If you follow baseball in the Midwest you undoubtedly have noticed the wealth of talent that has emerged from the state of Wisconsin in recent years. That talent has made a steady progression toward the big leagues, as well, most notably in the form of Cleveland Indians infielder Owen Miller, Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux, Seattle Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic and Minnesota Twins catcher Ben Rortvedt.
Lux and Kelenic were first round picks in 2016 and 2018 with Rortvedt being taken in the second round, also in 2016. Owen Miller was taken in the third round of the 2018 draft after spending three years at Illinois State.
Corner infielder Alex Binelas posted big power numbers at the Univeristy of Louisville from 2019-21, which led to him being selected in the third round of this year’s draft by his hometown Brewers. AJ Vukovich hit 13 home runs between two levels of the minor leagues this past summer after he was taken in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Noah Miller, Owen Miller’s younger brother, is a slick-fielding, switch-hitting shortstop that was taken by the Minnesota Twins 36th overall.
Following in all of these players’ footsteps is Gavin Kilen, a shortstop from Milton, Wis., who has been making all of the same high-profile scouting event stops including USA Baseball’s 18u National Team and the Area Code Games. He could be the next player from the Dairy State to become a premium draft pick, that is, if he’s taken high enough to sway him away from his commitment to Louisville.
Kelenic and Vukovich were also committed to Louisville had they not signed directly out of high school, and one more important parallel all of these players share is that they all played for the Hitters Baseball program based out of Caledonia, a 20-minute drive south of Milwaukee.
For a Milton resident, however, that drive is over an hour.
“It’s a drive,” Kilen said. “Ever since my freshman year when I heard about Hitters, the guys ahead of me at Janesville Craig, where I went as a freshman – both Blomgrens, Jack and Dan, both went to Michigan, Jacob Campbell the catcher at Illinois, Evan Spry from Creighton, Noah Berghammer from Minnesota – all those guys played travel ball somewhere else [at one point] and all of the guys that played at Hitters recommended me to go [there].
“If [you] want to play college baseball, that’s the place to go. If [you] want to get seen it’s the place to go for baseball in Wisconsin.”
The Hitters may not be the only organization in the state of Wisconsin, but they’ve been around the longest and know what it takes to compete with any and all players from coast to coast. RJ Fergus, the founder and owner of Hitters Baseball, has been taking his teams down south to compete against teams and players generally considered be bigger, faster and stronger than Midwest born and bred athletes, a stigma he has worked hard to disprove.
“What’s pretty cool is the competition you get to see,” Kilen added. “You get to see the best of the best all around, in every single event we go to you get to see the top competition. You face the top pitchers, good players, good everything. It’s a pretty cool experience because I know not many people get to do everything that I’ve been able to go through with this Hitters team, so I really try to enjoy it as much as I can.”
And the program has seen one of its players move on and make meaningful contributions to just about every college program in the Midwest, and in some cases, beyond. Kilen, who has wholly committed himself to the game of baseball, is poised to join that group.
“The biggest thing I see is the way they carry themselves and how they go about their business by doing [certain] things every day,” Kilen said of the Hitters players that have come before him. “It’s a job, it’s work, it’s what you do from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. It’s the way you do everything to get you where you need to go. It’s the process of the way to do it.
“I think I’ve learned a lot from a lot of them, just little things here and there. When [Gavin] Lux would come in during the winter I learned a lot about the infield. I haven’t done a lot of hitting with any of them, but the majority of the stuff I hear from RJ is the stuff they heard [too]. I feel the biggest thing is what it takes to get there. The process that they take and their day in, day out to where they need to go, the repetitions.”
Kilen has learned to be a sponge, from his first year in high school at Janesville Craig (he’s now at Milton High School) to his time spent with the Hitters. His biggest influence, however, has come from his own home, learning the all aspects of the game from his father, Chris Kilen, a former baseball standout at nearby Janesville Parker High School and Madison Area Technical College (MATC) – now known as Madison College – a JUCO at the NJCAA Division III level.
After being selected in the 58th round of the 1993 draft by the Minnesota Twins coming out of high school, Chris Kilen had a big freshman season at MATC, going 11-0, 1.34 on the mound while hitting .328 and leading his team in both hits and runs scored. He also carried his team to their first-ever trip to the NJCAA Division III World Series, where they finished third.
The next year, albeit with the elder Kilen nursing an arm injury, MATC won the national championship. After two years spent at the JUCO level Chris transferred to Northeast Louisiana State, where he played alongside Milwaukee Brewers star Ben Sheets at the Division I level, before an elbow injury in 1996 ended his career.
That background served as an incredible foundation for Gavin who began playing the game under the tutelage of his father at the age of two. He doesn’t have to travel to Caledonia each and every day thanks to an in-home batting cage, which came in especially handy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m very fortunate, I have a 40 by 40 garage at home, and half of that’s a cage,” Kilen said. “My dad, a lefthanded pitcher back in the day, I get BP from him every day, so it’s not like I always had to go to Hitters every day to get reps. But I would still go to Hitters two to three times a week.”
Playing with the Hitters has exposed Kilen to increased levels of competition, locally, regionally and nationally. He developed a closer bond to Gavin Lux, a Kenosha native who, like so many other alumni, returns to the Hitters facility during the offseason to continue his own developmental path.
Watching different players perfect their crafts in a state-of-the-art facility that includes a full-size turf infield allows young players to see what it takes to separate themselves and truly attain greatness. Kilen knows he’s not where he needs or wants to be, but also recognizes it’s a lifelong pursuit.
“I think the weight room is such a huge part. I lift every day,” Kilen said about what he needs to work on most. “Even on game days I do a light lift in the mornings. It’s part of my routine now, it’s part of what I do and I know doing it as much as I do the process will [lead] to me getting better and better and bigger and stronger. The ball will go farther, better throws, better athleticism, faster, everything. And that’s a big part of baseball, a separating factor that can go into it, more than just the baseball tools.”
“I think it’s the tee work, your everyday work,” Kilen continued, speaking specifically about his hitting. “I do the same routine, I do the same things every day when I get up. I do the same hitting drills because it builds repetition, it gets me into my swing and then I trust my swing when I get into games.
“Pitch recognition is also a big thing I’ve always worked on. As a kid, even when I was younger, my dad throwing me [different] parts of the plate, always leaving one side out because you can’t cover the whole plate once you face good arms, and stuff like that.”
For as good as a group of Wisconsin-based players the classes of 2015-18 had this 2022 class has a chance to be just as special, if not more so based on sheer volume. Fergus recognized this years ago, and it’s the reason he assembled two Hitters teams, Navy and White, for the 2022 class when he usually puts together just one team per age division from year to year.
Joining Kilen on the Navy team the past few years are fellow Louisville commits Will Vierling and Michael Lippe. The team also boasts players that have committed to Michigan (Mitch Voit, Jonathan Kim), Wichita State (Michael Mulhollon), Kansas State (Mason Buss) and Hunter Schmitt (Oklahoma), among others.
The White team, loosely considered the 2022’s “B” team, are players committed to Central Michigan (Camdin James), UIC (Kendall Lyons) and Madison College (Charlie Marion), just to name three of some of the White team’s more productive players.
Make no mistake, Kilen has the greatest star potential of this group, an advanced hitter with uncanny bat-to-ball skills and a knack for squaring up the baseball as a lefthanded hitter. Combine that with loose, athletic actions that makes middle infield look like a breeze, a strong arm and solid speed, and you have a complete player that can compete with anyone, at any level.
Now a high school senior, Kilen isn’t concerned about a homecoming or prom date. He’s not even concerned about the draft at this stage of his career. He is concerned about only one thing: playing baseball.
“I’m a huge fan of Max Scherzer,” Kilen said. “I remember one time watching him talk about pitching and his pitches and how even when it works he might still try different movements, [gripping] different parts of the ball, he might try to spin it differently [etc.], because he knows he’s good but hitters get better every year. You need to be able to find adjust, find your weaknesses and figure them out.
“It becomes routine when you can do it day in and day out.”