SOLON, Iowa – This was a spring that began tumultuously for talented Ossian, Ind., right-handed pitching prospect Jonah Patten. Down but not defeated after an incident that was no one’s fault but his own, Patten and his family did the only thing they could do to turn chicken feathers into chicken salad or, more precisely, turmoil into triumph.
The smile on his face couldn’t be denied when Patten walked out onto the mound at the Solon High School baseball field Sunday afternoon under a steady and chilly spring rain shower. The occasion was the Perfect Game Iowa Spring Wood Bat League Top Prospect Games, a day that brought together the top prospects from the 10 teams that just completed the 2014 Spring League season.
At least two dozen MLB scouts and crosscheckers were on hand to watch highly ranked and regarded Iowa high school draft hopefuls like right-handers Keaton McKinney from Ankeny and Mitch Keller from Cedar Rapids get in their work. And they were there to see Patten, one of only six non-Iowans in attendance Sunday.
“I’m just blessed to be down here, really, with everything that’s happened to me recently,” he said Sunday before completing his rain-shortened two innings of work. “I was just fortunate that Steve (James) and the staff at Perfect Game gave me this opportunity. I’ve been telling people that I’m going to be forever grateful for this opportunity and I’m just blessed to still be playing ball. It’s a blessing in disguise.”
It was a road less traveled that led to Patten’s participation in the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League this season. Armed with a low-90s miles-per-hour fastball, an 86 mph changeup, an 82 mph slider and a 77 mph curveball, Patten is Indiana’s No. 2-ranked prospect in the class of 2014 (No. 148 nationally) who last year led Norwell High School to the Indiana Class 3A state championship.
The tide turned suddenly and unexpectedly. In early March, shortly before the start of his senior campaign, Patten was suspended for the entire season and declared ineligible under Norwell High’s athletic code of conduct for possession of chewing tobacco. With his senior season taken away, Patten hooked his ladder to the PG Iowa Spring League.
Fortunately, he had a lot of people willing to work on his behalf, including his parents Jim and Carla Patten, among others. Patten knew he had screwed up and also knew he would have to work hard to regain the trust of the people who were close to him.
“Was it a good decision? Absolutely not – he should have made a better choice, but he didn’t,” Jim Patten told PG on Sunday, referring to his son’s decision to be in possession of smokeless tobacco. “As parents you have to deal with your kids when they make those decisions and we held him accountable. He was accountable to his team and his coaches.”
Perfect Game Iowa Spring Wood Bat League director Steve James explained that while out-of-state players aren’t actively recruited to the league because PG prefers they play for their high school teams during the spring (Iowa does not have a spring high school season), they would be accepted under extenuating circumstances. Patten’s circumstance certainly qualified and by joining the league everyone involved – Patten, the MLB scouting community and the league itself – benefitted.
Sacrifices had to be made, of course. The Pattens spent hours on the road traveling between their home in Indiana and different towns in Iowa except for the three weeks they secured temporary housing in Iowa.
“Was it an ideal situation? Probably not as far as the family was concerned, but we made the best out of it as we could,” Jim Patten said. “… Ever since he’s been 13 or 14 years old we’ve always had him playing at a high level of competition. Certainly coming out here during the spring so the scouts can see him face this level of competition, I think it’s been a great opportunity.”
If opportunity was what Jonah Patten was looking for, he found it by the truckload in the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League. He has signed his letter-of-intent with the University of Arkansas – the same school 2013 PG All-American Keaton McKinney has signed with – but Patten is also taking a keen interest in the upcoming MLB June Amateur First-Year Player Draft. And judging by the turnout Sunday, the scouts are taking a keen interest in him, as well.
“I’m getting seen and I’m getting the looks I probably wouldn’t have gotten if I would have stayed at my high school,” he said. “It’s kind of a blessing in disguise playing against these top-level guys out here in Iowa and going out here and just competing against the best. I like to tell people that I’m a baseball guy and when I’m surrounded by baseball people like myself, it’s great. I’m making friendships that will last a lifetime, so it’s just been great.”
Patten gives a lot of credit for his development over the years to his association with the Westfield, Ind.-based Lids Indiana Bulls organization and its executive director Mike Mundy and director of baseball operations Dan Held.
He made his Perfect Game debut in June 2011 playing with a Bulls team at the PG WWBA 15u National Championship in Marietta, Ga. He played in five more PG WWBA tournaments with the Bulls after that debut, including the 2011 and 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., and the 2013 PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Marietta.
“I was one of those guys who would have felt blessed going to a small NAIA school when I was a freshman (in high school),” Patten said. “(The Indiana Bulls) helped me get seen by some D-I scouts, they helped me through my college recruiting process, and now we’re creeping in with the professional scouts.”
Patten also gives a lot of credit to his father, Jim, and his older brother, Noah. He even mentions Oakland A’s right-hander Josh Lindblom, a Lafayette, Ind., native who has worked with Patten on his mechanics.
“I was blessed to get going at an early age and I’ve been blessed with the talent that I’ve been given from the Lord above,” Patten said. “I’ve been happy with how I’ve progressed. Am I satisfied? No. I tell people all the time that I’m never going to be a finished product. There’s no such thing as a complete pitcher so I’m always going to have stuff to work on.”
Jim Patten is also quick to recognize the Indiana Bulls’ contributions to Jonah’s development. He pointed out that the Bulls invited Jonah to join them as a 15-year-old at the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., to play alongside and against prospects that were often two or three years older than he was.
“A lot of people saw him throw there and really saw the makeup and the body type and all those things that they use to project a young kid,” Jim Patten said. “We’re definitely indebted to the Indiana Bulls and they always will be part of our family.”
In choosing Arkansas as his next possible landing spot, Patten said he sensed the entire university community in Fayetteville was very “family-oriented”. He was wildly impressed with the Razorbacks’ 10,700-seat Baum Stadium, one of college baseball’s crown jewels.
He also likes the idea of playing in the Southeastern Conference against nationally ranked league powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt and especially the thought of working with long-time Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn.
“I think if I go to Arkansas and work under Coach Jorn, the sky is the limit,” Patten said.
The sky may not be the limit for Patten quite yet, but the limits aren’t obvious yet either. Thanks to his participation in several premier PG WWBA tournaments, his appearances at the 2013 East Coast Pro Showcase and the 2013 Area Code Games, and now his participation in the Iowa Spring League, Patten has been heavily scouted and is expected to be drafted the first week of June.
“I’ll have to look at the opportunity and decide what’s best for me and my family and to help further my skills; that’s always going to factor in (to the decision). If it works out it works out, but if it doesn’t going to Arkansas is definitely a fantastic opportunity,” Patten said.
“It’s coming fast but even from the draft perspective it’s still early as far as how the market is going to shake itself out and where Jonah’s going to fall,” Jim Patten said. “It’s been an interesting journey and we have spoke as a family and I think we’re going to be in a position here within the next week or two of deciding where we think we want to be (monetarily), and then kind of see what the market does at that point.”
Just since 2010, three PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League alumni – Alec Rash, Kellen Sweeney and Matt Koch – have been selected in the first three rounds of the draft. It is possible McKinney and Keller could go that high this year and Patten is projected to be selected somewhere in the first 10 rounds.
“Certainly this Iowa Spring League has such a strong reputation for being scouted by the major league scouts and that was something that was important to Jonah,” Jim Patten said. “Even though he is locked and ready to go to Arkansas there is still an opportunity (in professional baseball) and so we felt this was the right thing to do for our family.”
It took a little while for Patten to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t pitching for his high school team this spring and getting settled into Spring League play was an issue at first. Before long, however, he agreed with his father that this was the right thing to do.
“The first couple of weeks I wasn’t really comfortable on the mound and I was just kind of working on some things,” Patten said. “I’ve settled in and I think overall this spring has been pretty good for me. Like I’ve said, this is kind of a blessing in disguise and I’m always going to try to find the positives in every situation.”