Five Things We Learned About The 2019 18U National Team
Baseball America recently sat down with USA Baseball 18U Director Frank Jagoda to talk about the National Team’s silver medal run in this year’s WBSC World Cup and the talented 20-man roster that traveled to South Korea.
You can listen to the full, hour-long interview below, but we also pulled out some of the most fascinating insights into the team and some of the players, from the perspective of the man who assembled the roster.
1. Robert Hassell might be the best pure hitter in the class
Ranked No. 10 on our current 2020 top 50 list for the high school class, Hassell is trending in the right direction after a loud summer. He led Team USA offensively with a .472/.524/.806 slash line, including a team-high two home runs and 14 RBIs.
Hassell was the spark plug of Team USA’s lineup and showed that he’s about as consistent as they come. Teams knew about Hassell’s feel for the barrel entering the year, but he’s only continued to show how special he can be in the lefthanded batter's box.
“He can really hit,” Jagoda said. “There’s not a whole bunch that bothers him. He’s a great kid, he’s an extremely hard worker and he can really hit. He showed up in a big way for us. . . . When a hitter goes up and he’s hard to pitch against and he can move the ball around foul pole to foul pole and drive it gap to gap like he can and leave the yard at will—you’re in a tough spot as a pitcher. He was in a good place. He was in a good place all summer. He hit all summer and handled high-level pitching all summer long. I can’t say enough about that kid’s work ethic.”
2. Drew Romo and Pete Crow-Armstrong are outstanding defenders
On the other end of the spectrum, Drew Romo has developed a reputation as one of the better defenders in the class, along with players like Pete Crow-Armstrong, who made his share of highlight-reel plays in center field.
Scouts have told Baseball America that Romo is one of the most advanced defensive high school catchers they’ve ever seen. And it’s not just the arm strength, the receiving ability and the blocking ability. It’s about the prep work and the ability to handle his pitching staff in games.
“Drew did a great job of managing and handling this pitching staff,” Jagoda said. “He called a great game. He worked hand in hand with coach (Scott) Bankhead on the game plan. . . . He was certainly part of the process. What coach Bankhead did was he would talk to Drew and talk to the pitcher, and they would develop a game plan and those types of things. Drew was right there in the middle of it. He handled himself great. Our pitchers had the freedom—now there were some suggested things that went on, but our pitchers had the freedom to be comfortable out there.
“If they saw something that we didn’t from the bench or Coach Bankhead didn’t from the bench, the pitcher or Drew were able to follow their gut and follow their leads. So Drew did a phenomenal job there.”
Meanwhile, Crow-Armstrong pulled back multiple balls from beyond the center field fence that would have been extra-base hits and robbed several in the gaps as well. He's got outstanding range thanks to his plus running ability, and it seems like the Southern California product routinely gets excellent jumps off the bat and runs efficient routes.
"That was an impressive run of defensive plays," Jagoda said. "I got a text while we were over there and it was like, 'Hey, any idea what his defensive runs saved are?' It's pretty impressive. And he made some highlight-reel plays. At one point he made a play and I walked to the end of the dugout and I walked to our press officer Emily, who does a phenomenal job, and I was like 'Tell me you got that please, because that is awesome. I want that clip.'
"He did a great job. He was the leader in the outfield, he was a leader defensively for us. . . . When you have someone like Pete Crow-Armstrong in center field you can do some different things with your off outfielders."
3. Alejandro Rosario has an uncanny feel for locating premium stuff
It’s typical of high school pitchers who throw mid-90s velocity to not really know where those fastballs are going. That wasn’t the case for Rosario during his time with the 18U National Team, when he proved to be an immensely valuable reliever who was capable of coming into high-leverage jams and also stretching out as a long reliever when necessary.
Rosario, the No. 17 player in the 2020 prep class, threw 13 total innings while allowing just one earned run with nine strikeouts and two walks.
“(He’s) anywhere between 95 and 99 mph, and it’s strikes,” Jagoda said. “He threw 13 innings and had one or two walks the entire tournament. And he’s not just up there running it up there 95, 97, 99—he’s pitching. Him and I have a long relationship, long history with each other. He was on the 15U team in 2017, which I was fortunate enough to be the pitching coach on. I’ve known him since then and we’ve stayed in touch. . . . Where he is now from where he was then just in regards to understanding the game and learning the game and those types of things—he’s a sponge. He does a phenomenal job, he’s grown into that body and he’s a lot more physical than he looks.
“It’s as close to repeatable as it could be. When you combine being athletic with having a pretty darn clean delivery, and then you combine that with a pretty good amount of confidence and next thing you know you have someone who’s in the zone all the time. Part of that, too, is understanding that he has good stuff, so he doesn’t shy away from contact.”
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4. Jason Savacool is a true student of the game
Calling someone a student of the game is fairly cliche at this point, thrown at any player who comes at the game with a modicum of thought. But when you bring out a literal notebook in the dugout to jot down tendencies and figure out how you’re going to attack hitters if and when you face them in the future, then that's when we think the saying applies.
“He’s always learning and you look in the dugout and he’s locked in,” Jagoda said. “One of the things that stood out to me all summer with him is he keeps a notebook and he writes things down about the opponents. He keeps notes throughout the game and he writes things down and he goes back to it. When he’s out there he knows, or has an idea of how they should be attacking and things like that. He did it throughout the PDP League. And that’s him. And I think down the road that’s going to pay dividends for him, is just being a student of the game and wanting to learn the game. He’s a very smart young man and, again, thankful that he was part of our group. A great teammate every step of the way.”
5. Drew Bowser and Rawley Hector are great examples of staying prepared at all times
You never know when you’re going to get the call or be put into a situation that you’re unfamiliar with. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to be prepared. Both righthander Rawley Hector and infielder Drew Bowser didn’t make the initial 20-man roster. But they knew they were next on the list if something came up, and sure enough both players got late calls to join the team in Korea and wound up being used in a pair of key moments during the tournament.
“(We) had a late roster change and had to fly Rawley in from Texas,” Jagoda said. “Seventeen years old, on his own from Texas to Korea while we were in Taiwan, he met us there and there wasn’t a single moment of hesitation. Yes sir, no sir type of kid and was just awesome. Very thankful that he was willing to come in in a tight spot. . . . We needed a guy late. He was at trials and we knew that if there was a late roster change with the arms he was the next man up. . . . He stayed ready and locked in and it showed. . . . He came in in arguably the toughest spot, he followed Lucas (Gordon) and faced the middle part of (Chinese Taipei’s) order (in the gold medal game). They went five lefties in a row and then they went four tough righties. First guy he faced out of the bullpen was their best hitter and he went slider, slider, slider—see you later. Did a great job.
“Drew was thrown into another tight spot. About 10 hours before we were leaving for Taiwan we had something come up and we needed to make a change on our roster. I called Drew and I talked through some things with his parents and he met up with us at LAX the next morning. He brought a duffle bag and we brought a USA team bag with a bunch of stuff and he changed in the lobby. And the next thing you know he’s on the club and right there with us. I couldn’t be more proud of how he handled that situation.
“Guys like Rawley and Drew, who fell a little bit short, they didn’t pout about it or bow their head. They didn’t have any animosity towards it. They understood that it’s hard for a staff, it’s hard for the players to come down to a final 20-man roster. . . . Drew had arguably one of the biggest hits of the tournament. . . . Drew Bowser had the game-winning hit against Korea to give us that lead. . . .He smoked a line drive to left-center, looks into the dugout, he’s fist-pumping the dugout and running to first base. It was a huge moment for us. Again, he’s a big part of us getting to the gold medal game.”