High School | General | 4/2/2020

Positivity lifts Hassell

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Robert Hassell III (Perfect Game)

Every player that takes part in a Perfect Game event, regardless of age, is asked to create their own PG Player Profile Page containing a wealth of personal information about that player, all of which is accessible only to PG administrators.

Robert Hassell III, a 2019 PG All-American outfielder and Vanderbilt signee from Tennessee, most likely completed his PG profile as a 14-year-old back in 2015, and dutifully filled out every line on what is basically a two-page questionnaire.

One of the lines asks the player to identify his “Best Tools” and it was interesting what Hassell wrote at the time: “Tracking the ball in the field, running bases.” In other words, at that point in his development, the strong and athletic Hassell felt like his defensive prowess and base-running skills were the strengths of his game. He has made adjustments to that early appraisal in the years since, but maybe not as much as one might think.

“There are a lot of different parts to the game and I obviously think that hitting is my best tool now,” he told PG during a recent 20-minute telephone conversation. “But I believe that I’m a versatile player so I should be able to do most things (well). The little parts of the game, I think if I get those down it makes the bigger parts easier.”

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound, left-handed hitting and throwing Hassell has a knack for making the game look easy when he’s out on the field, although we all know that it is not. He has risen to No. 14 overall in the PG class of 2020 national prospect rankings (No. 1 Tennessee) and PG recently ranked him the No. 3 prep outfield prospect in the 2020 MLB Amateur Draft, behind only Florida’s Zac Veen and Pennsylvania’s Austin Hendrick.

Hassell calls the south Nashville suburb of Franklin home and is set to graduate from Independence High School which sits in nearby Thompson’s Station. The Eagles won 26 games and advanced to the Tennessee Division I Class AAA state semifinals during Hassell’s junior campaign last season.

They had practiced for about two weeks and got two games in this season before it was suspended indefinitely by the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. His baseball world is somewhat in a state of suspended animation right now as new realities continue to be sorted out. But like any 18-year-old with an ocean of opportunity awaiting him, he continues to plow forward.

“I’m going every day; I’m doing something baseball (related) every day just to keep in a rhythm,” Hassell said. “I’m going to make sure I’m doing something every day – that’s the goal, just while all of this is going on. I’ve got to act like this is still the season.”

There are a lot of unknowns for a young prospect in Hassell’s position right now, mostly involving the MLB Amateur Draft. The NCAA on Monday ruled that spring sports athletes who had their 2020 seasons cancelled will be granted an extra year of eligibility, but that ruling won’t affect Hassell’s standing as an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt.

“I’m really not even trying to think about that too much,” he said in regard to the draft. “With all this craziness going on … it’s really all up in the air and anything can happen, and it’s completely out of my hands. All I can do is focus on what I’m doing and keep working hard because now more than ever you really never know what’s going to happen.”

Hassell touched a lot of bases during his 14-event Perfect Game career, which started in the summer of 2016. He started with a bang, earning a pair of all-tournament team selections at PG WWBA 14u and 16u tournaments held in the Atlanta area while playing with the Nashville-based Middle Tennessee Outlaws organization.

He would collect two more all-tournament team citations with the Outlaws in 2017 and picked up another one playing with the Georgia-based DRB Elite program in 2018.

PG showcases also provided Hassell with unique opportunities to get out in front of the scouting community and he took advantage at both the 2018 PG Underclass All-American Games in San Diego and at last year’s prestigious PG National Showcase in Phoenix.

“Coming down to the Perfect Game events even when I was 15 or 16 was beneficial just because a lot of scouts seem to want to come to those; you get a lot of looks,” Hassell said. “You get to play real good competition at an age where I think it’s really important that you get to play some of that competition.”

It was over the Labor Day Weekend in 2016 when Hassell – just starting his freshman year in high school – really walked out under the bright lights for the first time. He was one of 40 age-eligible prospects invited to the inaugural PG 14u Select Baseball Festival in Fort Myers, Fla., a nationally televised event that set a lot of things in motion for Hassell, who had turned 15 just a few weeks earlier.

Everything associated with the Select Fest left an impression on him, from the resort the players stayed at in Bonita Springs to playing in jetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.

“It was just cool to be treated like that and to be able to experience stuff like that,” Hassell said. “And it really made me want that PG All-American game (invitation) when I turned 18 and it made me want all this other stuff. The fact that (PG) does that for the 14u group, I like that; it was really an awesome few days.”

An invitation to the PG All-American Classic in San Diego was extended to Hassell after he turned-in a stellar performance at the PG National, so that dream was realized. There was a caveat that came with the invite, however: the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) wouldn’t allow him to play in the game itself.

The TSSAA has what it is commonly referred to as the “all-star rule” although it has sometimes been called the “Sonny Gray rule” after the current Cincinnati Reds pitcher was held out of the 2007 Classic. The rule reads: “No student shall be permitted to participate in an all-star game unless it is sanctioned by the TSSAA and unless he/she has completed high school eligibility in that sport.”

There is, however, a stipulation in the rule that allows an athlete to participate in an all-star game if their school isn’t in session at the time of the event. Tennessee preps Hassell, Ryan Hagenow (Farragut HS, Kentucky signee) and Jack O'Dowd (Lipscomb Academy, Vanderbilt) were all invited to last year’s Classic but only O’Dowd was allowed to play. His 2019-20 school year at Lipscomb had not yet started.

Hassell and Hagenow did get to make the trip to San Diego and take part in every other activity associated with the PGAAC, including practices and scrimmages, the visit to Rady Children’s Hospital, attendance at the Awards Banquet and all the various outside activities and seminars. They also received a boatload of approved gear and apparel from Rawlings and New Balance, they just couldn’t play in the nationally televised game at Petco Park.

“I still got to go out there and it was a great time seeing all the guys,” Hassell said. “… Some of those guys that were there, I had never actually got a chance to play with or against them so I got the chance to meet some new faces and I got to see some old faces.

“Anytime you can get around the top players in the country and get to talking and all that, it’s going to be beneficial,” he continued. “I can learn stuff from other people and I can watch what they’re doing and I can learn from them; I had the best time that I could.”

The campus of Vanderbilt University is about a half-hour drive from Hassell’s home in Franklin but proximity wasn’t the biggest reason he chose to join coach Tim Corbin’s national championship program. He did, in fact, call Corbin “the Nick Saban of college baseball” referring to the Alabama football coach, and the Commodores’ winning tradition was a big factor in his commitment.

“I tell people this, but if you took the same Vanderbilt University, the same coaching staff, same players and everything, and you put that same university across the world, I’m still going to it,” Hassell said. “The fact that it’s in Nashville doesn’t mean anything.

“If that same university is in Los Angeles, California I’m convinced that I would still be committed. But for my (family’s) sake I think they’d like to drive 30 minutes and come and see me.”

Getting back to the “Best Tools” proclamation that led this report, base running is in fact an especially important facet of the game to Hassell, who ran a 6.54-second 60 at the PG National, and he explained why. He noted that he was walked around 50 times during last year’s high school season and he was intentionally walked three times in the two games the Eagles played this season.

“When they walk me, I look at that as a single. That’s a single, OK, and I don’t want a single, I want a double or a triple,” he said. “So, if you want to walk me I’m going to steal second and I’m going to steal third, too, and that’s how I look at it.”

And that’s the approach Robert Hassell III has taken throughout his baseball career, which in the grand scheme of things is really just getting started. He’s faced roadblocks before but has always managed to drive right through them, and situations seemed brighter once he had broken through to the other side.

“Positivity is key; if you ask me, you’ve got to stay positive,” Hassell said. “I’m in season mode right now and I’m still working like it’s the season. If you look at it in those terms you can make yourself believe you’ve still got baseball. … The main thing is, you’ve got to keep working and you can’t take this time off because other people are taking this time off.

“I’ve got the draft coming up and that’s a possibility, I got Vanderbilt coming up so either way I’m going to have to work all day and grind all day.”

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