Hagen Danner evolves from Little League hero to top prospect
Scrolling through TV channels one afternoon earlier this month, Hagen Danner stumbled across a Little League World Series regional game.
Immediately, a cascade of memories came rushing back.
More from the 'Coming Attractions' Series on sports phenoms:
• June 22: Parents of world-class athletes reveal secrets to raising a superstar
• June 23: Teenager Kaylin Whitney hailed as America's next great sprinter
• June 30: Linebacker has 11 scholarship offers before starting high school
• July 2: DeAndre Ayton's long road from Bahamas project to basketball's No. 1 prospect
• July 7: Taylor Harry Fritz may be the rising star American men's tennis has lacked
• July 30: Fifteen-year-old swimmer Reece Whitley is chasing a spot on Olympic team
• August 26: Hagen Danner's rise from Little League World Series hero to top prospect
Four summers ago, Danner became a celebrity in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., when he led his Ocean View team to a Little League World Series title. He delivered a 14-strikeout masterpiece to send his team to Williamsport, Pa., threw 8 1/3 scoreless innings in two Little League World Series starts and collected 11 hits in six games, the last of which was a game-tying home run against Japan in the championship game.
"All those kids from that team are still my friends, still my best friends in fact," Danner said. "We still look back on it all the time. We'll all watch the Little League World Series together every year and we'll bring up when such-and-such hit a home run. I think it's still my favorite baseball memory."
Starring in Williamsport often turns out to be the apex of a Little League World Series hero's baseball career, but Danner has an excellent chance to someday ascend much further in the sport.
The hard-throwing 16-year-old right-hander has commanded the attention of college coaches and major league scouts thanks to a fastball that tops out in the low-to-mid 90s, a curve ball with a natural 12-to-6 break and a rapidly improving changeup. Should he encounter arm trouble or fail to develop as expected as a pitcher, he could also have a future behind the plate as a power-hitting catcher.
Danner is one of the youngest members of the USA Baseball team that will compete the next two weeks at the U-18 World Cup in Nishinomiya, Japan. He began receiving college scholarship offers the summer after eighth grade and he committed to UCLA as a high school freshman, not that it's a certainty he'll ever set foot on campus.
Multiple evaluators told Yahoo Sports that Danner is among the premier pitching prospects in the 2017 high school class and could emerge as the best of all of them. At the same time, they warned that the vulnerability of young arms makes predicting future outcomes inherently risky, and that Danner will have to stay healthy in order to fulfill that promise.
"It's hard not to think about the draft, but we have another year and a half before we have to start worrying about that," dad Scott Danner said. "I want Hagen to know that our near-term target for him is UCLA. That way I keep him focused on his education and getting good grades. Obviously if he's fortunate enough to be drafted early we'll have that decision to make. But I'm not going to worry myself about it right now."
If the younger Danner someday takes the mound in a big-league game, he'd be in exclusive company among ex-Little League World Series players.
Of the close to 10,000 kids who have appeared in a Little League World Series game since the event's inception in 1947, only 45 have ever reached the big leagues. Ten have appeared in a big-league game this season, including St. Louis Cardinals rookie-of-the-year candidate Randal Grichuk and power-hitting Cincinnati Reds corner infielder Todd Frazier.
Many of the most remarkable players in Little League World Series history accomplished little in the sport thereafter, either because their passion for baseball waned or because their peers caught up with or surpassed them physically.
Cody Webster, who threw a two-hit shutout in 1982 to end Taiwan's streak of five straight championships, grew disillusioned with baseball in high school and gave up the sport after his freshman year at Eastern Washington. Ross Haggard, who threw a no-hitter and two shutouts in leading Bellaire, Texas, to the 2000 U.S. title, quit baseball in high school and now works in the finance industry. Aaron Alvey, who struck out 44 batters in 22 innings in 2002 and drove in the only run of the title game, lost interest in the sport in high school as well.
There are a handful of reasons why Danner appears poised to achieve far more in baseball than some of his predecessors. He didn't max out physically at age 12, he continued to work hard and challenged himself against elite competition and, above all else, he is supremely talented.
The son of a father and grandfather who were both standout basketball players, Danner inherited his coordination and muscular 6-foot-2 frame from them.
By third grade, he was already throwing 10-15 miles per hour faster than his peers and gunning runners down at home plate on the fly from the outfield. The following year, he blasted so many home runs that games on adjacent Little League fields paused when he came to the plate and parents learned to park their cars a safe distance behind the outfield fence.
"Hagen has always been a special athlete, even at 8 years old," said Paul Weldon, Danner's first travel ball coach with the SoCal Rebels. "The two things scouts are looking for most when you're talking about the draft are a power arm and a power bat. You're talking about a kid who has always had both those."
Benji Medure, the baseball coach at Huntington Beach High School, remembers when he first heard tales of Danner's exploits on the mound and in the batter's box. Former big-league utility man Rich Amaral couldn't stop raving about Danner after stumbling across him at a Little League game.
"He told me, 'There is a kid who may be coming to your school eventually that I would give a college scholarship to right now in the fourth grade,'" Medure said. "I was skeptical, but Rich and I did camps together and I watched Hagen in one of them. I was blown away by how good he was."
The Little League World Series provided validation for Amaral's evaluation. In one memorable game against local favorite Pennsylvania, Danner homered and struck out 12 in front of a crowd of 31,000, all but 500 of whom were rooting against him.
Excelling on national TV and in front of crowds of that size steeled Danner for future big games and catapulted him to prominence in baseball circles. Ever since, he has been forced to get used to signing autographs or posing for pictures after games.
"He's a celebrity wherever he goes," Medure said. "We went to a national tournament in North Carolina last season, and opposing players were running over to our field to watch him pitch. There were kids a year or two older than him who wanted to hang out with him after the game and get his autograph."
Some complacency would be understandable from a kid who appeared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" at age 12 and began receiving college scholarships before he began high school, but Danner has thus far managed to avoid that pitfall.
Despite growing up minutes from one of the most scenic beaches in all of Southern California, Danner carves out time almost every day to go to the baseball field and do his throwing routine or take some swings. He also attends three or four 90-minute sessions per week with athletic trainer Brett Johnson to strengthen his core, increase his explosiveness and maintain the mobility and flexibility in his shoulder.
Between high school baseball, travel ball, the Area Code Games and his USA Baseball commitments, the biggest concern for those around Danner is more that he's putting too much strain on his arm than that he isn't working hard enough.
"He and his dad know that he has an opportunity to play at the next level, whether that's at UCLA or in the pros, so we want to make sure we get him through these next two years healthy," Johnson said. "These kids now are playing ball year-round. We know he has the tools for everything. We just want to be careful we're not overdoing it."
So far, whatever Danner is doing appears to be working.
He struck out 65 batters in 61 innings as a sophomore and finished with an ERA of 1.26, helping lead his talent-laden Huntington Beach High team to a section championship. He also emerged from a pool of 108 elite high school players to make the 20-man USA Baseball U-18 roster this summer.
What those close to Danner are most proud of, however, is how he has remained humble and grounded.
When tightness in his arm sidelined Danner for the section semifinal last spring, he didn't sulk or feel sorry for himself. Instead he took the time to send a series of confidence-boosting text messages to the team's No. 4 starter, who was taking his place on the mound.
The next day, junior Mitchell Kovary threw a complete-game three-hit shutout to lead his team to a 4-0 victory.
"That was my favorite game of the year by far," Medure said. "It really made me feel good that Hagen would do that. We're talking about a future millionaire who has already enjoyed a ton of success, and all he really cared about was our team winning."
- - - - - - -
Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!