MIT products, front-office hopefuls making mark in Minor Leagues
By Alex Kraft / MiLB.com
Austin Filiere thought he knew what pitch was coming.
It was the eighth inning of a Wednesday night game between the Class A Short Season Eugene Emeralds and the Everett AquaSox on July 19. Filiere's Emeralds had built a 10-4 lead as he stepped to the plate with two outs for his final at-bat of the evening. Only this particular at-bat was anything but routine.
The pitcher, a left-hander named David Hesslink, had spent much of the past three years playing with Filiere at the Division III Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country. Never before had two of the school's baseball products faced each other in a professional setting. Before squaring off, the two men tipped their caps to each other to acknowledge the moment.
Hesslink opened the at-bat with a changeup -- despite promising his friend a fastball the day before -- that caught the outside corner for a strike. Filiere later insisted the pitch was several inches outside, calling it a "D-III strike." After working the count to 2-2, Hesslink grooved a changeup that Filiere rolled over for an inning-ending groundout to second.
"If he had hit the ball [squarely], it would have gone to Jupiter," Hesslink pointed out with a laugh.
"Classic D-III at-bat," Filiere said.
It was a memorable moment for two men hoping to make their mark on Major League Baseball one day, whether on the field or off it.
David Hesslink did not grow up a Mariners fan. Rather, he happened to adopt them for the longest period of time. The son of a Navy captain, his family moved often and each stop resulted in a temporary change of allegiance. When his family moved to San Diego, he became a Padres fan. After heading east, he picked up the Nationals. An internship with the Rays in college turned into Tampa Bay fandom.
However, the Mariners were first -- at 5 years old, he went out for Halloween dressed as a Seattle ballplayer -- and when the club called his name in the 34th round of the 2017 Draft, it was a dream come true.
"I had a pretty good idea that I was going to get called at some point during the day, and I had a good idea it was going to be Seattle making the call," Hesslink said. "Despite all the expectations, it was still a moment that turns your blood to ice."
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound southpaw had always envisioned baseball being a central part of his future. It had partially led him to attend MIT when the departure of a left-handed pitcher left him a guaranteed spot coming out of high school.
Hesslink's passion for the sport extended beyond the field. He had taken an interest in the analytics side of baseball, a fascination that reached a new level after he met Will Cousins. The two met during Hesslink's sophomore year in a class where Cousins, a post-doctoral associate, was the instructor.
Working together, the pair created an algorithm that classified what type of pitch a pitcher threw based strictly on data regarding speed, break and movement. The experience benefited both men as Cousins went on to become an analyst for the Rays and Hesslink spent the next two summers working in analytics for Houston and Tampa Bay.
Hesslink had come to school as a freshman planning to focus exclusively on his playing career. Now, he realized he had an opportunity to extend his involvement in the sport well beyond his final pitch.
"There was no looking back once I realized there was a legitimate way for me to stay in baseball, even if my fastball wasn't going to cut it," he said.
The winningest pitcher in MIT history at 24-10, Hesslink has gone 0-1 with a 4.43 ERA over 22 1/3 innings out of the Everett bullpen this season. When the Northwest League schedule ends, he has more analytics work waiting for him with the Mariners.
"I'm living the dream," Hesslink said. "It's been just about everything I'd hoped it would be and more."
Nearly two hours away from MIT on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, it dawned on Filiere that he could have a future in the Major Leagues.
Several years earlier, the third baseman had lamented after a poor junior season at Hamilton High School in Arizona, where he shared an infield with Dodgers first baseman Cody Bellinger. Despite a rebound senior year, his down season had severely limited his college baseball options. He eventually settled on MIT, as much because of its academic reputation as its baseball program.
Filiere immediately took off with the Engineers and kept on going, batting .414, blasting 39 home runs and driving in 151 runs in 116 games over three seasons. When he held his own in 2016 in the Cape Cod League -- a wood-bat circuit for advanced college players, many of whom hail from major Division I programs -- he began to sense his name popping up more and more in Draft chatter.
"I played well enough on the Cape that I knew [getting drafted] was a possibility," Filiere said. "Throughout the season at MIT this year there were quite a few scouts at games. Then I thought it was a shot for sure. I knew a lot of teams were interested, but I didn't know what [round] they saw me at."
The Cubs pulled the trigger on the 21-year-old in the eighth round of the 2017 Draft, the highest an MIT player has ever been selected. He rejoiced at the opportunity to finally focus exclusively on baseball after three years of intense studies in business analytics at MIT. He still has one more semester, which he plans to complete once the Minor League season ends. After that, baseball will be his full-time obsession.
"At MIT, and I guess probably most colleges, you just don't have as much time as you do now because you've got classes and things like that," Filiere said. "Obviously, MIT is probably even more time than other schools.
"It's been a lot of fun [in the Minor Leagues]. It's a lot of baseball. You get to the field at 1 p.m. and the game starts at 7 and you're at the field from 1-10 or 1-11. It's perfect for me."
One wouldn't confuse MIT baseball with many Division I institutions. The program has been around since 1948, yet its greatest contribution to a Major League roster is Jason Szuminski, a 27th-round pick of the Cubs in 2000 who pitched 10 innings in seven appearances with the Padres in 2004.
Recently, however, the program has undergone something of a renaissance. Since head coach Andy Barlow took over in 2004, the team has cranked out nine 20-win seasons and recorded a school-record 29 victories in 2015.
"In 2002, we were like 1-26 or something like that," Hesslink said. "The new coach came in and started to turn the program around. I think we were the only D-III school to have two players go in the Draft, and that's a pretty rare feat. I think it speaks volumes to how hard their coaching staff has worked to turn the program into a legitimate contender every year and a powerhouse in the region in a very short amount of time."
"We've got some great kids," said Barlow, who has coached baseball for 25 years. "Everybody looks at MIT and they think everybody is book smart. They don't realize that our athletic programs, not only baseball, are pretty strong.
"It's a tough recruit, obviously. You've got to find the kids with grades through the roof. But they're out there."
As the third and fourth MIT players ever to play professional baseball, Hesslink and Filiere realize they have a chance to be trailblazers.They may ultimately end up in a front office, where two of their college teammates have already taken positions with the Phillies and A's. For the moment, though, they just want to play.
"There's less to worry about," Filiere said. "You just have to focus on hitting the ball."