Image credit: John Rhodes (Courtesy of Kentucky Athletics)
John Rhodes found his pressure point this year.
The 20-year-old outfielder came in hot to Kentucky last year and hit .426/.485/.672 with 10 doubles in 17 games as a freshman before the pandemic cut the season short. He didn’t have a chance to get into SEC competition and was looking forward to the learning experience.
After a strong summer in the Northwoods League, Rhodes returned to Lexington and was attending an accounting class when he found out that through a combination of the draft moving to July and his birthday being in August, he would be eligible for this year’s selection process. First came excitement, and then a realization of what might lay ahead.
“I thought it was cool, and then I was like ‘Oh no,’ ” Rhodes said. “Honestly I wanted this year to be free and loose and easy and not have any pressure … I’ve been so bogged down mentally that it’s been hard to have fun. I’m at the point now where I’m hitting .240 so I might as well enjoy it, [and] that’s what I’m looking forward to, not being stressed out every day, not dreading going to the field, looking forward to having fun every day.”
While the game is still fun, and there’s nothing Rhodes loves more than heading to the cages with his fellow Wildcats, it’s his first real bout of failure at the plate that has been difficult.
“It’s a mental game,” he said. “I honestly went down a little bit of a spiral, rabbit hole-type stuff, and I’m just getting back on my feet. Because until you go through failure, you don’t know how to deal with it … You don’t have mechanisms that you know for sure can work. But there’s peace in the struggle, peace in understanding that even though I am struggling, I know I’ll get out of it.
“It sucks now but in the long run, a season like this is really going to prepare me for the future. The end goal is obviously to perform in the big leagues, and it’s college right now. What happens is just another step in my development, so I’m trying to look at it like that and not get too caught up in the everyday stress of what’s going on.”
Despite the struggle, the tools and athleticism have always been there and Rhodes knows they will continue to help propel him forward.
“In the past my hit tool was always going to be my carrying tool,” Rhodes said. “Then this year not as much. I ran out of a little bit of luck, but I would still bet on myself for that in the future. Hit tool first, then arm second, power third, and defense and speed are interchangeable. I’m fast but I don’t steal too much, my run times aren’t great. Defense then speed, but I’m pretty average in all of them.”
Only half-joking about running out of luck this year, Rhodes has felt the numerical drop in his BABIP from .455 in his short sample last year to .240 this year, and has seen it come to fruition in disheartening ways.
“I literally haven’t had a bloop knock since Ball State, our second series of the year,” Rhodes said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I just need one little blooper single to fall. I literally have more extra-base hits than I have singles.’ It’s so frustrating but that’s baseball. It’s one of those years.”
But in every other year, the 6-foot, 200-pound outfielder has been able to stick to a traditional approach and find success with it.
“I consider myself a pretty hard worker and I try to use that to my advantage at the plate,” Rhodes said. “When I’m walking up there, in my head I’m thinking, ‘All right, I’ve worked harder than this dude so theoretically I should get a hit off him, there’s no way he should get me out.’
“Then my approach too—I like to stay pretty calm, through the middle of the field, and honestly just try to hit a fastball through the middle. If it’s a curveball and it’s hanging, pull it or hit it where it’s pitched. It’s not a complex approach at all, just take what the pitcher gives me and run with it.”
“I’ve always had a pretty good arm,” Rhodes said. “I caught until I hurt my back and that was always my carrying tool. I always had good pop times, good arm strength, and that’s always come easy; I never even really had to think about it.”
As a high school freshman, a combination of basketball, catching and growing took a toll on Rhodes. The result was a broken back and a future that didn’t involve squatting behind the dish.
“It was a lot of overuse,” he said. “It was really hurting me and I remember taking a check swing … and I felt a crack. I thought, ‘Oh no,’ and I started to run to first and literally couldn’t run and breathe at the same time. Basically what happened was that I had four bulging discs in my back and when I took that swing, the L4 and L5 cracked, so I had two fractures and two bulging discs.
“I had to brace up for three months, 24/7, besides taking a shower. I had to sleep in it. It was from my neck to my waist. That was horrible … It really made me have to take a step back. I was always a catcher, so I realized I guess I have to hit now, and I’ve got to find another position.”
While the arm is still there, and has been and can be a weapon for Rhodes from the outfield, shifting his mindset with his position has proven difficult.
“If I had a bad game at the plate, I could think, ‘All right, I’m catching well,’ ” he said. “It’s easier on your mind, and if you need to take your mind off your at-bats into catching, every pitch you’re in the game. When you sit in the outfield and you’re 0-for-2 in the fourth inning with two punchies, all you can think about are your at-bats. That was the biggest adjustment—not being involved in every single play … I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss catching.”
“My power comes from solid contact,” Rhodes said. “I’m not a guy who sells out to try to hit bombs, that’s not my game … As long as I’m smooth with my swing and make solid contact, if I square a ball up in the air, it should go out. I’m strong enough to get it there. It’s definitely not a focus but it’s come more to fruition lately than in the past, so I’m excited for that going forward.”
“In my freshman fall, I played seven positions,” Rhodes said. “I played every infield position and all three outfield positions. I was supposed to play shortstop [against] Texas Christian before our guy got hurt, and then I played third. I had a ton of errors there because I had the yips or something, it was so bad. Now I consider myself an outfielder. I think I could play wherever in pro ball but right now literally any of the three spots, put me out there, I feel comfortable.”
Despite his early struggles at third, Rhodes is confident that a return there now would not have the same result.
“I was just nervous, it was my freshman year and I wasn’t used to playing in front of a couple thousand fans,” he said. “I would pick up the ball and look at the first baseman and he would look tiny. I either missed high or missed low, I would never hit him in the chest. I could feel myself breathing, my chest would be really tight, it was so weird. I had never experienced anything like that.
“It was wild because I didn’t have a single error all fall or in spring scrimmages, and in my first play my first game I had an error. I didn’t really know how to deal with it, and it kept rolling over, kind of the same thing that happened to me with hitting this year. But I’m better in the long run from it.”
Transitioning to the outfield, Rhodes has found his biggest challenges to be efficiency in his first step and becoming confident in his reads, though he’s “getting better by the day.”
“You’ve kind of got to fake it, that you’re confident in the beginning,” the No. 182-ranked draft prospect said. “Then the more you take batting practice reps and game reps, you come into it. I played with a pretty good center fielder this summer and his advice was to make everything as smooth as possible, and look as easy as possible. That helps slow your mind down and stay calm catching it. You see a lot of guys who are really shaky on their reads but if you act like you’re in control, it takes over. It’s kind of cheesy, but it works for me.”
“If a ball’s in the gap and I’m on first, I feel like I’ll score every time,” Rhodes said. “I actually have the fastest 60 on our team, but it’s short bursts and getting out of the box. My home-to-first time is not elite but if it’s a flat out race or something, I’m pretty fast. Also in the outfield I move pretty well. I’m trying to figure out how to get out of the box faster, how to utilize that first step better for stealing bags. I know it’s there.”
Contributing to not only his run tool but his all-around game is the incredible athleticism Rhodes has displayed. Growing up playing baseball, football and basketball—scoring more than 1500 points at Chattanooga Christian HS—his high school’s track coach coaxed him into attempting long jumping to score the team some points, and he did exactly that.
“I was playing basketball and our track coach was at the game,” Rhodes said. “I dunked, and he came up to me after and said, ‘Hey, do you want to come do long jump and get us some points for meets?’ So I said sure, as long as I didn’t have to practice. So I showed up to the meet, put my [gear] on, went out there and jumped, beat everyone by four feet, took it off, went and played a game, hit three bombs and thought, ‘This is nice.’ It took my mind off baseball for a little bit. But I never practiced one time; that was my first day.”
Contributing to everything he does on the field, Rhodes believes the most significant contribution that his athletic prowess allows him comes by way of confidence, something he’s hoping he can get back to where he’s been before with.
“It’s like I’m the most athletic guy on the field, I’m going to do this really easy and smooth,” he said. “It helped a lot last year moving around everywhere. I’d be like well I’m not a third baseman but I’m an athlete, so it helped me. It’s something I forget about a lot of times. I need to stop thinking so much and do. My swing, sometimes I break it down too much and get really cookie cutter and I’m like dude, just be an athlete up there. Be free, loose, let it happen. That’s something I’ve got to trust a little bit more.”