Kernels Ben Rortvedt Is Catching On
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (photo of Ben Rortvedt)Rortvedt grew up and played his high school ball at Verona Area High School in Verona, Wisconsin. It is a small city about ten miles south and west of Madison. He began this season with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, and their season-opening series was in Beloit, a 60-mile drive for his friends and family.
The weather in April in the Midwest League can be unpredictable. While there can be some really nice days, there are seemingly always a handful of games where the temperatures approach freezing by the end. Being from Wisconsin might seem to be an advantage for Rortvedt, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Rortvedt said, “Ft. Myers gets you accustomed to warm weather. Even being from up here, cold is cold. I’m just from here, so I learned how to tolerate it. But everyone is cold. You just have to put it behind you.”
Rortvedt had split his time between Verona and Ft. Myers during the winter. He noted, “I went back and forth. Since all my friends were in school, I was kind of by myself. I went back home for a while to visit my family. I went down to Florida twice and work out. I got into some warm weathers with some of the players.”
When he was back in Wisconsin, he stayed busy, working out and working on his catching with friends in the baseball industry. He spent quite a bit of time in Milwaukee. “I went up to Milwaukee and worked out with one of my friends who plays for the Dodgers. I was was with someone else who is in the same circle as me.”
That friend was Gavin Lux, the Los Angeles Dodgers first-round draft pick in 2016, 20th overall, from Kenosha, WI. That’s right, two prep players from Wisconsin schools were selected very early in the draft.
“People are starting to realize (baseball is pretty good in Wisconsin). Colleges and scouts are working their way up there since the showcase circuit has expanded more. It’s not always that people have been bad from Wisconsin, it’s just that they’re seen more now.”
And that’s how Rortvedt was seen. He played for the high school team, but he was part of the national showcase circuit as well.
“I played for a pretty good travel team. After people saw me play pretty well with the travel team, I got invited to showcases and similar events. I went along with it. Playing on the good travel team that I did opened other doors.” And that’s what it’s all about, according to Rortvedt, “Visibility. People don’t just go to a Wisconsin high school game. We get like 25 people at every game, and it’s mostly just parents. You have to get out and be at the right place at the right time.”
It’s been a tough start for Rortvedt offensively. Following an 0-2 on May 15, Rortvedt was hitting just .108. In his last four starts, he has gone 6-15 (.400) to raise his average to .151. As you would expect from a guy one year removed from high school, he hasn’t struggled like this at the plate in his life.
“I’ve never struggled like I have before. I’m just to keep my confidence where it is. I’m just trying to make adjustments every day. My confidence is getting better at the plate. I’m not missing baseballs. I’m not striking out. I’m just hitting balls into the ground, hitting them at people. They’ll find holes eventually, and I’m just going to stick with the process right now.”
As I noted, he’s had multi-hit games in three of his past four starts. Maybe it’s the start of the turnaround. He will hit in time.
For right now, he is doing his part by being a tremendous player behind the plate. In-person observations showed me that he has a very strong arm. He sets up well and gets rid of the ball quickly. But despite his youth (he won’t turn 20 until the end of September), he has really good leadership skills. He works very well with the Kernels pitchers, guys three or four years older than he is. Rortvedt calls it ongoing learning.
“I’ve been learning a lot. Right now, being younger, learning how to call the game and that aspect. Working for the pitchers and making them feel comfortable. And trying to keep the running game in check as much as I can back there for them. If they’re doing well, I take that in stride. We’re doing well.”
Last year after the draft, Rortvedt began in the GCL, but spent the final month in Elizabethton. That’s where he worked with most of the guys that he is now catching with the Kernels.
“I got to learn them from a different standpoint and learn their stuff. Even though I saw them in spring training, I kind of knew how they were from last year.”
Defense is a strength of his game, and he takes pride in it. He’s been behind the plate for a long time, “since eighth grade.”
He’s worked hard to improve behind the plate, but it’s also been a lot of work. And now as a pro, he’s able to work with more people.
“I just started learning from people. Some who was also around the program I was in was Marcus Hanel. He is the Brewers bullpen catcher. This offseason, I caught a little bit with AJ Ellis, who was with the Dodgers and now is with the Marlins.”
He continued, discussing his offseason workouts. “”That’s why I went to Milwaukee. We would catch probably five days a week and work on our craft.”
When he was back home, he worked just as hard. “If I wasn’t catching with them, my dad and I had a pitching machine and throwing. We did everything on our own probably four to five days a week, receiving, blocking balls in the dirt, that kind of stuff. You don’t always need a coach. You can be your own coach and try to get better every day.”
His parents have been a huge influence on him. “I’ve had a bunch of really good coaches. I have to give all the credit to my parents for allowing me to do what I have and taking me everywhere.”
He also highlighted his summer coach, RJ Fergus, and his high school coach, Brad Durazo “who was really helpful.” He also noticed that there was so many people that helped him get to this point that he figured he’d better not attempt to mention them all by name.
And now, Rortvedt is getting coaching from the Kernels pitching staff. Tommy Watkins is his manager. His hitting coach is Brian Dinkelman. While he is a hitter, he also spends a ton of time working and communicating with pitching coach JP Martinez.
He said, “(The coaching staff is) very approachable, which is always awesome. I almost talk to JP more than he talks to his pitchers. We always feed off each other. He always says that you can call me the quarterback and he’s the offensive coach. I’m pretty much his mind on the field. I try to stick to his plan, and if it’s not working, we’ll talk about it. I just go out there and try to perform.”
Like all catchers in the Twins system, Rortvedt calls the game for and with the pitchers. He says that is part of his and the pitchers’ development. If there are disagreements, the coaches will speak with the catchers between innings.
Manager Tommy Watkins has a high level of confidence in Rortvedt. He knows there is work to be done, but he keeps putting his name in the lineup most games because he believes in his defense now, and what his offense can be in time. He fully understands just how young Rortvedt is relative to the league.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. Ben is young. He’s got some learning to do. We’ve all got some learning to do. You can tell he’s young at times, but he does a good job for his age. Dink and I tell him that if we were in this league at 19, we’d have no shot. So, what he’s done is pretty good. So we try to just keep explaining to him not to get down on himself and it’s a process. You’ve got to work the process. Older guys have been through it a bit more. Think about it, Ben was in high school a year ago.”
Overall, Rortvedt is enjoying the pro baseball life, and he’s glad to be with the Kernels. “Full season ball. Road trips. It’s a lot more of what you expect from pro ball instead of in Florida, waking up early. You get to sleep in, and play at night in front of some fans, which is cool.”
He also happens to think that this Cedar Rapids team has a chance to do a lot of winning this season, and so far, they are leading their division in the first half. How good can his team be?
“Really good. We have pitchers who can throw strikes. Our bullpen, when they’re on, they’re unhittable. They’re nasty. And the hitters, when they’re hitting, we can all rake. When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, I don’t think anybody’s going to beat us.”
And probably to no one’s surprise, Rortvedt’s goals for the remainder of the 2017 season are more team than individual in nature.
“No matter how I’m doing, just win games. Help the team win games. Just add some value to the team, offensively and defensively. Just be a team player.”
Rortvedt certainly displays the tools behind the plate to become a plus defender. While the offense has started out slowly, he’s got an approach and the strength to be a productive hitter as well. There is good reason why he was found quite high on many Twins prospect rankings before the season. It will be fun to watch him continue to develop the rest of 2017 and for the next few years.
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