Baseball Preseason Media Day

Feb. 2, 2015

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Kentucky Baseball
2015 Preseason Media Day
Feb. 2, 2015
Commonwealth Stadium - Wildcat Den

Kentucky Head Coach Gary Henderson

Opening statement …

“Thank you for being here. Typically at this time I run through the positions. We’ve got several new challenges in front of us. It is a great group of kids. I’ll do that for you real quick. We have a lot of questions to be answered and a wonderful group of kids to make those selections from. But let’s start with Friday night pitching, since that guy (AJ Reed) has moved on. We’ve got several good options. Dustin Beggs, a junior college transfer from Georgia Perimeter, who has had a tremendous fall and winter for us. Zack Brown, who you remember from last year, is one of our freshmen who is now a sophomore. Kyle Cody is obviously in the mix. Robert Zeigler is transformed from a freshman that was trying to make his way to a guy that has done really well in the fall and in January so far. Those guys have all performed really well and is going to give us some good options there. One of the things we’ve got a chance to do this year is to have very good depth. It will take a little while to sort itself out and figure out exactly what the roles are and who is going to be able to do well in what situation. Who we can use as a matchup guy and who is going to be able to extend themselves a little bit through the course of the middle of the game. We’ve had some good options here recently at the end of the game. Hopefully Spencer Jack will be a guy that we can use at the end as well. We have a chance to matchup left and right a little bit better then we have in the past. Those things are all exciting. We have a bunch of strike throwers that I think are going to give us a chance to have a very good pitching staff as it goes. There will be growing pains till I figure out exactly what their strengths are and until they get comfortable but that is a part of our club that I feel real good about.

“The catching piece will obviously be new. Micheal (Thomas) was with us for five years and he is gone. Proud of what he did. We’ve got Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes now. They’ve both been with us, this is Zack’s third year, and Greg has been with us for four as a redshirt junior. They’ve both performed really well: team leaders, likeable, at the center of the club, good skilled kids, tough, smart all those things that you need. If you have watched us play over the year, I am a guy that likes to use two catchers if possible. You have to have the people to do it. I enjoy that. I like it. Makes me feel good that we are giving somebody little bit of rest at a position that can be really demanding.  I think we have a chance to do it with those two guys.

“Infield wise we’ve obviously got some new people on the left side. Thomas Bernal is going to make a good transition from first to third. I think he is going to give us a chance to be solid with real leadership at third base. He has really performed well. He had an offseason shoulder surgery that slowed him down a little bit in the fall. He has come back strong. He looks good, he is heathy and he is swinging the bat extremely well and has done a nice job for us at third base.

“We’ve got a couple of kids who are going to do a nice job for us at shortstop. They are going to have to earn their time. Connor Heady and Riley Mahan both had good falls and good winters. Connor of course was with us last year and played a little bit as the season progressed, actually started at second base in our first game of the year.  And Riley Mahan is a freshman from Cincinnati who is going to end up being a very good ballplayer here.

“Second base, we’ve got JaVon Shelby back. He’s had a slow start due to getting a knee operated on again. He’s got a chance to be a very good player. He is at the center of our club. He’s got a charisma, he’s got a leadership capability, his body has changed, the bat speed is better. But he has been slowed just in terms of opportunity as he gets healthy. Riley has also played over there and done a very good job. We need to get JaVon back as soon as possible and he still has a little bit of rehab work in front of him. He is pivotal part of our club as we get going early in the season.

“First base, we are going to have – to start with – a very good defensive first baseman as a freshman, Evan White, has earned the opportunity to play first base.  I think you are going to find that he is extremely skilled and in terms of defensive ability is as good as we’ve had since (SEC Player of the Year) Ryan Strieby was here in 2006.

“We’ve got some good choices in the outfield. Once again we may lead the country in left-handed hitters in the outfield. But they run and we are going to have an opportunity to put three or four different guys out there that have an ability to be above average defensively. Obviously we will miss Austin in centerfield, for three years he did a tremendous job of catching doubles and triples for us and was also able to throw very well. We’ve got Kyle Barrett, Marcus Carson, Ka’ai Tom and Storm Wilson from the left side and Dorian Hairston gives us a right-handed bat out there as well. We have some good options out there and as a group we have the ability to run well.

“That is an overview of what we’ve got positionally. Once again the league will be as strong as it has ever been, which is a tremendous part of being here. It is something we look for to. The kids love it. The coaches really, really enjoy it. We have a very good group of people. We had 30 kids get above a 3.0 GPA, which just speaks to their work ethic and the fact that they care about what they do. We’ve had 13 kids gain more than 12 pounds since last June. It’s been a very good group. And obviously that speaks to the fact that we are a little bit young in some areas. It has been a fun group to work with and I am really looking forward to it.”  

On thoughts about the defense up the middle…
“Well I feel pretty good about it, I am going to feel better about it when JaVon (Shelby) is healthy and we have another body. You know but Riley (Mahan) and Connor (Heady) have played up the middle and have done very well through the fall and January.  They are talented kids and I think is going to be a very, very easy thing to spot for our fans. There is real skill, they move well, they are very athletic, foot speed, arm strength. Obviously anytime you have a transition and someone is doing something new on a daily basis that forces them to utilize some things they hadn’t have to employ yet. In terms of concentration and extended concentration and responding after short term failure and all those things but Connor, Riley and JaVon are skilled kids and they will play well for us.”

On having two new everyday starters behind the plate, Greg Fettes & Zach Arnold …
“Well I like both of those kids behind the plate. They’ve spent a lot of time here and it’s their turn. It’s time for them and I think they are both skilled enough to play well. Really impressed with what Greg has done over the past week. They are hard workers, they have gotten better. I think we will be able to catch and throw somewhere between very effectively and very good. And in centerfield we will have at least two guys that run very well. It’s hard to replace a fifth year catcher and the best centerfielder in college baseball. But you know one of the great things about college baseball is that new kids get new chances. It’s time for them to get their opportunity and they have worked hard and deserve it. And I think when it all plays out, they will do well.”

On replacing AJ Reed
“Well I am not sure that you are going to replace AJ with one guy. And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club and you can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. But I think it is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that’s fine. But you figure out somebody else who could just as effective on Friday nights as AJ was. That’s always a hard task in our league for everybody but we’ve got several talented kids to do that and then obviously we’re not going to have the same power. Evan White is a very good player and is going to play first base well. Last year we had a combination mostly of Thomas and AJ at first base. And Evan is going to be equal to what they were able to do defensively and then he’ll take the same path of growth that you need to take offensively. Offensively in our league it is a tough road for freshman but he will do well. Some ups and downs but he’ll grow as the season goes and by April he’ll be a legitimate threat. But you don’t replace AJ with one guy. The last time I had a guy like that was 98. And I’ve have more than most so that’s a tough one.”

On how AJ changed the identity of the Kentucky program…
“Well the profile of Kentucky baseball has changed dramatically during my time here that’s for sure. A guy like AJ helps no question. AJ and I and his mom spent time in Lubbock, Omaha, Los Angeles we’ve been to all kinds of dinners and TV opportunities, radio opportunities but a guy like AJ just from the exposure that he gets. Whether you are talking about any type of media that AJ got, he enhances the program, he proves that you can be a tremendous player here, proves you can do whatever you want to get done in the baseball world at the University Of Kentucky. We are fortunate to have him, he was a fun kid to work with and he’s elevated us to another level of exposure. But again we are in the SEC and three years ago we were the number one team in the country for a short period of time and we’ve been ranked in the top 20 or whatever it is. People are well aware of what’s going on in Kentucky and there’s always things to do to get better, new challenges in front of you, postseason steps that we need to take. But AJ was just a fun kid to be around.”

On Bernal’s experience as a HS shortstop in transition to third base…
“The game’s a little quicker over there, the ball’s going to get on you and typically there’s a little more topspin over on that side than what you’re going to get on first. You’re about 10 to 12 feet closer to contact in most occasions but he’s a good athlete, he can pay attention, he can concentrate at a high level. He’ll do well. He’ll make the transition well and he’ll perform well for us at third base.”

On what’s key for Kyle Cody’s development…
“I think there’s two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive. You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He’s done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He’s improved his body, he’s a lot stronger, he’s healthy right now, I think. He’s a pivotal part of the team, there’s no question about that. He’s a guy who’s in a gene pool, a skill level that’s capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he’s capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He’s a talented kid.”

On how much the SEC Network will help grow a baseball fan base…
“I think it does help. You can ask Brent (Ingram), but somewhere between 45 and 50 of our ball games will be available through live stream. Obviously it’s a wonderful thing for our fans, a great thing for the parents. We have a tremendous following by our parents but they can’t make it to every Tuesday night game or every road game, or even every home game, so I think it just further helps. It opens up the door to people all over the country and it’s a wonderful thing for our league.”

On how the speed of the team will dictate an offense ….
“Well we’re going to run well. I don’t know exactly how well. I don’t know how that’s going to translate into stolen bases yet but we’re going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly. Several guys, as (Softball coach) Rachel (Lawson) mentioned at 4.3 (seconds to first base), or better. You just go from one style to the next because that’s what your talent dictates that what your personnel dictates it’s going to be a different approach. I think we’re going to have kids hit for a high average. I think we’re going to be very competitive in the box, but we will do it without the number of homeruns we did last year very clearly. That’s our turn this year. As we move forward we will go back to hitting homeruns as we get a new recruiting class or these kids just get older and stronger. But we’re simply not going to have the same number and that goes every year you’re going to look someone else is in the same boat as us this year and it will be someone else’s turn to hit the home runs this year.”

On the experience hitting coach Rick Eckstein brings to the team...
“He brings a lot of things. First of all I’ve known Rick and his brother for 20 years or longer, so there’s been a tremendous sense of calm when I was able to do that. He brings credibility, he brings passion, he brings energy, brings knowledge, his experience and a lot of expertise. You are talking about a guy who was a big league coach for six years and professional baseball for 15. You can ask the position guys here when you visit with them, what has he brought to them and their relationship with him. But he brings a lot of confidence and a lot of energy. He is someone that I feel is a lot like me that we tend to be black and white. I think that’s very good in my opinion for the kids. When you’re coaching there is going to be some grey like there is in life, but the more that we can stick to this is what we need to do and this is why, I think the better off the kids are, I think he has been a tremendous addition to the program and we are very happy to have him.”

On the how often he talks to Kyle Cody about preseason hype …
“I talk to Kyle Cody every day; about what specifically it changes from time to time and day to day. I think Kyle is well aware, as all of our kids are, that the preseason stuff for living in a fishbowl, the things they achieve notoriety for, those are nice pieces of it, but they’re not very meaningful really when the game starts. And no matter where your ranking is, like looking at last year’s ranking, they do this every year I go back and I look, you know where were the gators ranked going in where was Ole Miss ranked going into last season. I look at those things just out of general curiosity of just how in some respects they’re meaningless, you know in terms of what you doing in 2006 we were picked to finish last in the league. You know just little things you look at we were not picked to finish high in 12 and we were a game away from another ring. I look at those things all the time and I remind the kids that those are nice moments but in terms of going out and really being a guy that has a real presence that stands above the majority of college baseball, he’s got a ways to go in that and he’s working hard at it and I think he’s going to get there.”  

On having a bullpen with depth and options … 
“Well the second question the answer is yes and that’s a good thing. We haven’t done it yet but we have a chance to have an older bullpen. And I’m a fan of the older bullpen just as everyone else is in college baseball. When you can achieve older success in your bullpen you have a chance to really enjoy it. Freshmen arms are going to contribute. Well the guy that has really earned an opportunity early on, and I don’t know how early and how extensive, is Zach Logue. He’s done a really good job of throwing strikes since he’s gotten here, a lot of strikes. And his secondary stuff has got to get better, and his ability to play to pitches at time and command and all of those things have to be improved, but Zach Logue will end up being a really good baseball player here and he’ll get some time. He is a left handed freshman from Moeller in Cincinnati. He’s done a really good job. Zach Pop is another freshman that has a really good arm as well. We’ve got some other guys but as you said we’ve got some older guys so well get to pitch those guys at least early on when we want to and not when we have to and I’m a big fan of that.”

On Kyle Barrett bouncing back from a sophomore slump …
“Well I don’t know I think it’s a fair question but I think one of the things that happened to Kyle Barrett was that Storm Wilson stepped right up and just said thank you. That happens in athletics and I don’t mean that in a mean way at all but he got his opportunity and made the most of it. Kyle Barrett is a really talented kid, he’s likeable, he cares, his athletic instincts are good. He plays hard what he has got to do in my opinion and just show up and be consistent in everything in his life every day. He got disappointed. In the game we play where there’s more than enough failure to go around for everyone and when you get disappointed you get off track and it doesn’t make any difference how old you are, what position you play, you can’t be disappointed for very long. It’s a regular human emotion everybody understands but you can’t let disappointment bother you in our game because the next opportunity is too soon and too numerous. He’s got to stay away from getting disappointed he has performed really well in January, our team needs him to be a very good player. He’s a guy that can really impact plays, he runs really well, he’s got a gene to hit there is no question about that but we got to get him back to where he was and I think that we will. The biggest thing in my mind for Kyle Barrett is consistency in everything that he does.”

On Evan White having a lot of pop in his bat…
“Oh yeah, you all are going to know Evan White’s name. He is going to be a really good player and I don’t want to put too much on him too soon but he’s clearly going to be a very good baseball player here. We would like to hide down there in the 6 or 7 hole to start this thing off as you would any freshman, protect him a little bit. But he’s a good baseball player, he’s smart, he’s skilled, he’s going to need to get stronger but he has the ability to hit that our kids have all recognized and he plays first base at a high level.”

On his excitement to start the season …
“I feel really fortunate that I get this job because I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well. I’m really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis so what the means is we’re really eager to get this thing started. The fall was great in my opinion, you can ask the kids, it was fun group to be around. It’s like looking at our club last year and the thing that I respected about those kids so much is that Kyle Cody and Chandler Shepherd took a three week break that they didn’t want to take during the season and that’s a really hard thing to do in college baseball because you come back in April or May and you’re playing baseball in February or March and the rest of the league is playing in April and May and it is a tough, tough task to do. We don’t have triple A to go down and get him some innings or at bats they just jump right in the middle of it. Everybody’s been playing an additional 10, 12, 15 games. They come back and it’s a hard thing to do. Our kids, the attitude and approach of our guys last year, especially on the Sundays was tremendous and I bring that up because we don’t play particularly well on Sundays but our guys never took our foot off the accelerator. I think the group that we have, the carryover, the guys we have from last year they have continued with that approach and I certainly notice it. I appreciate it, it’s who they are as people and so when you have a group of kids like that you’re eager to get going and we are.”

On the progress of catcher Greg Fettes…
“Well he’s doing great and sometimes you run through tough spots in terms of what I think is the luck of the draw. You run into injuries a little bit more so than a day you had at different time in life or earlier in life or earlier than the next guy. I was a guy that played all three sports until I was a sophomore in high school and then I played football and baseball and I won’t get into the Gary Henderson story too deep for you but my point was I never got injured. Never and then I got to college and I probably had a little bit more than my share so that really helped me in terms of a coaching role and change my perspective on that and I’m as tough as the next guy and tougher than most but sometimes you get injured and that’s life. Greg has been to a small extent and he has been healthy for the most part, a little foot issue in the fall. He’s good right now we need him to stay healthy as we do Zach (Arnold) and as I said I’m a big fan. Going back to coaching in 1998 at Florida, David Ross a tremendous kid still in the big leagues and by the time we got done with the season he couldn’t catch up to 86mph. He was just out of gas, talking about a supreme player, tough, smart, all of the skills that you need, and he was out of gas and I think that position has the chance to do that to most kids by the time you get to the end of the year and that is why I like both of those guys.”

On timetable of JaVon Shelby getting healthy…
“There is a timetable. Yeah and if our trainer was here he would tell you that we talk about that pretty frequently what that timetable is. He’s going to be in intrasquads this weekend, provided that we don’t have any setbacks, then he’s going to have a weekend of at-bats. We’ll probably be in the 15-20 at-bats to get him alive. We’ll probably do that for him, that’s hard, you go from BP to live at bats. Not that the other stuff is super easy, the defensive stuff he’ll be good at. He needs to get some at bats, we need to get him his first opportunity. He’s had a meniscus operation but it took a little longer to heal where it needs to be. He is extremely important and very important with our club.”

#23, Kyle Cody, Jr., RHP

On the work during the offseason...
"Every day just growing and maturing. Just getting better every day I think that come in everyday with a different mindset. I mean just trying to get better every day working on the small stuff and just comes in handy with getting older and getting better."

On getting experience in the Cape Cod League...
"That was big for me. Having a really good summer gave me a lot of confidence coming back here. It was just a really cool experience for me. I got a lot of exposure over the summer and that was really cool and just gave me a lot confidence."

On how he developed his game from the summer...
"I think I got a lot better controlling my fastball to both sides of the plate. This summer I don't know if you guys know but I switched from a curveball to a slider. I think that improved my game a lot. My arm slot, it was kind of a lower arm slot, the slider makes it look like more of a fastball coming in. I think that improved my game, and just working on the change-up too. Just growing a lot of confidence in all of my pitches helped me out a lot this summer too."

#46, Thomas Bernal, R-Sr., IF/C

On transitioning to a speed team from relying on the long ball...
"For sure, it's going to be a lot more speed. We'll be hitting gaps and playing with some more hit and runs and little bunts. Of course when have a guy that hit 23 home runs you have to change the way you play."

On replacing the leadership that AJ Reed brought to the team...
"For that I feel like we have done a good job of replacing that aspect. I'm not talking about hitting home runs; you can't replace a guy that hit 23 home runs, and a guy that had great leadership and work ethic. But we have done a good job replacing that aspect."

On the impact of new hitting coach Rick Eckstein...
"He's amazing, it's fun working with him. I mean he brings a different element to the game. When he's talking about hitting you just dive into his brain. He talks about stories with Pujols, Trout and Harper. Why would I not listen to him?"

#34, Spencer Jack, Sr., RHP

On difference between this season and last season...
"I just feel healthy, that's the biggest difference. In the middle of last year I was dealing with some stuff with my back. I feel healthier now than I have in a long time so that's a big difference when you are going through the season fighting through pain especially towards the end. So right now I feel healthy which is most important."

On dealing with back problems as a pitcher...
"Yeah that is what I was dealing with. Now that I have handled that over the summer and I feel a lot healthier and now it's amazing. Now I just have to get the reps, rhythm back and just get back into it. And I mean I feel good, feel healthy and really think that is going to make a big difference for me this year."

#25, Ka'ai Tom, Jr., OF
 
On growing up in Hawaii ever imagined if he would play in Kentucky...
"No I never once dreamed that I was going to be this far from home. You know I always told myself that I am going to go wherever baseball takes me. I grew up watching South Carolina go three years in a row and I never once thought I was going to be playing them. So it is a great honor for me to come out this far and compete in the SEC."

On improving his game from last season...
"Of course you want to get better from year to year, you know elevate your skills and what not to get better. Hopefully I just keep that success and not do too much."

On this team's identity compared to last years...
"Like Coach Henderson said there are different aspects and a different team coming in. It is always good to have a big home run hitting team that comes in at certain times but you can have a lot of speed on a team and hit long line drives and execute on bunts. It puts a lot more pressure on the pitching staff and the opposing team so hopefully we do that this year and succeed."