A Striking Summer

Turks’ Kaden Leads Valley In K’s

Daily News Record
Connor Kaden has 41 strikeouts so far this year.
(Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)

FR-Turks BSB HARRISONBURG — At Toms River South High School in New Jersey, Connor Kaden rarely knew where his pitches were going.

The rangy right-hander had plenty of zip on his fastball but admitted he lacked the focus possessed by most successful pitchers. Reminiscent of rookie flame-thrower Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham,” Kaden was a wild card on the mound.

“In high school, I was all over the place. I had no idea where the ball was going,” Kaden, who is pitching for the Harrisonburg Turks this summer, recalled Tuesday. “When I would let up a hit, I’d get upset with myself that I made a mistake and let someone else capitalize.”

How things change.

Kaden not only has become a critical part of the first-place Turks’ rotation, but he led the Valley Baseball League in strikeouts, with 41, going into Tuesday night’s games. Kaden (3-0, 2.45 ERA) has turned what used to be a weakness into a strength on the mound.

“I’ve been working on staying relaxed and keeping in the game and on each pitch and not the pitch before and the next pitch,” Kaden said. “Just staying in the now.”

Even in high school, though, it was apparent Kaden was capable of developing into a first-class pitcher.
His potential earned him an opportunity to play at Wake Forest, where things have fallen into place. Kaden blossomed in his first two years in Winston-Salem and will return next season with a chance to earn a starting-rotation spot after serving as the team’s closer this spring as a sophomore.

“He’s got a good arm first and foremost,” Wake Forest coach Tom Walter said by telephone Tuesday. “When we recruited him, we knew that he was projectable and was going to pitch with a great deal of velocity one day.”

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Kaden works with a fastball, a slider and a changeup. His fastball, which Turks manager Bob Wease calls “his best pitch,” sits around 90-91 mph, although he’s learning a curveball from Harrisonburg teammate Justin Camp (Auburn) as well as a cutter.

Summer college leagues, such as the VBL, exist for two primary reasons: to allow players to hone their skills and to showcase players for the occasional scouts who show up at games. For Kaden, mechanics have been a point of emphasis this summer. It’s a continuation of his work at Wake Forest with fourth-year pitching coach Dennis Healy.

“At school, our pitching coach is really a mechanics guy, he preaches mechanics, mechanics, mechanics,” Kaden said. “When you’re in a tough spot out on the mound and you throw a bad pitch, you can go back in your memory and remember what you’ve learned the past two years.”

Books even played a role in Kaden’s development.

Kaden said Healy gave him three books about pitching and the mental side of baseball: “So What, Next Pitch!” by Brian Cain, “The Mental Game of Baseball” by H.A. Dorfman and “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” by Dorfman.

“It has really helped,” Kaden said of the books. “It’s brought aspects of everyday life and it’s brought them into pitching. It all makes complete sense now; there are no gray areas with the mental game. It’s just calm, cool and collected.”

Despite his baseball study habits, Kaden spends his time back in New Jersey at the beach. In Harrisonburg, he prefers hitting the driving range with some teammates to take his mind off baseball. On days that he pitches, his routine changes.

“I shower a lot the day that I pitch,” Kaden said. “I shower three or four times before a game, it’s weird. I don’t know why, I just realized that. I don’t want to waste any [energy] before I have to go pitch.”

On days he doesn’t pitch at home for the Turks, Kaden loosens up the team with a dance he created to “I’m a Turks Fan,” the team’s theme song.

“It’s kind of goofy, but it’s funny. I like it,” Kaden said. “I started it, and some of the Texas boys – Mike Warren, R.J. [Perucki] and Jon Welborn – they’re all starting to do it now.”

Reading. Dancing. Showering. Whatever – it works well for Kaden.

As a freshman at Wake Forest, Kaden made nine appearances for the Demon Deacons. He entered his sophomore year as the team’s long reliever, ultimately settling in to the closer role. While he recorded only three saves, he was trusted to pitch in the team’s high-leverage situations.

“All these guys come to us and they’re the best pitcher in their area by far,” Walter said. “As a freshman, you’re going to get hit around no matter who you are, and how you respond to that determines how quickly you evolve.”

Kaden apparently learned fast enough.

Walter said he will be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter next season. He’s also grown about an inch since  entering college and added 20-25 pounds of muscle. While still dealing some command issues (5.72 walks per nine innings), Kaden has the right stuff.

“I think he’s going to be a pro prospect, I think maybe he’s got a good chance of getting drafted next year,” said Wease, who had Walter on the Turks in the early 1990s. “He’ll be one of Wake Forest’s better pitchers this coming year, and I do look for him to get a lot of attention from scouts. He will play professional baseball.”