One of the year’s most anticipated pitching matchups was just getting underway April 26 when Jonathan India stepped into the batter’s box at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Florida’s Brady Singer was facing off against Auburn’s Casey Mize, both of whom were Preseason All-Americans and are expected to be top-10 draft picks in June. That kind of heat on the mound brought another kind of heat in the stands, with more than 60 scouts crowded in behind the plate.
The attention wasn’t just on the matchup on the mound, however. India was also voted a Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors and had been rising on draft boards all spring thanks to his sensational start to the season.
India let a first-pitch ball pass before Mize left a cutter about belt high. India unloaded on the pitch, sending the ball rocketing into the left field bleachers for his 14th home run of the season. His draft stock didn’t really need any extra juice, but a home run against the likely No. 1 overall pick in front of many high-level decision makers certainly provided it.
India said he and the rest of the Gators were ready for the game’s magnitude.
“In the locker room, we were all relaxed,” India said. “We told ourselves, ‘Have fun. It’s another game.’”
India has played with that kind of loose mentality all season long to great effect. Following that matchup with Mize, he was hitting .416/.549/.839 with 14 home runs, 11 stolen bases and more walks (35) than strikeouts (30). The junior has played his way into consideration as Player of the Year and a top-10 pick.
India’s offensive surge has been at the heart of his outstanding season and has been critical to Florida’s success, but his contributions go far beyond his batting line.
“The thing about Jonathan is everyone’s talking about his average, and his home run total is up, but the thing about him that separates him from most in the country is the ability to play defense and the ability to run the bases,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “He’s got that rare combination that’s hard to find.”
India’s all-around physical tools have long been apparent. He committed to Florida the summer before his sophomore year at American Heritage High in Delray Beach, Fla. By the end of his senior year of high school, he was an All-American and ranked No. 82 on the BA 500 pre-draft ranking. Getting him to campus that summer as a part of a loaded 2015 recruiting class was a coup for the Gators, and he produced a Freshman All-American season the next spring, stepping right into the lineup for the Preseason No. 1 team in the country. His production as a sophomore didn’t match his freshman success, in part due to an elbow injury that sidelined him for a few weeks. He remained a key part of the lineup and helped the Gators win the first national championship in program history in 2017.
But India had never truly put everything together in college. In his first two years, he was a .289 hitter with 10 home runs. Dalton Guthrie’s presence at shortstop had pushed him to third base where he played strong defense, but neither his offensive production nor his 6-foot, 185-pound frame were prototypical fits.
All that has changed this season. India is squaring up more balls, driving them with more authority and walking more, all while playing his typically strong defense at third base and showing his plus instincts on the basepaths. He attributes the improvements to a change in his approach, which assistant coach Brad Weitzel long worked with him to make.
“I let my ability take over, and I just play the game I’ve known how to play since I was 5,” India said. “It’s really been working out and I’m stronger mentally this year, I’m more mature as a player. I don’t get down on myself after bad at-bats . . . and I just feel like I’m making adjustments easier this year than past years.”
Not only is India playing looser this year, he is also benefiting from a more disciplined approach at the plate. He has more than doubled his walk rate without affecting his strikeout rate, and his dramatic increase in batting average and power numbers are also a result of an increase in discipline.
“I’m not swinging at pitchers’ pitches,” India said. “I’m sticking to my approach and simplifying things at the plate.”
The change is readily apparent to those who have watched him over the years. American Heritage coach Carm Mazza said his first reaction to seeing India this year was simple.
“I went, ‘Wow,’” Mazza said. “You can see the same kid just becoming a man. He steps in the box and there’s a presence . . . You knew things like this were coming.”
India was a prep star and hit .410 with 25 stolen bases as a senior. He also was a part of what may go down as one of the best high school infields ever. American Heritage also had Lucius Fox, a native of the Bahamas who returned to his homeland to sign for $6 million with the Giants as an international free agent, and Tyler Frank, who went on to Florida Atlantic, played last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team and now figures to be drafted in the top three rounds.
“We were just kids having fun out there,” India said. “Scouts were always looking at us, colleges were always looking at us, but we just had fun the time we were playing together.”
In an infield of shortstops, it was India who played the position for American Heritage and he says he still sees himself as a shortstop now, even though he has mostly played third base in college. He initially moved to third in deference to Guthrie, who was the Phillies’ sixth-round pick last year. India split time between shortstop and third base over the summer in the Cape Cod League and during fall ball. O’Sullivan said he would have no problem playing India at shortstop now and that he may have better range at the position than Deacon Liput, who has taken over this season at short for the Gators. But Florida’s strongest defensive alignment has India at third.
“I have the ability to play short,” India said. “It’s just the way the infield works—it flows better with me at third.”
India may get the chance to prove he is still a shortstop in pro ball. Coming out of high school, he faced questions about his range at the position and those remain largely unanswered. Teams that still place a high value on a true defensive shortstop are likely skeptical about him at the position, but some teams have deemphasized that in an era where they shift on nearly every pitch. For those teams, trying India at shortstop seems like a no-brainer.
Regardless of his ability to play shortstop, India offers value defensively. He is an above-average defender at third base with a strong arm.
India has excellent baseball instincts that help him defensively and help his average speed play up on the basepaths. He has not been caught stealing since his freshman year and he is adept at taking extra bases.
India’s all-around skill set is rare among college infielders.
“He can drive the ball out of the yard, he can stay in the middle of the field when he needs to, he has a solid two-strike approach and the other phases of his game are really, really good,” O’Sullivan said. “He doesn’t take his defense lightly, he works awfully hard at it, and he’s a really good baserunner.”
India is on his way to one of the best offensive seasons in Florida history. Matt LaPorta and Mike Zunino are the only two Gators to be named Southeastern Conference player of the year, company India may soon join.