Less than one in 50 high school athletes go on on to play collegiate baseball. Less than 10 percent of Division I baseball players are selected in the MLB Amateur Draft each June. Just one-in-six draftees will find their way to the major leagues (this does not ensure that they last in the majors, but just that they make it to the big show once). But like Harrison Ford once famously said in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, don’t tell me the odds.
The school buses and after-school games in high school give way to team buses and weekend series’. For those lucky few who hear their name called at the draft, it’s on to more bus rides, a longer, more compact schedule and a higher level of competition.
For shortstop Kevin Newman and outfielder Andrew Benintendi, they are in the midst of that roller coaster that is now their career.
Both players took similar paths to the pros, from elite high school athletes to top tier Division I talent (Newman at the University of Arizona and Benintendi at the University of Arkansas). With the Wildcats, Newman developed into one of the most feared hitters in the NCAA, slashing .370/.426/.489 with two home runs, 19 doubles and 36 RBI in his junior (and final year) at Arizona.
“I’d say my hitting is one of my best qualities,” Newman said. “I really try to say I’m a defensive shortstop that can hit, rather than a hitting shortstop. I work as hard as I can, and wherever I can work to be a better shortstop, I will be.”
Despite being taken 19th overall in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 21-year old was the fifth shortstop taken, behind notable names such as Vanderbilt’s Dansby Swanson and LSU’s Alex Bregman.
“Those are great guys, I’ve played with Bregman,” Newman said. “He’s a great competitor. This was the year of the shortstops. I don’t try and compare myself to anybody, just try and go out every day and work on my game.”
Newman has been working on his game with the pro’s in mind for years now. He spent the summers of 2013 and 2014 playing for the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod Baseball League, a premier amateur baseball organization for top-level college talent. He won the league’s batting title each season, hitting .375/.466/.394 in 2013 and .380/.500/.463 in 2014.
“It helped me more so with pro ball,” Newman said. “You get a couple hundred at-bats under your belt with a wood bat, which is great. It helped me gain some confidence. Once I get things going here, get settled and get a routine, I think having [Cape Cod League experience] in my back pocket will really help.”
For Benintendi, a stellar sophomore season in which he slashed ..376/.388/.717 with 20 home runs, 57 home runs and 24 stolen bases for the Razorbacks garnered national recognition; The 21-year old was the recipient of the Golden Spikes award and the Dick Howser trophy before being selected seventh overall by the Boston red Sox in the 2015 MLB Draft.
“That doesn’t put too much pressure on me” Benintendi said in regards to bringing an impressive resume with him to the pros. “You just try and take it one day at a time. I’m struggling a little bit now, but I’m hoping to get going and help my team win some games.”
Just weeks following the draft, both men are getting their first lick of professional baseball in the New York-Penn League (Newman with the West Virginia Black Bears and Benintendi with the Lowell Spinners. While it’s early, both first-round picks have struggled to hit at the same level of success they did in college. Newman is hitting just .209/.277/.256 with the Black Bears, while Benintendi is hitting .250/.348/.400.
“There’s not as many off-days,” Newman said. “In college, you had weekend series and practice all week so you could work on some things. Here, you play every day. Traveling, playing every day — a routine is key. It’s tough to find the time to make adjustments and work on the things you need to work on. That difference from college to pro ball is one of the biggest adjustments to make.”
Both Benintendi and Newman have full summers ahead off them to grind and improve before heading into their first real off-season. For the newcomers to professional baseball, the work has just began.
“I’m just trying to get my timing back,” Benintendi said. “I’ve had some time off from college ball, so I’m just trying to get my timing back and square up on some balls.”
“I’m trying to work on everything. You never get complacent, everything can get better,” Newman said. “You can get stronger, better arm. I can hit better. I’m just coming out, keeping my head down and working hard.”