Prospect Spotlight: Jacob Rhodes is Trying to Catch On

By | January 15, 2013 at 2:14 pm | No comments | Prospect Spotlight | Tags: , , , , ,

Contact Jacob at RhodesJacob19@GMail.com

 

Meet Jacob Rhodes, a twenty-three-year-old former All-State, All-Conference and All-American catcher with a packed trophy case and a top-notch resume of division-one baseball.

 

As long as he can remember, Rhodes has played baseball. He loves the game. And ever since hid dad taught him to play, when he was barely old enough to swing a bat, he has been a catcher.

He’s a catcher, through and through.

In high school, the Michigan native played four years of varsity ball for the Ypsilanti Braves. He started each game behind the plate, never missing any time to injury, and he earned the respect of his teammates for his scrappy, never-give-in style of play. He led the Braves to three straight conference championships, and capped off his phenomenal four-year stint with a monster senior campaign.

 

Though he played at a star-level from start to finish, Rhodes was always on the small side. Heading in to his junior season, he was barely 5’8″ and he was built like a feather weight. So, he focused on bulking up. He undertook a more rigorous workout routine and, by his seventeenth birthday, he’d grown in to a much stronger, more developed player.

In his final high school spring, Rhodes stepped on to the diamond four inches taller, and nearly thirty pounds heavier. Beyond just added strength and size, he’d spent long hours tirelessly honing his technique and mechanics.

The hard work he put in off the field, payed off when he stepped on it. The added strength in his hands and legs kicked his bat speed in to high gear, and the sturdier base helped improve his balance. 

Rhodes tore apart opposing pitchers as a senior, en route to All-Conference and All-State honors. He hit a flashy .485, and mashed six homeruns and 57 RBI.

His performance improved on the field as well. At catcher, his arm strength had grown by leaps and bounds, and an offseason focus on improving his receiving technique turned him in to a superb overall defender. His dedication to the game showed in everything he did. And his coaches trusted his baseball instincts so much, that they even allowed him to call his own pitches from time to time.

 

 

Jacob’s incredible senior season earned him 2008′s Ann Arbor News Player of the Year award, as well some offers to play baseball for top division-I programs. Suddenly, he’d transformed from a very good high school ballplayer, in to one of Michigan’s more sought after recruits.

The previous fall, Rhodes already drew a scholarship offer from Eastern Michigan, a local school with a strong history in Division-I sports. But after his bat caught fire, top national programs like Notre Dame and Western Iowa State started calling.

The offer to play in South Bend was especially enticing, but he’d already verbally committed to EMU. Plus, he wanted to go with the school that wanted him the most and Eastern Michigan and made the strongest offer.

 

Despite his impressive high school performance, professional baseball wasn’t an option for Jacob. Not yet. His lifelong dream was to play in the big leagues, but he knew if he was going to make a run at pro ball, he’d need to prove himself in college first.

Jacob is an honest, quiet guy. He’s always been a leader, but not the outspoken, demanding-the-spotlight type. He leads by example, and tries to let his game do the talking. Fitting the catcher job description almost perfectly, he’s selfless and driven.

His style doesn’t attract waves of attention. Knowing this about himself, Jacob was prepared to take a more difficult path to the pros. Even if his goal seemed distant, he knew it was attainable.

 

Jacob didn’t hear his name called in the 2008 MLB Draft, but his excellent play still attracted scouts from the Nationals and Diamondbacks. His dream of catching in the big leagues, the one he’d had since childhood, suddenly seemed attainable. All he had to do was continue to play the game he’d always played at a high level, and after four years, he’d be catching professionally.

Of course, executing a grand plan usually isn’t as easy as it initially seems.

Jacob’s freshman season didn’t go as well as he’d hoped. He was ready to make an impact immediately, and he was used to being a leader on the field. But as a freshman, that wasn’t enough for his coaches. DI baseball asks a lot of their catchers, and Jacob’s age and lack of experience wasn’t earning him playing time.

A very driven player, who’s used to being involved in the game, Jacob didn’t respond well to the bench. He wasn’t selfish, and still tried his best in limited duty. In his first at bat of his only game of the season, he wrapped an important RBI double. He also caught four spotless innings behind the plate that day. But, by season’s end, that one game accounted for all of his playing time. Needless to say, he felt overlooked by his coaches, and started mulling over a transfer.

In the end, Eastern Michigan wasn’t for him.

The school was in his hometown, but to Rhodes, the Eagles weren’t his home anymore. He wasn’t happy playing there. If he stayed, he at least wanted a chance to prove himself on the field, and it didn’t look like he was going to get an honest look there anytime soon.

 

So, on a recommendation from some of his summer ball teammates, he transfered to Wabash Valley Junior College, a top-shelf program that had scouted him when he was in high school.

Though it was on the junior college circuit, Wabash Valley was a huge step-up from Eastern Michigan. A D-I program, they were the top team in their conference, and by Rhodes’ sophomore season, they were ranked the number-six juco team in the nation.

The higher level of competition suited Rhodes well, and as soon as he geared-up for the Warriors, he assumed a key role on the team. His new coach, Rob Fournier, was impressed by Rhodes’ polished hitting and fielding ability, as well as the young backstop’s dedication to the game. In his eyes, he saw a star player, and a catcher that could lead his players on the field and off.

Fournier knows baseball, and his confidence in Jacob speaks volume’s about the young catcher’s ability. Throughout his sixteen-season coaching career (twelve at that point), Fournier led Wabash to nine 40+ win seasons and five conference championships. And, twenty-four players he coached earned MLB draft picks.

A great match, Jacob quickly took to his new coach and team. In his first season with the Warriors, Rhodes caught fire out of the gate and never looked back.

In his first game he mashed three hits against Meridian community college. He immediately found a groove, and the early success helped him build confidence. He proceeded to start all but three games for the Warriors behind the plate in 2009, and he hit .420 with nine homeruns and 63 RBI.

His hot hitting and solid defensive play earned him a spot on the All-GRAC team.

 

Jacob’s first season at Wabash Valley was a massive success. He attributes the incredible improvement in his performance to a change of scenery, as well a his maturing mentally. That offseason, he’d made a concerted effort to built himself both physically and mentally, believing a more confident, relaxed demeanor would help him perform:

The biggest thing for me was growing mentally. At Wabash, I just felt good, and I tried to just calm myself down and play baseball. I didn’t want to do to much…The one thing that got me through the long seasons of catching nearly every game was my mental toughness. I had to be very mentally fit as well as physically fit to make it through a season. I knew there would be games where I would be tired, my legs would hurt, or I would be physically drained and in order for me to perform in those games I would have to be mentally strong.”

 

Coach Fournier also helped Rhodes’ overhall his hitting mechanics. When he came to Wabash, he was a strong hitter, but his bat speed and barrel control were stunted by a few bad habits. Coach Fournier, who’s widely praised by baseball people for his work molding young hitters in the cage, helped Rhodes develop his power and bat control.

Rhodes’s had a small wrap in his swing, creating unnecessary length. As a result, he had trouble catching up to pitches on the inner half of the plate, and his power suffered. In an attempt to remedy the faulty timing, he would step away from the ball during his stride, forcing him to open much earlier and pull-off outside pitches.

Fournier quickly corrected Rhodes’ mechanical problems with a novel approach. One of his more remarkable methods was using a two-by-four to improve Rhodes’s timing. He took a piece of plywood, scribbled Rhodes’ name on it and then had Jacob use it to keep his stride straight during batting practice. When he swung, Jacob would have to step along the wooden board, forcing him to put his body in to the ball.

The unorthodox coaching technique worked for Jacob, and his swing went from ugly to sweet in just a few weeks.

Reflecting on his growth as a hitter, Rhodes’ credits Fournier as well as his summer coaches for his mechanical and mental improvements:

I am a great hitter and I have worked all my life to become the hitter I am. I was never the best hitter growing up, so I really had to work hard to get where I am today. Coach Fournier at Wabash and coach Gallagher in summer ball helped me get rid of some bad habits. I worked hard on my mechanics, but for me, the biggest thing is always mental. When I feel good, I feel like I can hit anything.”

 

In his sophomore season, everything came together for Rhodes and the Warriors. Fournier’s team boasted premium talent, now armed with top recruit Mel Rojas Jr., and the Warriors put together the best season in school history.

Rhodes once again caught nearly all of the Warriors games. He helped lead the team to a 50-12 record and a number-six national ranking, batting .400 with eight homeruns and seventy-eight RBI. Rhodes and the Warriors ended up winning both their region title and the GRAC Conference Championship.

More than just a skilled hitter, Rhodes’ defense improved by leaps and bounds during his final season at WVC. Blessed with a strong arm, Rhodes was becoming adept at holding baserunners, and his commitment to his receiving helped the team’s vaunted pitching staff climb to the top of the conference:

My two greatest strengths as a catcher, defensively, are my ability to block the baseball, and my ability to throw out base runners. Very rarely do I let a ball get by me; I take pride in stopping every ball from getting to the back stop. It is a disappointing feeling when you have to chase down a ball that got by you, so do my best to not ever have to experience that feeling.

In a phone interview with BaseballNewsHound.com‘s Ryan Kelley, Rhodes emphasized his dedication to honing his defensive game. Though he’s a premium hitter, his fielding is important to him, and he strives to improve every time he takes the field:

As a catcher I am always looking to improve all aspects of my game. I am always working on having a faster pop time, quicker feet and better blocking technique. If I throw a 1.90 one day I am working on getting it down to a 1.80 for the next day. Hard work, adapting and improvement is the key to catching. God has blessed me with the ability to throw the baseball quickly, accurately and strongly. It is the greatest feeling in the world when I throw a runner out or pick a runner off…I have worked for years in order to perfect my throwing technique and it has paid of tremendously”

 

 

After graduating from WVC, Rhodes moved on to Kentucky’s Murray State University for his final two seasons of DI eligibility.

Prior to making the decision to transfer, he’d received a call from Washington Nationals area scout Steve Arnieri.

Arnieri actually spoke with Jacob’s father in the Spring of his sophomore year. The two briefly discussed the possibility of the club drafting Jacob.

At the time, Arnieri made an informal signing bonus offer that was much smaller than the sum that Jacob had received from Murray State via athletic scholarship. Though it was tempting to accept, Jacob couldn’t forfeit a free education unless he had a clear path to the pros. A modest bonus and a low draft pick was far from security, it sounded more like a one-in-a-million shot. Even though he wanted nothing more than to make his dream a reality right then, Jacob had worked to hard to take such a gamble.


In the end though, the Nationals never put a written offer on the table. In fact, Rhodes’ family didn’t hear from Arnieri, or any other pro scout after that lone phone call.

Rhodes’ ultimate goal was still to play in the pros. Now that he’d put together such a strong resume at Wabash, it seemed like he was inching closer to achieving dream, he just needed to continue to grow and improve.

Rhodes decided to attend Murray State University for his final two seasons of eligibility. And in two more years, he’d re-try his hand at the pros.

 

At the time, the Thoroughbreds appeared to be an up and coming team, and a great fit for Rhodes. First of all, their head coach Rob McDonald was a former catcher himself, and he’d made his name coaching successful Memphis and Southern Mississippi clubs. But more importantly, McDonald had helped turn a floundering program in to a competitor. He was skilled at developing young players in to their best selves.

In 2009, his sixth season as Thorobreds manager, McDonald led the team to a 34-21 record and it’s best performance in nearly four decades. He followed with a solid .500 record in 2010, and a third-place finish in the Ohio Valley Conference. His teams annually featured plenty of All-Conference stars, as well as pro baseball prospects. Over the past two seasons, he’d also coached both a Conference Pitcher of the Year (Daniel Calhoun in 2009) and an OVC Player of the Year (Wes Cunningham in 2010).

 

Rhodes’ decision to take his amateur career to Murray paid dividends almost immediately. The program had just graduated two of the best players in OVC history, and they needed Rhodes to play a prominent role on both sides of the plate. McDonald handed him the starting catching job, and Rhodesie responded with spectacular performance.

Hard-nosed and confident, he made 46 of his 49 starts at catcher, but still managed to out-slug his peers. He collected a whopping sixteen multi-hit games, nearly averaging one in every three starts, and he posted a .395 on-base percentage. His .328 batting average ranked second among all OVC catchers, behind only Morehead State star Taylor Davis, and he hit .345 during conference play.

By the end of his 2011 campaign, Rhodes had established himself as a legitimate big league draft prospect. His resume boasted All-Conference and All-State accolades, an All-American nomination, and a series of impressive stats. In his two years at Wabash, he helped lead one of the nation’s best Juco programs with star-level run production. Then, he followed by out-hitting nearly every catcher in the MVC last year.

 

He was inching closer to finally getting his shot at making his dream of playing professional baseball a reality. Three outstanding years of college ball was enough to attract the eyes of MLB scouts, and all he needed to do was continue his performance for one last season.

But things have never been that easy for Jacob. He’s the first to admit he’s not a flashy superstar, or the kid that forces himself in to the spotlight. He’s spent his baseball career quietly going about his business, outworking his peers and letting his game do the talking for him. The path he’s taken isn’t the easy road, and sometimes, being the blue collar grinder can take it’s toll.

Rhodes had managed to avoid major injury throughout his college career, and despite starting so many games behind the plate, he’d never folded under the workload. But his senior season proved to be different. Facing the rigors of catching everyday for a DI club, as well as the pressure of performing at a star-level to earn a look from scouts, he started to wear down.

Rhodes was still comfortable behind the plate, no matter how much he was working, but in the box, his performance wavered. If he wanted to draw pro scouts all the way to the Ohio Valley Conference, he knew he needed to make some noise.  

Rhodes’ career numbers speak volumes about his pure hitting ability. But his homerun power, though still impressive, has always lagged behind his ability to hit for average. And unfortunately, the best way to may noise is to hit the ball hard, and out of the park.

So Rhodes broke one of the cardinal rules of hitting–he started trying to hit homeruns. He swung harder, and instead employing his usual patient approach at the plate, he started hacking. 

In the box, Jacob wasn’t as comfortable as he’d been in past seasons. He started off his 2012 campaign slowly, appearing to put too much pressure on himself. His batting average dropped to .260, and his homerun totals only improved slightly.

Luckily, Jacob corrected his slump before it got out of hand, and he still managed to put together a strong all-around season. Despite the early struggles, he posted a top-shelf .366 on-base percentage, and still played a lead role in the Racers’ offense. He finished 2012 ranked second among the conference’s catchers with 18 extra-base hits. 

On the bright side, Jacob’s defense continued to move forward. He continued to offer the Racers remarkable stability behind the plate, managing to start 48 games. But more than that, he became a force to be reckoned with in the base-running game. He finished 2012 ranked second in baserunners caught stealing (with 18), and he allowed just 9 passed balls all season. 

 

Rhodes’ play was still impressive, but in a conference where only a handful of players get drafted as a summer, even minor slumps can alter a prospect’s draft aspirations.

And, come the big day, he wasn’t drafted after all. Just like that, Rhodes went from a probable pro ballplayer to completely overlooked.

Of course, that’s not the end of Jacob’s story. He graduated from Murray last spring, and he’s since gotten healthy and in shape. He has stayed around the game by coaching baseball at MacMurray college, and he uses a rigorous big league workout regiment to stay prepared for the day he receives another call.

 

Right now, Rhodes is trying to catch on to a pro baseball club through open tryouts. A difficult task, he’s one of thousands of young ballplayers that annually vy for a chance to realize their dreams.

Last spring Rhodes attended an open tryout for the Cincinnati Reds, held in Cleveland, Ohio. Along with over a hundred other players, he did his best to catch the eye of Reds coaches and scouts:

I would love a chance to play professional ball and I am going to do everything that I can to make sure it happens…The first open tryout I attended I was only a freshman in college and did not know what to expect. During that time I caught bullpens for 3 hours, made five throws to second and took six swings. I was very disappointed. The most recent tryout I attended was this summer in Cleveland Ohio. I performed very well. I ran a seven second sixty-yard dash and I was around a one-nine second pop time. As well as I did, I did not receive a call nor was I approached by anyone who wanted to talk. It was also very disappointing.”

 

It’s extremely difficult to catch-on through pro tryouts, but definitely not impossible. Because teams may hold tryouts for only one or two spots, it often takes multiple tryouts for a prospect to convince an organization (their coaches and scouts) he’s prepared to play professionally. Still, if a player has the talent and drive, he can make it.

Right now, there’s a long list of current big leaguers that have taken this back door in to Majors. And playing in Jacob’s favor is his defensive position. If Jacob can convince scouts he can remain a catcher in the pro’s, then his chances improve dramatically. Of the sixteen undrafted players in the MLB at the end of the 2010 season, four were catchers. Of the non-pitchers, only two played another position.

Jacob has a lot going for him. Aside from his outstanding amateur career, he possesses an array of skills that pro teams covet:

The skills that I have as a catcher—blocking, receiving, and throwing—make me a prime candidate for the pros. I’m durable, I strive to stay in my peak shape, and I’m used to catching long seasons already. At the plate, I’m a great left handed hitter, who can hit for power all over the fields… I have worked hard all my life to become the hitter I am today. With that said, I am not an offensive-minded catcher. I hit well, but it’s more rewarding when I do a great job defensively. I take pride in stopping every ball from getting to the back stop”

 

But whether or not Jacob actually does make it, is largely a question of his mental–not physical–skills. On that end, he’s looking strong as well. He’s an intelligent, driven player that possesses the never give-up attitude that pro teams look for—especially in their catchers. He’s smart, and he takes pride in controlling the strategy side of baseball, but he’s also a tough player:

The one thing that got me through the tough seasons of catching nearly every game was being mentally prepared. The most difficult aspect of catching is being able to control the game in any situation. You are the leader of the field and you have to know what is happening at all times. I always tried to think one play ahead of the game, and prepare for anything.”

 

From here, Jacob will try his hand in next spring’s round of tryouts. It’s been a long road to this point, and he’s giving it all to make his way in pro baseball. He’s blessed with all of the ingredients for success, and though the odds are stacked against him, he’s already spent a lifetime defying them.

My parents are the hardest working parents I have ever met. Nothing has ever been handed to them, they’ve worked for everything they have. I know this is trait has been passed to me. Baseball is a part of my life and playing professionally is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m working as hard as I can to make my dream a reality.”

 

Jacob’s story is representative of a larger pool of players. Taking an amateur baseball career to the pros is an unbelievable feat. Less than four in a thousand high school varsity players will ever earn the chance to play in the minors. An undrafted player like Jacob faces an even more arduous and winding path.

Regardless of the odds, Jacob isn’t prepared to give anything less than his all to make his dream come true. And maybe, if he plays hard and plays his hand right, he’ll live the dream.

 

Contact Jacob at RhodesJacob19@GMail.com

Prospect Spotlight: Jacob Rhodes is Trying to Catch On / Baseball News Hound by Ryan Kelley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives CC BY-NC-ND

About the Author

Ryan Kelley

Founder and Executive Editor of BaseballNewsHound.com. Ryan is a graduate of the George Washington University, with a degree in economics. His acclaimed thesis on Major League Baseball's Labor Market is in the running for an excellence award in economics. A young economist working in Washington D.C., Ryan has extensive experience working in professional baseball. In the past, he's worked in player development, for the United States Olympic Committee and in scouting. Ryan's resume also includes jobs in journalism, social media marketing, government as well in non-profit legal services. However, sports and sportswriting are his two passions, and he strives to incorporate his unconventional career experience and academic expertise in his work at BaseballNewsHound.com. Born and raised in Connecticut, Ryan currently resides in Arlington Virginia, just outside of DC. A former amateur baseball and football player, Ryan loves both sports.

2012 MLB Competitive Balance Draft Lottery Results / Baseball News Hound by Ryan Kelley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives CC BY-NC-ND