This Draft prospect hiding in plain sight

Mo Hanley draws scouts to tiny Division III school with 94 mph fastball

March 26th, 2021

You can find Adrian, Mich., where two highways meet, 13 miles north of the Michigan-Ohio border. Adrian is the largest city in Lenawee County, an area best known in the sports world for NASCAR events at Michigan International Speedway, where race-day crowds often swell larger than the county population.

If you steer away from the track, head south on Round Lake Highway and turn left at Devils Lake, U.S. Route 223 guides you to Adrian College, with an enrollment of around 1,700 and heritage as a training base for Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Nicolay Field -- home to the NCAA Division III Adrian Bulldogs -- is not typically popular among scouts ahead of the MLB Draft. But this is an exceptional spring.

On Sunday afternoon, evaluators from 17 Major League clubs were on hand for a meeting between Adrian and conference rival Albion College, eyes and radar guns sizing up Bulldogs left-hander Mo Hanley.

“I had a lot of goose bumps,” Hanley told two days later. “It’s an amazing thing, really.”

If anything, amazing is a modest descriptor for Hanley’s journey, which began in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Now he’s moving up 2021 MLB Draft boards, with some insiders expecting he’ll be selected as high as the third round in July.

Hanley moved to the U.S. mainland at age 13 and made the varsity at Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Fla. Primarily an outfielder, Mo began his senior season without firm college plans. Adrian head coach Craig Rainey remembers receiving a phone call in February or March of that year from a travel baseball coach in the Tampa area.

“He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a kid. He’s pretty raw. He’s a sleeper, but I think he can do it,’” Rainey recalled. “We were going on our spring trip to Port Charlotte. I left a day earlier than the team, because [Mo] was playing in a big tournament down there.

“He’s a month from graduating high school. I had never seen him play. We had talked a couple times on the phone. That was it. … I knew as soon as I saw him play: This kid’s the real deal. He wasn’t pitching that day. I saw him pick up a ball from center field. He chased it to the fence, which was like 380. He picked it up, turned around, and threw it all the way to the plate in the air.

“I said, ‘This doesn’t happen in high school.’”

Rainey offered him a roster spot. Hanley committed without a recruiting visit. He arrived to Adrian as a freshman having never seen snow. Now the 21-year-old is a veteran of Michigan winters, can name his favorite fishing spots in Lenawee’s Irish Hills and is attracting acclaim for the nationally ranked Bulldogs.

Hanley missed time this spring while recovering from COVID-19, but he has been overwhelming in a small sample: 12 strikeouts and one walk over five innings. In fact, some scouts are intrigued by the light workload on Hanley's left arm. Only recently did he cross the 100-inning mark during his four-year Adrian career, and he never pitched in an elite college summer league. Hanley could become the highest pick ever from the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which was founded in 1888 and is the nation’s oldest collegiate athletic conference.

Jim Kaat (Hope College) and Jim Northrup (Alma College) are among the MIAA alumni to star in the Majors. The conference has produced one Major Leaguer in the Draft era: Vern Ruhle of Olivet College, who threw the final pitch of his 13-year MLB career in 1986.

Rainey, who has won more than 700 games in 28 seasons as Adrian’s head coach, is an icon within the MIAA. He claimed a conference batting title during three seasons as the Bulldogs’ starting catcher. Rainey has coached against MLB Draft picks. Three Adrian alums -- Thomas Parsons, Ryan Dorow and Dugan Darnell -- are active in the Minors now. Parsons is the closest Adrian product to the Majors after posting a 2.00 ERA over nine innings as a non-roster invitee with the Cardinals this spring.

But there’s only one Mo.

“It’s something I’ve never experienced in my 28 years here,” Rainey said. “Every day, answering calls. ‘When’s he’s pitching next? What’s going on? What’s he doing today?’ Things like that. For the last four or five months, it’s been off the charts.

“I think it’s awesome for Division III baseball. … I hope it gives a lot of young men out there the knowledge that you can go anywhere and achieve anything if you put your mind to it. You don’t have to be a five-star guy and be a top recruit to achieve your dreams. You can go somewhere and develop and get to where you want to be.”

Even as Hanley’s fastball averages 94 mph, he believes a biting slider at 83-84 mph is his best pitch. He’s working on a changeup, as well. For Hanley, the distinctive leg kick and explosive arm are only part of the intrigue.

Jahshimo Hanley -- his given name is pronounced Jos-HEE-mo -- represented the Virgin Islands in All-Star tournaments throughout the Caribbean from age 9 until 13. American families are familiar with the concept of youth travel sports. Not many of them play in Aruba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico.

Mo has.

“I was just soaking in the experience and loving every second of it,” he recalled. “It was normal for me. I looked forward to the summertime, because I liked traveling that much.”

Mo’s determination to play baseball at a high level compelled his parents, Stacy Abbott and Scott Hanley, to move to the U.S. mainland before he began high school. The family stayed in Fort Lauderdale for several months before establishing their home in Tampa, where Stacy works as a nurse. Scott is a truck driver.

“My mom knew I loved baseball,” Mo said. “That’s what I wanted to do for a living. She was trying to give me the opportunity to live my dream. In the Virgin Islands, we really don’t have a college where we can get scholarships to play baseball. We moved to Florida, so I could have an opportunity to go to college and get more looks. I’m grateful for my mom for that.”

Stacy and Mo left for Florida first, in order to establish their new life. The family cherishes one photo from departure day at Cyril E. King Airport in St. Thomas: Mo has his left arm around his mother. Their temples are nearly touching, eyes at almost exactly the same height.

Today, Mo stands 6-foot-2.

“When I look at that picture, it makes me smile,” he said. “My whole life, I’ve been so small. My mom is only like 5-6 or 5-5. I was shorter than her in that picture, and I was 13. I always look back at that picture and just smile. I’m just happy for the position I’m in now.”

Across the country, three Division III players have been selected among the top 80 picks in any of the past 14 drafts, according to MLB Network research: right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals) from Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2007; catcher Bruce Maxwell (Athletics) from Birmingham-Southern in 2012; and right-hander Nick Garcia (Pirates) from Chapman last year.

Hanley will be the first U.S. Virgin Islands native drafted since the Dodgers picked right-hander Jharel Cotton in the 20th round nine years ago. And Hanley is likely to join Midre Cummings, whom the Twins made the 29th overall pick in 1990, as the only players from the U.S. Virgin Islands selected among the top seven rounds.

In all, 14 natives of the U.S. Virgin Islands have reached the Majors, including three within the past decade: Cotton, follow pitcher Akeel Morris, and outfielder Jabari Blash. St. Thomas native Callix Crabbe is the Rangers’ assistant hitting coach.

Hanley said baseball and basketball are the most popular sports in the Virgin Islands, and he’s already thinking about ways that he can help baseball develop throughout the islands.

“Just by being able to show where I’m from, I’m putting my city on the map,” he said. “I feel like that’s a big achievement and accomplishment.”

Hanley has studied film of fellow left-handers Clayton Kershaw and Aroldis Chapman for inspiration. Hanley’s father is a longtime Red Sox fan. Scott often watches Mo’s starts through Adrian’s YouTube channel and calls afterward to talk about the games.

Mo’s next start is Saturday in a doubleheader at Nicolay Field against Trine University. A scouting contingent is sure to be back, observing the man who could become Adrian’s first Major Leaguer since Clint Rogge pitched for the Cincinnati Reds 100 years ago.

“I’m just grateful,” Hanley said. “Coming from Chamberlain High School, I wasn’t always sought after. Coming to Adrian College, a Division III school, I’m showing that anything is possible once you put in the work.”