion California but beating Georgia and Texas along the way.
“It was a great experience,” says Taylor, who learned that the players on the Sacramento-based California team had been playing 180 games a year since age 8. “Practicing for two weeks was not how you made better baseball players.
“We would take the top five (players in the state) and fill in with like players.”
As the Indiana Bulls took shape, Taylor gathered men like John Thiel, Bob Lowrie, Bob Stephens and Tony Miller for their business and baseball expertise and also landed Jeff Mercer Sr., Mike Mundy, Dave Mundy and Craig Moore on the coaching staff.
A real estate appraiser for his day job, Moore spent hours away from his profession seeking the right fit for his players.
“He had a really good feel where a guy would have success,” says Taylor. “He would help find the right situation for that kid.
“He was all about the kids. He was tireless man at helping kids get their college scholarships.”
Many times, every senior in the Bulls program was placed by the winter of their final prep year.
Taylor marvels at how Moore was able to make quick fixes during games and set his guys on the right path.
“He didn’t mince words,” says Taylor. “He was very direct. He knew you didn’t motivate everybody the same way.”
As a result of Moore’s drive, the Bulls as a whole moved forward.
“He forced us to get better at everything as an organization,” says Taylor. “He wasn’t going to sit around and wait.
“He was just an amazing guy. He just gave and gave and gave.”
Taylor remembers Lance Moore as his father’s right hand man.
“Lance was a really bright guy — almost a baseball genius,” says Taylor. “He was a gentle giant (at 6-foot-3 and 225). Lance always had a smile. He had no enemies.”
Lance Moore played at Brownsburg, where he graduated in 1988 — brothers Jered Moore (1989) and Quinn Moore (1996) followed.
“He was a good baseball man,” says Quinn Moore of Johnson. “He just wanted to help kids. He never took a dime for it. He always gave back his coaching stipend.
“He he did it the right way. He demanded respect and that we played the game the right way.”
Johnson helped build the current Brownsburg diamond and took pride in its upkeep.
“He built a winning culture in Brownsburg,” says Quinn. “Wayne probably doesn’t get enough credit for building Brownsburg into a baseball power.”
Jered Moore played college baseball at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
“Dad had the desire to help kids reach their dreams and goals,” says Jered, who is now head coach at Zionsville (Ind.) Community High School and will leads the Bulls 12U White squad in 2021. “Back then did not have all the scouting services you have now. He was constantly on the phone. His long distance bill was high.
“He knew the and how to judge talent. Coaches really respected his decisions.”
Jered notes that the first players from Indiana to sign at Stanford University, including future major league infielder Eric Bruntlett, did so based on Craig Moore’s reputation.
Rolen, Zapp, Closser, Whisler, Lind, Richard, Lynn, Meyer, Barnhart and O’Conner have all been honored as Indiana Mr. Baseball.
Grand Park, a complex in Westfield, Ind., with 26 total baseball fields, is home to the Indiana Bulls. The 2021 season is to feature 30 Bulls teams 8U to 17U.
In the 1980’s, it was not unusual for a high school-aged team to play 15 to 20 games in the summer. Now they play around 50.
“This gives them a ton of time on the mound,” says Jered Moore. “They’re just better ballplayers with all that experience. The more games you play the better you become.
“When dad was coaching the Bulls we would host a tournament at IU, Butler, Ball State or Purdue two times a year. At other times, we were traveling. We spent 20 or 21 days in June and July in a hotel.
“Grand Park gives us a chance to give kids more exposure with all the kids in one location.”
Quinn Moore began at the University of South Alabama and finished at Indiana University. He is now in his second year as Indiana Bulls president.
“My dad took the Bulls to another level,” says Quinn. “A Carmel-based organization grew into the statewide Indiana Bulls.”
While his teams earned their share of victories and titles, that was not the bottom line with Craig Moore.
“It was never about winning over exposure,” says Quinn. “A college coach was there to see if the kid could hit the ball in the gap (even if the situation called for a bunt).”
Based on his experience as a college coach, Craig Moore set pitching rotations so college recruiters would know when and where to see Bulls arms.
“He knew what was best for kids at recruitable ages,” says Quinn, who will lead the Bulls 12U Black team in 2021. “The (Bulls) email chain started with him and my brother and I took it from there.”
Quinn says his father tended to carry a larger roster — 18 to 20 players with 10 of those also being pitchers. Now it’s more like 16 with plenty of two-way players. Of course, there are more teams.
When Craig Moore was coaching, he might have three or four pitchers who touched 90 mph. These days, the majority of hurlers on 17U rosters touch 90-plus.
Cerebral palsy likely kept Lance Moore from playing past high school.
“It was important for Lance to be involved with the Bulls and at a high level of baseball,” says Taylor.
When Jered Moore began coaching for the Bulls in 1999, he invited brother Lance to be an assistant.
“It was awesome,” says Jered. “We were best friends.
“He was very quiet, but he knew the game.”
Jered Moore considers himself fortunate to be a in baseball-crazy Zionsville, where 103 players came to a high school call out meeting. During the fall Limited Contact Period, players not in fall sports participated in practices on Mondays and scrimmages on Wednesdays.
“Indiana high school baseball is in a really good place as far as talent and the number of players that are playing,” says Jered, who is also a real estate appraiser.
The sport had long been a family affair and in the summer of 2003 all four Moores — Craig, Lance, Jered and Quinn — coached a 17U team together.
“That’s my favorite year of coaching,” says Jered Moore.
At that time, future big league pitchers Lynn, Lindblom and Hunter toed the rubber for the Bulls.
Before Dan Held left the Bulls to become an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator at IU, it was he and Quinn Moore that controlled social media and a hashtag was created: #BullsFam.
Quinn, who is also a regional sales manager for BSN Sports, enjoys seeing former players now coaching in the organization and having their sons play for the Bulls. Among those is Josh Loggins, Eric Riggs and Rolen (who played on the first Bulls team in 1992).
“The Bulls are family to me,” says Quinn. “It was family to my dad and to my brothers.”
Scott French played for Craig Moore’s Bulls and is now the organization’s director of baseball operations.
“Craig was awesome,” says French, who was a standout catcher at Shakamak High School and Ball State University, coached at BSU and helps with Mike Shirley in teaching lessons at The Barn in Anderson, Ind. “He made it a really good experience.
“Craig could coach in any era in my opinion. He knew when to push buttons and when not to push buttons.
“He was very honest, which is all you could ask of a coach. He was very credible. He didn’t sell players (to coaches and scouts), he just put them in front of people. We have the connections, structure and process (with the Bulls). He was part of starting that process.
“Quinn and Jered have put in a lot of time to help people get somewhere. It’s a passion for them and they got it from their dad.”
If you were in Zionsville, Ind., a few months ago and saw Nate Dohm pushing his mother’s SUV down the street, it wasn’t because of vehicle trouble.
Dohm was doing his best to keep up with baseball strength and conditioning workouts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With Laird’s Training LLC closed because of the lockdown and no access to weighted sleds or other equipment, the athlete had to improvise.
Dohm, a senior at Zionsville Community High School in 2020-21, began working out with Sean Laird in the fall of his eighth grade year. He first participated in Laird’s winter arm care and velocity program as a sophomore and has done it consistently since then.
Right-hander Dohm registered a pulldown max of 89 mph as a sophomore and 95 mph as a junior.
“My jumps on the mound were much bigger,” says Dohm, a right-hander who hit 83 mph as a freshmen, 89 mph as a sophomore and 92 mph as a junior. The Ball State University commit played for Laird this summer on the Indiana Bulls 17 Black squad. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t start lifting with Sean and doing that velo program.
“He helped me get stronger (physically and mentally). He doesn’t make it easy for you. It’s about pushing through that. You have to want to get better if you want to do his workouts.”
Laird has seen Dohm reap the rewards for his sweat.
“His work ethic is second to none,” says Laird. “The kid has literally changed his life.
“He’s changing himself into a power pitcher, which is cool to see.”
Taking his methods with him to the Bulls (it wasn’t unusual to see them doing side-hill sprints before or after a game), Laird was able to see strides in right-hander and Ohio University commit Brady Linkel (South Ripley High School Class of 2021).
“He’s one of those disciplined hard-nosed guys,” says Laird. “You saw him getting stronger and stronger by the end of the summer.”
That Bulls 17 Black team also featured Purdue Fort Wayne commits Bryce Martens (South Bend Adams High School Class of 2021) and Braxton Wilson (Martinsville Class of 2021).
“I was always a hard thrower growing up,” says Laird. “The last five or six years, it’s become very popular to throw as hard as you can.
“I see things people are doing that are really good and really bad. I saw a need. Everything I do is based on my experience, sports, and exercise science background. I want to focus on improving strength, core stability, mobility, and athleticism in our athletes. I take care of the arm and athlete first.”
Laird’s training methods include building athleticism from the ground up.
Typical in-person arm care/velo program sessions will last around 90 to 105 minutes twice a day. The first day is about strength and power, the second day explosive or dynamic effort work.
Athletes are given things to do on their own on the other days of the week.
When the players are with Laird there is a warm-up of 30 to 45 minutes that includes ground-based mobility work, including bands to strengthen the rotator cuff and scapula. There are also exercises with plyometic and medicine balls and attention to Thoracic Spine (T-Spine) movement.
After the warm-up comes activation. There is weighted sled work for the lower half. Weight med balls are used in upper body plyometics.
“We want to create force from the ground up,” says Laird, who also has his players do one-legged box jumps and hurdles to promote explosiveness and agility. “My goal is to have a more mobile and explosive athlete.”
Baseball or softball players — overhead athletes — in the program don’t touch a ball for about 45 minutes then they throw for 15 to 20 minutes maximum. They spend 12 or so minutes on long toss and then begin pulldowns.
“We want them to get their bodies into their throws,” says Laird. “Then we go into a recovery period and do blood-pumping band work and mobility stuff.
“We want to make sure elbow, flexors and extenders are strong.”
The same is true for the T-Spine and ankles.
While recovery is done as a group, Laird knows that not all his athletes are the same and have individual needs.
“I’m a big guy on communication,” says Laird. “Let me know what they feel.”
On the third day of the program, Laird has his players throwing a football — something that Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan did in his training.
“We want to throw with a tight spiral,” says Laird. “Throwing a football teaches pronation and good arm motion. You get immediate feedback with a football. It you have bad mechanics, you’ll throw a wounded duck. You have to be efficient.”
Players are encouraged to build their arms through long toss — working up to throwing the ball 300 or more feet if they are comfortable with it and can maintain mechanics, but everyone is different and distance can be different depending on the athlete’s ability.
Zack Thompson, who played for Laird with the Indiana Bulls and then the University of Kentucky and in the St. Louis Cardinals system, prefers to cap his long toss at 120 feet.
“It helps him mechanically,” says Laird.
This summer, which followed a spring without high school baseball, the Bulls played into mid-August and got in more games than a normal travel season.
“We wanted to make sure we could keep playing,” says Laird. “We treated June as spring training (and gradually increased pitch counts). By July, we hit the ground running.”
The Bulls are playing fall ball. Laird is busy with his training busy so he is not coaching.
A.J. Zapp is like so many baseball coaches. He is anxious to practice with his team.
Hopeful that time will come soon, Zapp gives an indication of how that session might go.
“We like to get into a lot of fundamentals early on — things like PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice), bunt defense, baserunning and defensive outfield play,” says Zapp. “We run multiple stations during batting practice. We keep (players) busy and avoid a lot of standing around.
“We like to keep practices short and sweet. Get your work done and get out of there.”
“After that you lose their attention,” says Zapp. “It’s not the number of reps, it’s the quality of reps you want to be taking.
“It requires the right mindset. Kids must come to practice to work.”
A.J. and wife Nikki Zapp reside in Greenwood and have three children — Evan (15), Ellen (13) and Emilie (10).
Evan Zapp (Center Grove High School Class of 2023) plays on the Indiana Bulls15U Grey travel baseball team with his father as an assistant to head coach Zach Foley.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has teams separated now, there is hope they might be able to play in the latter half of June. Zapp’s team is supposed to play three of four events at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., with out-of-town tournaments in Bloomington, Ind., and the Atlanta and Kansas City areas.
A.J. has coached his son on the diamond since Evan was 6, including some time with the Indiana Astros and Indiana Bulls.
Like his father, Evan throws with his right arm and bats from the left side.
“I encouraged him to be left-handed hitter,” says A.J.
In 2019, A.J. Zapp was Bulls 14U Red head coach. For eight years — seven with the Astros and one with the Bulls — A.J. coached with Phil Milto (uncle of former Roncalli and Indiana University pitcher and current Chicago White Sox farmhand Pauly Milto). Doug Zapp, A.J.’s father, was bench/pitching coach for seven seasons.
A former baseball player at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., Doug Zapp is a member of the Athletic Hall of Fame. Doug and Linda Zapp have an older son named David.
Zapp, who turned 42 in April, got his organized baseball start at Center Grove Little League (now know as Center Grove Youth Baseball) in Greenwood, Ind. In 1992 and 1993, he was on Center Grove Senior League squads that went to the Senior World Series in Kississimmee, Fla.
Up until high school, A.J. was coached by his father. The younger Zapp was a catcher when he was younger. At 12 or 13, he moved to first base.
With a stacked Center Grove High varsity team, A.J. got just 10 varsity at-bats as a sophomore then began turning heads with the Indiana Bulls in the summer of 1994. He also shined on the CG varsity in the spring of 1995 and with the Bulls that summer.
In the fall of 1995, Zapp signed a letter of intent to play for head coach Paul Mainieri at the University of Notre Dame. As his senior season approached, he was hearing from that he might be taken high in the draft.
“I had a tough decision to make,” says Zapp, who helped his pro ball status with a 1996 season that saw him hit .524 with 16 home runs and be named first-team All-American, first-team all-state and Indiana Mr. Baseball. Center Grove won the Franklin Sectional, Franklin Regional and Richmond Semistate before bowing to eventual state champion Jasper at the IHSAA State Finals.
Zapp did not make an early verbal college commitment.
“It’s a little bit different now,” says Zapp. “We have (high school) freshmen and sophomores committing now.
“It makes it tough on the college recruiters to have to evaluate players at 15 and 16. But it’s the times we live in.”
South Spencer High School right-handed pitcher Josh Garrett (No. 26 by the Boston Red Sox) was also a first-rounder in 1996. He pitched in affiliated baseball through 2001, reaching the Double-A level.
Zapp played 1,046 games in the minors (1996-2006) in the Braves (seven seasons), Seattle Mariners (two), Cincinnati Reds (one) and Los Angeles Dodgers (one) systems with 136 home runs and 542 runs batted in.
He socked 26 homers and drove in 92 at Double-A San Antonio as a Texas League postseason all-star in 2003 and belted 29 homers and plated 101 while hitting .291 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2004. On Aug. 20 of that year, he drove in nine runs and vaulted the Rainiers to victory with a walk-off grand slam.
Zapp is one of the few players to launch a homer over the tall wall in center field at Cheney Stadium – the “Blue Monster.”
Brian Snitker, who is now the manager in Atlanta, was Zapp’s manager at Low-A Macon in 1998, High-A Myrtle Beach in 2000 and Double-A Greenville in 2002.
Former Florida Marlins and Atlanta Braves manager and current Baltimore Orioles bench coach Fredi Gonzalez was Zapp’s manager at Triple-A Richmond in 2002. After that season, Zapp was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.
“Those days can change a kid’s life,” says Zapp. “Losing out on that many rounds, I’m not a fan of it.
“There will be a lot of free agent signs.”
An unlimited amount of undrafted players can be signed for $20,000 each.
Kris Benson was the No. 1 overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Clemson University. Besides Zapp, first-round high school draftees were Texas pitcher John Patterson (No. 5 by the Montreal Expos), Pennsylvania pitcher Matt White (No. 7 by the San Francisco Giants), California third baseman Eric Chavez (No. 10 by the Oakland Athletics), Washington pitcher Adam Eaton (No. 11 by the Philadelphia Phillies), Florida pitcher Bobby Seay (No. 12 by the Chicago White Sox), California outfielder Robert Stratton (No. 13 by the New York Mets), New York outfielder Dermal Brown (No. 14 by the Kansas City Royals), Virginia shortstop Matt Halloran (No. 15 by the San Diego Padres), Louisiana shortstop Joe Lawrence (No. 16 by the Toronto Blue Jays), Louisiana pitcher Todd Noel (No. 17 by the Chicago Cubs), Georgia pitcher Jake Westbrook (No. 21 by the Colorado Rockies), Louisiana pitcher Gil Meche (No. 22 by the Seattle Mariners), Kansas third baseman Damian Rolls (No. 23 by the Los Angeles Dodgers), Florida pitcher Sam Marsonek (No. 24 by the Texas Rangers) and Pennsylvania outfielder John Oliver (No. 25 by the Cincinnati Reds).
Sandwich first-rounders in 1996 included North Carolina outfielder Paul Wilder (No. 29 by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), California pitcher Nick Bierbrodt (No. 30 by the Arizona Diamondbacks), Florida pitcher Matt McClendon (No. 33 by the Reds), Canadian pitcher Chris Reitsma (No. 34 by the Red Sox) and New York pitcher Jason Marquis (No. 35 by the Braves).
Benson (70 wins in 10 seasons), Patterson (18 victories in six seasons), Chavez (260 home runs in 17 seasons), Eaton (71 wins in 11 seasons), Seay (11 wins in eight seasons), Brown (271 games in eight seasons), Lawrence (55 games in 2002), Westbrook (105 wins in 14 seasons), Meche (84 wins in 10 seasons), Rolls (266 games in five seasons), Marsonek (one appearance in 2004), Bierbrodt (six wins in five seasons), Reitsma (32 wins and 37 saves in seven seasons) and Marquis (124 in 17 seasons) all made it the bigs. Bierbrodt made a stop with the 1997 South Bend Silver Hawks along the way.
Stratton and McClendon made it as high as Triple-A, Halloran Double-A, Noel and Wilder Advanced-A and Oliver Low A.
In 2019, there were 13 high schoolers drafted in the first round — Texas shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 2 by the Royals), Florida outfielder Riley Greene (No. 5 by the Detroit Tigers), Georgia shortstop C.J. Abrams (No. 6 by the Padres), Texas corner infielder Brett Baty (No. 12 by the Mets), California third baseman Keoni Cavaco (No. 13 by the Minnesota Twins), Washington outfielder Corbin Carroll (No. 16 by the Diamondbacks), Illinois pitcher Quinn Priester (No. 18 by the Pirates), Georgia Premier Academy/Panamanian pitcher Daniel Espino (No. 24 by the Cleveland Indians), North Carolina pitcher Blake Walston (No. 26 by the Diamondbacks) and New Jersey shortstop Anthony Volpe (No. 30by the New York Yankees).
North Carolina high school pitcher Brennan Malone (No. 33 by the Diamondbacks) was a compensation first-round selection.
Competitive balance first-round picks from high school were Texas pitcher J.J. Gross (No. 36 by the Rays) and Pennsylvania outfielder Sammy Siani (No. 37 by the Pirates).
Abrams played for the Fort Wayne TinCaps in 2019.
Indiana’s three 2019 first-rounders came from the college ranks — University of Kentucky pitcher Zack Thompson (No. 19 by the St. Louis Cardinals), Tulane University third baseman Kody Hoese (No. 25 by the Dodgers) and Ball State University pitcher Drey Jameson (No. 34 by the Diamondbacks). Thompson (Wapahani), Hoese (Griffith) and Jameson (Greenfield-Central) are prepped in the Hoosier State.
Generally speaking, there are more right-handed pitchers out there. That means lefty swingers will see pitches breaking into them. Of course, the opposite is true with righty hitters against lefty pitchers.
Zapp sees big leaguers try to combat this trend.
“The two-seamer and cutter very popular in Major League Baseball now,” says Zapp. There’s also been plenty of lefty vs. lefty and righty vs. righty. “Games lasting longer because of the match-ups late in the game. Relievers have wipe-out sliders. Every reliever seems to throw 95 mph-plus with their fastball.”
When Zapp was playing, the gas increased as he went up in levels.
“A lot of those big arms are starters early in their careers and they move to the bullpen,” says Zapp.
Looking at how the youth baseball scene has changed over the years, Zapp says in the impact of social media and entities like Perfect Game USA and Prep Baseball Report give players so much exposure.
“The training, too,” says Zapp. “Kids are training all year-round. There’s a lot of hard workers.
“The competition is getting better. It’s a very competitive sport.”
Zapp, who was head baseball coach at Franklin (Ind.) Community High School in 2007, is around sports during his day job, too. As a sale representative for BSN Sports — the largest Nike and Under Armour team dealer in the country — he talks all day with athletic directors and coaches and sells practice gear, football, uniforms, spirit wear and more.
A.J. Zapp graduated from Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind., and was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in 1996. (Best Card Image)
Nikki and A.J. Zapp are surrounded by their three children (from left): Evan, Emilie and Ellen. A.J. was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Center Grove High School in 1996, played 11 professional seasons and is now a coach with the Indiana Bulls with Evan on the team.
Taking his ability to evaluate baseball talent and manage people, Anderson, Ind., native Mike Shirley is embracing the complexities of his new job as amateur scouting director for the Chicago White Sox.
Shirley, 49, took over his current role in late August. He was named assistant scouting director for the White Sox in November 2018. He began serving the organization as a cross checker in 2010.
As a cross checker, Shirley managed five or six area scouts.
“I was very active with a certain set of people, helping guide their schedule and my own schedule,” says Shirley. “As assistant scouting director, I was helping the director fulfill the entire (Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft) process.”
That meant helping to coordinate the entire amateur department while also acting as a national scout.
As director, Shirley is in charge of everything for the amateur scouting department.
“There’s so much more that goes into being a baseball scout than looking at players,” says Shirley. “There’s management of people, (molding) philosophy, understanding budgets and personnel and keeping everybody on track.”
Shirley notes that more attention is paid to the draft than ever before and there are so many pieces to the puzzle.
“I love the fact that scouting is so difficult some days to put all these pieces in order,” says Shirley. “That’s the most interesting part of the challenge that comes with it.”
With the training now available, players are now reaching the elite level at younger ages.
“Prospects now have currency and value as your organization changes and grows,” says Shirley. “The restructuring at the major league level has changed.
“The rebuild has changed the dynamic of what prospects mean. If your club is in a rebuild and it’s you know it’s not competitive let’s say in 2019, your processes become completely different.”
Clubs take into consideration drafting players that will give them the most currency in the market place.
“There are times now you’re drafting players you know — based on your cycle of talent from top to bottom — may be used as trade chips to get you to the next major league star,” says Shirley. “That’s really changed. There was a time 20 years ago when every team felt like they had a chance to win and every team was running for the title.
“We’re all trying to be competitive, but we also understand where are cycles of talent are (at any given time).”
With the 2020 season and June draft looming, where are the White Sox led by executive vice president Ken Williams and senior vice president/general manager Rick Hahn?
“We’re hugely in a position to be successful for the next five to eight years,” says Shirley. “It’s pretty well-documented we’ve in a rebuild process the last four years. It’s been trying times for everybody, especially for our fans, to stomach the tough days and the losses. I think we’re on the back of that now.
“Everybody is so excited about where we’re headed and what we’re capable of doing in the near future. Our young talent is significant. Our minor leagues is strong.”
Shirley is always taking in information from members of the White Sox amateur scouting department.
“The listening skill has to be sharp everyday,” says Shirley. “You have to be able to comprehend what these guys are doing and listen.
“There’s constant communication.”
During the season, area scouts are filing daily reports and messages are flying back and forth via calls, texts and emails.
A recent three-day recent organizational meeting at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., brought together all the scouting department and part of the player development staff.
“It was designed to get everybody in one room,” says Shirley. “We talked about philosophy, planning and where are evaluations are for the 2020 draft class.
“We listened to player development speak about players we’ve drafted in the past, where those players are at and shared information.”
It’s all about getting better and evaluating performance as scouts and player development folks.
“We did a good job here. We missed here,” says Shirley. “There’s constant evaluation of those two departments. We try to work together to make sure our decisions are tighter. Where are we missing? Where are we strong?
“You’re looking at it with full transparency. You’re not tricking yourself.”
Shirley has began conducting conference calls with his 17 area scouts.
“It’s a little deeper conversation than just what they submitted on the follow list,” says Shirley of a catalog of every player in a scout’s area that is likely to be drafted in 2020. “We want to listen to their voice.”
Scouts have been meeting with high school and college players and will continue to do so. These interactions help the White Sox put the make-up piece together in their draft evaluation.
Shirley says the club wants to know if a player is smart of lackadaisical, engaged or disengaged in the conversation or is a grinder.
“How do they go about their business?,” says Shirley. “What’s their family dynamic like? What’s their mom and dad like? Who influences them the most?”
Those pieces start to be put together via these conference calls.
“We’re always willing to take a risk on players who have elite talent,” says Shirley. “But if you don’t have elite talent and you have bad make-up, obviously there’s a red flag we try to stay away from.”
Scouts have been working on the 2020 draft for two years already. They were on the road again three days after the conclusion of the 2019 draft.
Most of the players who wind up in college, we’ve seen when they are in high school,” says Shirley. “The depth at which we follow these players is significant. The elite players we spend a lot of time on.”
There’s many ways to track players, including seeing them play in-person, video services, TrackMan and Rapsodo data and more.
“There’s so much more to the process than what your eyes tell you any more,” says Shirley. “We have multiple angles and multiple opinions.
“The sharing part among your departments becomes so tremendous. Everybody is in the boat rowing together trying to get to the destination.”
Stoudt-coached teams won 654 games with 14 sectional titles and three regional championship and 10 conference championships in 32 years as a head coach through 2012. He sent a number of players into college and professional baseball.
“He was tremendous,” says Shirley of Stoudt. “He built a program of high-end talent.
“He expected you to show up and held you accountable. He pushed you to be you best. He was demanding and his demand forced you to raise your expectations for yourself.”
Having an elite arm in right field, Shirley was reluctantly converted to a pitcher. He hurt his arm, underwent Tommy John surgery and was released. He concluded his pro career with the independent Anderson Lawmen in 1995 (Mid-America League) and 1996 (Heartland League) while also completing his degree at Indiana University.
Mike and Kimberly Shirley have been married 22 years and have three baseball-playing sons.
Various ailments, including stress fractures, caused Caden and Colton to miss long stretches of development as high school players.
“Being a baseball man like I am and watching my own children suffer, it’s been one of the biggest challenges as a father,” says Shirley. “You see how hard they’ve worked through their lifetime and you see them lose almost two years of their careers and it’s very difficult.”
For years, Shirley has operated a training facility in Anderson called “The Barn.”
“There’s so many young, talented players in there that have bright futures,” says Shirley. “That’s why I’ll always stay connected.
“You want to give them the guidance and give your expertise.”
Players from youth through major league come to the facility to train.
Jeremy Hazelbaker, who has played in the big leagues, took swings at “The Barn” during Thanksgiving week.
Minor leaguer Nick Schnell (selected in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018) got in the cage before heading off to Florida.
Zack Thompson (a first-rounder for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019) and Drey Jameson (a first-rounder for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2019) have trained at “The Barn” since they were youngsters.
So has Cole Barr, a Yorktown (Ind.) High School product who slugged 17 home runs at Indiana University in 2019.
“It’s been a really productive situation,” says Shirley. “There are guys in there who are going to be the next Nick Schnell or next Cole Barr.
“It’s a special place. We don’t ever try to be famous. We’re not on Twitter. If you’re a baseball guy, the proof’s in the pudding. Are you making players or not? Are you helping players get to their goals?”
Mike Shirley, a native of Anderson, Ind., is the amateur scouting director for the Chicago White Sox. He is a 1988 graduate of Pendleton Heights High School. (Chicago White Sox Photo)
“I love the punch-out,” says the graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is fanning opposing hitters at a rate of 12.81 per nine innings for the 2019 season (102 K’s and 24 walks in 71 2/3 innings) and 12.09 for his collegiate career (240 whiffs and 82 freebies in 178 1/3 innings). “I’ve got pretty good breaking balls. I can expand the zone on them.”
Thompson, who employs a four-seam fastball that he can sometimes get up to 97 mph that he mixes with a cutter, change-up, curveball and slider, says he goes to the mound with two keys in his mind: Get a first-pitch strike and after that win the 1-1 battle.
“There’s such a big difference between 2-1 and 1-2,” says Thompson.
Currently the Saturday starter during weekend series for the Wildcats, the southpaw is 4-1 with a 1.88 earned run a 1.88 earned run average. Opponents are hitting .179 against him in 11 games (11 starts).
Since coming to UK, Thompson is 14-3 with one save, a 2.57 ERA and .188 opponent’s batting mark in 40 appearances (31 as a starter).
“It was just the right fit and has a very blue collar feel,” says Thompson. “My family (which includes father Bill, mother Jan and older brother Nick) can see games. They’re usually down here every weekend. And it’s in the (Southeastern Conference).
“The SEC has the best competition and best environment to improve.”
Thompson describes the atmosphere at conference road games as “incredible.”
He has gotten to stand on the bump on a circuit that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
In the summer of 2018, Thompson played for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, making three appearances with one start. He was 1.0 with a 0.00 ERA, eight strikeout, five walks and three hits allowed in 8 2/3 innings. Opponents, including Chinese Taipei, Japan and Cuba, hit .107 against the left-hander.
“That was just an awesome experience,” says Thompson. “I was representing my country and playing with the some of the best players and for some of the best coaches.
“I got to see how other people do it.”
Louisiana State University head coach Paul Mainieri was the USA CNT head coach. The pitching coach was University of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor.
“Coach O is great,” says Thompson of O’Connor. “We worked on things in bullpen that translated to the game really well like his philosophies and pitch calling.”
Mainieri is a former head coach at Notre Dame, where O’Connor was his pitching coach.
Baseball America made the 21-year-old Thompson the No. 1 SEC prospect in the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft (which is slated for June 3-5). D1 Baseball has him No. 2 on their list. He is also high in prospect rankings for MLBPipeline.com and Perfect Game.
“I try not to worry about it,” says Thompson of the MLB Draft. “It won’t matter if I don’t do my job on the mound.”
Thompson was born in Anderson, Ind., and grew up in Selma near Muncie. Playing for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Brian Dudley at Wapahani.
“Brian was awesome and a great mentor,” says Thompson of Dudley. “He’s a great leader in the community.
“He sets his players up for success in the class room and on the field.”
Thompson was a National Honor Society student that led him to study business management in college. On the diamond, he put up eye-popping numbers.
On the mound, he went 23-2 with a 0.98 ERA and 405 strikeouts for 183 2/3 innings (15.43 per seven innings). As a sophomore, he helped the Raiders to an IHSAA Class 2A state championship in 2014 while going 13-0 with a 0.64 ERA over 87 innings as a pitcher and also hit .500 with eight home runs and 36 runs batted in.
High school summers were spent traveling with the Indiana White Sox or Indiana Bulls.
Thompson was selected in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, but opted not to sign and went to Kentucky.
Zack Thompson, a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., is a junior left-handed pitcher at the University of Kentucky. (University of Kentucky Photo)
Zack Thompson is among the nation’s top pitching prospects for the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. The left-hander is a graduate of Wapahani High School in Selma, Ind., and has been racking up strikeouts in droves as a University of Kentucky junior. (University of Kentucky)
Dudley steered Wapahani to a 9-1 win at Mid-Eastern Conference foe Randolph Southern April 12 to reach the milestone.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll be hitting fewer fungos or throwing less batting practice to his players.
Dudley will still be teaching the game and taking care of Raider Field — a diamond showplace in the Delaware County town of Selma.
“I’ve been very fortunate to not only have good players, but good kids,” says Dudley. “They all came from good families that have been supportive of our program.
“A lot more goes into it than one guy getting credit for 700 wins.”
This coach and educator is not given to long-winded speeches or flashiness.
“I’m simple,” says Dudley, an Accounting and Careers teacher at WHS.
Written below his likeness on his Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame web page is a simple, heart-felt sentiment:
“I have been blessed to serve as the Wapahani Varsity Baseball Coach since 1984. This honor is dedicated to the coaches, players, parents, and fans that have made Wapahani Baseball so special to our community.”
The building blocks of the program are straight forward.
“We just do things the right way and with class,” says Dudley. “We’re not here to show people up and do things that would be unsportsmanlike.
“What we’ve tried to do for a long time is have an expectation to win — from Day 1 when I started until now, we expect to win.”
Each senior class feels an obligation to keep the tradition alive.
“They don’t want to stand out and be the group that didn’t win,” says Dudley.
What does 700 victories mean to Dudley?
“I’ve been here a very long time and we’ve been pretty successful throughout those years as well,” says Dudley, a 1976 Wapahani graduate.
Success is just what the Raiders have enjoyed on a regular basis.
Besides 25 MEC titles (1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016), Wapahani has won 14 sectionals (1989, 1990, 1991, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014), six regionals (1989, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2014), two semistates (2004 and 2004), one state championship (2014) and one state runner-up (2004) — all on Dudley’s watch.
IHSBCA all-stars include Mike Schuck (1986), Brady Stevens (1988), Joe Luce (1989), Bobby Hirst (1990), Mitch Druckemiller (1993), Joe Hirst (1994), Kris Luce (1997), Donnie Collins (1998), Travis Johnson (2002), Eric Van Matre (2004), Jeremy Hazelbaker (2006), Devin Wilburn (2010), Brandon Estep (2011), Hayden Woodard (2013) and Zack Thompson (2016).
Hazelbaker was a standout at Ball State University and made his Major League Baseball debut with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. He is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Playing in the MEC (along with Blue River Valley, Cowan, defending 1A state champion Daleville, Monroe Central, Randolph Southern, Union (Modoc) and Wes-Del) tests the Raiders as does a strong non-conference schedule peppered with larger schools.
“Our conference is pretty competitive,” says Dudley. “It seems that no matter where you’re at, each team has a least one good pitcher. A lot of kids from our conference have played college ball. For being (a 1A/2A) conference that says a lot.”
Baseball has long been a priority at this place. Selma High School (which later consolidated with Center to former Wapahani) won a sectional in the first year of the IHSAA state tournament series (1967).
Time has also given Dudley some perspective and changed his coaching style a little bit.
“I’m a little more laid back after 34 years then I probably was the first 10,” says Dudley. “It’s just a baseball game — not life. When you’re young and full of energy, you think it’s life and death and it’s really not.”
When Dudley took over at Wapahani, the field had an all-dirt infield and now has spacious dugouts, a bricked backstop wall and tiered stands with a substantial press box and concession stand.
“We’ve had a lot of changes,” says Dudley. “The community takes pride in our field and our program.”
In a small town, baseball is a focal point and residents show up to watch high school, junior high (East Central Indiana League) and youth games.
We have a great Little League in Selma that has been strong for year and a lot of kids play in it,” says Dudley. “That’s been a good feeder system for us for sure.”
Dudley, who has a 2017 coaching staff of Jason Dudley, Randy Murphy, Willie Pease, Blake Turner and Drew Brandt, expects his hitters to be aggressive. The Raiders generally don’t grind just to run up the opponent’s pitch count.
“That’s more for the college level,” says Dudley. “We’ve got to be aggressive. You cannot become passive.”
Dudley says he is pretty happy with the current state of Indiana high school baseball. One thing he might change is the amount of time players are allowed to get ready in the preseason.
Brian Dudley, a 1976 Wapahani High School graduate, is in his 34th season as Raiders head baseball coach. This year, the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer reached the 700-win plateau. (Wapahani Photo)