Photo: Perfect Game

Henderson back on PG stage

Jeff Dahn

Published: Monday, May 16, 2016

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – The road to 2016 Perfect Game Pre-Draft Showcase at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium has at times been rough and rocky for elite Michigan left-hander Dion Henderson. But on a sunny Monday in Eastern Iowa, the road seemed pretty straight and smooth.

A 6-foot-4, 195-pound Detroit resident and senior at Oak Park (Mich.) High School, Henderson has long been considered one of the top national prospects in the class of 2016 and has seldom failed to impress throughout his 13-event Perfect Game career.

He came into Monday’s Pre-Draft ranked No. 94 nationally and armed with a low 90s fastball he used to strikeout the side in his first inning of work at last summer’s PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. It’s been nine months since he’s thrown in front of scouts at a PG event and with the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft less than a month away, Henderson decided he needed to get some work in.

“This is a good opportunity to be noticed,” he said Monday morning before making the start for PG Red. “I haven’t been around baseball at big events for a while, so I want to get my name back out there and get noticed and come out here and play with some of the best talent from across the country. It’s very good competing with kids that are just as good as you if not better than you.

“It’s great being able to experience it all with each other,” Henderson continued. “Some of these guys are going to go off and get drafted and some will be in the pros and it’s amazing to be playing against that talent and being able to play with that talent; you just feel blessed about it.”

This was the Perfect Game Pre-Draft Showcase so it goes without saying that the upcoming MLB June Amateur Draft was foremost on the mind of each one of the participants. It might be easy to assume the thought process would be even more amplified for a prospect like Henderson, an alumnus of the Perfect Game All-American Classic. In its first 12 years of existence, the Classic graduated 165 players who eventually became first-round draft selections and 117 who have made their MLB debuts.

“I really try not to think about it too much. I just want to come out here and play baseball and keep doing what I’m doing,” said Henderson, who has signed with Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. “It’s in my head and I know it’s something that’s a possibility for me, but I try not to think about it too much and not let it affect my game.”

He pitched in front of more than two dozen scouts on Monday and was solid throughout his two innings of work. Throwing in front of that many radar guns gets Henderson’s juices flowing but at the same time he’s able to stay relaxed and do what comes most naturally for him. He also likes pitching in front of family, and on Monday his mother, Kimberly Henderson, was in attendance. The proud mom wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

“Just to see him go through (the PG experience) and be able to be out there has definitely been very rewarding,” Kimberly said. “It’s exciting for me to watch him move up through the ranks, just remembering him as a little chubby kid out there playing baseball. And now he’s slimmed down and he’s very focused and I’m grateful and very excited for his future.”

The summer of 2015 promised to be an important one for Henderson and he didn’t shy away from toeing the rubber on many of amateur baseball’s biggest stages. It started in earnest when Henderson pitched at the PG National Showcase at jetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., and he turned in one of his strongest PG showings to date in front of the hundreds of scouts filling the seats. His fastball sat 90-91 mph, topping out at 92, his curveball reached 72 and his change was at 78.

A PG scout at the event noted: “(Henderson has a) long and lean athletic build, extra-long arms, very projectable physically. … (He) worked his fastball at the bottom of the zone to both sides of the plate; curveball has really improved … (with) big downer depth and really changed hitter’s eye levels. … Impressive outing and has taken a step forward in all areas as a prospect.”

The performance was impressive enough to earn Henderson an invite to the PG All-American Classic later in the summer. Before arriving in San Diego, he made stops at the non-PG East Coast Professional Showcase in Tampa, Fla., and the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif.

Pitching for the West Squad at the Classic, Henderson came out in the seventh inning and used a 92 mph fastball, 67 mph curve and 75 mph change to record his three outs, allowing one hit and striking out two in the East’s 3-1 victory. He gained some notoriety by walking out to the mound, turning around and throwing up a belly full of Gatorade before he made his first pitch. It was of little consequence as Henderson had become an old hat playing on amateur baseball’s biggest stages.

“That’s just the way it is with a lot of people I feel like, because as the stage gets bigger you want to go out and perform at that level, also,” he said. “It makes you want to play at a certain level that other kids are playing at and it makes you feel like you belong.”

Henderson wasted little time making his presence known at two PG tournaments as a just-turned 15-year-old in June 2012. He debuted in early June at the 14u/15u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational with the Midland Tomahawks and about two weeks later was named to the All-Tournament Team at the 14u PG WWBA National Championship playing with an outfit called the Detroit Bees. Later that summer, he took part in the USA Baseball 15u National Team Trials and his fastball hit 84 mph for the first time; he was just getting started.

The 2013 summer season began with the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Henderson earning All-Tournament recognition at the 15u PG WWBA National Championship and concluded with pitching performances at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship and the PG WWBA World Championship, both with the legendary Midland Redskins. By the end of the 2013 fall season, Henderson’s fastball was topping out at 88 mph and he was showing a 67-69 mph curveball and 80 mph changeup.

He transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for the 2014-15 school year and he was rapidly ascending the PG class of 2016 prospect rankings. Henderson was named All-Tournament at the 16u PG WWBA National Championship, the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier and the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship before finishing the season with a second straight trip to the PG World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. He was with the Midland Tomahawks at the 16u WWBA, with IMG Academy Black at both the WWBA Florida Q and the WWBA World Underclass, and finished with the Redskins in Jupiter.

“They’ve been very beneficial,” Henderson said of his PG experiences. “It’s the best way to get noticed in terms of scouts and playing with summer teams, and I think it’s the best in all of showcase baseball. They treat you well when you come (to a PG event) and they treat you like you’re an MLB baseball player and it’s just great; that’s why I keep coming back.”

By his own definition, Henderson has always been a “baseball guy” having started playing the game when he was 4 years old. He calls it “the greatest sport in the history of sports” while acknowledging it’s one of the things he uses to get his mind right. There have been some obstacles along the way.

“Dion has faced some challenges but he has endured them,” Kimberly said. “He’s strong-willed and very skilled in athletics … and he’s focused. He has the athletic ability to move forward and I thought it was very important that he (be in attendance) today.”

Kimberly would not get into specifics about any adversity her son has had to confront and overcome, saying only that one of his closest supporters had become someone he could no longer rely on in terms of offering that unconditional support.

“It has made him stronger and more determined to get out here and do what he knows he has the ability to do,” she said. “I think for anyone in their human capacity to have to face what he has had to face would be shaken by some of it. At the same time, he understands that the greater is still yet to come and he has to move past all those adversities to get to where he wants to be.”

Henderson originally committed to the University of Kentucky but de-committed and has now signed with TCU. Henderson was immediately impressed with how welcoming Horned Frogs head coach Jim Schlossnagle and pitching coach Kirk Saarloos were towards him from the very beginning.

“They’re great coaches and you just look at the history and the success that they’ve had and their pitchers have had; it was just kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “Aside from how good (the team is), I really just liked the coaches and the atmosphere (around the program). I went on my visit and I just loved it.”

This year’s MLB Amateur Draft is slated for June 9-11 and is certain to grab the full attention of Dion and Kimberly Henderson. Dion isn’t listed among PG’s top 100 high school draft prospects but that doesn’t mean he won’t hear his named called at some point during 40 rounds and three days of hectic draft proceedings.

Kimberly has watched her son fight through adversity and put himself in position to maybe one day earn a paycheck playing the game he loves. But mothers are the smartest people on earth and Kimberly likes to take the well-proven first-things-first approach.

“Finishing high school and finishing what’s in front of him now – I’m more of a ‘now’ person – we’re focused on those things that are right before him,” she said Monday. “If the opportunity definitely avails itself then we will take advantage of it, we will consider it more, but we’ve just been focused on those things that are right in front of us.

“We’re grateful for this opportunity and if something should come out of it we definitely will consider some things, but now we’ve just been focused on step one and getting things done.”

Copyright 1995-2018 by Perfect Game. All rights reserved. No portion of this information may be reprinted or reproduced without the written consent of Perfect Game.