Louisville University has come a long way since Dan McDonnell took over the program in 2007. Before his arrival, the Cardinals had only made the NCAA postseason once. Which was a shame for such a rich baseball city like Louisville. Since then, the Cardinals have made the College World Series four times. Even with the program jumping from the Big East to the AAC, and finally the ACC, McDonnell’s players have won six straight conference titles. 61 players have been drafted from McDonnell’s program, and the Chicago White Sox have selected more of his players than any other major league ballclub.
The Cardinals start the year ranked #20 in Baseball America’s pre-season poll as McDonnell has to replace eight players on the roster after being drafted last year. This year’s squad will be lead by OF Josh Stowers, who graduated from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago. Last year, Stowers hit .313/.422/.507 with 22 stolen bases. He ranks #77 on Baseball America’s Top 200 2018 MLB Draft Prospects.
I spoke with Coach McDonnell to discuss what has lead to Louisville’s success and why he thinks the White Sox are drawn to his players.
Josh Nelson: Coach, your program in the last ten years has achieved so much. Before you arrived, Louisville had never appeared in the College World Series. You’ve done it four times since taking over in 2007. What has been the most significant contributions to that success?
Coach Dan McDonnell: I truly believe you can only be as good as the kids in your region. We start in Louisville, and you can go north to Indianapolis in two hours and Chicago in five hours. Do some highway driving to Pittsburgh and go to St. Louis because the kids want to come south.
We’ve done it with a lot of Midwest kids. I call them “Tough kids,” multi-sport athletes who I think have a really big upside. They may play baseball all year-long, but they are not playing outside all year-long. We get them to Kentucky 12 months a year, and it’s fun to watch them progress. Like Nick Solak (with the New York Yankees), the Burdi brothers from Downers Grove, Kyle Funkhouser, outfielders like Corey Ray who was the fifth pick in the draft. It has been a really good fit for us. Our style, our system with these Midwest kids.
Josh: Last year you had a terrific season: 52-10, made your fourth College World Series, Brendan McKay won the Golden Spikes award, and eight players drafted in the Majors. How do you follow that up in 2018?
Coach McDonnell: Its a new year with new players but it’s not fair to them to change the goals. Last year we had that great run to Omaha, but we also lost a lot [of talent] the year before. We lost $11 million in signing bonuses from the previous draft. We had three first rounders, a second rounder, a third rounder, and a fourth rounder taken in the draft. So it wasn’t like last year everybody said, “Oh Louisville is going to be awesome.”
We had players like Drew Ellis and Lincoln Henzman continue to develop and have monster years. In one sense, as a coach its hard to say “We are going to Omaha every year,” but it’s another to say “Hey, that’s why these kids came to Louisville.” Why would I shortchange them? Why would I lower the standards because we lost so many players? I don’t think that is fair to the kids, and as the saying goes, when the Mountain climber gets to the top of the mountain they don’t look around and say “How did I get up here?”. Its a plan, its a process.
For us, to be in the Super Regional the last three years, its a status quo. Expectations are super high, and there is an opportunity for a new wave of kids to step up to become recognizable names in college baseball.
Josh: Josh Stowers is someone I think performed well in the spotlight as he was outstanding during the postseason last year. Coming into 2018, he’s the guy now that leads the offensive charge. What are Stowers strengths and what did you work on with him in the offseason to take the next step in his progression?
Coach McDonnell: When it comes to the strengths, it is four to five tools. For me, he is a plus-plus defender. The White Sox have two of our former center fielders: Adam Engel and Logan Taylor. Josh will be sliding from left field, and he’s phenomenally defensively. Super first step quick being able to rob base hits and steal away doubles. Just has terrific defensive prowess.
Offensively, he is going to lead-off for us. He’s not like Logan Taylor who was more of a contact guy. Josh has some juice in the bat and is a plus-plus base stealer like an Adam Engel and Corey Ray. Its that balance where we don’t just want Josh to be a home run hitter or a ground ball guy because he can be a 40 to 50 stolen base guy, but also put up double-digit home runs. He is someone that can fill up the stat sheet, and if he can get on base with nobody on, there is a good chance we are scoring a run.
Josh: According to Statcast, Adam Engel was one of the best defensive center fielders last year. When you coached him did he always have this tremendous defensive ability?
Coach McDonnell: Super athlete. A Cincinnati kid that had some football offers. Physical, tough kid that was a high school shortstop. Had some shoulder issues by the time he got to us. We felt like center field was an option, and he was a natural.
To me, great center fielders can also be great base stealers because of the first step quickness. When that pitcher lifts his leg, or the ball comes off the bat, that first step quickness is key getting to full speed. The thing about baseball is we take so much pride in the 60-yard dash, and I shake my head at it. Nobody is running 60 yards in baseball. It should be your 10-yard split and how fast you are at 30 yards, and Adam Engel has that first step quickness.
I know the offensive numbers are not great yet, but I know that organization loves him. Just give him time. He will work his tail off and will figure it out offensively. Adam is a sweet, genuine kid that is super competitive and will run through a wall for the White Sox.
Josh: Two philosophical questions for you. The first, I have heard a lot about Trackman. How are you using that type of data and how does it help you be a better coach?
Coach McDonnell: Trackman is on our to-do list. Many schools we play at have it, and we’ve done our research. Anything that can help you get the point across to a kid. The visual aids and numbers can only help by connecting and communicating with your players. At the high school level, can we see the data and compare to previous kids we’ve coached? Yes, and it does help with recruiting.
For example, Chad Green was our Friday night starter, and he’s now a phenomenal reliever for the Yankees. He ended up going in the 11th round. Why? He didn’t have a great breaking ball, and when you looked at your radar gun, you saw 91 to 93 mph on his fastball. I bet you if Trackman were available for Chad Green, he would be picked sooner. Because of the data you’d see that his fastball wasn’t like other pitchers fastball, he’s now throwing 95 to 98 mph, and the spin rate on his breaking pitch.
For pro baseball the money they are investing into players there is no doubt it’s really instrumental. College is beginning to take advantage of it. I’m not sure it will help you win a National Championship, but it should help your program.
Josh: White Sox fans are very eager to see Zack Burdi pitch in the majors once he is off the disabled list. My second philosophical question is how as a coach do you maintain that balance from using a pitcher like Zack Burdi to help you win, but also keep in mind the health of their arm because they could pitch in the majors and make millions of dollars?
Coach McDonnell: If you are a good or great coach, like Roger Williams our pitching coach, you have to do what is best for the kids to help them succeed.
For the Burdi brothers, I’m sure they wanted to be starting pitchers, and their agents wanted them to be starting pitchers because of the value of a starting pitcher. With their arm angle, the violence, hand speed, and just the torque they are putting on their arm to combine that with what was successful for them, and they were All-American closers. Both were really quick reaching AAA and if they can stay healthy, will be pitching in the majors.
They were also the two hardest working kids I’ve ever coached. I use them as examples when challenging kids to do more. To see how great you can be, go to the Nick and Zack Burdi level. I remember their Freshman years where they both struggled. They weren’t polished players coming out of high school, but they were talented and worked with a relentless effort. I remember telling myself “Man, these two kids want to be great.” If they can stay healthy, both are going to have a nice big league career.
Josh: Since 2007, no team has drafted more of your players than the Chicago White Sox with seven total players, and four in the last two years. Why do you think that is?
Coach McDonnell: Our kid’s number one goal is to make it to the big leagues. We really appreciate Nick [Hostetler] and the White Sox for taking our guys and believing in them.
One, I think Nick is familiar with the kids. Our players were coming out of high school, as we talked about before, mostly being Midwest kids. Second, being familiar with our program. Seeing how much these kids have developed in our program and it enters their mindset of “Ok, look how much better this kid got.”
At the end of the day, one of our biggest goals is not getting guys ready to play professional baseball, but get them ready to move through a system. When you talk about a ballclub rebuilding the farm system, the value of players possibly getting to the big leagues quicker is a huge asset. Getting them to play at the league minimum for three years before arbitration and three more years before free agency. Even like a Logan Taylor, who I don’t know will make the major leagues, but he brings a lot of value to the White Sox organization helping out young outfielders. He’s a captain. I don’t care what team or level he’s at; he is going to be coaching up those young prospects who haven’t played enough baseball yet.
We have two mottos: Be professional and be a great teammate. Not everyone is going to make it to the big leagues, but when you take a Louisville Cardinal we hope the team says that player worked hard, he played the game the right way, and he put his arm around younger players and guide them. I hope any team sees that value in a Louisville Cardinal.