Over the weekend, I was able to catch up with Harrison Wenson, a University of Michigan graduate and recent 24th round pick by the Angels. The 24th round is not where you expect to find the next great ballplayer, but Harrison posted a .283/.411/.623 line with 13 homers in 38 games in his first taste in the minors and has the experience and poise behind the dish to play well there.
When we run interviews here at Off The Bench, we try to get into the mind of the player and give our audience a feel for how the guy thinks. Without having met Harrison previously, I wasn’t sure how this would go. He opened up, shared a bit about how he thinks about the game and ultimately made a fan out of me.
Wenson’s dad played at Michigan, and the first thing he mentioned when he picked up the phone was that his younger brother is also playing NCAA baseball. So I asked him about the family affair to get us going.
“My dad played at Michigan with Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, Jim Abbot, a ton of great players, so I’ve always been a Michigan fan and I really enjoyed my time there. It’s cool that there was that legacy – my dad loved it. He was like a little kid being around the program [when I was there], so that was fun.”
Is he still friends with Barry Larkin, or any of those guys?
Yeah. They don’t stay in close touch – he’s Barry Larkin after all. But at reunions and such, they talk. He always talks about these greats that he knew and played against. Just the other day, he mentioned that he played against the manager of the Diamondbacks (Torey Lovullo) for years. Those stories are cool.
As a D3 player, those run-ins with the super talented players are awesome. They stick with you.
Yeah, exactly. I played against Kris Bryant in college. Carlos Rodon, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber. It’s fun; you play against those guys and then two years later, they are in the big leagues and I’m watching them.
So who is the guy who stood out the most as being a step above talent wise, or was just generally most impressive?
Most impressive depends on your definition. Schwarber was the most impressive hitter, Turner’s whole demeanor and presence. At Michigan, we would practice bunt plays [in preparation for games]. We had to get the ball to first and the amount of time we had for Turner was just absurd because he gets down the line at a ridiculous rate.
Playing those guys is cool. Like my dad, I’m just coming into stories of my own.
Those are two pretty talented guys, too. You hate when you run into someone and think they are going to be the next great talent and they flame out. But let’s get to you. Your baseball-reference page makes you seem like a slugging catcher. Is that a fair characterization of you as a player?
Probably, but I think defense is extremely important. I pride myself on defense and the leadership capabilities that I have, so those are extremely important to me. Slugging catcher, yeah, but I really don’t like when guys run on me, or if the ball gets by me. You see a lot of guys who only really care about their offensive performance.
So along with that, is how you handle a pitching staff. What do you think is the hardest type of hitter to call a game against?
Well, there’s two different kinds of hitters. Ball to strike hitters and versus strike to ball hitters. Strike to ball hitters will swing at pitches that start off looking like a strike, but end up being a ball. Those guys are a bit easier to pitch to. They might be more dangerous, but easier to pitch to because you can get away with balls in the dirt.
But the other guys, the ball to strike guys, will lay off those pitches out of the zone. I try to find something in their swing, approach, or something from batting practice to pick up tendencies and prepare for the game.
Where did you pick up that “ball to strike” terminology? Was that at Michigan or something you learned in pro ball?
I picked that up this year, in a conversation with Jeremy Reid, an instructor with the Angels. That was just a conversation on the side in instructional league. I really enjoyed it down there. Talking to different coaches, I learned a bunch.
To be brutally honest, right now I’m a strike to ball hitter. Sometimes I’ll swing out of the zone, but if they put it in the zone, I can make them hurt.
So when you got drafted, did they sit you down and say “OK, welcome to the Angels. Here’s a ball-to-strike hitter, and we want you to abide by these 5 tenants of hitting.”?
No, not really. They let us really work on our own and do the things that got us to pro ball in the first place. That said, they are super helpful. The guys who I have worked with have helped me to simplify the game a bit. At Michigan, I had a tendency to put too much pressure on myself. But being here [in pro ball], with coaches who have recently been in my same position, have helped to take things in step and not worry so much.
Ok so you’re simplifying things, but when you get into pro ball, you can start looking at spin rates and launch angles. Have you been exposed to that at all and how do you balance that information with the effort to simplify things?
Well, it’s good to have that information and look at. They track a ton of things. One that stands out for me is that my fly ball rate is good. With the fly ball revolution in baseball, they like guys who hit the ball in the air. I do that well, which is exciting to see.
I try to stay away from that kind of stuff. It can give you an idea and help solidify some of what’s going on when you’re working with a coach.
With those analytics, you can overthink it and let it get it your head. The biggest adjustment that I made from college to pro ball is taking that information and rolling with it. Don’t overthink it. There can be positives to make you feel good and negatives to learn from. Then, you just go play because you can’t really worry about your launch angles when the guy has a 95 mph two seam.
Do you have any goals for the offseason?
I always have goals, but I think the top one right now is to just get into the best shape of my life. What would be great, would be to get into great shape that can last all year to play all year. To have that stamina to play however many games we play.
So I just did a heavy squat day (for the readers, it was 4 sets of 5 reps at 305), do you guys plan out your workouts to play every day? In college, it’s easier because you can plan around the big games on the weekend. Did you settle into any workout rhythm playing every day?
Yeah, you kinda have to. I was catching a bunch and my body would get tired, but I had to get over that and get into a rhythm to not just help my body but to keep me productive. If you take time off [from the weights], your body just starts to hurt. I try to stick to the most consistent routine that I can. That’s the name of the game. If you can stay consistent with all the small things, you’ll end up being a pretty good player.
In college, we had a coach hit fungoes at our catchers and they hated it. Is there a similar thing for you?
Well, I’d say catching in general. You’re like an offensive lineman. A good offensive line is really responsible for the running game, but people see that as just doing their job. It’s similar for catching. A guy can go out and pitch a great game and get all the credit. I try to take the pressure off of them so they just have to execute.
But I guess thinking about your question, in terms of a drill: I’ve had fungoes hit at me multiple times. They don’t feel great, but honestly the other reaction drill where you get balls shot at you out of a machine isn’t fun either. It hurts. You get hit in the wrist and it’s like “Oh, thanks for that.”
The drills have been annoying, but I know they ultimately help me out.
Lets say you get into spring training and Mike Trout steps into the box, what’s the sequence that you try to get him out with?
Oh man, I don’t even know. That guy is the best. I know he doesn’t do great on the high pitches, so I would probably try to get my pitcher to execute up in the zone. If he misses, that’ll probably be a double, but he’s Mike Trout.
I’m in a position where that might happen in the spring. I guess I should start thinking through that. Get my mind right.
To me, it’d be a trip to have Pujols step in.
Absolutely. I’ve been watching that guy since I was 10. But that’s a thing I love about baseball. We can be competing against guys like Pujols or guys who are 10 years younger, competing across generations, and we can learn from the way everybody plays the game.
Then I hit Harrison with our All-Important Questions (AIQs). Usually, I have 10 questions for our guys, but this one had to end after 8 (and a half).
- What’s your favorite scent for candles? Yankee Candle Christmas Cookie.
- Do you like pumpkin spice lattes? I mean, I like black coffee. We gotta wake up at 5 in the morning, need that hard stuff to get us going.
- Best type of M&M? They’re all the same. (Harrison later claimed pretzel M&M’s were the best, but I feel like our readers need to know that he thinks all M&M colors taste the same.)
- What’s your favorite Pokemon? My brother and I and my dad have played plenty of Pokemon through the years. I’m not going to say Pikachu. Charizard. I like the fire. Nobody is scared of the water (Blastoise), or the leaves (Venosaur), so give me that fire.
- What’s the title of your autobiography? The Bear, by Harrison Wenson.
- OK, so the next one is one that we used to debate a lot at Vassar. You know baseball players have a lot of free time on their hands.
Don’t say Brady vs Rodgers. I spent countless hours debating that. It’s so clearly Brady. Brady may not be as physically talented, but the quarterback position is about winning and leadership.
Ok, it’s not Brady vs Rodgers.
Good. Because it’s so clearly Brady. Please make sure your readers know that.
- So If the sun turned off right now and we no longer got any light or heat from it, but we all stay in orbit with normal gravitational forces, how long do you live and what do you die from?
I’m like Gandolf from Lord of the Rings, I’ll live forever.
Ok, but really.
I don’t know. My brother is an outdoorsman, so I feel like I’d do pretty well. I’d manage. I’d die from a disease or a lack of oxygen, because I breathe a lot.
Maybe I would freeze. No. No, that’s weak. I’d figure out a way to stay warm. How about this…I would live until I was 89, and die of old age, peacefully in my sleep.
- Do you believe in aliens? I believe in ghosts so I believe in aliens.
Wait. You believe in ghosts?
My house is 200 years old and it was part of the underground railroad. So in the basement, I’ve had some run-ins. I think we have some spirits down there that I’ve seen throughout the years. Not really anymore because they leave me alone, but when I was a kid, they were definitely around.
You know… that’s so much information that I don’t even know what to ask as a follow up….
I get made fun of in pro ball, but I took a field trip to my own house in second grade. It was a thing that was going on for years before I got to second grade. People come take pictures of my house all the time. It’s a cool house. The Philbrick Tavern in Farmington Hills, MI. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find an old video of my mom. She’s awesome and does a great job showing people around the house, but her wardrobe choice on this video was… uh.. questionable.
This is a tough thing to follow up. I’ve got a few more, but they’re all downhill from here…
I really want to thank Harrison for taking 40 minutes out of his day to talk Pokemon, ghosts, aliens, and baseball with me. He’s a talented young man, who is already off to a good start to his pro career. The Angels have a good baseball mind in their 24th round pick, and a guy who cares tremendously about the sport, his performance, and his teammates.
Thanks to the fun conversation, now I care about Harrison. I’ll be rooting for him, keeping up with him, and if we ever have a podcast, I’ll see if we can get Harrison to tell a Ghost Story.