Preseason Baseball Media Day

2016 Kentucky Baseball
Feb. 8, 2016
Wildcat Den -- Lexington, Ky.
Preseason Media Day

Coach Gary Henderson

Positional breakdown in opening statement …
“Thank you for being here. Appreciate you coming out today. I’ve grown to enjoy this day. It is obviously an exciting time to be a part of Kentucky baseball. We have a lot of positive things going on. I’m excited about it. The kids are excited about it. You’ll have a chance to talk to those guys in a few minutes. We’ve got a wonderful, a great group of kids, a great group of people. A nice mix of experience, some new guys into the program and some solid leadership in our older kids. I feel really fortunate to be their coach. What I’d like to do is go around position by position. Give you my thoughts on those different positions and then at the end, whatever questions you have, I’ll do my best to answer them. I typically start with the pitching. I am going to do that last because it is probably going to generate some questions. Which is a great thing. A really good thing.

“We’ll start at catcher and I’ll go around the infield. We’ve got four guys vying for playing time with Zach Arnold as our senior. Been with us a long time and has really grown as a young man. He has improved his skills, his ability to hit. He is a local product from Frankfort. We are proud of him. He has developed into a young man that has some leadership skills which I’m really glad to see. Another guy in the mix for playing time is Troy Squires, from E-town (Elizabethtown, Ky.). Troy is a third-year sophomore. He has really developed. He’s improved his strength, his speed, his throwing, everything about him has gotten better. He is also a guy that as he gets older, spends sometime in the program, he is going to be an exceptional leader. We have another freshman who is going to be a very good player, name is Kole Cottam. He’s from Knoxville. He’s gotten stronger. He is a smart, smart young man. But his baseball IQ has improved since he has been here. He sees the game a little bit differently. His perspective is broadening and improving. You will end up seeing him this year, but as we move forward, I feel very good, not just this year, but in the years forward with our catching situation, who we have signed coming in and Troy and Kole. That gives us a very solid foundation at that position. Marshall Gei is also with us as a second-year player who has grown a lot and improved during his time in the program.

“At first base, we probably have the best first baseman in America. His name is Evan White. He is a very, very good player. He is athletic enough that if we needed to get an extra bat into the lineup we could move him into the outfield. As we start the season he will be at first base. Those of you who watched him last year, you were impressed. He’s bigger, he is stronger, he is faster and he is going to be a better player this year. We are really fortunate to have Evan in the program. He is a good player and you are going to enjoy watching him.

“We’ve got good, solid competition going on in the middle of the diamond. Kind of what you want as a coach. I think Coach (Rick) Eckstein has really enjoyed his time getting to develop all those kids. We’ve got four guys, right now as it stands vying for time in the middle. Two guys at the forefront are the returners. Nothing has been decided and nothing will be decided until we get the season going and see where the first two weekends go. Connor Heady is a junior from Oldham County. He has really improved his strength, speed, his ability to hit. He has always been a good defensive player with a strong arm. Connor has very, very good instincts and very good intelligence for the game. But has really improved here over the fall and through our winter workouts. Riley Mahan is a sophomore that you saw play a bunch last year that has developed also physically. He is a better player now than what he finished up the spring season. He had a nice solid summer. Those two guys are at the forefront of what we are doing but Luke Becker is a very athletic first-year player for us. He is a sophomore that transferred in. A very good player that has a chance to switch hit. He moves really well and can turn the double play. Is athletic and a good enough baseball player that we could run him over to third base if we needed him too. (We are) really fortunate to have Luke in the program. Zeke Lewis is also a guy that has played very, very well defensively for us, through the fall and in the winter. We have been very fortunate to get outside and have seven scrimmages since we started official team practice last Friday. The weather has really cooperated for us. We were able to get out there and see those guys perform and see where they have taken off from the end of the fall to now. Zeke is a guy that is going to end up being a very good baseball player at Kentucky, very good. He has an advanced ability to play defense. He has to get stronger, which puts him in the same boat as much freshmen across the country. He has to grow physically and get stronger so the offensive part of his game can complement the defense. That is what we have in the middle.

“Over at third base, we’ve moved JaVon (Shelby) from second to third. He is going to be a very good player. Obviously an all-league player last year, preseason All-American, all of those good things that are nice to be a part of and nice to have in your program. JaVon gives us a physical presence. Power, obviously he is a very accomplished offensive player. He’ll be better this year than he was last year. Pitch selection will be better. The stroke, that in and of itself, will be improved just based on the amount of time he has spent with (hitting coach) Rick (Eckstein) in that part of the game. The knowledge piece. Pure skill acquisition has gotten better for him since last year. He is going to be a very good player and do a great job at third base for us.

“We’ve got some new guys in the outfield. Obviously when the SEC leader in hits moves on you have a hole to fill in centerfield. Kyle (Barrett) was a tremendous player for us for three years but he is gone. We have Storm Wilson from Somerset, Marcus Carson from North Laurel and Tristan Pompey from Toronto, three guys that are competing for the centerfield position. We will probably have multiple guys play that spot for the first couple of weekends, give them the ability to compete and see who nails that down. All three can play in the corner as well. It is a good mix of experience and youth. We have some left-handed hitters in Storm and Marcus. Tristan is a switch hitter. Clearly very excited about the improvement of Dorian Hariston, from here in town. Dorian will be a senior and really improved his ability to square up a ball in the box. He has done a very, very nice job of getting better. He provides leadership and experience for us. I am very proud of him. We have a walk-on named Zach Reks that is going to force us to pay attention to him as well. He is also a left-handed hitter who transferred in from the Air Force Academy. Was in school last year and didn’t play. He will be with us as a fourth-year junior. He has done a really, really good job of carving out a niche for himself in terms of going to force us to give him the opportunity to give him a chance to get something done as well. Feel very fortunate that with Ka’ai (Tom) and Kyle Barrett moving on from last year that we’ve got a stable of guys that are going to do a very good job, not only offensively but defensively for us in the outfield.

“The pitching. We are one of the few places in the country to have drafted juniors come back as seniors. We are obviously very proud of that and the statement it makes when kids turn down professional baseball and decide to come back and play their senior year for you. Those are the 10th and 11th guys in the last nine years to come back to UK for their senior season. Obviously that is a statement. Every one of the kids that have done it previously have improved their position going back into professional baseball so it makes you feel good. Obviously no guarantees in life but it has been a good decision for the previous nine guys and chances are very good that it will be a good decision for Dustin and Kyle as well. As it stands right now they would be two of our starters on the weekend, the third would be Zack Brown, who threw on Friday’s for us last year. All three kids have grown and maturity and improved their ability to pitch. And their repertoire. The individual pitches, themselves are better for each kid, all three of them. That puts us in position to feel like we have a very, very good starting three on the weekends.

“The next question is the obvious one and the one that you ask every year, ‘Coach, what are you going to do in the bullpen,’. So, let’s address that. We have a nice mix of left and right, and experience. We don’t have anybody that comes back that has quite the qualifications that a Trevor Gott would that did that for us for three years. But we’ve got a good group of kids to choose from and have compete for us. On the left side you have Logan Salow, junior from Ashland. You’ve got Zach Logue, a sophomore from Cincinnati. Dima Ballard is a local kid here from LCA, that has done a really nice job of getting better since fall workouts ended. He has really improved himself tremendously. Jacob Hamilton from Eastern Kentucky.  On the right side, we’ve got several options. Zach Strecker will be someone you recognize for our fans. He’s a fifth-year senior. He has really grown as a competitor and as an individual. Had a really good fall for us. Did a nice job over the summer in the Northwoods League. He has improved his ability to create a pitch and compete at a high level. I expect him to be a very frequent contributor for us out of the bullpen this year. Bo Wilson is a guy that we converted from over the top, or three quarter delivery, to down under in the middle of last year. He has really progressed nicely. Zach Pop, although he didn’t have a fall for us due to injury, he is guy that pitched for us and should step up and pitch when it matters this year. I am sure I am forgetting someone right now. Sean Hjelle is a freshman from Minnesota. That gives us, four on each side, and eight guys to choose from and mix and match a little bit. We’ve got some experience and I know from doing this job for a long time there will be someone that comes from the back of the pack that really enjoys competing, kind of blossoms when the lights get turned on and the uniforms get put on, there will somebody that does that as well. Right now we feel really good about that group and what they are going to allow us to do. That is how I look at it. It is an exciting group. They are impressive kids. Academic team of the year, which is nice in the offseason but it doesn’t count for a lot in a couple weekends when we start playing. Did another nice job with a 3.38 GPA in the fall. That type of group. Those type of people. The type of guys that you like seeing on a daily basis. Responsible, accountable. Tremendous ownership in the group. Very, very good leadership from our older kids.”

On Kyle Cody’s return after being selected 73rd overall in MLB Draft as a junior …
“It is a tremendous boost for the kids. It is a statement about what Kyle feels about the University of Kentucky. It is a statement about, probably some other things that Kyle would be better qualified to address than I am. It is clearly a statement, when a young man comes back and turn down any amount of money really, but it’s a statement that he thinks he can get better, clearly. It fires the kids up. Obviously, the coaches like it as well, there is no getting around that. It is a tremendous boost for the program.”

On if this is the best pitching staff he’s had in his 12 years at Kentucky …
“Good question. It is the most experienced and the most qualified starting rotation we’ve had. We’ve certainly had very good pitching staffs here throughout the years. Accomplished and experienced bullpens. We are not quite as experienced in the bullpens as we were in, say 2008 and 2012, but in terms of running three guys out there that have done it and are really talented, it is the first time we have been in that position. We are really fortunate to be there.”

On a midweek starter …
“One of the right-handers that I forgot to mention is Justin Lewis, who has really developed. Justin redshirted last year. Justin is going to pitch for us this year. He would be a guy that could do that as well. Zach Logue could do that as well. We have several of those guys. One of the things you end up doing is you play your first month, the first four weekends and the midweeks, then you take those guys that are doing really well, and whoever could possibly, or has carved out a spot as your fourth starter, often finds himself pitching in the seventh and the eighth inning on the weekends. So if you burn those innings on a Sunday, it doesn’t lend itself for that young man to be your starter on a Tuesday. Zach Logue could do that, Sean Hjelle could do that, Justin Lewis could do that. All three of those guys could. Obviously, Brad Schaenzer is in that mix as well. We’ll have to figure out, just how good that starting staff is on the weekend. Are they chewing up 6.1 or are the going 7.2? When you start adding that up that is a lot of innings that you may or may not use on a weekend and you could push those to the midweek. Those four guys would be at the front of it right now. But that job is always open for competition. Always.”

On the move of JaVon Shelby to third base…
“In terms of production he brings experience with a really good resume. He brings confidence. The Shelby family has done a lot of very, very good things for UK baseball offensively. John’s third year he turned into a tremendous second baseman, a tremendous second baseman. JaVon is going to do that at third base as well. Anytime you have that type of confidence, experience in the infield, no matter where it is playing, can only help. Just having him there, with the ability to jog over to the mound at any point to get us back on track is beneficial, obviously. He is going to have a good year and he is going to be a really good player at third base.”

On if they moved JaVon to third base because of his above-average arm strength …
“The skill set was well suited. It’s clear, I mean, he’s all-league second baseman. So he can certainly do that at a high level. For a number of reasons it made sense to put him over there. Whenever you make a move like that there are a few moments of trepidation, a few little bit of tentativeness early on just in terms of, in as much as no matter how sure you are, you need to see it before you know. When Rick and I talked about it, it seemed to me to be a no brainer. Rick (Eckstein) is the one who had the conversation with JaVon and he was open to it and felt like it would be good for him. It has been. He has played well. Nobody is perfect in our game. We are not looking for perfection in the infield. But he is going to be a good player and he is going to do a good job over there. And yes, his arm works well over there at third base.”

On how Zach Arnold can improve his position as starting catcher …
“Throwing the baseball. He is really improved in his ability to get a hit. He has always been competitive at the plate. He concentrates at a high level. He competes very well. He is squaring the ball up at a nice rate in our intrasquads. Zach has improved, I don’t want to say intellectually, but baseball knowledge, IQ, insight. He communications at a really nice level with our pitching staff, our guys respect Zach. He catches the ball well. He blocks it well. He is like everybody else, you have to get better at something, no one is at the end of the road in this sport. For him the next step is getting that level of confidence, that level of skill at getting even more proficient at throwing the baseball.” 

On if this team is going to have more power compared to 2015, after surge in 2014 …
“There are going to be more doubles. And my guess would be more home runs. Anytime you lose the number of singles that Kyle Barrett hit or the number of times that Ka’ai (Tom) squared up the baseball you are always wondering who is going to fill in those spots, no question but we are going to be good offensively. I am not going to stand up here and predict a lot of home runs, we will hit some. We are going to be very competitive in the box. We are going to have the ability to hit line drives and doubles. We are going to run well. I don’t know that we are going to have high numbers of stolen bases but I see us having a lot of doubles because we can really get out of the box well. I see us going first to third. I see us scoring from second base. We are going to run well. We aren’t going to look like Coach (Edrick) Floreal’s track team out there, I’m not saying that. But we run well in terms of, you go around the diamond. Evan runs well, Connor and Riley run well. Luke runs well. JaVon wells. We have two or three outfielders that do a good job of running. We are not gifted with speed behind the plate, they run like catchers, but that’s fine. We are going to have a group of kids that can go first to third. That is going to allow us to extend some of those long singles, that maybe you saw last year. We had a group of guys that hit long singles last year, no question. But I think we will be better at that piece of the game. I don’t forsee an abundance of small ball but I certainly respect the bunt and the ability to do that when the game is screaming it is time to bunt and the door has been opened and if you can take advantage of that then you are wise to do so.”

On if freshman Tristan Pompey compares to his brother, Blue Jays CF Dalton …
“I don’t know Dalton, I’ve only watched him on TV. In that respect, he doesn’t have Dalton’s speed, yet. He is like a lot of really, long freshmen. He needs to get stronger. He is going to run faster as he gets older, I don’t think there is any question about that. The other part that I would add about his production is that I am too old and too experienced to give you a lot of predictions on freshmen in our league. He is going to be a very good baseball player when he is done. I’d like it to be in April. We will see where it goes. He’s got the ability to square up a baseball. He is a switch hitter. Has a very good swing. It has gotten better since it got here. He is going to really need to buy in to strength increases in order to change his career, both from a running standpoint and a power standpoint. He is a talented player. As he matures as a person and a baseball player he’ll end up being a very good player here.”

On elaborating on his weekend rotation arms …
“Well they’ve all gotten better. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Just in terms of pure ability to grade out their pitches. The next step for Kyle (Cody) and Zack (Brown) is staying emotionally intact with what the process of pitching will allow them to do. If they can stay in-tuned with, ‘this is what I am doing on the next pitch. This is where I am going. Do I have a plan? Am I committed? Do I have clear intent of what the next pitch is doing?’ That takes experience. That takes commitment. That takes maturity. If we can get them to buy into that emotionally … They don’t need to buy into it intellectually, they understand the value of it. The challenge comes in the game when you experience frustration or failure and now you’re challenged and which direction is your concentration traveling? If we can get them to buy into that they are both going to get better. They will both get better through the first month of the season. They’ve got really, really good arms, very good. The command of the secondary stuff for both of them has improved dramatically in the bullpen. The next step is to bring those pitches into a competitive environment, especially out of the stretch, with two guys on and the count is 2-1. Now we are challenged. That is where the game is really played. That is when you are going to make your money pitches. If we can get those guys to really buy in to the value of that and not revert to, ‘I’m going to throw the next pitch through the brick wall,’. Which you see a lot of in college baseball. That is where you are going to see their growth. They know that. This is not a new conversation for those guys. They know what the challenges are and they will get there. It won’t be perfect but they’ll get there. Because they care, they work hard, they are great kids and they want to be successful. You screw it up over time and then eventually you take a step back and go, ‘Do I really, at your core of who I am, do I expect to be successful or not?’ Because if you do, you start making the right adjustments. And they will.

“Beggs is a little bit different. He had a little bit different challenge, I thought. Last year was his first year here after coming from junior college. The other two guys had been here before and they had that perspective. For Dustin, I felt, it was much more about pitch development. He had a nice year for us last year, got drafted, the whole deal. But he did it basically covering one side of the plate with no change-up. So he has improved his ability to handle arm-side two-seam action on the fastball, which he did not have last year, which is why he gave up 10 home runs. He is aware of all this. He is going to be better this year because his repertoire is more extensive and is more developed. He will have a two seam and a change that he did not have last year.”

On how White’s impact defensively at first base changes the defense in the infield …
“One thing I forgot to mention is Gunnar McNeill at first base the first time around. And that was not on purpose, that is just a miss. Gunnar is going to be a valuable player for us, whether it is DH or playing first base. Right now the best first baseman we have is Evan. He’s the best first baseman defensively that anyone will have. More to your question, yes and noticeably. We are much better defensively. Those kids are older and stronger. You don’t have a freshman right now playing in the middle the way you did last year. You have a sophomore with experience. Connor is a junior. JaVon will do well. Evan is outstanding. Once again, we won’t be perfect in the infield, but we will be better defensively, than we were last year at picking up ground balls. We are stronger, we are more experienced. I think we are tougher than what we were last year in terms of mental tenacity and to really buy in that we are going to throw 130 pitches today and you have to expect the next one to get hit at you, hard. We will do a better job at that.”

On how Connor Heady has improved offensively …
“Connor will be a better player offensively. He proved it through the fall. He’s proven it over the last 10 days. What has done? He has gotten stronger. He has gotten experienced. He spent a summer in the Northwoods League playing 72 baseball games. He has matured as a person. He has more ownership in the middle of the infield. The experience, the strength gains, the added at-bats, all has helped him. He will be a better player. He is going to be a good player.”

On the challenges facing a 6-foot-11 pitcher (freshman Sean Hjelle) …
“The number one challenge is body control. If you don’t hold your body together on the mound, you have a chance to wonder where you are going to release the ball from. You need to know where the ball is going to come out of your hand. Release point. When you are that tall and have those long and big moving parts, sometimes it’s harder, at that point in your life to recreate that delivery to achieve a level of consistency to have a level of confidence about where the baseball is. (Sean) is bright. He competes. He is just now developing some strength. Very simply, body strength and experience are going to allow him to get better over time. For where he is right now, with his overall strength and the fact that he is 6-foot-11 with really long limbs, he has done a remarkable job at throwing strikes. He holds runners well. His instincts and knowledge of the game are solid. He is going to have to make some strength gains over the next two years. And he will. He is going to be an outstanding pitcher here. It is tough. You have to control your body. It is no different than the basketball kids. Same deal.”

On who will coach third base …
“Keith Vorhoff is going to get an opportunity to do that. Toby Bicknell is going to coach first. If you haven’t had a chance to meet Toby, he is right over there. We are very, very fortunate to have him. He comes from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Highly recommended. Very, very pleased with the two months he has been here. Really pleased to have Toby a part of what we are doing.”

On his first impression of Evan White …
“My very first impression of Evan White was how mature he was as an 18 year old kid. What he has improved the most of since he has been here? He has become a better baseball player just in terms of his skills. The most noticeable thing he has improved is his strength. His body has changed. He is not 172 pounds anymore. He is 195 or 198, probably on his way to 208 in the next 15-16 months. He is stronger. He moves really well. He is really confident. His bat speed is better than it was nine months ago. His knowledge of hitting has improved. His work with Coach Eckstein has been really, really valuable. His work ethic has allowed him to make some really noticeable jumps. He is a very impressive kid.”

On what pitches Zack Brown and Kyle Cody have developed …
“The short answer is Zack Brown has shortened up his breaking ball. Hopefully we can find some rhythm with that and get in the strike zone earlier in the count and not just look for that to be a two-strike pitch. The ability to really shorten up and define what we are trying to do for Kyle with the slider has been the primary goal for that. Obviously with both of those guys it is continued refinement of the change-up, which they have both done. But I would say the breaking balls for both of them. Shorter and in the strike zone, earlier in the count and not just a two-strike pitch.”

On junior Marcus Carson, who had a great freshman year in limited ABs, but struggled early in 2015 …
“A lot of times there is that pressure the second year, no question. You get a taste of it, have a good start and put a lot of pressure on yourself that second year. What we would really like from Marcus is the ability to be consistent, hit line drives and pressure the defensive. Offensively, very simple for him. And defensively, to catch doubles and triples. As you look at what we’ve done here the last 10 years, we have been really fortunate in centerfield. Really fortunate. From (Antone) DeJesus to Collin (Cowgill), to Keenan (Wiley), to Austin (Cousino) and Kyle (Barrett), we have done a really good job of catching doubles and triples here, maybe as good as anybody in the country over the last 10 years with those kids. If we can continue to build on that tradition you would have a very, very happy head coach.”

On what he’s seen from Storm Wilson, who is also coming off a down season after breakout freshman year …  
“Maturity and the ability to square it up at a much higher level than he has in the past. He has played much better in the outfield. We still need him to slow the game down a little from the defensive standpoint. He has given us really good, consistent at-bats all fall and winter. I think back to maybe what you envisioned he was going to be two years ago. Last year was obviously disappointing for him. He owns that, meaning he is responsible for his own development and improvement. He has done a good job. He is very, very competitive. One of the good things about this pitching staff is they are testing out hitters. And right now our hitters are up to the test. They are testing right back. It has been really good. Storm is right in the middle of that. He has done a great job.”

On if he saw Zach Logue as a weekend starter before Beggs and Cody returned at deadline …
“Sure. Then you are wondering who the third one is going to be. Just from that standpoint in and of itself, I am going to be a much better pitching coach then I would’ve been if those two were playing professional baseball. That is the nature of what we do and how it works. But absolutely, and (Zach) will be moving forward.”

On if he feels any pressure for this team to win …
“I feel the same amount of pressure every year. What Rachel said was dead on. If you are in this league it is about championships. The first one is an SEC Championship and the second one is the national championship. That is what it is. The kids here that from me every single year. There is no hiding from that in the SEC. It is the best league in the country. That is the task. That is the goal. That is what it is. That is what our kids want to listen to and talk about, that is who they want to be. It has been the same, every year for me. And that is a good thing.”

On the emergence of Dorian Hairston as a junior …
“There is a little bit of a surprise with Dorian but there wasn’t a lot. And I’ll tell you why. Brian Green told me when Dorian got here he was going to end up hitting balls hard. And when Rick got here he told me the same exact thing. Really two things about Dorian has improved offensively. His ability to damage mistakes has gotten better, no question, and his ability to fight off secondary pitches. We are not looking for guys to be above-average curveball hitters and below-average fastball hitters, that’s not the plan. But if you can fight off a secondary pitch and get to that next fastball, then that puts you in position to do damage. That is what he does a good job of. The game has started to slow down a little bit for Dorian. He has a change to hit in the middle of the order somewhere. I would envision it being -5-6, maybe 7, would depend on who the pitcher is. Is it a left-hander with a change or a right-hander with a slider? All of those things have a chance to impact it. He is certainly going to be counted on to provide offensive production for us, no doubt about it.”

On Dorian learning to go to all fields after a pure pull approach early in career …
“Yes, with confidence. It is better. No question. The ability to stay gap-to-gap when the pitch gives you that. Not to force it. Not to necessarily hunt the right-center gap but to take it when that is given to you is improved. He has done a very nice job. He is like a lot of guys, if you can get them to play to your strengths, minimize and understand your weakness, then you have a chance to have a really good player. Let’s not spend a lot of time worried and boohooing over what we can’t do, let’s hone in and focus on what we can do. The same exact things you do with kids in the pen. You put then in a position to maximize his strengths and I think Dorian is in a position to do that.”

On if Zach Pop could be the closer …
“He could and so could some other guys. Zach broke his hand then had a detached retina, so for all intent and purposes he had no fall. So in terms of skill acquisition he is a little behind there. But what he does have is life to a 90-92 mph that gets below the barrel when it’s right. If we can get him to cover the other side of the plate with a slider. Right now he is pitching to contact. And that is fine, there are plenty of room for those guys on your staff. What (2015 save leader) Spencer (Jack) had was a slider. What we need to develop back there is someone that can throw the same slider in a game that they can in practice. And when they do they will be a step up on everyone else in fulfilling that role.”