The batting cage in the backyard of the Gillaspie house in West Omaha stood about 50 feet from the back door. Or, not nearly far enough when a Gillaspie got a good swing on a batting practice fastball.
“There were a couple holes in the net where the ball would fly through and hit the house and mom would come out and get mad,” Casey Gillaspie said. “We always loved hitting. That’s something that helped formed me and my dad and my brother’s relationship was that batting cage. Dad was always out there, ready to throw.”
The Gillaspie batting cage, great genes and hard work is about to produce another first-round draft pick. According to every projection, a major-league team will select Casey Gillaspie, Wichita State’s junior first baseman, during Thursday’s first round. Baseball America ranks him the No. 29 prospect. MLB.com’s Jim Callis slots him No. 18 to the Washington Nationals.
Should those projections hold up, Casey will join older brother Conor, a Shocker third baseman picked 37th overall by San Francisco in 2008, as a first-round draft pick. Casey is drawing comparisons to stars such as Lance Berkman and Mark Teixeira, and WSU coach Todd Butler expects to see him in the major leagues soon.
“I call them the 10-percent guys,” Butler said. “Ninety percent of the guys will have a chance to play, but probably no chance to play in the big leagues. There’s those 10 percent that have the work ethic, the commitment and the mindset and the talent to get to the big leagues. He’s even past 10 percent. He’s one of those 5-percent guys, maybe 1 percent.”
A big-league future began to look real for Casey Gillaspie last summer when he visited Conor in Chicago on his way to the Cape Cod League. He hung out in the White Sox clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field and watched batting practice.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s kind of what motivated me this past summer and this year to get to that point in the long run. Seeing them take batting practice on those awesome fields. Seeing all the fans that come watch them play. Playing in front of that many people would be a dream come true.”
After two good seasons at WSU, Gillaspie used his time in the Cape Cod League, smacking a league-best eight home runs, to elevate everything about his game.
“I was obviously a long way off (after 2013),” he said.
As a junior, he improved defensively and his power and consistency at the plate improved. He hit 15 home run, tied for fifth nationally, and compiled a .682 slugging percentage. He worked with WSU assistant coach Brian Walker to simplify his swing, use his legs and hips more and recognizing how to attack with runners in scoring position. His relationship with Walker produced a series of verbal cues that keep his swing tuned.
“He does the same work every day, doesn’t waver,” Walker said. “His cues keep him on track. That’s why you haven’t seen a big slump.”
Talking hitting with Gillaspie requires a precision beyond most college hitters. “Big toe” is one such verbal cue that Walker and Gillaspie use when he’s pulling off the ball.
“Keeping his direction to the pitcher,” Walker said. “When he lands, he wants to keep the weight inside of his big toe so he feels the pressure on his big toe on his front foot so he knows he’s staying toward the pitcher.”
It all started in the backyard, with father Mark Gillaspie, a former All-American outfielder at Mississippi State, providing instruction and encouragement. He pushed Casey, a right-hander, to switch hit at 9. His advice on swinging at good pitches guided Conor, who hit .362 for his career, and Casey, who walked a nation-leading 58 times this season while hitting .389.
“It’s a constant battle to remind yourself to get what you want to hit,” Casey said. “Even now I fight myself. I get sick of walking so much. He somehow managed to get it through our thick heads.”
The family isn’t all about baseball. Makenzie Gillaspie started four seasons as a soccer midfielder at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and earned all-conference honors as a senior.
“My sister is the best athlete in the family,” Casey said.
Casey will follow the draft at home on Thursday with his family. It will be a different experience for the Gillaspies than in 2008, when Conor practiced with the Shockers before a super regional at Florida State on draft day. Conor told him to enjoy college baseball and not let the scouts and hype affect his junior season. Casey followed that advice. Beyond that, the two brothers don’t talk a lot of baseball. When they’re together, hunting and fishing is a more likely topic.
“I didn’t grow up having a favorite team,” he said. “Obviously, it would be pretty cool to play for the White Sox. But they have a pretty good first baseman (Jose Abreu) right now.”
If the scouts are correct, Gillaspie will add his name to that list soon.
Bayliff, Dearman honored — WSU outfielders Garrett Bayliff and Tanner Dearman were named to the Missouri Valley Conference scholar-athlete honorable mention team.
Bayliff, a senior, has a 3.31 GPA in exercise science. Dearman, a sophomore, carries a 3.28 GPA in exercise science.
Rookie honor — WSU pitcher Sam Tewes is one of 27 starters named Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball. Tewes, from Lincoln, Neb., went 8-3 with a 3.27 ERA.