If you go back to the 22nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft, you'll find names like Sebastian Kessay, Alex Swim and Nolan Earley.
You'll find one Major Leaguer, Layne Somsen, picked 675th overall by the Cincinnati Reds out of South Dakota State. Somsen just made his MLB debut on May 14.
Twenty-one of these players came out of college, six out of high school, and the other three out of junior college.
One of these 22nd rounders is Ben Heller, a right-handed pitcher out of Olivet Nazarene University in the Cleveland Indians' system.
Heller has a fastball that reaches 100 miles per hour (MPH). He also signed for just $2,500.
“He was an incredible sign,” former Vice President of Player Development Ross Atkins told Cleveland.com in 2014. Atkins credited Minnesota area scout Les Pajari for finding Heller.
But before Heller was an “incredible sign” or even a starting pitcher at Olivet Nazarene, he was a kid with big dreams from Whitewater, Wisconsin, a rural town of under 15,000 residents surrounded by cornfields about an hour outside of Milwaukee.
“To me, baseball was always just a fun game that I played with my brothers and friends,” Heller says. “I would go to a few Milwaukee Brewers games each year with my buddies and we would always talk about how crazy it would be if we could play in the big leagues some day, but it always seemed like such an incredibly far away and impossible dream.”
“Looking back, I was really just an average kid from the town who refused to listen when people told me it was crazy to actually think I would play Major League Baseball.”
Heller just loved the game. He would spend hours playing baseball and whiffle ball with his brothers, which are some of his “best memories” of his childhood. He and his younger brother Luke played together their entire lives. They played catch every day, and during the harsh, Wisconsin winters, they’d take batting practice together in their basement.
“We learned so much from each other about the game, about having fun, and about persevering and overcoming adversity,” Heller says.
Heller is not a typical future big leaguer. He pitched in high school, but did not play Varsity Baseball until his junior year. By his senior season, however, Heller was beginning to come into his own. He grew some (Heller was a “late bloomer”), added velocity and became dominant. Heller even had an 18-strikeout no-hitter in which he did not throw a single breaking ball.
Velocity has always been one of Heller’s top priorities as he’s moved up through the baseball ranks.
“I knew during high school that having elite velocity was the easiest way to get noticed and play at the next level, whatever that level might be,” he says. “So pretty much my only goal during high school and early years of college was to try and improve my velocity as much as possible.”
After high school, Heller’s next level was pitching for Olivet Nazarene, a Christian Liberal Arts University in Bourbonnais, Illinois with just 4,000 undergraduates. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school has few claims to fame for baseball. But it did produce Chicago Cubs’ second baseman Ben Zobrist.
His freshman year, Heller was a college starting pitcher that threw 91-93 MPH, with, what he calls “below average command and a very inconsistent breaking ball.”
But Heller continued to work at his craft. The summer after his freshman season, Heller attended a MLB scouting bureau tryout, reaching 94 MPH with his fastball.
“I think that was the first time scouts started following me a little bit,” Heller said. “Before that, getting drafted seemed like a total pipe dream. I remember it was a pretty surreal moment after that tryout when a few different scouts pulled me aside and asked for all my information, at the time it seemed like a huge step in my baseball career.”
Heller continued to develop while in college, working towards his “pipe dream.” He was fortunate enough to pitch in two collegiate leagues, the Alaska Baseball League and the Northwoods League. Both leagues have had some impressive alumni: Barry Bonds, C.J. Wilson and Mark McGwire played in the ABL; Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and the aforementioned Zobrist played in the Northwoods League.
Heller’s junior season came and went. He made 14 appearances that year, pitching to a 3.76 ERA and a very good 85 to 38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 ⅔ innings.
“The vast majority of college players are drafted after their junior year, and I was expecting to be no different,” Heller says. “So I had been preparing my entire junior year to get drafted. I had it all built up in my head and my heart, and I was so sure that it was going to be the day my lifelong dream came true, as well as hopefully get a little bit of money to reward me for my hard work.”
Then, the 2012 MLB Draft came.
“I waited, and waited, and waited. My name never got called, and I didn't understand why. I had talked to scouts just days before the draft and they all seemed so positive about taking me. I still to this day can't explain what really happened that year.”
“To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but I chose to see it as just another hurdle I had to jump over, and used it to motivate me even more … The one area I think may have been overlooked with me was my intense desire to improve, and my willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed. That intangible quality is hard to scout, but I personally knew deep down that all I needed was an opportunity to play pro ball and I would do whatever it took from there.”
So, Heller went back to Olivet Nazarene for his senior season. He had another good year, and he improved his control, striking out 79 and allowing just 36 walks in 81 ⅔ innings while posting a 3.42 ERA.
Heller did what he could do to be drafted and got his reward. On June 8, 2013, with the 651st overall pick in the MLB Draft, the Cleveland Indians selected Benjamin Heller, the same player that started his journey to professional baseball in Whitewater, Wisconsin.
“On the 3rd day of the draft I saw my name pop up on the draft tracker, and shortly after that I was called by Les Pajari, the Indians scout who drafted me,” Heller said.
“As soon as the Indians took me, all the negative feelings I had from the year before instantly went away, and I was just super grateful and excited that [they] gave me an opportunity. I was with my family and my wife (then my fiancé) so we were all able to celebrate together and kind of take a deep breath knowing that I finally had my foot in the door of pro ball.”
Once Heller got his foot in that door, he never looked back. He overhauled his delivery during his first offseason of professional baseball, allowing him to be more consistent with his pitches and add some speed. Then, he worked on adding a secondary pitch and developed the biting slider that he has today. Heller was what evaluators like to call a “project” in every way imaginable.
“I came into the Indians organization with a very open mind,” Heller said. “I had the mindset of wanting to improve in every way possible, so I tried to soak up knowledge from coaches, coordinators, and other players.”
Soon enough, Heller leaped into prospect status and is expected to join the Cleveland Indians at some point this season. His fastball that hovered in the low-90s just six years ago reaches 100 MPH. In 2015, Heller got to pitch in a Major League Spring Training game and struck out Carlos Gomez and Khris Davis.
“There's no such thing as a ‘quick trick’ to developing fastball velocity,” he said. “My fastball has come from 10 years of putting in the time every single day to do my weight lifting, weighted baseball throws, long toss, stretching, studying mechanics, and learning to throw with intent.”
“It's a long and tedious process, but the reward has been well worth all the work put in. Being in the 100 MPH club is a special accomplishment to me just because I see it as a reward and testament to all the work I've been putting in since high school.”
Looking forward, Heller knows that the rest is outside his control.
“I really try to go day by day and do everything I can each day to get better,” Heller said. “I trust that the rest will take care of itself. Looking at where I am now though, I definitely feel extremely blessed to have made it as far as I have. I won't say that I'm surprised that I've been successful, but if I would've known in high school that I would be at this point right now, I don't think I would have believed it.”
And one day, the guy drafted in the same round as Sam Tewes, Nelson Zulueta and Derek Toadvine hopes to be a Major League reliever.
“My biggest individual goal is to be known as a consistent and reliable bullpen arm who can pitch in any situation in order to help the team win. I hope I have the opportunity to establish myself as that guy with the Indians, and with the young core of exciting players I've played with in the Indians system, it is fun to dream about bringing a World Series back to Cleveland!”