Breakthrough Series prospects sharpen skills for college

June 8th, 2022

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The importance of an education and a backup plan isn’t lost on RJ Hamilton.

“You never know where baseball will take you,“ Hamilton said. “I pray it takes me far, 20 years-plus in MLB, but you’ve got to have a backup plan, and me getting a Vanderbilt degree is very important.”

Of the 76 players participating in the Breakthrough Series this week at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, 34 have committed to play collegiately.

Hamilton, who plays second base and shortstop, committed to Vanderbilt in the summer of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak. Despite being unable to see the campus in person, the university’s success on the diamond, along with the connection Hamilton made over Zoom and phone calls, led to his commitment.

Once Hamilton was finally able to step on campus, he knew he made the right decision.

“First time I stepped on campus, it just felt like home,“ Hamilton said. “Everybody was welcoming and the academic side, it’s just a win-win. A very great program for many years, and I plan on keeping that tradition going.”

Hamilton intends to major in human and organizational development.

Maryland’s George Baker went through a similar process. The catcher made his commitment to Louisville during the summer of 2020, after his freshman season in high school.

Part of what attracted Baker to Louisville was their track record with players behind the plate. Alumni include Dodgers catcher Will Smith, Henry Davis -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft by the Pirates already in Double-A -- and Colby Fitch, who is on the Angels’ Triple-A club.

“They have a lot of catchers [who have made it to] where I want to be in the Major Leagues,” Baker said. “And the coaches, I really love them. When I get there, I’ll actually be able to graduate before I get in the Draft.”

Baker plans on majoring in business and graduating in three years.

Of the players committed collegiately, LSU leads the way with three. Outfielder Derrick Mitchell, shortstop David Hogg II and third baseman Matthew Champion have each committed to play their college careers in the Bayou.

“The environment,“ Mitchell said of why he chose LSU. “I’ve watched most of the games this year and the fans, the coaches, they’re always into it.”

Hogg also echoed the impact of LSU’s environment when making his commitment. Hogg, who is playing in the Breakthrough Series, said the event’s atmosphere has provided things he’ll take with him.

“Just being around this elite group of guys and the elite coaching we get to have for these few days, it helps you on and off the field,” Hogg said. “When you go back home to your home state or wherever you’re from, just that development you can carry on. It helps you all over the place -- tournaments, your everyday workouts, just applying what you get from here. It’s really helpful.”

Along with Hamilton, right-handed pitcher/outfielder Tristan Bristow is committed to Vanderbilt. FSU also has two commits, with shortstop Noah Sheffield, the son of former Major Leaguer Gary Sheffield, and outfielder Justin Best.

Hamilton said that the Breakthrough Series helps the players understand each other and leads to opportunities for uncommitted players to learn from their process.

“It’s just people that get you,” Hamilton said. “Like, what you’ve been through and what you’re going through, so it’s just as good, and everybody can give each other advice and just help each other. That’s really what this is for. Everybody can grow and learn from this and be better in the future.”

Given the level of talent at the Breakthrough Series, Baker noted how it’s something that will help prepare him for when he finally takes the field for Louisville.

“It better prepares me because everybody here is good,” Baker said. “There’s no soft spots where you can sleep on somebody at first or get in the batter’s box just thinking you can do anything. You really have to take it seriously.”