A Double-Life: MSU student balances pro baseball and school
EAST LANSING, Mich. – Holiday break serves as an appropriate mental checkpoint for students at Michigan State. Anxiety-ridden undergrads slog through finals week, looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s comfort to be found in the conclusion of the semester, but one MSU student’s work has only just begun.
Mick VanVossen, 23, is familiar with the dedication and focus required to perform under examination. The Grand Rapids native has been a starting pitcher for the Spartans baseball team since his freshman season in 2012. After completing his senior season this past spring, VanVossen was hoping to hear his name called at the MLB Amateur Draft in June. The Washington Nationals selected him in the 28th round, as the 854th player.
Eight Spartans were selected in this year’s draft – the most in MSU history. Childhood dreams became realities, and VanVossen’s next meaningful baseball game would be as a professional.
A disappointing senior season didn’t deter teams that saw VanVossen’s overall body of work at MSU. His career ERA stands at 3.72, while also compiling a 21-10 record with 180 strikeouts over 290 innings pitched. The 6-foot-3 right-hander was the winner of the Robin Roberts Most Valuable Pitcher award as a junior in 2014, his best season as a Spartan.
VanVossen would probably be the first to tell you about the magic of playing college ball for nothing but personal and school pride. Now, he plays for a contract. The pitcher had a taste of the professional baseball life after spending the summer with two Nationals’ affiliates– the Gulf Coast League Nationals and the Auburn Doubledays. Then it was back to being a student in the fall, and training for the upcoming 2016 season.
Sitting down with VanVossen reveals some insight into the double life of a MSU student and MLB prospect. He reflects on the hectic moment of being drafted, experiences in short season ball, and preparing for his first spring training.
EM: What have you been up to this semester? Are you taking a full course load?
VanVossen: I’m taking 12 credits right now, finishing up my bachelor’s degree. My other main responsibility is to keep my body in as good of shape as possible.
EM: How often have you been throwing?
VanVossen: I haven’t even picked up a baseball since mid-September. It’s been straight workouts. When the season does come around, there will be 130-140 games – it’s a lot of baseball. They tell you to take these months off because your arm needs it. If I want to pursue the sport – which I do – I’m going to have to take those extra precautions.
EM: With all you hear about pitch counts now, do you think there would have been that much emphasis on resting your arm even, say, 10 years ago?
VanVossen: I’m not sure how it worked back then. But they’re well aware of it now, so that’s why we take off all this time to rest. Still, when it’s go time – it’s go time. Suck it up and perform, otherwise they’ll find somebody else.
EM: Have you stayed in contact with anybody from the Nationals while you’re here in East Lansing?
VanVossen: Not really. The only checkup I’ve had is from a trainer. It’s not as personal as college, because it’s a job now. So if you don’t perform, you’re no longer going to have that job.
EM: What is the training program like?
VanVossen: We have nutritional plans; we get our body fat tested, and our weight checked every week. There are specifics for each position. I don’t know if I’m going to be starting or relieving, so they gave me a workout more for a long reliever. They want me at 215 pounds, and under 12% body fat. It’s all on me if I want to get paid.
EM: Is that a big change from college ball?
VanVossen: It’s more personal in college. You’re playing for your teammates, your school. You’re there four years, so you get to know those guys pretty well. I’ve built some relationships with some guys in the minors, but at this point you’re more playing for yourself.
EM: You were drafted out of high school [VanVossen was selected by the Texas Rangers in the 49th round], so this isn’t a completely new experience for you. Was it any different this time around?
VanVossen: I came off kind of a bad senior season, and just really wanted the opportunity. Third day of the draft, I was sitting in front of the computer waiting all day. I was expecting to get called by the Kansas City Royals because they said they were going to select me if I was available. Instead, I got the call from the Nationals.
EM: It must have been pretty surreal. How did you find out?
VanVossen: I actually got a text from my buddy, he was like “Congrats, bro!” while I was on my way to train. I texted back “Who?” and he said “The Nationals!” I didn’t even talk to the guy who drafted me until 30 minutes after because my phone was blowing up. It was like, hold on people!
EM: How was your first taste of the minor league lifestyle?
VanVossen: While I was playing in Florida, we would bus down the east coast and play four other organizations. But we were staying in hotels, so it wasn’t really the minor league lifestyle. When I got called up to Auburn, New York, I lived in this massive warehouse on a cot next to other guys. We would bus to Pennsylvania, play three games, then bus back to New York for three more. I finished the season on a fifteen game stretch.
EM: Is it difficult to stay focused while you’re on the road away from your family and friends?
VanVossen: I’m thinking about my friends sitting in offices, but it’s Friday night and I’m at the ballpark. All these people are here to watch, and it smells like hot dogs. That’s what you’re playing for.
I remember we played the State College Spikes in State College, Penn. It was my first game after getting called up to Auburn, and I had just flown into Philadelphia that day from Florida. It was a Friday night, college had just started, and the ballpark was sold out. I was like, “This is what baseball is all about. Finally, I’ve made it a little bit”. It’s almost like you get this extra drive after you get that little taste. As you get closer, it gets bigger and better. It makes you hungry, it makes you want to achieve more.
EM: How do you think your first spring training is going to go?
VanVossen: Well, I’ll report to Viera, Florida in late February with the rest of the pitchers and catchers. I’m super stoked. I’ll be around players in the Nationals organization from all levels. I’m starting to play with the best of the best, which is pretty cool.
EM: Are there any players in the Nationals organization that you look forward to being around, maybe tapping into their mind?
VanVossen: I haven’t really thought about it to be honest, because I’m not really sure how spring training goes. If I ever got the opportunity to talk to any of the big name pitchers – Scherzer, Strasburg – then I’d be all ears. When I was playing rookie ball this summer some of the big league guys would come down to rehab, and I got to hang with some of the high prospects. My manager down there was [former Cubs catcher] Michael Barrett. That’s a major league mind, and one who caught for Greg Maddux.
EM: How are you looking to improve on the mound before next season?
VanVossen: I want to be mechanically sound. My senior season, I had more walks than I did in the previous two combined. My mechanics were out of whack, and nothing felt smooth. It was tough to get in a rhythm. I worked on it as much as I could this summer. I was pulling myself open instead of staying on a direct path towards home plate. My body was falling to the first base side.
EM: Is that something you noticed during the season too?
VanVossen: I noticed it when I watched film, and it was so frustrating. But you can’t make too many adjustments in the middle of the season. Otherwise you’ll never have a comfortably rhythm. You make bad habits and they’ll continue to grow over time. It’s a maintenance thing. In the off-season you have to maintain.
EM: So what’s the goal for your first full season of pro baseball?
VanVossen: The goal right now is to make the Hagerstown Suns, the Class A affiliate. That’s goal one. I’ve always been told to have a real specific goal. If you have too broad of a goal, you’re never going to achieve it. One step at a time.
EM: Like finally picking up a baseball, right? That’s going to be a watershed moment.
VanVossen: **Laughs** I’ve never had so much free time in my life this past semester. I’m kind of going crazy. You can only watch so much TV and workout so much. I’m not trying to be a meathead – I’m a pitcher.