It’s easy to look at star athletes and think their success was inevitable. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper and LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers — they all used to be the “next big thing,” and then they became the big thing. What gets lost in the shuffle is all the “next big things” who never panned out, and others who become the big thing without ever being the next big thing. Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy but never found major success in the NFL, while Tom Brady wasn’t drafted until late in the sixth round of the NFL draft. Brien Taylor was the first pick in the MLB draft and never made the big leagues; Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor and ended up in the Hall of Fame.
All that to say that nothing is inevitable. There is a lot of hard work and good fortune involved for everyone who makes it big in professional sports. All the athlete can do is put in the time and effort and hope for the good fortune.
Furman University right-handed pitcher Will Gaddis understands that. When he was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 36th round of the 2014 draft, he knew that going pro wasn’t his best shot at his dream.
“Obviously there’s a temptation to sign,” Gaddis says, “because it’s the MLB draft. But the way I looked at it and my parents looked at it, my best bet was to go to college, get three years of college under my belt, and progress as a person and a player both on and off the field — just let the future take care of itself and hopefully get drafted again after my junior year.”
That’s where things stand now, as Gaddis finishes up the last few weeks of his junior year at Furman. Coming into the season, he was ranked the 39th-best college draft prospect by Baseball America, and his outstanding junior season has only caused his stock to rise.
Gaddis was named to the Southern Conference All-Freshman team in 2015, but he wasn’t really pleased with his performance.
“The SoCon is a hitting conference,” Gaddis says. “I didn’t completely know that coming in — I was just excited to play Division I baseball and hopefully make it to the next level. But I got a rude awakening my freshman year and didn’t do as well as I would have liked to.”
Gaddis made adjustments going into his sophomore year, and he improved enough to be named the SoCon Pitcher of the Year in 2016 after going 10-3 with a 3.45 ERA. But it was after that sophomore season that he really took things to the next level, beginning with a summer playing in the Cape Cod League.
“Going and getting the experience in the Cape has carried over in the fall and into the spring,” Gaddis says. “The whole experience was the best thing I could ever ask for. Obviously, it’s during the summer, so there’s no school, just baseball. I’d wake up at 9:00, go work out, and get to the field by 1:00 or 2:00 for a 5:00 game.”
Gaddis says that one of the best parts of playing in the Cape was building new relationships. “A guy in my conference who goes to Western Carolina was on my team. It was great to form bonds with guys from all over the nation, to learn from them and teach each other. Comparing how to hold different pitches, picking each other’s brains and creating bonds, I think that was the best part of being up there.”
The Cape Cod League is a wood-bat league, which helped Gaddis in ways that he had not anticipated.
“Going up there,” he says, “I thought it might be easier, I could jam guys. The approach is different pitching against wood bats. For me, I throw a cutter, and I try to bust a lefty inside with the cutter or outside to a righty. As a pitcher, you love to try to break the hitter’s bat. Even just an inside fastball is something you trust a lot more against a wooden bat.”
“But I realized I could carry that back to the college level,” he continues. “I could go at hitters and trust my stuff to make the hitters make weak contact. I don’t need to be perfect with every single pitch and try to strike everyone out. Obviously, every pitcher feels more comfortable throwing against a wood bat, but I think knowing that I have the ability to go inside to a lefty or a righty has helped a lot and is one of the big things I learned in the Cape.”
If a 3.45 ERA was enough to win the Pitcher of the Year Award last year, the Southern Conference might have to come up with something better for Gaddis this year. He is currently 7-3 with a 1.92 ERA, and his WHIP has dropped from 1.131 last year to 0.929 this year. Those numbers are outstanding anywhere, but especially in a conference known for its offense — Mercer, Wofford, and VMI are all in the top 20 in home runs among Division I schools.
Gaddis says his goal for every at-bat is to end it in three or fewer pitches. “Get strike one, get strike two, and then get the hitter out,” he says. “I don’t really care if it’s a strikeout or a groundout; I trust my defense to make the plays.”
In addition to the cutter, Gaddis throws a low-90s fastball, a changeup, and a knuckle-curve.
“My freshman year, I threw a slider,” he says, “but that got hit around quite a bit, so I figured it was time to change it up. I started messing around with a knuckle-curve, and then my pitching coach in the Cape helped me work on it and turn it into one of my better pitches.”
As a senior at Brentwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, Gaddis’s team went up against Clarksville High, led by junior pitcher Donny Everett, who came into their Class AAA Sectional game with an unbeaten record and a minuscule ERA. Gaddis outdueled Everett, winning the game 1-0 and sending Brentwood to the state tournament.
Gaddis is predictably modest about his performance in that game, preferring to shine the light on his teammates.
“Being with that team, everyone knew who Donny Everett was and who their team was,” Gaddis says. “I think our team had the will and the passion to do whatever it took to get through that game. Ever since then, I’ve kept in contact with my high school coach and teammates, and we have some great memories together.”
Everett was just as good his senior year, but most teams avoided drafting him because they didn’t think they could afford to sign him. After being drafted in the 29th round by the Milwaukee Brewers, Everett declined to sign and instead went to Division I powerhouse Vanderbilt.
In one of the most tragic examples of how nothing in life or baseball is inevitable, Everett died last year after drowning while fishing with some of his Vanderbilt teammates. That tragedy helped reinforce to Gaddis both the relative importance of the game of baseball and his good fortune to play it.
“Donny was maybe the best player I’ve ever faced, and he had such a bright future,” Gaddis says. “It’s just so tragic what happened. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to play the game that I love and never to take it for granted.”
Gaddis comes from a baseball-loving family. Throughout his life, they have watched and played baseball together. The youngest of three boys, Gaddis points to his older brothers as inspirations and mentors in both baseball and life. His oldest brother, Matt, played Division III baseball at the University of Dubuque and is now a 25-year-old teacher in Charleston, South Carolina. His brother Tim is 23 and has been enlisted in the Army for a little over a year after graduating from the Citadel. Both brothers gave Will examples of hard work and responsibility that have helped shape him throughout his life.
Gaddis loves the game of baseball, and as the 2017 draft approaches, he is getting very close to reaching his next goal of playing professionally.
“I’m basically hoping to go as high as I can in the draft,” he says. “My goal since my first day stepping onto the Furman campus has been to be drafted in the first five rounds, so everything I’ve worked towards has been putting myself in position and doing everything I can to make that happen, both on and off the field.”
Talking to Gaddis, that “on and off the field” theme is consistent. It’s clear that he understands that there’s more to life than baseball. In discussing his decision not to sign with the Yankees out of high school, he makes it clear that he knew he needed to grow as a person, not just as a baseball player. He talks about the impact of seeing his brothers’ work ethics. He was not highly recruited out of high school, and he realizes that he might have only been drafted because he happened to pitch the game of his life when there were scouts in the stands to watch his more highly touted opponent.
Will Gaddis knows that nothing in life, or baseball, is inevitable. But he is committed to putting in the work — yes, both on and off the field — to put himself in the best position to succeed. As he finishes up a spectacular junior season that sees him as one of the top college pitching prospects in the country, that work is paying off.