Hard To Ignore
Ed Note: I'm posting this under my byline (Robert) until we get Ben's byline fixed, but just know that if it's a baseball post, it's from Ben The Baseball Guy. And Ben has a fun thing to write about this season - the Illini having one of the best hitters in the nation. Here's Ben on Bren:
.@bren_spillane is the Big Ten leader in...
?? Average (.461)
?? On-base percentage (.528)
?? Slugging (1.000)
?? Doubles (12)
?? Home Runs (9)
?? RBIs (31)
?? Hits per game (1.75)
?? Runs per game (1.15)
?? Total bases (76) pic.twitter.com/ukW2Wu4kA2
-- Illini Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) March 26, 2018
Look at that tweet. Take a second and ponder just what all those numbers mean. When you take all those numbers together, it equals up to offensive dominance by junior first baseman Bren Spillane. And that offensive dominance has sparked the Fighting Illini to a 16-5 start - including a sweep of Evanston's B1G team last weekend. That start has the Illini ranked No. 12 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, No. 22 in the country by Baseball America and No. 25 in the country by D1baseball.com
As a junior at Wheeling High School in Chicago's Northwest suburbs, Spillane underwent Tommy John surgery. He was back for his senior year, but still not quite 100% on his throws from the outfield. Check out this scouting report from Prep Baseball Report from a game late in Spillane's senior year at Wheeling.
5.13.15 - Illinois recruit, currently ranked No. 7 in Illinois' 2015 class, No. 69 overall. Strong, athletic 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame; has drawn considerable pro interest despite not being able to throw at 100 percent after having Tommy John surgery last year. Possesses high-level tools across the board: size, speed (6.7 runner), power and arm strength (when healthy, 90-plus from the outfield). Hits from a wider setup, low hand set, quiet overall mechanics. Creates leverage in swing and possesses bat speed and hand strength. In the game, went 0-for-2 with a sacrifice fly to centerfield. Also flew out to centefield and struck out.
That considerable pro interest translated into the Pittsburgh Pirates selecting Spillane in the 34th round of the 2015 draft. And yet, on an Illinois team seeking to replace seven draftees off a 50-win team, Spillane couldn't find a role as a freshman in 2016, appearing in just five games and failing to register a hit in nine at-bats.
Spillane began to turn a corner in 2017, appearing in 36 games and starting 28 while battling injuries that cost him much of Big Ten play. He hit .295 for the season -- .349 in B1G play - and closed the season on an eight-game hitting streak.
"He fought the injury bug for his first two seasons," Fighting Illini hitting coach/recruiting coordinator Adam Christ said. "And when that happens, it's hard to find consistency and consistency in baseball is so important.
"Now, everything isn't riding on that one at-bat."
For Fighting Illini head coach Dan Hartleb, it was a step in the maturation process, though not the typical maturation process one might think.
"I can't say enough good things about him," Hartleb said. "He's Academic All-Big 10, he cares about this team and his teammates and an incredibly hard worker."
"He just needed time to mature into the game and learn to trust his abilities," Hartleb said. "I don't think Bren understood and trusted his talent."
Mechanically, as Christ puts it, Spillane "has a ton of tools."
"He's learned to simplify everything and use his lower half in his swing and that helps him see the ball better and swing at strikes. When that happens, you're comfortable at the plate and not scrambling from pitch-to-pitch."
And now his award shelf is starting to fill up. On March 21, Spillane earned D1baseball.com Player of the Day after going 3-for-4 with a double, 2 home runs and 8 RBIs. For the week, including the Fighting Illini's weekend sweep of Evanston's B1G team, Spillane was an impressive 9-14 in four games with 3 doubles, 3 home runs 10 RBIs. Add in six walks total - 5 by the Mildcats - and it Spillane was on base 75% of the time last week.
For those numbers, he earned National Player of the Week honors from NCAA.com, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.
On Wednesday, Kendall Rogers - the dean of college baseball writers whose work can be found at d1baseball.com - dropped a Tyler Jay comp as he profiled for Spillane for USA Baseball's Golden Spikes Award - the college baseball version of the Heisman. Here's what Rogers had to say:
"Back in 2015 when the Illini made a run to the super regional round, Jay was the face of the program and had eyeballs everywhere keeping track of the Illini. Spillane has had that same impact so far this season, as the Illini sit ranked at No. 25 with an impressive 15-5 overall record, 3-0 mark in the Big Ten, and perhaps most important, a highly respectable RPI of 34 with room to go up."
It's no time to start talking about 2015…yet. But it's also hard to ignore what Spillane and the Illini have done so far this season.