It Takes a Village to Raise a JJ Wetherholt

Jeffrey Camarati-USA TODAY Sports

JJ Wetherholt is in an unusual position. A third-year finance student at West Virginia University with an interest in math who once considered going to law school, Wetherholt is leaving college early, and says his parents couldn’t be more proud.

As prestigious and lucrative as a career in law or finance can be, neither holds a candle to professional baseball, and Wetherholt is one of the leading candidates for the top pick in this year’s draft.

In addition to academic All-Big 12 and All-American honors, Wetherholt hit .373/.471/.632 with 29 homers, 56 stolen bases, and more walks than strikeouts in 143 career college games. A compact, sinewy 5-foot-10, 190-pound second baseman with great bat speed from an open, left-handed stance, he’s a lock to become WVU’s highest draft pick ever. (The record is currently 11th overall, shared by Alek Manoah in 2019 and right-hander Chris Enochs in 1997.)

When he’s on, Wetherholt’s smooth swing allows him to hit the ball hard both to the pull side and the opposite field. He’s got good plate discipline and quick hands; his leg kick makes it look like he’s going to put his front foot down too early, but he always seems to make a smooth weight transfer.

Wetherholt says he learned a great deal from his hitting coaches and his older brother, but: “My greatest swing inspiration that I had growing up was Robinson Canó. He was my favorite player.”

Canó played 17 years in the big leagues, made eight All-Star teams, and hit 335 home runs. If he hadn’t taken two lengthy PED suspensions (and suffered the commensurate reputational penalty in addition to missing more than 200 games), Canó would’ve made a run at 3,000 hits and had a solid Hall of Fame case. So I want to make it clear off the proverbial bat that I’m not making that comparison to any amateur player.

But a bat-first left-handed second baseman with plus hit, plus plate discipline, and average or better power is not an unreasonable expectation for Wetherholt. Like Canó, Wetherholt leaves something to be desired defensively at second, though the West Virginia star is faster now than Canó ever was. He’s adamant that he can play shortstop, and it’s a good bet that whoever picks him will at least give him a chance to fail there. You can say whatever you want from the draft podium, but Wetherholt is more a shortstop than Spencer Torkelson was a third baseman when the Tigers announced him as such in the 2020 draft.

In a draft class like last year’s, positional concerns like that might have relegated Wetherholt to the back half of the top 10, but in the absence of a Paul Skenes or Dylan Crews at the top of this year’s board, the 2024 class is a little more open. Wetherholt is one of at least five college players with a non-zero chance of going first overall.

Wetherholt had the opportunity to cement himself as the best player in this class — he was no. 1 on The Board heading into this season — but he’s had an eventful 2024: A hamstring injury suffered the first week of the year cost him 24 games, or 40% of the Mountaineers’ season. And once he returned, he didn’t exhibit quite the same pull power he showed when he hit .449/.517/.787 as a sophomore.

Nevertheless, the ‘Eers not only made the NCAA tournament but won the Tucson Regional as the no. 3 seed before falling in the Super Regional to North Carolina, which also brought an end to the 12-year tenure of retiring head coach Randy Mazey.

“After the last game was over, that’s a night you don’t really sleep,” Wetherholt says. “So, yeah. It was… it was tough. Dang, college ball’s done. No more playing with my teammates, Skip, all the coaches there for sure. It’s tough, but it’s a part of life… I would’ve loved to go to Omaha. That would’ve been amazing, but sometimes it’s not written in your plan, so you’ve just got to flow with it.”

So instead of going to Omaha, Wetherholt went to Phoenix for a week of team interviews — though not as many as you’d think, he says — and media commitments as he prepares for the next step in his career.

Wetherholt’s journey starts in Mars, Pennsylvania, a tiny suburb of Pittsburgh that unexpectedly became a bit of a baseball hotbed. Wetherholt played travel ball with Drake LaRoche and 2023 no. 6 overall pick Jacob Wilson when the latter two’s fathers played for the Pirates, and his high school coach, Andy Bednar, is the father of Pirates closer David Bednar and 2021 first-rounder Will Bednar. (That high school team: the Mars Area High School Figthin’ Planets. I checked; it’s a coed institution, and not an all-boys’ campus with a sister school called Venus Area High School.)

It’s there that Wetherholt got his nickname; his full name is Jonathan David but a youth coach started calling him JJ, after the children’s cartoon character Jay-Jay the Jet Plane, and the moniker stuck. He also learned how to hit left-handed from his brother, Brandon, who played Division II baseball at Gannon University.

“I learned so much from him: how to be a kid, how to be a man, how to play ball, how to work,” Wetherholt says. “So, yeah, I modeled a ton of my game after him. And just being around him all the time, I wanted to play like an older kid.”

Speaking from personal experience, I also taught my much more talented younger brother how to play baseball and remember vividly the moment when he was able to beat me consistently. I asked Wetherholt when that moment came for him and Brandon, and his admiration continued to shine through in his answer.

“I think it was last year,” Wetherholt says. “Freshman year I was pretty good, but he was hitting .330 with double-digit homers in D-II ball. Last year, he and I both had big years, but that was where he gave me the crown. He was like, ‘Dang, bro, how are you doing this?’”

Talking to Wetherholt, it’s clear he understands that producing a big league ballplayer is a collaborative effort. Not only does the player himself have to have the talent and drive, he has to be surrounded by people who put him in a position to succeed, which is what Wetherholt had in his little baseball hotbed outside of Pittsburgh. He says he played with the same group of kids in travel ball from age 10 to 18, and by the end of that time, the team had become like a family.

“People cared. They really cared about me as a player and my development, and they cared about the team, the area just making kids better,” he says. “And that was a cool scene. You had parents that were working 9-to-5, some would take time out of their day not only to work with their own kids, but work with me and the other kids, take time to make sure the youth programs are running well and that we have resources to train and become better players… They wanted to set us up to play college ball. That was sweet, and I’m super, super lucky to have that.”

That includes Wetherholt’s own parents. He says they, “made a good living, but some of the money that they spent on me to play ball, they would have liked to have been able to keep.”

He says it’s only since he got to college that he’s come to realize how much his parents’ support has helped him.

“You always want your parents to do more for you. Give me this, give me that, why aren’t you here, blah, blah, blah,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older and my responsibilities have gone up, and I see how busy people are and how blessed I am for them to be in my life, that’s when I realized, like, dang, they really put up with so much… I always apologize for being a little rugrat growing up and putting my parents through a lot. But that’s part of being a kid — you’re learning and you don’t know you’re doing dumb stuff.”

I asked Wetherholt how his parents are while watching him play, having invested so much in his baseball education. And while he stresses that they’re incredibly proud of him, it seems like there are probably moments when they wish he’d gone to law school after all.

“My mom freaks out,” he says. “And my dad does too, a little bit. He doesn’t really understand the game completely. He played college football, and every game of football you’re getting the chance to show that you’re the alpha athlete. But in baseball, you could be the best player on the field, and you could just have a bad day and go 0-for-4 with three Ks, whatever… But my mom, she gets like a nervous wreck. When I get two strikes on me, she closes her eyes. She just wants me to do good.”

Having gotten that support growing up, Wetherholt seems to find community wherever he goes.

It was interesting to hear Griffin Burkholder, a speedy high school outfield prospect from Northern Virginia, talk about Wetherholt. Burkholder is a potential Day Two draft pick who’s committed to WVU, where — if he doesn’t go pro this year — he’ll be Wetherholt’s heir presumptive as the Mountaineers’ next star.

The combine isn’t the glitzy high-profile event that MLB might perhaps want it to be, but it’s still the biggest collection of amateur baseball talent in the country this time of year, with the possible exception of the College World Series. Every team sent front office representatives, and several notable ex-big leaguers — Nick Swisher, Nelson Cruz, Harold Reynolds — were in attendance to take part in TV coverage. So I asked the 18-year-old Burkholder who he’d been most excited to see, and he said Wetherholt.

“I’ve met him before, when I was committing to West Virginia. We also share an adviser, so that’s how we met,” Burkholder says. “We worked out together once in Philly, and I got to hang out with him a little bit back at the hotel here in between interviews. I got to pick his brain a little bit about the whole process he’s going through, and just his, obviously, his great last couple years at West Virginia.”

The outgoing Mountaineers star is in an unusually fortuitous position. He’s a contender for the no. 1 pick in the draft in a year in which his father’s favorite team — the Cleveland Guardians — are picking first.

What happens if that falls through? I joked. Would his dad pin up a photo of Charlie Condon on the dartboard in the garage? Wetherholt was quick to say no, because he’d come to like and respect Condon so much when the two played together on the collegiate national team last summer. He rattled off a list of half a dozen names, many of them top prospects in this year’s draft, who he was happy to reconnect with as they head toward draft day.

“You could say it’s competition, but God, I’m rooting for those kids just as much as I’m rooting for me,” he says. “They’re such good people, and we had such a great experience playing together that I couldn’t sit here and be like, ‘Don’t take them, take me.’”

In about three weeks, the wait will be over and the mystery settled: Wetherholt will know where he’s going. In the meantime, there are more meetings, more training, and an opportunity to take a breath before setting off on what he hopes is a lengthy professional career.

I ask every prospect what they’re planning to splurge on once they get their signing bonus. (As an aside, Burkholder gave my favorite answer of the week: The driver’s side air conditioning on his 15-year-old pickup truck has stopped working, so if he goes pro, part of his signing bonus is earmarked for getting that fixed.)

“Maybe a new putter. I need a new putter,” Wetherholt says. “Might take a golf trip or something… I’m pretty boring. I don’t live a crazy life. It’s like fishing, golf, baseball, some video games.”

He should enjoy that boring life while he can. If he gets his wish and has his name called first on July 14, Wetherholt’s life is going to get very interesting. Still, it’s what he — along with his family and friends — has worked for years to achieve. And it beats cramming for the LSAT.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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russellbomember
1 month ago

This was a really good article! It’s cool seeing a player talking about just how many people supported them in their career