BOGACZYK: Hammer looks Ahead, Leaves Draft Behind
The Word on the Herd - Jan. 14, 2016
J.D. Hammer Interview Video
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – For J.D. Hammer, it’s better late than never in his baseball career.
In 2012, Hammer headed from Fort Collins, Colo., to Navarro College in Texas, hoping a junior-college avenue as a shortstop would be the quickest route to pro baseball. Instead, he morphed into an NCAA Division I pitching prospect.
Then, it seemed that the workhorse of the 2015 Marshall mound staff had a good shot at hearing his name among 40 rounds in the June Major League Draft. But 1,215 names came and went, and Hammer – J.D. is short for John Dale -- was disappointed.
So, he headed back to Marshall for his senior season in 2016, and the 6-foot-3 right-hander will be one of the top arms on what Coach Jeff Waggoner calls the deepest pitching staff in his 10 seasons guiding the Herd.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Hammer said of the Herd season, in which the schedule includes six defending conference champions and seven 2015 NCAA regional entrants. “We brought in some new arms, some freshmen with a lot of talent, and I’m anxious to see what they can do on the field. We have new guys from junior colleges who can really hit and they’ll make an impact in our lineup.
“As far as me, the biggest thing is getting out on the mound and competing and helping my team do whatever we can to get wins. I think we have a good shot at making the (Conference USA) tournament this time, so I think we’re all pretty excited about seeing what this team can do.”
Hammer went 2-6 with a solid 3.83 ERA last season, allowing 70 hits while fanning 56 with 39 bases on balls. Twelve of his 15 appearances were starts, and his 80 innings pitched were 21 more than any other Herd pitcher. Hammer and junior teammate Chase Boster were projected as draft picks. Neither got the call in early June.
“The draft is in the back of everyone’s minds,” Hammer said, “but really what we’re trying to focus on is the team. We have a bunch of guys this year who I think have the opportunity to be drafted and play pro baseball, but we’re kind of putting that to the side. We’re just trying to go out there and win and make the conference tournament and maybe make some history.
“I mean -- for anyone – when you hear you have the opportunity to get drafted and then you don’t, it’s a little disappointing. But there is so much young talent out there, you can’t be too upset. It just kind of pushes you in the right direction, makes you work harder than you did the season before. That’s how I look at it.”
The Herd first saw Hammer, 21, when he pitched in relief for Navarro in the 2013 JUCO World Series, where Waggoner was scouting talent. That was the close of a season in which Hammer’s baseball days took a turn toward the hill – the reason MU pitching coach Josh Newman calls Hammer “a fresh arm.”
“In high school, I really didn’t pitch,” said Hammer, who was offered a scholarship to Michigan for his infield play. “I was actually decent at shortstop, so I thought I’d go to a junior college for a year and then have the opportunity to get drafted out of junior college. Then I got there my freshman year at Navarro and I did fine fielding but I just really struggled with hitting at the higher level.
“They gave me an option to where I could transfer or stay there and learn how to pitch. I knew that team had talent and I wanted to be a part of going to the World Series that year so I stayed, worked out of the bullpen. The coaches worked a lot with me on the thought process behind being a pitcher, the mechanics – because I’d never done it before. I ended up with 45 innings, and then my sophomore year I ended up close to 100 innings as a starter.”
Newman said the Herd’s three weekend starters for 10 C-USA series will come from among the foursome of Hammer, Boster and two lefties – Florida junior college product Parker Danciu and freshman Josh Shapiro of Columbus, Ohio.
“Coming out (of junior college), J.D. was raw, and fast-forward to now -- the sky’s the limit,” the Herd pitching coach said. “He’s got low mileage on his arm and he’s a tremendous athlete, has bought into every single thing we’ve talked about from a pitching end. He goes above and beyond; his work ethic is incredible.
“We’re working on his ‘out’ pitch – his breaking ball – and being able to command his changeup better. His changeup is his least-developed pitch, as far as rating his stuff now, but it’s a pitch he really needs to hone in on to really take it to that next level. It’s a pitch we’ll continue to work on to just being able to put guys away later in the count.
“He’s a workhorse similar to Boster, but Boster throws more of a power four-seamer. Hammer offsets his, throws more of a two-seamer/sinker. He pitches to contact. His pitches-to-at-bat last year … He averaged 3.7, which is really good for a starting college pitcher, especially in our conference. He’s a guy who really pounds the bottom of the strike zone, easy delivery. With scouts, he’s just very projectable. When I say that, I mean there’s low mileage in that arm and he’s only going to get better.”
Hammer and his teammates began workouts this week, with the season-opening series scheduled Feb. 19-21 at defending Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champ Florida A&M. The senior right-hander said he has plenty to work on before the opener, including developing his slider as a strikeout pitch.
“I’m fresh and I’m still learning, but I feel like Coach Newman and Coach Waggoner really push me in the right direction and help me a lot with cleaning up my mechanics and helping me with the mental part of the game,” Hammer said. “One of the things Coach Newman has really been hitting on with me is being able to command that fastball, get ahead in counts, so I’m not working behind batters.
“And we’ve really been honing in on the changeup as well. As a starter, you need three pitches, so I’m really working on change to fool hitters. And I guess the last thing he always preaches is controlling the running game, making sure we’re not giving into baserunners. As a pitcher, we’re basically the quarterback of the team. We’re controlling the game.”
Hammer’s willingness to learn extends past the baselines and the dugout, too.
As a health sciences major at MU – Hammer said he wants to go into coaching and scouting after taking a shot at pro baseball – he owns a 3.44 GPA. Newman said Hammer also is a team leader on the community service side, where the Herd pitcher has forged a special relationship with Spring Valley High freshman Dylan Bourdelais.
“As a team, we really work on getting into the schools and talking about how important reading, educating yourself, staying in school – those things – really are,” Hammer said. “We do that a lot as a team.
“When I first got here, the beginning of my junior year, I was paired up with Dylan. He had cancer and was struggling through that. He’s doing well now and playing baseball and is into sports and I try to keep up with him and encourage him.”
Hammer seems poised to make the most of his senior season.
“Coming to Marshall was one of the best decisions I’ve made because it’s helped me out tremendously, academically as well as on the field,” Hammer said. “Marshall has been more than I’ve expected. The coaches have been great. They’re a (phone) call away, and you can call them at any time.
“My teammates are great. We’re like brothers. It’s great. I love the campus. I feel like it’s an ‘everybody knows everybody’ type of school and I really love how the city of Huntington revolves around the sports here and everyone is so supportive of all the athletics here.”
Newman said Hammer has the potential to make his final collegiate season special.
“No doubt, he and Chase had many looks from Major League teams last season,” Newman said. “But J.D. is another believer in Coach Waggoner’s vision for the program here, moving forward and trusting the coaching staff on the development end of it and being ready to make that jump.
“But he also wants to be a part of this class that does something special here – and on this pitching staff, he’s right at the front of it with Boster.”