Independence’s Robert Hassell would normally be hitting homers and striking out batters at this time of year.
But there’s nothing normal about this month anywhere in the world.
Williamson County Schools has suspended its baseball season through April 24 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It stinks, it does, but you’ve got to look at in a positive way,” Hassell said. “I mean, it’s out of my hands and it’s out of any player’s hands, so the best thing we as players can do is be around baseball as much as we can.”
Hassell works out at home as much as he can.
MLB.com lists the Eagles center fielder at No. 16 in its top 100 prospect rankings.
Hassell could become the first Tennessee position player taken in the first round of the draft since Loudon’s Mike White in 1986.
“He’s a special, special kid,” Eagles coach Mike McLaury said. “I’ve never coached anybody like him. He can do it all.”
MLB.com described Hassell as “the best pure hitter in the 2020 prep class.”
The 6-foot-2 senior hit .423 with 14 homers, 36 RBIs and 22 stolen bases last season when he was named the Gatorade Tennessee Baseball Player of the Year.
There have been 3,633 confirmed cases and 44 deaths from COVID-19 in Tennessee as of Monday, per the Tennessee Dept. of Health's estimate.
“It’s affecting millions and millions of people and every single person in America whether they have it or not,” Hassell said. “So, it’s a real thing and that’s why safety is important and everybody that’s like me and loves baseball wants to be back out there ASAP. My team and everybody just need to listen to the governor and president and do what they need to so to stay safe, so we can get this thing over with and get back to our regular lives.”
Hassell boosted his stock in the offseason when he was the best all-around hitter and pitched well for the PDP League in June and July, according to MLB.com.
The Vanderbilt signee led the U.S. national team in virtually every offensive category at the under-18 World Cup in South Korea in September.
“Everybody’s competing, everybody’s tough, everybody’s good,” Hassell said. “That made it more competitive for me and that’s where I can get an edge (because) I think I can out-compete people and I did.”
Hassell is so competitive that he’s banned from his family’s Yahtzee games at home because he gets too mad when he loses. It’s in his blood to be a fighter.
His father, Robert, a former Austin Peay linebacker, taught him the importance of attitude and effort. Always give 120%.
“I think he’s one of the top hitters in the nation at any level, high school or college,” said McLaury, a former Middle Tennessee State assistant coach. “He’s Robert the baseball player and that means he works at his craft. He’s just a born hitter.”
The draft might be pushed back one month to July and shortened to five to 10 rounds, according to an ESPN report. Signing bonuses may be restructured.
Hassell said it will be an “in the moment” decision between going to Vanderbilt or signing with a major-league team.
“Either way, it’s a win-win,” Hassell said. “I could either, A, go into the pros right now at 18 years old, which would not be a bad thing for me or I could go to Vandy, one of the most prestigious schools and one of the most prestigious baseball programs and that would not be a bad option either.”
Hassell reminds Ravenwood coach Danny Borne of one of his former minor-league teammates in the St. Louis organization.
“His name was Colby Rasmus, who was a first-round draft pick in 2005 for the Cardinals,” Borne said. “They’re very similar: left-handed, center fielders, can really run, throw, hit with power and it’s fun to watch him play because it really takes me back to when I got to play with Colby Rasmus.”
Rasmus went on to play for five major-league teams from 2009-18.
Summit coach Chad Kirby believes Hassell is the best player he’s seen at the high school or college level.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s going to be drafted in the first round as a hitter,” Kirby said. “Well, heck, I’d say he’s a top-five round probably pitcher. I mean, he’s throwing 90 mph from the left side. That’s rare as well, so he’s very unique.”
Hassell went 5-2 with a 1.07 earned run average and 113 strikeouts in 59 innings in 2019. His fastball has actually been clocked at 93 mph.
“I think it’s his strike-zone recognition,” Kirby said of Hassell’s hitting prowess. “It’s unbelievable that you can’t get him to chase a pitch and he does not get fooled. I’ve seen people have as much power, I’ve seen people have as pretty of a swing, but the thing with him is he’s got the pitch recognition that is just unbelievable.”
Hassell threw a 17-strikeout no-hitter in a win over Brentwood in last year’s District 11-AAA championship.
“Best high school hitter I’ve seen up close,” Bruins coach Bill Moore said. “I think he’s better than 16 in the country, to be honest. I’d say he goes higher than 16. I think he’s a top-10 guy, for sure.”
Moore said Hassell doesn’t have any weaknesses that a high-school pitcher can exploit. He has a different take on him than Kirby.
“When he’s hitting pitches out of the zone out like he did on us last year, you just throw your hands up,” Moore said. “How can you even go at that guy? We throw him a ball down and out of the strike zone at his back foot and he golfs the thing out. That’s on another level.”
Moore half-kidded that walking him is probably the best option. Just put him on.
“I swing at everything at the cage,” Hassell said. “If you’re only going to swing at strikes, then you’re only going to hit strikes. What happens when you accidentally swing at a ball? You’re going to miss it unless you’ve trained for it.”
Hassell isn’t undisciplined, he tries to hit strikes. But a batter only has milliseconds to decide if he’s going to swing, so inevitably he will accidentally swing at balls.
Swinging at balls in the cage trains Hassell to turn bad decisions into good hits.
Centennial coach Rob Baughman has vivid memories of facing Hassell in last year’s season opener when he had a no-hitter going, but was pulled to protect his arm due to his pitch count.
“He faced 18 batters and struck out 16 of us,” Baughman said. “We couldn’t touch him. I think we put two balls in play, literally two balls in play and they were probably weak ground balls if I remember correctly.”
A major-league scout told Baughman that Hassell is definitely a first-round draft pick.
“He said after seeing the competition he’s played and what he’s done, yeah, for sure, he’s definitely the real deal,” Baughman said.
Independence returns five position players and three pitchers from last year’s state tournament team.
The Eagles opened the year with two one-run losses to Spring Hill before the season was put on hold.
“We haven’t won a state championship with this team and so that was definitely the biggest goal going into this year and the fact that we’re probably not going to get to do that – it sucks,” Hassell said. “I’m just hoping that it’s going to start back up and we’re going be able to play. I wish they would give us just one last chance to compete for a state championship.”
Eagles’ other top players
Will Tobin, pitcher, Pennsylvania commit, junior, 5-1, 2.93 ERA, 44 strikeouts, 42 innings, .336 batting average, 22 RBIs in 2019
Slater Schield, shortstop, Union signee, .300, 17 walks
Kobe Kried, pitcher, 2-2, one save