Illinois always knew Bren Spillane had the potential to be a big-time player. Before the season began, the Illini coaches were asked to size up the 2018 team. In that, pitching coach Drew Dickinson said that Spillane was a potential breakout player. After all, he showed premium raw power in the fall and had all the tools to take a huge step forward.
Well, that assessment is proving to be accurate, as Spillane, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound, junior is doing his best Tyler Jay impersonation this season. No, Spillane isn't a pitcher. But back in 2015 when the Illini made a run to the super regional round, Jay was the face of the program and had eyeballs everywhere keeping track of the Illini. Spillane has had that same impact so far this season, as the Illini sit ranked No. 25 with an impressive 15-5 overall record, 3-0 mark in the Big Ten, and perhaps most important, a highly respectable RPI of 34 with room to go up.
This hasn't been a one-man show. The Illini have established consistency and have built a well-rounded offensive lineup with enough arms to have a strong campaign. But Spillane is the most important piece to the puzzle, as he ranks fifth nationally in batting average, and also has developed into a force on the base-paths. He's been one of the nation's most well-rounded players, and is one of several reasons why the Illini are where they are at this stage of the season.
"We've had some really good hitters come through here and I've seen some guys go through some streaks, but the thing that impresses me about Bren is that I think he has more power than anyone we've ever had at Illinois," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "He can mishit balls that can go out of the park, and sure, he'll strike out at times. But he's learned not to chase a bunch of bad pitches.
"He'll also go out there and steal a bag for you, and he's a really, really good team player," he continued. "He's playing with a calm about him, and he's been really impressive."
Spillane has made gradual progressions since arriving on campus two years ago. He had Tommy John surgery in high school, and though he arrived in Champaign healthy from that standpoint, he was hit in the head and suffered a concussion in a summer game prior to arriving on campus. He missed the entire fall because of that, and suffered yet another concussion for the same reason in the spring. That time, the concussion symptoms lingered, leaving some of the coaching staff very concerned. The injury issues carried into his sophomore campaign last year, but Spillane made noticeable progress, especially later in the season when he finally began to get healthy. No matter what he had to do, Spillane was going to overcome those roadblocks.
After all, this was the same slugger who had to overcome the tragic passing of his father in high school to develop into one of the nation's premier sluggers, ranking 89th nationally and 7th in the State of Illinois by Prep Baseball Report in the 2015 recruiting class. Last season's leap was part of his process.
As a sophomore, he batted .295 with six doubles, a triple, five homers and 23 RBIs. He also walked 14 times and struck out on 32 occasions. So, progress was made, but he still had plenty of room to grow to become a premier hitter. He hadn't reached his full potential just yet.
"He just had to deal with some injury issues the past two years, just some really nagging things that seemed to affect him," Hartleb said. "He wasn't on the field on a regular basis and didn't see a lot of plate appearances, especially his first year. His body was always in really good shape and the preparation had always been good, but now he's healthy and the prep has been outstanding."
All the time, effort and patience is paying off for Spillane so far this season. In addition to helping the Illini get off to their best start since the super regional campaign a few years ago, the athletic junior is forming into one of the nation's premier overall players and quite an intriguing prospect. At least one head coach of an Illini opponent this season doesn't have to be convinced about Spillane's worth now and moving forward as a prospect.
"Spillane is a kid in the middle of the lineup who can hit out of the park at any time, and he's a freak. He's really tough to pitch to," the coach said. "I think when you look at his approach, when he's in positive counts, he's trying to hit it out to center field. But he doesn't get fooled a lot. You can pitch to him a little bit, but if you try to come in late, he has enough bat speed to hurt you that way. And if you live away, he'll hurt you there, too. He can hit a single, and he can mash with some power, too.
"The biggest thing about him is that he doesn't hit the ball on the ground a lot, he knows how to elevate pitches and hit the ball absolutely anywhere," he continued. "He's one of those guys who if he's healthy in high school, might not even end up on campus. He's just really good. He ran a 4.15 down the line when we played them and he can hurt you on the base-paths. He doesn't have great baseball instincts just yet, but they're good enough and he can run. He's really athletic and just adds another dimension to that team."
How impressive has Spillane's surge been this season? Digging through his numbers uncovers some interesting trends. For instance, last season, he tallied 14 walks. He already has 10 walks this season, though he's tracking ahead in strikeouts as well. Furthermore, Spillane already has eight more RBIs than he had all of last season, four more homers and a whopping 11 more doubles. He's also hitting .461 with a ridiculously good .528 OBP, 1.000 slugging percentage, and to cap it all off, a 1.528 OPS.
That's what we call a loud statement, and his surge has come about primarily for two reasons: 1) He's much mature from a mental standpoint and 2) His plate approach has gotten much better since last season. "From a mental standpoint, he's a year older and more mature, and I mean that from a baseball standpoint. I can't say enough about the strides he's made there," Hartleb said. "He doesn't step up to the plate feeling like he always has to do something special. His approach has been much so much better in the sense that he isn't chasing balls all over the place, and when he gets to two strikes, he doesn't panic.
"He can throw, he can run and he's got the power. He's shown that he can hit for a high average, and he has a really, really high ceiling," he continued. "He's the type of guy who's in a pack on this team. He really cares about everyone around him, and he isn't going out there worrying about what he can do for himself. He's worried about the team."
And that approach has helped Spillane stay grounded and focused on his own craft, while also helping the team have an immense amount of success the first half of the season.
Who knows at this point if Spillane can keep up the current trend for the whole season, but it's been fun to watch from afar.
Some, such as Dickinson and the coaching staff, had seen this coming for a while.
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