LEXINGTON, KY. —
If you were to construct the ideal draftable baseball player, what attributes would you conjure up?
Starting with the basics, you’d want to be left-handed, preferably a left-handed pitcher who can locate three different pitches, but also crank up the gas.
That attribute alone would make many Major League Baseball teams drool, but if you wanted to get greedy, why not add prodigious power at the plate and the ability to hit to all fields?
This player is no pipe dream. He plies his trade at the University of Kentucky and Terre Haute is his hometown. He’s A.J. Reed, he’s draft eligible, and right now, the baseball world is his oyster.
Reed took his talents to Kentucky and the Southeastern Conference in 2011 and hasn’t looked back in the baseball sense. After a standout career at Terre Haute South — he was Indiana’s Player of the Year in 2011 — area fans had an idea of the wind Kentucky was sowing when it coaxed Reed to Lexington, Ky.
This year? The SEC has reaped the whirlwind.
How good has Reed been? Entering Kentucky’s weekend series at Texas A&M, Reed co-led the NCAA in home runs with 14. Reed has more home runs than 179 other teams have slugged at the Division I level. Reed hit at least one home run in five consecutive SEC games, a streak stopped last Sunday against Missouri.
Reed’s power display would be impressive enough on its own, but Reed hasn’t stopped there. Entering weekend play, Reed led the SEC in home runs (14), slugging (.754), on-base percentage (.486), RBI (48), total bases (104) and victories (seven). His 15th home run Saturday gave Reed the NCAA lead all to himself.
Yes you read that last bit correctly. Reed is also Kentucky’s Friday night pitching ace. He’s one of the best two-way players to emerge out of the SEC in the last two decades. Among his honors, he was named the Midseason National Player Of The Year by Perfect Game USA. He’s helped the Wildcats achieve a 24-13 record and earn a lofty 11th spot in college baseball’s RPI.
“Twitter is blowing up and you’ve got guys from back home texting me. It’s fun for everyone to be excited about it, but at the end of the day, I have to come out here and help us win,” Reed said after Kentucky’s win against Missouri on April 12.
Anyone who saw Reed play at South knew he could be special. Two-way players are common at the high school level, but the degree to which Reed succeeded turned heads.
Leading a gifted Braves team from 2008-11, Reed finished his South career with a career average of .425 with 41 home runs and 150 RBI. On the mound, he was 26-10 with a 1.80 ERA with 390 strikeouts against just 70 walks. Reed drew plenty of notice coming out of South and was drafted by the New York Mets in the 25th round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
Reed can draw parallels to his South experience — particularly his senior season when with the season he’s enjoyed so far at Kentucky.
“It’s kind of similar, but doing it at this level, I feel it’s more of an accomplishment for myself. With the level we’re winning at — being in the best conference in baseball — it’s a lot of fun,” Reed said.
Reed still has regular contact with Terre Haute friends and his former coaches at South, including Braves head coach Kyle Kraemer and former South assistant Shane Abrell, now the athletic director at Terre Haute North.
“I talk to someone different back home everyday. I talk to my high school coaches everyday. They’re really following me, especially with it being a draft year, they’re asking what’s the word? It’s too early to tell, but I’m doing everything I can to get my name out there,” Reed said.
He got that name out there early on at Kentucky as he elected to hone his craft with three years in college baseball’s toughest conference. Reed hit .300 and had a 2.52 ERA in a relief role for the Wildcats as a freshman in 2012, but he didn’t display the power he had at South as he had just four home runs. A year of adjustment to college baseball’s deadened bats undoubtedly played a role.
Reed hit for more power in 2013. He slugged 13 home runs and had 52 RBI, good enough for him to be named All-SEC first team as a designated hitter. He joined UK’s rotation for the first time and had a 2-8 record with a 4.04 ERA. Opponents hit .301 against him.
It was a fine season and it brought several preseason honors to Reed, primarily for his performance at the plate. He was one of 50 players named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list (akin to football’s Heisman Trophy), was a preseason All-American by choice of three different publications, and was named to Baseball America’s preseason top 100 before he threw a pitch or swung a bat this season.
The honors were great, but Reed knew he needed to do more to build on his 2013 season. It started with conditioning.
Getting in shape
Part of what’s made Reed so powerful was his build. He’s officially listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds on Kentucky’s roster.
His size has taken him far, but once he got to the rarefied air of the SEC, it started to hold him back. He wasn’t able to get around on as many pitches. Teams were pitching him away on the outer half of the plate and Reed wasn’t always able to compensate for it.
“In the past, he’s always had raw power, but he had to gear up and cheat a little bit because he wasn’t as athletic enough, quick enough or strong enough to get to pitches. Because of that, he would make earlier decisions,” Kentucky hitting coach Brian Green said.
Early decisions means a certain level of guess work at the plate and though his numbers were good, Kentucky and Reed both thought they could get better.
So he began to lose weight. A lot of it. During fall conditioning, Reed lost 25 pounds. He began the season far more svelte … but without sacrificing any raw power.
“I’ve changed my body and that helps out immensely. I think that’s the biggest factor. I had to lose the weight and get in better shape,” Reed said.
Green said a leaner Reed makes all of the difference in the world when it comes to his mechanics.
“The 20-pound swing is a big commitment and he’s made that commitment in the weight room. It’s given him the strength and the ability to not have to cheat [at the plate] as much,” Green said.
“Now he’s technically more efficient with his swing. He is staying inside the ball, he’s staying behind the ball so much better. You watch him hit now and he’s hitting it from center to the left-center side. I think 10 of his home runs are to the left-hand side because he’s so strong and people try to stay away from him,” Green added.
Reed has combined all of that with uncommon hand-eye coordination (Green said it’s the best on UK’s team) and his own work ethic to become extremely dangerous at the plate.
What Reed has mastered is patience at the plate to go with a killer instinct to punish a pitch that’s to his liking. Reed isn’t over-patient to the point where he’s taking pitches needlessly. He’s picking his spots adroitly.
“In our conference guys are going to come at you and it’s a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it. Right now, I’m doing a good job of not missing those pitches,” Reed said.
It comes back to his mechanics.
“The biggest adjustment he’s made is that his hip isn’t blowing open early. He’s driving through the ball much better. He’s seeing the ball for another five or six feet this year. It’s why the strikeouts are down, the walks are up, and he’s able to become a better two-strike hitter, which he struggled with last year,” Green said.
Even the pitches that aren’t right down Broadway are being hammered by Reed. Another commitment he made was to throw off the tag of being a pure pull hitter. To be sure, Reed has immense power to right field. He proved it last Friday with a mammoth home run against Missouri that caromed high — Roy Hobbs-style — off a light tower beyond the right field fence. But to be a complete hitter, he had to get better at hitting opposite field.
“That’s something I’ve worked on from last year. We’re always looking to take the ball the other way, to take the fastball the other way,” Reed said.
Hitting opposite field is more than just making yourself versatile at the dish, it also speaks to one’s patience and it goes back to the conditioning Reed did in the offseason.
“He’s trusting the fact that he doesn’t have to go for it. In the past, he did think that, so he’d make earlier decisions and swing over balls and pop them up. That’s the biggest difference for him and he’s a tough out now,” Green said.
Two full-time jobs
Reed has been able to become one of the best hitters in the country while improving into one of the SEC’s best pitchers. Reed is 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA and has 46 strikeouts against just 18 walks. In many ways, the improvement Reed has made on the mound is as stark as it’s been at the plate.
Reed — who can throw a fastball, curveball and change-up with command — isn’t a high strikeout pitcher at the college level. He pitches to contact and works the zone deftly for someone who could easily just depend on the power he could bring to bear with his arm.
“A.J.’s always been able to throw the ball wherever he wants to at a pretty high rate since he’s been here,” Kentucky catcher Michael Thomas said. “That’s why his strikeouts numbers aren’t high, he gets hit a lot, but as long as he stays low in the zone and throw strikes, his punch-out numbers will go up.”
Reed said he had to “crisp up” his three pitches. How Reed finds the time to hone both his batting and his pitching to a fine art is part of his greatness. Reed essentially has two full-time jobs as a Friday night starter and UK’s best hitter. When asked how Reed divides his labor, Kentucky coach Gary Henderson credited Reed’s maturation as a baseball player and person.
Reed has experience dealing with the dual role, but it took some practice before he mastered it at the collegiate level. He had to perfect his approach.
“I’m not going to say I’m more focused on pitching on Fridays, but I think that’s a little bit more important because I set the tone for the game on the mound. I have to make pitches, but at the same time, I have to score runs,” Reed said. “Once I go in the dugout, after I throw or after an at-bat, I just have to switch to the other one. That just comes with practice over the years, both at high school and here.”
Kentucky does what it can to take the load off Reed as much as possible. He has had just three outings where he’s worked eight innings. Kentucky tries to play him at designated hitter as much as possible to avoid the physical load of playing first base. Reed has played 12 games at first this season.
“It’s a big load for him, but he’s handling it. I think with the body change it’s enabled him to handle the workload better than he has in the past. But in terms of repetitions? Nobody works as hard on his swing as A.J.,” Green said.
Thomas thinks that his two-way excellence is part of Reed embracing his role as the Wildcats’ best player.
“He’s confident. One of the most confident players I’ve ever met in my life.,” said Thomas, who noted that Reed has stayed humble and remains “one of the guys”.
“I think A.J. realizes how big of a role he has and how impactful he can be not only in the outcome of the game, but for the rest of his teammates. I think he plays at as high a level as he possibly can. He doesn’t play out of himself, he’s just A.J. Reed, he goes out, sees the ball, hits the ball, and pitches the best he can,” Thomas said.
Two-way players and the draft
Two-players are not foreign to college baseball. There’s an award for two-way players — the John Olerud Award — that was established in 2010 in honor of the former Washington State pitcher and hitter, who later went on to big league stardom with Toronto and the New York Mets.
But two-way players who perform at the rate Reed has this season are rare. This is especially true in recent times where emphasis on specialization is far more ingrained.
In the last 20 years, players like Tennessee’s Todd Helton, Auburn’s Tim Hudson and Florida’s Brad Wilkerson were future major leaguers drafted as two-way players out of the SEC alone. Gonzaga’s Marco Gonzalez won the Olerud Award last season and was drafted in the first round last June by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Even so, there’s no consensus on how a two-way player is treated by major league clubs.
“It does seem to depend on the player. The Blue Jays had a nice track record of taking two-way guys and making them full time pitchers. Shaun Marcum and Casey Janssen spring to mind,” said Baseball America Editor in Chief John Manuel, who covers prospects and the draft for the venerable magazine.
“I think pitchers with big velocity usually go out as pitchers. Usually the loudest tool wins, so to speak. Brad Wilkerson was a fine two-way guy with Florida, obviously went out as a hitter; his hitting ability carried the day,” Manuel added.
Manuel said that ambiguity was reflected in what he’s canvassed scouts regarding Reed.
“[It] depends on the scout. Two recent guys I talked to were split; one values the power most, the other prefers the left-handed pitcher with three pitches for strikes,” Manuel said.
Could Reed’s two-way status hurt him? The rationale being that a team might not want to try to figure out how best to use Reed and pick a player where they can identify the skill set easier?
It’s not likely. Manuel thinks Reed has done himself a lot of favors with his excellent campaign. At present, Manuel projects Reed as a second or third round pick, but more scouts are taking notice.
“My sense is he has improved his physical conditioning enough to really wake up a lot of scouts. That, plus the power surge, has moved him up draft boards. I believe his power production could prove very attractive to teams with an analytic bent,” Manuel said.
The end game
For all of the accolades already garnered, there’s still plenty of work in front of Reed before the MLB Draft starts on June 5.
Reed still has lead Kentucky through the minefield that is the SEC Eastern Division. Every team is Kentucky’s division is in the hunt. Three games separate seven teams. Entering weekend action, Kentucky was two games behind first-place Florida.
Reed will also have to deal with the increased attention his two-way exploits will no doubt bring. In a way, Reed dealt with it on a smaller scale before. During his senior season at South, there was constant speculation about whether he’d go to Kentucky as planned or sign with whomever drafted him. Reed can fall back on that experience to a degree, but it wasn’t the same.
“I didn’t really know much about [the draft] then. My senior year it was a whole different process,” Reed said.
There’s plenty of opportunity for Reed to improve his draft stock. Continued production at the level he’s done so far this season is one obvious way to do it, but so is leading his team to postseason glory. A solid run at the arch-competitive SEC Tournament or leading Kentucky out of a regional could do the trick.
Not that Reed is going to try to force the issue.
“[The draft] is something I try not to think about too much. I know what I do on the field will influence the draft and it will take care of itself,” Reed said.
Right now Reed is taking care of business.
Where Reed ranks nationally
Here’s a list of various categories where A.J. Reed ranks in top 5 nationally:
1. A.J. Reed Kentucky 14
1. Michael Katz William & Mary 14
3. Nic Wilson Georgia State 12
4. Brandon Thompson Tennessee Tech 11
4. Zach Stephens Tennessee Tech 11
1. Michael Katz William & Mary 64
2. A.J. Reed Kentucky 48
3. Derek Gibson SEMO 46
4. Brandon Thompson Tennessee Tech 45
4. Chase Harris New Mexico 45
1. Michael Katz William & Mary .790
2. A.J. Reed Kentucky .754
3. Caleb Adams La-Lafayette .730
4. Ryan Seiz Liberty .719
5. Nik Wilson Georgia State .711
1. Michael Katz William & Mary 1.271
2. A.J. Reed Kentucky 1.248
3. Caleb Adams La.-Lafayette 1.220
4. Ryan Seiz Liberty 1.216
5. Nick Thompson William & Mary 1.190
1. Michael Katz William & Mary 124
2. Ryan Seiz Liberty 110
3. Brandon Thompson Tenn. Tech 105
4. A.J. Reed Kentucky 104
5. Nick Thompson William & Mary 101