By Mike Kanen
For the second consecutive summer, the Breakthrough Series was hosted by USA Baseball in Cary, N.C. after a two-year term at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Once again, the event was a rousing success.
Since its inception in 2008, the Breakthrough Series has served as an opportunity for many kids in urban areas around the country to showcase their skills in front of college recruiters and major league scouts that may not get a chance to see them play otherwise. This year, 80 players were selected to compete in the event by the Urban Youth Academy, Major League Scouting Bureau, Mentoring Viable Prospects (MVP) and Chicago White Sox. The four organizations competed in a round-robin tournament from Monday through Thursday.
In the championship contest, MVP dominated the White Sox, 17-2, scoring 11 runs in the second inning. The game was played at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and will be aired on MLB Network at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 30.
Even with the White Sox loss, however, several players from the squad still managed to stand out, among them switch-pitcher Ryan Perez and a pair of 2013 graduates in John Hatch and Corey Ray.
Perez, a rising senior from Westminster Christian High in Elgin, Ill.,who also played in the tournament back in 2009, worked eight innings during the series—four with each arm—and struck out 11 while yielding two runs on three hits and walking four in three appearances.
Unlike switch-pitching predecessors Pat Venditte and Drew Vettleson, Perez showed comparable velocities with each arm. On Monday, he threw righthanded and worked between 85-87 mph with a low-70s curveball, and then on Wednesday threw lefthanded, again using a mid-80s fastball and showing the ability to spin a nice breaking ball in the low-70s. He threw one inning of relief in the final game as well.
Perez, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, impressed more as a lefthander, showing a smoother arm path and longer stride, and usually throws as a southpaw more often in high school because he plays the left side of the infield with his right arm. With his summer team the Chi-Town Cream, however, he has thrown with both hands.
"I've been doing it since I was three years old, so I have a lot of experience with it," Perez said. "I have four brothers, and out of my four brothers, my dad never got the natural lefty, and he always wanted a natural lefty so I was the experiment.
"He tried to teach me how to throw lefthanded, but he didn't want me to grow up and throw poorly lefthanded if I couldn't do it well, so he also taught me how to throw righthanded, and I kept on going from there."
Perez used normal right and lefthanded gloves during the Breakthrough Series but does have a specially made glove that he uses on occasion. Next up for Perez are the Area Code Games, set to take place August 5-10 in Long Beach, Calif.
Hatch and Ray, Perez's teammates, also made lasting impressions. Both were ecstatic to be invited to participate in the event considering their youth.
"It's an honor," Hatch said. "I've always wanted to play for Team USA, so to come out here and play in their complex is great. I'm really thankful for the opportunity."
Ray echoed Hatch's sentiments.
"I'm very honored," he said. "I'm glad I could come out here and play my game and play my heart out."
Age aside, the two youngsters stood out as the most impressive pitcher and hitter during the week.
Hatch is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound, righthander from Oklahoma while Ray, the team's centerfielder, is 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds. Both players look like they're still growing and offer projection from their current skill sets.
Hatch was at Tulsa's Union High but is in the middle of a move that will put him at a new school this fall. He worked one of the longer outings of the Breakthrough Series, throwing five innings on Tuesday against the Major League Scouting Bureau.
Hatch carved through the MLSB bats, striking out eight, and allowing just one run on four hits. Maybe more impressive was that he did not walk a batter and seldom went to a three-ball count, a product of a clean, easy delivery that he has mirrored from another Oklahoma and D-Bat arm.
"I like to model myself after Dylan Bundy," Hatch said. "He's from around my town. I like his delivery and he's always been good, drafted fourth overall by the Orioles, so I kind of like to model myself after him."
While his stuff may not be quite Bundy-like yet, he did show off a heavy 87-90 mph fastball with good arm side run, in addition to a nice mid-70s curveball with good bite when he stayed on top of it and solid command of a 76-78 changeup—his bread and butter.
"I like to use (my changeup) a little more than my curveball," Hatch said. "It's more deceptive so it's more of my out pitch and it felt really good today."
Still just 16, Hatch wants to improve his workout regimen in the coming years, perhaps adopting some of Bundy's now-famous training methods, and hopes one day he can become the next in line in Oklahoma's recent talent boom.
"I've played against (Dylan) and Archie (Bradley) before, so I know we have some really good competition," he said. "We had some talented arms down there, and I hope to carry that on."
Windy City Breakout
Nobody may have broken out at the tournament more than Ray, who attends Simeon Career Academy in Chicago and was the tournament's leading hitter, going 7-for-13 with considerable pop for his size. In his first at-bat of the tournament, he hit a towering home run out of USA Baseball's National Training Complex, a notoriously big ballpark.
The next two days, Ray peppered the outfield wall. He hit a double and triple to deep right-center field, and also launched a ball foul, a product of whippy wrists and sweet lefthanded swing. Ray, however, was quick to suggest his success was the result of the hard work he puts into the mental side of the game.
"I work on my swing day-in and day-out, but it's not only about the physical game for me but the mental game as well," he said. "I try to learn every time I'm on the field. Every time I'm around somebody that knows the game I try to learn some stuff from them."
In the championship game, his assault on arms continued. In the bottom of the first, Ray smacked a leadoff home run off an 88 mph fastball three rows beyond the 375 sign in right-centerfield at the DBAP.
And as though his offensive production wasn't enough, he then added the tournament's top web gem in the final game, laying out for a pop-up just beyond shortstop to make a nifty grab.
"I try to just go hard at everything, try to catch everything that's hit my way and play the game hard," he said.
Before the event, Ray was at an RBI tournament and will be playing with the White Sox program the rest of the summer.
Notable Breakthrough Participants
• Aside from Perez and Hatch, there were several other pitchers who threw well at the event including White Sox teammate Jordan Minch, a lanky lefthander from Highland (Ind.) High who touched 89 mph with some effort to his delivery and spotty command.
• David Gonzalez, a 6-foot-1 righthander from Gainesville (Ga.) High, touched 93 and struck out 10 in 4 2/3 innings of work for the MLSB team.
• Caleb Amos of MVP, an undersized righthander from Whitewater High in Fayetteville, Ga., worked between 89-91 mph with three offspeed offerings, and also made hard contact and displayed good wheels as an outfielder.
• Amos' teammate Kendrick Thompson, another small righty, threw in the high-80s with clean mechanics and got on top of his pitches well despite his size.
• The championship game had two of the more intriguing arms at the event go against each other in Courtney Hawkins for MVP, an early signee to Oklahoma and ace for Carroll High in Corpus Christi, and Rock Rucker for the White Sox, an early signee to Auburn who is between high schools right now. Hawkins, a righthander, worked from 88-92 with a max-effort delivery and flashed feel for a changeup, and Rucker, a southpaw, worked in the high-80s but was very erratic.
• At the plate, Jesmuel Valentin, a shortstop from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, showed nice infield actions, but struggled at the plate due to a sore wrist. He will be at the Under Armour All-America Game in Chicago on Aug. 13.
• DeSean Thomas, a physical third baseman from Canterbury High in St. Petersburg, Fla., showed off some power in his first at-bat of the tournament, launching an opposite field home run.
• The Breakthrough Series has been host to several players who have gone on to become top prospects or top draft picks in recent years, including first baseman Jonathan Singleton (Phillies, eighth round, 2009), outfielderReggie Golden (Cubs, second round, 2010), and first baseman Victor Roache (rising junior at Georgia Southern; Tigers, 25th round, 2009).