When Gregg Ritchie watches Pennsylvania high school outfielder Austin Hendrick hit, he sees a lot.
The hitting coach for USA Baseball’s 18U National Team for the third straight year, Ritchie has become familiar with Hendrick and his elite bat speed over the years. He has watched the Mississippi State commit and No. 6 high school prospect for the 2020 draft at a number of USA Baseball identifying events.
Hendrick’s offensive talent is obvious from the second anyone—whether a seasoned hitting instructor or not—lays eyes on his batting practice. His hands whip through the zone, and Hendrick is capable of sending balls deep over the fence to any part of the field, with ease that reminds Ritchie of another powerful lefthanded hitter.
“He’s like a (Bryce) Harper in waiting, huh?”
But what’s also obvious when watching Hendrick hit, is the amount of movement and noise in his swing. You can pick him out of a batting practice easily thanks to the way his bat waggles and flails and dances around his head as he waits for the pitcher to deliver. His lower half isn’t any calmer. Hendrick starts with a high toe position with his front foot, then taps back during his load, then twists his foot and then twists again as he strides toward the ball.
“I can’t even count how many toe taps it was, but I kind of described it as catching a fish and then dropping the fish off the hook and on the dock and watching what the fish would do,” Ritchie said, chuckling. “It would just flop around.
“He would get in the box and he would have an initial set of a high toe position that was only—I think I measured it one time—14 to 16 inches apart with his feet. And then he’d move his feet closer together when it looked like the pitcher was ready to go and twist himself. So his front heel would be facing the pitcher.
“I have pictures of him where his right shoulder was facing the left field bullpen. That’s how far it was in. And then from there he would have all the bat waggle going on and it would move in many different directions: behind his head, laying down on his back, then behind his head, then up forward toward the catcher, and then tilt toward the pitcher and then back over—it was a lot of stuff going on.”
In a typical year, USA coaches wouldn’t have the time necessary to teach a significant mechanical tweak for a player who was trying to make the 18U National Team. At Tournament of Stars, 80 of the top players in the country had only one week to prove they were worthy of making the 40-man trials roster, the next step in the process before the team is cut to a final 20-man roster.
There was hardly time for extra BP outside of games, let alone the amount of non-game days that would be necessary to create the muscle memory and comfort necessary to wield a new swing in a game scenario.
But that wasn’t a problem at the new in 2019 Prospect Development Pipeline League. With three weeks dedicated to practices only, Ritchie was able to help Hendrick simplify his lower half, remove his toe taps and replace it with a smooth leg kick. The process took five or six days for Hendrick to be able to feel comfortable with the adjustment, but it paid off with fewer strikeouts and better visibility of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand once Hendrick had it down.
“(At TOS) I took very strong care to allow guys to show who they were right then and there in terms of making the team,” Ritchie said. “I was very, very particular about what I brought to a young man at that time. If I had any inkling in my mind that it might be detrimental to him, in terms of showing what he could do his best at this moment then I curtailed that quite a bit.
“But the PDP League is a great thing. It allows you to get with those guys and get continuous training on a daily basis for a good period of time where you’re going to be more impactful. The taking of instruction and learning the players, being around them enough to kind of get their progressions better is increased exponentially.”
Development is the core of what the PDP League is all about. A blending of Major League Baseball’s previously existing PDP and USA Baseball’s TOS, the goal of the new PDP League when it was announced in November 2018 was to create “the most dynamic, development-focused experience available to high school baseball athletes.”
With the completion of the inaugural event this summer in Bradenton, Fla., at IMG Academy’s high-end campus—which includes four fields, covered hitting facilities, weight rooms, a cafeteria and plenty of space to house players for a month—those involved are excited about the potential it offers elite prep prospects.
“I thought it went really well,” said USA Baseball’s 18U director Frank Jagoda. “All 80 players benefited from it. I think when you have a program where you can talk to 80 guys and they all have the opportunity to grow from it, that’s the overall goal of what we’re trying to accomplish with USA Baseball.
Over the course of the three weeks, PDP League players go through practices, games, classroom sessions and get instruction from a number of different coaches, including former major league stars like Ryan Howard, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones and Barry Larkin.
“It was the best coaching I have ever been a part of,” said Drew Romo, who was the starting catcher on the 18U National Team in 2018 as an underclassmen and experienced both TOS and PDP. “There were so many resources for everybody. Coach Gerald Laird worked with the catchers every single day and it was amazing. There were so many resources for all of us.”
And it wasn’t just the extra coaching that Romo and other players found beneficial. It was the amount of time that players had off the field, forming better connections with potential teammates who would be looking to win Team USA’s fifth consecutive World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 World Cup this September in South Korea.
“Coming into it, I know some guys were a little worried,” Romo said. “Being gone for a month, they thought it was going to be really long, really tiring, but it actually went by really fast . . . It was actually really different because last year at TOS I think it was a little more strict. You couldn’t do as much stuff because we were all staying in a hotel and dinner was always at a certain time—breakfast and lunch the same way.
“Here at the PDP League, when we were at IMG, there was so much more freedom. You could go play volleyball with other kids who were there, you could go swimming, you could play basketball, football—there were so many things you could do. They have their own cafeteria with a pizza place and a bakery, so you could go get food essentially whenever you wanted. Just the room and board, that’s how it was different . . .
I definitely think that I got a better relationship with kids here this year than last year, just because of all the different activities you could go do, all the recreational stuff.”
The off-the-field benefits helped the coaching staff as well. In addition to getting extra time with early-morning or late-night BP sessions that allow development like Hendrick experienced, coaches are able to assess the off-the-field qualities that are important when trying to fill out a roster.
“You have an ability to evaluate the kids and how they handle themselves in that type of setting, said Jack Leggett, who returns to the 18U team as manager after leading the 2018 group to a gold medal in last year’s Pan-American Championship. “As kids start to either improve their chances of making the team, you see their attitudes and work ethics and all of those things and how they go about their business in three weeks—or they can eliminate themselves. So you get a chance to see them more often—and longer. I think there are some advantages that way.”
Major league scouting departments were also able to take advantage of those benefits. TOS was a major event on the scouting calendar, and now that remains the case with the PDP League, but the longer format allows clubs to get more eyes on players, and, therefore, more reports on the top.
“We spread out, we had multiple guys go down each week,” one National League scouting director said. “We had anywhere from seven to eight guys each week covering the event. There was no way we were going to send 21 or 22 guys to TOS to cover that.”
That’s not to say that the PDP League is already a perfect event without flaws. The number of different coaches involved created confusion at times, and with so many players and rotating instructors, efficiency was an issue as well, though as the event progressed these areas improved. Some scouts wondered whether or not the IMG fields were in the shape they needed to be in considering the amount of activity going on before and after games, while the length of the event could also be adjusted to avoid burning out players. Though as some point out, the event offers a taste of what life will be like for players at the next level, whether that’s a Division I college program or pro ball.
“I think any time you have a new program there is always that period of self-evaluation afterwards and emphasizing what we just went through as a group,” Jagoda said. “I’m very proud of how we handled it . . . I think our goal should be to continue to evolve, continue to get better. How do we make it new and better and relatable each and every year? And I think that’s where we should start. I think we can all grow from this experience and I think that our goal should be to continue to evolve and see how we can get better every step of the way.
“Obviously the end game and the ultimate goal is making the 18U National Team. But when you have an opportunity to grow our game and work with 80 of the best players in the country, and with all the kids you can see some things start to kick in and you see them learning a few things here and there—I think it’s just an unbelievable opportunity for these guys to go through.”