During Pandemic, Players Find Ways To Improve While Sitting Out College Summer Ball

Image credit: Steven Hajjar (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

The coronavirus pandemic turned this season’s summer ball landscape on its head, forcing the cancellation of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, the Cape Cod League and many other circuits, while also leading to a new emphasis on local leagues, some of which sprung up to meet this summer’s singular demands.

As unfamiliar as the summer season appears, it has continued in leagues around the country, giving many players the opportunity to get back on the diamond. There are elite players to be found in summer ball, like UCLA shortstop Matt McLain (Santa Barbara), Florida outfielder Jud Fabian (Orlando) and South Alabama outfielder Ethan Wilson (Honor the Game League), all potential 2021 first-round picks.

But there are also many premium talents who are sitting the summer out. The top three players in the 2021 college draft class—Vanderbilt righthanders Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter and Miami catcher Adrian Del Castillo—are all spending the summer at home.

It’s not unusual for a couple of the top pitchers in a draft class to take the summer off. After a spring workload of 100 innings or more and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, some pitchers choose to shut it down for the summer instead of playing with Team USA or on the Cape. It’s a less common move for position players, but far from unheard of. Both hitters and pitchers who nursed an injury during the spring often use the summer as a chance for rest and rehabilitation.

In a typical year, that equates to half a dozen or so of the top 50 college players in the draft class not playing summer ball. This year, however, about 60 percent of the top 50 players in the 2021 class are not playing.

Those players are spending their summer in a variety of ways. Some are working out at college with a small group of their teammates. Others are at home, doing what they can or using a local facility.

It’s yet another part of an unprecedented summer that requires some adjustments from everyone involved—players who are working with a new developmental plan, coaches who may have to adjust their fall routine to account for players who haven’t played in six months and scouts who are missing an important piece of their evaluations of players.

Finding the right facilities to work out in has been a challenge for players around the country. With access to gyms limited, players have had to improvise or make do with whatever equipment they have on hand. Players were in the same boat for pitching and hitting facilities.

Michigan lefthander Steve Hajjar, a potential first-rounder in 2021, was able to improvise at his home in Massachusetts. He threw some bullpens off a wooden mound at his house and built a makeshift gym in his basement.

“I got a lawn chair, tied it to a pole and put a rope over it for pulldowns,” he said. “I got some weights off Craigslist. That sort of thing. I was just trying to get as much work in as I could.”

Hajjar this month returned to Ann Arbor, where he joined a group of current and former Wolverines working out at Michigan’s facilities. But his efforts to add weight to his 6-foot-5 frame have paid off already and he has gained about 20 pounds to get up to 235.

Del Castillo also worked out at home, where he was able to throw with his brother and some nearby teammates and hit in the batting cage. He also eventually found another way to make the most of the shutdown, joining classmate Anthony Villar in workouts with Salvador Perez and Jorge Soler, as well as Royals coaches Pedro Grifol and Mike Tosar. The workouts were made possible through a connection from Villar’s father, Henry, who also played at Miami and is friends with Grifol and Tosar.

Del Castillo has quickly made a name for himself as a hitter at Miami. Over the last two years, he’s hit .336/.430/.571 with 14 home runs in 77 games. While that’s a strong track record at the plate, there are still questions about his ability behind it. He spent a lot of time as a freshman playing the outfield and if he can convince scouts that he can be a catcher in pro ball, it would be a boost on draft day.

Working with Grifol and Perez, a five-time Gold Glove winner, helped Del Castillo learn more about the craft.

“I learned a lot from those guys,” Del Castillo said. “Especially for me that I need more push with catching defense, that helped me a ton. He’s a Gold Glover, he does it right and does it in the hardest league, so that helped me a lot.”

Not playing summer ball means fewer in-game at-bats and innings, but players are still able to work on specific areas of their game. Hajjar is working to refine his delivery to better incorporate his lower half, an improvement he got the idea for from watching video of Walker Buehler. Del Castillo has been working on his defense and getting stronger.

“I’ve had a huge break—more than I’ve had in my entire life,” Del Castillo said. “Get stronger, get faster, get better defensively. I have a lot of goals, but I have a lot of time to work on it.”

Del Castillo is not alone among his college teammates in not playing this summer. None of Miami’s returning players is in action this summer. That is in part by design and in part a happenstance.

Coach Gino DiMare said when the season was shut down, the Hurricanes also shut down their pitchers. Coaches were concerned about how they would respond to a couple months away from action and that they might get rushed into action in time to pitch in the summer, so they removed any chance of that. They didn’t take a similar action with their position players, but a variety of factors led their returning hitters to take the summer off, from parents who preferred their sons stay home for the summer to a cautious stance the university has adopted starting with president Julio Frenk, a public health expert.

“I’m sure the parents felt more comfortable knowing their players were coming home,” DiMare said. “We have a few incoming guys in summer ball but no returners. Our guys are working out on their own.”

Those summer ball absences will lead to different approaches this fall for college teams. What fall ball will look like remains up in the air as colleges continue to finalize their plans for the fall semester and the NCAA and conferences work on the fall sports season.

But fall ball is certain to have a new look to it as coaches redesign their practice plans to accommodate the fact many players did not get the innings or at-bats they typically do in a summer.

“If guys can’t get at-bats and aren’t getting innings, I know fall will change,” Mississippi coach Mike Bianco said. “We’ll play more games and more intrasquads than we have in the past.”

Scouts evaluating the 2021 class will also have to adjust. They are used to a few of the top players sitting the summer out—2020 first-rounders Emerson Hancock, Bryce Jarvis and Aaron Sabato didn’t play last summer, for instance—but this year they’ll have to make up time with a lot more players. Even the players that are playing this summer are doing so in a much different context then normal and not facing the same level of competition Team USA and the Cape typically provide. That will make whatever fall ball and spring schedules that follow even more important than usual for players.

Players like Del Castillo and Hajjar are missing the game this summer. More than an opportunity for development, they simply miss being on the field with their teammates.

“I want to play,” Hajjar said. “Going to the Cape would have been a dream come true for me. You always hear about the Cape and you think, ‘Oh, those must be the best guys.’ The past two years I haven’t been able to go—first I was injured and now COVID-19.

“I love to compete. It’s a bummer I can’t play any baseball this summer.”

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