Mormon outfielder broke out at BYU, showed promise as pro in '14
By Jake Seiner / MiLB.com | November 18, 2014 10:00 AM
In late June 2012, Mike Littlewood took over as manager at his alma mater, Brigham Young University. A Cougars third baseman in the 1980s, Littlewood inherited a club that had gone 22-27 and graduated 19 seniors the season before. Numbers were going to be a problem, and Littlewood wasn't left much time to recruit. It got to the point where he was begging players to stick around just so his team could play intrasquad games.
On his way out the door, former BYU skipper Vance Law did have one bit of good news: Jacob Hannemann was coming back from Little Rock in July.
Littlewood was familiar with Hannemann. He'd seen the outfielder as a junior in Lone Peak High School (Utah) in 2009. Littlewood remembered Hannemann as exceptionally talented but raw. While other Division I recruits were playing 80-100 games each summer, Hannemann spent more time focusing on football, with Littlewood estimating Hannemann only played 75 or so competitive games during his entire high school career. That inexperience showed.
Hannemann hit lead off for Lone Peak, but he had the free-swinging, power-seeking approach of a mid-lineup slugger. He made it work, though, hitting .450 as a high school senior and garnering attention from scouts. In June, the Royals selected him in the 48th round of the MLB Draft.
Prior to his senior season, Law had offered Hannemann a baseball scholarship to BYU. That fall, BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall came calling with a full ride on the gridiron. The Royals offered up $250,000. And just like that, Hannemann had options.
But the clearest path for the Hawaiin-born teenager was a detour through Arkansas.
An Eagle Scout and devout Mormon, Hannemann put athletics on hold to embark on a two-year mission trip. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't require members to serve missions, but many do, often after graduating high school. Mission trips are standard practice in the Hannemann family -- currently, Jacob has brothers serving in California, Ghana and Tahiti.
More than he wanted to play football in front of 60,000-plus BYU fans or chase a career as a pro baseball player, Hannemann wanted to serve his church. He passed on signing with the Royals and opted to delay his arrival at BYU, submitting himself to a two-year mission. The church sent him to Little Rock, Arkansas, and he spent the next 24 months bouncing around small Arkansas towns.
A bulk of his mission centered on working with addicts, usually of alcohol and cigarettes. He offered support and explained his faith with hopes that it might inspire others to drop their addictions and join his cause. He was allowed to call home twice a year -- once on Mother's Day and once on Christmas. He didn't touch a baseball bat, except for one day at a local high school, where his baseball background helped him connect with a group of kids.
Hannemann returned from his mission trip two weeks before the start of the 2012 football season. He started attending football practices, but his body rebelled. "You don't get to do much on the mission, maybe half an hour working in the morning," he said. His first week, he injured his hip flexor. Injuries to his knees and wrists plagued him the rest of the fall, and he never saw game action. Instead, Mendenhall redshirted him with hopes of finding playing time in 2013.
Football practices did help Hannemann carve his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame back into shape, though, and his redshirt status left time to prep for baseball season. Hannemann would sneak to the batting cages at night, getting to work on a baseball swing abandoned for more than two years. The layoff, paired with his general lack of baseball experience, left Hannemann well behind most 21-year-old prospects in terms of polish.
"It was just really ugly," Littlewood said. "He was just raw. He was a phenomenal athlete trying to play baseball. His swing was really round, upper-body rotational, really stiff.
"He would swing at fastballs above his shoulders. He'd swing at curveballs that landed five feet in front of the plate. From a coach's standpoint, it was scary thinking, 'I hope he can make the adjustment.'"
Despite that, Hannemann quickly emerged as a building block in Littlewood's quest to construct a competitive program. On Opening Day, the manager plugged Hannemann into the leadoff spot and put him in centerfield, partially because of Hannemann's promise but also because there was no one else.
It took a while for things to get better. Over his first nine games, Hannemann hit just .135 with 12 strikeouts. In a tight game against No. 2 LSU, the center fielder dove for a shallow line drive and missed, allowing a key run to score in a 6-5 loss.
Littlewood stood by his center fielder. A week after that LSU loss, things started to click. During a three-game stretch that included contests against nationally ranked UC Irvine, Hannemann went 7-for-13. A week later, facing current Cubs prospect Kris Bryant and his San Diego squad, Hannemann went 4-for-5 with a homer and a stolen base.
Hannemann dominated the rest of the way. With the freshman hitting leadoff and patrolling center, BYU finished 32-21 and won a game in the West Coast Conference tournament for the first time. Hannemannn finished the season hitting .344 with 14 stolen bases in 51 games. The WCC named him Freshman of the Year and he was also named a Freshman All-American.
Having been in BYU's baseball program as a player and a coach, Littlewood has seen plenty of players try to transition back from mission trips -- the team even has a throwing program specifically designed for pitchers coming back from two-year hiatuses. The spectrum of results for hitters is wide. Littlewood has had top recruits forced to redshirt after struggling to regain their timing at the plate. At the other end is Hannemann, who was punishing WCC pitchers just six months removed from Little Rock.
"We knew that there was something in there just because he's so fast twitch and he's just like a sponge," Littlewood said. "It goes into his brain, he computes it, then spits out a different performance from before. … Ultimately, it comes down to how determined they are, how confident they are, and the biggest factor is overall athleticism. Jacob leads the pack in those areas."
"A lot of my success in college was just the athletic ability I had," Hannemann said. "The jump from the mission to college -- it felt like I just went out and had fun. We tweaked some little things here and there, and I really got the hang of it a month into the season."
The freshman campaign grabbed scouts attention -- if Hannemann could punish 95 mph fastballs with so little experience, what could he do with professional training? The prospect said 27 teams touched base with him leading up to the 2013 Draft, and when the Cubs called with a $1 million signing bonus in the third round, turning pro was an easy choice.
After signing, Hannemann played just 17 games, mostly with Class A Short Season Boise, before injuries ended his season. After two years in Arkansas, the full year of football practices and baseball games had worn him down. Even though he desperately needed to see game action, Hannemann played his last game of 2013 in late July.
Hannemann's top goal for 2014 was to play as many games as possible. He did that, tying for 10th in the organization with 124 games played during the regular season, split between Class A Kane County and Class A Advanced Daytona. He added another 17 games in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .279 with a .738 OPS.
At 23, he was nearly two years older than the average Midwest League player, but in terms of baseball experience, he may have been the freshest. A defensive back in football, Hannemann's speed translated quickly -- he was 37-of-44 on stolen base attempts in the regular season -- and he quickly became an asset defensively, although coaches think there's room to improve his reads in center. Offensively, the 23-year-old is an on-going project. The physical abilities are apparent and elicit lofty expectations -- Jacoby Ellsbury has often been used as a point of comparison.
"He has a chance, the speed-power combination," Madison said. "He's still learning himself as a hitter and a player, still finding his raw tools.
"I expect he'll continue to develop as he learns the game, and he'll take off," continued Madison. "You hear the comps to Ellsbury and guys like that, and it's not far off. As the game comes to him, if he can polish his tools, he's really going to take a step forward."
Jacob Hannemann's 2014
There isn't much precedent for Hannemann's quest of a Major League career. Madison was with the Padres in 2005 when they drafted Will Venable, who attended Princeton on a basketball scholarship and didn't join the baseball team until his sophomore season. There isn't much of a blueprint, though. Venable still came with years of baseball experience, whereas Hannemann might've played as many games in 2014 as he had in the previous seven years combined.
"We were wondering how quickly he was going to jump right back into hitting and how he'd adjust to pro ball," Madison said. "He's so mature and professional, and his work ethic is off the charts. He has tools, has instincts. He just does not completely understand the game of baseball yet. He's learning the game."
Hannemann worked extensively with Kane County hitting coach Tom Beyers over the summer. Step one was getting Hannemann mechanically straight. Then the pair worked on timing. Hannemann got a crash course from Beyers and manager Mark Johnson, and he was still working on those same fundamentals in the Arizona Fall League.
"I'm a sponge right now," Hannemann said. "Soaking up everything. I'm seeing what works and what doesn't work for me."
In an effort to keep all the new information straight, Hannemann jotted thoughts in a notebook on what has and hasn't worked. Like Littlewood, Cubs coaches and player development folks have been struck by his focus and intensity. Madison credits Hannemann's football background for some of that. Aptitude, work ethic and athleticism are the pillars Hannemann's supporters point to for why they think a breakout could come in the next few years.
The Cubs, already brimming with talented offensive prospects, would welcome a breakout 2015 from the BYU product.
"He's not cocky, not arrogant, but he's very confident," Littlewood said. "Right now, he knows he'll be playing in the big leagues and nobody is going to tell him different. That's what I saw when he first got to BYU. It wasn't a matter of if he would hit. It was a matter of when he'll hit."
Jake Seiner is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Seiner.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.