On the Road: Orem's millennial pitching coach

Four years after playing for them, Van Eaton returns to the Owlz

Jonathan Van Eaton, 26, played for the Orem Owlz in 2013 and now serves as the Pioneer League team's pitching coach.

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | July 21, 2017 10:00 AM ET

Every pitcher on the Orem Owlz roster was born in the 1990s -- and so was their pitching coach.

That youthful developer of even younger talent is Jonathan Van Eaton, who turned 26 a month prior to the start of the 2017 Pioneer League season. Injuries derailed Van Eaton's own pitching career almost before it began, but he appears to have a long future ahead of him within the game he loves. As he puts it, simply and succinctly, "I'm in love with the grind."

Throughout his career, Van Eaton has never taken the easy route -- mostly because he hasn't had any choice in the matter.

"I'm from Memphis, Tennessee, born and raised, and played at the University of Memphis," said Van Eaton, speaking in the Owlz dugout before a game last month. "I ended up walking on at Memphis, the first day of fall practice. Blew out my elbow, ended up red-shirting my freshman year, had my first Tommy John surgery and worked back from that. That taught me certain throwing programs, how to strengthen my arm, take care of my body. I took full advantage of that and ended up emerging as a closer."

Van Eaton, overlooked in the 2013 Draft, eventually signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

"I signed out of the [summer collegiate] Cape Cod League and actually came here to Orem. It was my first stop," he said. "I had really good numbers, had a really good first year."

Van Eaton appeared in 17 games for the 2013 Owlz, during which he struck out 23 batters over 19 innings and notched 10 saves. These would be the only professional games in which he would appear -- he blew out his elbow a second time during 2014 Spring Training and underwent yet another Tommy John surgery. He said that after going through the rehab process a second time, "I was honest with myself. I knew my playing days were probably over."

Once Van Eaton made the decision to retire as a player, the Angels offered him a coaching job in the Rookie-level Arizona League (AZL).

"Our former front office, with [general manager Jerry] Dipoto and [assistant general manager Scott] Servais, I was able to build relationships there," said Van Eaton. "And deep down I always wanted to coach. Just the passion for the game, I think that's what attracted them. And some knowledge to go along with it, having had some very good pitching coaches in my young career."

Eaton arrived in the AZL in tandem with the 2015 MLB Draft and spent the following year and a half coaching the AZL Angels as well as players in extended spring training.

2017 Road Trip

"The transition was a little tough, going directly from playing into coaching," said Van Eaton. "But Jairo Cuevas was there as well -- he's now the [Class A] Burlington [Bees] pitching coach -- so he showed me the ways and how to go about it."

Van Eaton's coaching philosophy revolves around "learning the learner, seeing what makes guys tick and building relationships." He's now applying these principles in Orem, just four years after pitching there himself, working with a group of young talent who are new to the world of professional baseball.

"You're dealing with this new generation of millennials, and I happen to be one," he said. "So I know the attention span. If they need something, they'll just look it up on Google or they'll go on Twitter. Everything is out there in an instant. So it's about attacking development through a visual and kinesthetic approach, having them feel it, as opposed to sitting down and talking about it for an hour. Let's be honest. How much do people really retain? Listening? I get sick of hearing myself talk sometimes.

"[The players] come from different colleges, different backgrounds," he continued. "It's about knowing who you're working with. Don't overcomplicate things. Keep it short, simple, to the point. It's basically taking a player, in his present state, and asking, 'How do we take him from good to great?' We're not gonna make a new Draft pick into Jonathan Papelbon in one short season. We're going to make the new Draft pick the best version of that new Draft pick that he can be."

As for having doubts that he's too young or inexperienced to be an effective coach, Van Eaton said, "I don't let my mind wander off there."

"Even as a player, it wasn't about me," he continued. "It was how are we going to get better as a team and how are these guys going to develop? And being on the sidelines with injuries, you have a choice to take full advantage of that or you can feel sorry for yourself. I took the road to 'How much more can I learn?' In this game, right when you think you have something figured out, you realize you don't. There are no 'always' or 'nevers.'"  

Given that there are no "nevers" in baseball, might Van Eaton consider a comeback attempt? After all, he's still only 26 years old. In response to this question, he simply lifts up the right sleeve of his uniform jersey.

"No, it takes just one peek at my elbow, these nasty scars, to realize that page is over. I sleep very well at night. I'm doing what I love." 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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