Former QB Brandon McIlwain looks to lead Cal baseball team this season

Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos

Former QB Brandon McIlwain looks to lead Cal baseball team this season

BERKELEY -- Brandon McIlwain received his first college football scholarship three days before his 15th birthday. He was named the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior and was seen as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. 

McIlwain was unlike most top prep athletes, though. He didn't shine in just one sport: He shined in two. And when we say shine, we mean it. McIlwain also was an All-American outfielder in high school and was invited to the Under Armour All-American baseball game. 

While most young star athletes turn their focus to one sport by the time they reach college recruitment, McIlwain made it known he wasn't like everyone else. 

"I really didn't have a first love," McIlwain told NBC Sports Bay Area before a recent practice at Evans Diamond. "Scholarships in football came first, but I always knew I wanted to play baseball too. It was kind of always a part of my decision making so I could come to college and let both of those sports play themselves out and see where I would want to continue on and have a career."

But McIlwain's journey took a detour from his preternatural stardom. It has brought him to two colleges and now, one fewer sport.

He began his college career in 2016 at South Carolina as a dual-sport athlete before transferring to Cal in May 2017. 

Upon joining the Cal football team, it became clear that McIlwain's future is on the diamond, not the gridiron. He played 10 games on the football field as a sophomore in 2018, where he totaled 1,166 yards of total offense, six touchdowns (two passing, four rushing) and eight interceptions. Despite missing the fall, McIlwain was named Cal's starting center fielder for the 2019 season, where he hit .258 in 62 at bats before a broken foot in April sidelined him for the rest of the season.

Though he played only 20 games last season, the Miami Marlins selected McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Soon after, he made two crucial life decisions: He was returning for his redshirt junior season on the baseball team, and he wouldn't be returning to the football program. 

From gridiron to baseball diamond

(Brandon McIlwain passed for 763 yards and rushed for another 403 in 2018. Photo via Casey Sapio/USATSI)

For the first time in his life, McIlwain was able to spend an entire fall with his baseball team before the season begins in the spring. He couldn't be happier with his decision ahead of Friday's season opener at Long Beach State.

"It's amazing that now I'm out here and playing baseball," McIlwain said. "The experience that I had with this team last year ... being back with a group that really likes to compete and have a good time, honestly, that was huge for me. This is a place I felt I was gonna get better, I was going to compete for the postseason and it's just a place I love playing."

Just because his playing days on the football field are behind him, McIlwain still is a quarterback at heart and will continue to have a QB's mindset on the baseball field. In center field, he serves as the eyes of the defense and will make his voice be heard, just like a quarterback calling the offense. 

"I like to be loud, be encouraging," McIlwain said. "Football's a little different than baseball, and you can hear a lot more in baseball. The pitcher can hear you and in football, sometimes guys all the way on the sidelines can't quite hear you. In baseball, the pitcher can hear you, the batter can hear you a little bit. 

"It's really fun to be able to hype up your guys and to bring that kind of energy in another way." 

McIlwain only has 30 games under his belt as a college baseball player, dating back to 2016. That's a big difference compared to Golden Bears teammate Darren Baker's 95 games the last two years. But coach Mike Neu sees similarities in the two players. 

"I think it’s similar to Baker in a different way," Neu said. "He’s a leader with his experience. He’s been the quarterback for the football team at Cal. He’s gotten the opportunity to play on a big stage and be in that environment, and that translates to baseball. He can come out here, he can be a leader, he’s gotten more comfortable being out here full time.

"He just brings those natural leadership skills with him from football and it’s been great to have him for a full season."

McIlwain's football skills translate to the baseball field in other ways, too. When watching Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes, you can see how his baseball background helps him make throws from unique angles. 

For McIlwain, it's all about anticipation. He believes his experience reading opposing defenses helps with guessing pitch sequences, and has taken his experiences in the QB room to studying film on his swing and pitchers as well. 

Untapped baseball potential

(The Miami Marlins selected Brandon McIlwain in the 26th round of the 2019 MLB Draft. Photo via Rob Edwards/KLC Fotos)

At 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, McIlwain has a rare combination of size and speed. With more experience, those raw skills could have him racing up prospect rankings ahead of this June's draft. 

"He just really has the tools to excel here," Neu said. "I just expect him to continue to do that this year and probably the biggest upside will come at the next level when he has a chance to play every day for the first time, and that’s why he got drafted last year, even with only playing a handful of games.

"Everyone sees that, it’s exciting."

As dual-threat quarterbacks look to prove they're more than just athletes on the football field, McIlwain is out to show he can be a star on the baseball field now that he's focused on one single sport. If he puts all of his tools together, evaluators are sure to agree this spring. 

And the Golden Bears are sure to benefit from those skills before he hears his name called again in the draft. 

"My goal is just to be consistent and really to just grow as a baseball player," McIlwain said. "I want to show that I'm not just an athlete playing baseball, that's it's something that I can really focus on and put my time in and dedicate myself to so that I can perfect my craft."

Why Gabe Kapler doesn't want Giants' Brandon Belt to change approach

Why Gabe Kapler doesn't want Giants' Brandon Belt to change approach

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Shortly after the Giants announced that Gabe Kapler would be their next manager, Brandon Belt looked down at his phone and saw a funny text from Evan Longoria. 

The veterans have a group chat in the offseason and Longoria sent Belt, Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and others a video of Belt squaring to bunt on a 3-1 count against the Phillies in 2018. In the video, Kapler smiles and says, "With a 3-1 count? You're hitting fourth for the Giants, (bleeping) swing!"


Belt enjoyed the video and said he understands where Kapler was coming from, particularly since the game was played in the launching pad that is Citizens Bank Park. He hasn't had a chance to tease Kapler about it yet, but said he will at some point this spring. When he does sit down with his new manager, Belt will find someone who may be his biggest ally in 2020. 

Kapler has made no secret of the fact that he likes Belt's approach, pointing specifically to his first baseman during an otherwise awkward introductory press conference and again at FanFest. On Thursday, Kapler sat down in front of reporters and cameras and asked if he could start with some of his own impressions before taking questions. 

"I think Brandon Belt looks really good in the batter's box," Kapler said, his eyes lighting up. "He's kind of an assassin in there in that he's not passive at all. He's very aggressive, but if a pitch doesn't look like he can drive it he's just laying off. When something hangs and he gets a good pitch to hit, he's really taking a good, healthy aggressive pass. 

"I just think we value his approach at the plate so much and I think it's going to play very well for him in spring training but ultimately in the season."

And with that, the new manager of the Giants planted his flag firmly on one side of the Belt Wars. 

The first baseman has been the most polarizing Giant of the championship era. Supporters point to his high on-base percentages, ability to wear down an opposing pitcher, numbers away from power-suppressing Oracle Park, and a glove that has had him garner Gold Glove consideration. Critics tend to grumble about slumpy shoulders and the fact that Belt, who has the physique of your classic slugging corner infielder, never has hit 20 homers in a season. 

Belt long ago gave up on trying to bring fans over to his side, but he knows there still have been detractors. Even behind closed doors there were disagreements among the staff, with some quietly complaining that the front office gave Belt a massive extension while imploring him to "get the bat head out" and pull the ball more often. 

Kapler has come in and told Belt to do what he does best. He wants him to have good plate appearances and keep the ball in the middle of the field, which is his natural swing path. More than that, he has said he wants younger Giants to follow that approach. 

Asked about Kapler, Belt paused and said he didn't want to make it seem any previous coaches had been unsupportive. But there certainly is something different about the way Kapler talks about Belt. 

"It's something that I've always believed about myself. It's just now coming from somebody else," Belt said. "To say that it doesn't really affect me at all, honestly, I think I would be lying. I think it does. I put a lot of work and effort into honing my craft, and to see the organization I play for and my teammates appreciate that, it does mean something. I don't hold any resentment towards anybody else because they didn't share that with me the whole time. It's just something I had to know about myself. 

"Whether other people liked it or not, I had to know that's what made me successful and I had to stick with it. There's a lot of baseball knowledge in this clubhouse coming from the coaches or whoever, but for me, I had to know my own limits and had to know what I did well, and that's what I knew that I did well, so I stuck with it. That's what made me a successful baseball player, and now it's just being more vocalized, I guess."

The support has come in ways that don't always have to be vocalized. Since Farhan Zaidi took over in 2018, Belt's name has come up often in trade rumors. But those aren't leaking from the Giants, and there doesn't appear to be any legitimacy to them. The Giants believe Belt should hit in the middle of the lineup for them. Their hope is that in a couple of years the entire group has the same grinding approach. 

"There have been times when he's been elite at the plate and hasn't gotten the credit that he deserves for just how productive he's been from an all-around perspective," Kapler said of Belt. 

Kapler pointed to two years in particular, 2013 and 2016. Belt had a 139 OPS+ in 2013, ranking ninth in the NL in a metric that adjusts for ballparks. Three years later, he ranked eighth at 135. Kapler noted that Belt didn't hit a bunch of homers in those seasons but still was elite per advanced metrics. 

"Power production doesn't have to come in the shape of 30 homers," he said. "It can come with extra-base hits, and then obviously his ability to reach base and grind pitches down is really what we're looking for from Brandon.

Last year, though, there was a drop-off. Belt's OPS+ dipped to 98, putting him below league average for the first time. He had a solid .339 OBP, but slugged just .403, the lowest of his career. 

Looking back on it, Belt said he never fully recovered from knee surgery in September of 2018. He was noticeably hobbled throughout the summer and there were times when the staff wondered if Belt should sit out. This spring, he said he feels the best he has since the first half of 2018, when he had a .862 OPS and was on pace for 30 homers for a while.

If Belt can be that guy again, he could be one of the rare everyday players in Kapler's platoon-heavy lineups. The Giants brought in Wilmer Flores on a two-year deal and have made no secret of the fact that he's an option at first against left-handed pitching, but Kapler said he would wait to see how Belt is swinging this spring before making any determinations. He pointed out that Belt has in the past hit lefties better than righties. 

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That versatile version of Belt is the one Kapler calls elite, and that has been communicated from manager to player. Belt said his first conversation with Kapler nearly was entirely about their families and getting to know one another, but subsequent talks have included a message that Kapler isn't shy about sharing publicly.

"He said, 'From watching you from afar, I really appreciated what you've done and how you go about your at-bats,'" Belt said. 

There was that one exception, and Belt laughed as he said he would soon bring it up with Kapler. But the manager should have a good rebuttal ready. After taking an Aaron Nola curveball for a strike on the bunt attempt, Belt swung away. He lined a single down the right-field line. 

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

Giants catchers have blast with familiar drill that includes new twist

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants have tried to make their workouts shorter and more efficient, allowing players a little extra time every day to hang out with their families or hit the golf course. But for one group, the day can still be a hell of a grind.

Nobody works harder in camp than the catchers, who report on Day 1 with pitchers and spend hours catching bullpens between their own drills. When they're done with all the heavy lifting, they get their turn to hit in the cage, using up whatever energy the early afternoon sun hasn't zapped away. 

But on Wednesday, the six catchers in Giants camp got a few minutes to laugh.

New bullpen coach Craig Albernaz led a drill that on the surface looked very familiar. Every spring, catchers work on tracking and gloving pop-ups shot into the bright sky by a pitching machine. But Albernaz mixed it up this time, putting the catchers into teams of two and making them share one glove as they chased pop-ups:

"Man, it was a blast," non-roster invitee Chad Tromp said.

Tromp, who came over from the Reds, said he had never done the drill that way before. Neither had Rob Brantly, a veteran who has been in the big leagues with three organizations since debuting in 2012. Brantly said it was a lot of fun, but pointed out that there was a method to the madness.

"It's just a fun drill that you do but you build a relationship with the other guy," he said. "You immediately start strategizing."

Brantly was paired with fellow non-roster invitee Tyler Heineman, with Tromp joining 20-year-old Ricardo Genoves and Buster Posey teaming up with Joey Bart. They had a very interested observer as the drill got more intense. Gabe Kapler walked over to watch and said he appreciated the drill because guys were competing and communicating. 

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Those are two themes of camp, and they were on full display as catchers threw a glove back and forth. Tromp and Genoves caught the most pop-ups and won the mini-competition, which was a welcomed break from monotony for the group and ramped up the intensity on a hot day in Scottsdale. 

"There's a lot of pressure," Tromp said, smiling. "You have a second guy and you have to tell them where to go and where to look. It's something we don't usually do and it puts you in a panicked situation pretty quickly."