Meet Daniel Fiorito, a New York Yankees prospect walking a unique path to his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. You probably haven’t heard of him yet– he won’t officially start his professional career until next Spring– but Dan can play.
Like the vast majority of professional baseball players, he wasn’t a top draft pick. In fact, the Yonkers native wasn’t drafted at all. Even though he played in college, Dan suited-up for D-III Manhattanville.
But Dan can play baseball. He can really play. He’s blessed with a strong throwing arm, a 6’4″ big league frame, and a sweet swing. But it’s not just his physical tools that convinced the Yankees to sign him out of a D-III program, he also put together a spectacular, record-breaking amateur career. Bright and seemingly born with an unrelenting motivation to succeed, Dan has overcome a series of obstacles along the road to his dream, and he’s molded himself in to a phenomenal player.
In high school, Fiorito played both pitcher and shortstop for Fordham Prep, but excelled off the mound. His 90 MPH fastball made him a force on the prep circuit, and while he always posted high batting averages, his lack of homerun power didn’t draw the attention of many college programs. Instead, Division-I schools like Seton Hall and Iona wanted to sign him as a pitcher.
After earning Fordham Prep’s Most Oustanding Athlete Award with a monster senior season, Fiorito enrolled at Manhattanville. Though his work off the mound set him apart from his peers in high school, Daniel enjoyed hitting and fielding at shortstop. His long-time idol was Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, and even if nobody else saw him following the Yankees star’s path, he saw it in himself. He wanted to hit, and he wanted to prove himself as a fielder. He turned-down opportunities to pitch for the bigger name schools, and instead, made it his mission to take his game to the next level as slugging infielder.
Fiorito’s Valiants career started off with a pop, literally. He blew out his elbow. Before his freshman season had even started, he found out that the lingering elbow pain he felt since the end of his high school pitching career was actually a torn UCL. He needed a reconstructive ligament procedure. Though he went under the knife immediately after hearing the diagnosis, he still had to sit out the entire regular season and rehab his elbow.
Tommy John surgery was a tough break, especially for a kid just starting his college baseball career, but Fiorito didn’t let the obstacle slow him down. During his year-long rehab stint, he fought through the pain and used the extra time he was left with to polish his game. The stiffness and pain kept him from throwing, but he could still hit the cages and lift weights. And he did. Fiorito spent his year-long layoff tirelessly working and re-working his swing and improving his strength, agility and body control. He had always hit for a high average, but hadn’t hit a homerun since middle school, and he attributed his power outage to bad habits. By the time he returned to the Valiants a year later, he carried a mechanically near-ideal cut in to the box, showing much more bat speed and loft in his swing and a quicker path to the baseball.
Dan attributes his improved power to his dedication in the batting cage, as well as some valuable instruction from his peers and coaches. In a phone interview on Tuesday, he explained:
“I always hit for average, but I actually didn’t hit a homerun in high school. I was injured for a year after Tommy John surgery and I couldn’t throw or pitch but I could still work on my hitting. I spent the time I had working on my swing. The biggest thing for me was improving my mechanics and getting rid of some bad habits. I improved my swing mechanically and that allowed me to hit with power to all fields…A strict attention to hitting everyday along with lifting and conditioning went a long way.”
In March 2010, Fiorito returned to the diamond with a bang. Facing Penn State Behrend in the Valiants’ opening series–and the first of his career–Fiorito went three-for-six with a homerun, a double and three RBI in two games. He tore the cover off of the ball. The rest of his sophomore season followed the same trend. He finished his 2010 campaign with a ridiculous .420 batting average, and he collected an incredible 18 multi-hit games in 41 starts. The true highlight of his season came in the Freedom Conference Championship though, when he crushed a grand slam to help defeat FDU Fordham. His remarkable performance earned him Manhattanville Co-Male Rookie of the Year as well as honorable mention as a D3Baseball.com All-American.
On the mound, Fiorito wasn’t nearly as successful. The effects of Tommy John surgery lingered, leaving him rusty and lacking consistent control. Through 23 1/3 innings pitched, he totalled a 10.41 ERA and yielded 37 hits and fourteen walks. By the end of the following season, he scrapped pitching altogether and committed himself full-time to improving his hitting and fielding.
As a junior, Fiorito moved from the outfield back to third base, and while he still continued to work on the mound from time to time, he had emerged as one of the premium hitters in his division. He led the Valiants in a bunch of stat categories, including batting average (.349), homeruns (4), and extra-base hits (13). Now that he wasn’t focusing on pitching, his arm strength developed in to a weapon at third base, and he drew praise from his coaches for his vastly improved fielding. For his team-leading produciton, he was named first-team All-Freedom Conference for the second consecutive year.
After three years of hard work with the Valiants, everything came together for Dan during his final college season. By then, he was already the undeniable king of his conference, and one of his division’s elite players. But after his remarkable senior season, he even established himself as a draft prospect. His incredible hitting re-wrote the NCAA’s record books. All of the work he put in to perfecting his swing and building muscle equipped him with middle-of-the-order homerun power to go with his already impressive hitting repertoire. For opposing pitchers, he was a nightmare at the plate, and they simply couldn’t get him out. He hit safely in thirty-three of thirty-eight games that year, en route to a .411 batting average. But, he was more than just a flashy batting average, he developed in to a slugger, spiking his homerun total from four in the previous season to a conference-best 12 homeruns. His twelve bombs ranked sixth in the entire division, and set a new Manhattanville single-season record. He also set the program record with 111 extra-base hits and he ranked among D-III leaders in runs per game (1.34) and slugging percentage (.760).
Fiorito’s outstanding senior campaign packed his trophy case with awards and accolades. He hit his way to an American Baseball Coaches Association All-American third-team selection, and both the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and the ABCA named him first-team All-Region. The NCBWA also named him the Mid-Atlantic Region Player of the Year.
Over the summer, Dan also proved himself against top-shelf amateur competition when he played in the New York Collegiate League. Over the years, the NYCBL has produced a long and distinguished list of big leaguers, including active players like Tim Hudson, Brad Lidge, Dallas Braden, Mike Fiers, Rajai Davis, John McDonald and Hunter Pence. Not only did Dan hold his own against some of the top local prospects, he shined as the league’s most productive hitter. Playing shortstop and third base for the Syracuse Salt Cats, he hit .328 and led the NYCBL in homeruns (7) and RBI (29).
After putting together an extraordinary amateur career, Fiorito wasn’t rewarded in last June’s draft. More than 1,200 players from across North America heard their names called on draft day. Dan wasn’t one of them–even though Baseball America had named him a draft prospect.
But, hailing from a small school and a historically weak program, Dan wasn’t holding his breath on the big day anyway. In a fair world, his star-studded college career would’ve garnered a draft pick. But, as Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball, (paraphrase), baseball franchises are run by people, and people are afraid of the unknown. They prefer convention, and to them, buying in to Fiorito’s unconventional background is a gamble and only an opportunity to swing and miss. For every homerun, there are plenty of pop-ups and strikeouts. Plus, even if they did want to sign him, or any other talented D-III player for that matter, chances are they’ll still be able to following the draft anyway.
Though he wasn’t drafted, Fiorito was prepared to earn a job through open try-outs. Obviously, the vast majority of American professional baseball players started their careers through the draft, but Dan isn’t alone by any means. Plenty of current and former big leaguers had to impress pro scouts enough to sign after going undrafted– players like Kevin Millar, John Axford, Heath Bell, Bobby Bonilla, Mike Bordick and 1989 NL MVP Kevin Mitchell. So, as he had done plenty of times before, Dan set-out to prove himself.
In his interview with BaseballNewsHound.com’s Ryan Kelley, Fiorito opined on the difficulty of getting to pro baseball out of a division-III program:
“It is definitely much harder to prove yourself [playing] Division III because the caliber of play is a step down from that at big Division I schools. There are good players at every level and it’s just a matter of a scout being willing to take a chance on a player at a lower level. Playing in a good summer league against better competition will get a player better exposure and recognition.”
Born and raised in Yonkers, a suburb of New York city, Fiorito’s lifelong favorite team is the Yankees, and his favorite player, since boyhood, is Derek Jeter. So, on August 16th, when he got a call from Yankees scouts Cesar Presbott and John Kremer inviting him to a try-out a Yankees stadium, he was eager and anxious to capitalize on the opportunity to play for his dream team.
On his big day, Fiorito did more than just show-up, he stole the show. Though it was his first time trying out for a professional ball team, he wasn’t intimidated by the high stakes. His confidence and rock-solid nerve are two of the strongest parts of his character, and by try-out day, he was already experienced at proving his doubters wrong. Throughout his college career, he built a reputation as a leader and a hard-worker, and was even successful mentoring younger players–coaching his teammates in-season and Frozen Ropes in the offseason. So, when he got in the cage in front of Yankees scouts, he didn’t just impress. He proceeded to put on a power show, lining pitches out of the park and displaying big-fly pop to all fields. He tested well in other areas too, throwing 92 MPH off the mound and running a 6.68 60-yard dash– pretty good for a 6’4″ slugger.
The pleasure wasn’t all Fiorito’s, the Yankees saw a pretty nice opportunity as well. In Fiorito, they saw a local boy with a power bat, rocket arm, plus athleticism and a chance to play shortstop professionally. That’s just too good a deal to pass-up. Instead of inviting him to a second try-out in Staten Island, along with other undrafted players, they cut to the chase. They decided to send him directly to their spring training complex in Tampa, where they hold private workouts for prospective signees, and the players they covet most.
Fast-forward five days later, after impressing the Yankees with a top-notch work-out, Fiorito signed his first professional contract. Immediately after Fiorito completed his try-out, Yankees assistant director of amateur scouting John Kremer called him in to his office and did the honors, inking him to a contract on the spot. Signing with the Yankees had been Fiorito’s life-long dream, and in that moment it became a reality. Elated and overcome with emotion, Fiorito first called his father to announce the great news. Then, he made another phone call to his Manhattanville coach, Jeff Caufield, thanking him for playing such an instrumental part in his climb to professional baseball.
Dan is a unique prospect, not only because he hails from a small D-III program, but because of his mix of on-field ability and character. He’s gifted with a strong arm, nice athleticism, a big league frame and an electrifying bat. But baseball is a mental game, and Fiorito’s success can largely be attributed to his unrelenting work ethic, as well as his maturity and intelligence. Knowing he was a long-shot, Dan went to work to earn a job playing professionally:
“As early as Little League I wanted to play for the Yankees and to now find myself in their farm system is surreal..I do try and model my game after Derek Jeter and the attitude and effort he brings to the game day in and day out…Baseball is a game of failure and it’s all about how you handle it. Maintaining a level head through all the ups and downs will pay off in the long run. I just want to go out there, give it my best shot and–the Good Lord willing–things will work out. ”
Fiorito’s dream was to play shortstop professionally like his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter, and he even passed-up opportunities to pitch for Division-I schools in college so he could make his dream a reality. When he enrolled at Manhattanville, the odds were stacked against him, but his attention never wavered from his ultimate goal. He put every free minute he had to good use, honing his craft in the cage and in the field. He assumed a leadership role in the Valiants’ clubhouse, and he did his best to lead his teammates by example. A high character guy, his coaches and fellow players universally lauded his dedication and his work ethic. When things got tough, he didn’t let any obstacle stop him. He overcame serious injuries and put together an awesome college career, and when he wasn’t drafted, he put his head down and fought his way in to the pro’s anyway.
Fiorito will start his Yankees career next Spring, when he reports to Tampa. He’s already preparing with a rigorous conditioning and work-out routine, and is doing his best to take his game to an even higher level. He’ll probably open his career with the Staten Island Yankees, but he has the tools and polish to move quickly. He could earn a promotion to Charleston, or even the Tampa Yankees by the end of the season if he hits. From there, Fiorito has a difficult ladder to climb to the Majors. But no doubt, he definitely has all of the tools for a big league career.