Senior Spring: pitcher Michael Danielak ’16 looks to keep fanning hitters in the major leagues
Dominant. The one word that pops into every baseball fanatic’s mind upon hearing names like Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera. Had you seen Michael Danielak ’16 pitch for Dartmouth this past season, you would describe him with the same word.
Danielak’s fifth year began flawlessly when he tossed five scoreless innings of two-hit ball in a 13-1 win over St. Bonaventure University in Port Charlotte, Florida. Seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over then-No. 17 University of Miami were key to helping the Big Green take two of three games over the powerhouse Hurricanes. After another standout showing, this time in a win over then-No. 26 University of Central Florida, Danielak brought his four-pitch arsenal to Ivy League play.
Despite making hitters look foolish all season, Danielak’s journey was never as easy as he made it look.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago and playing on youth teams coached by his father, Danielak fell in love with baseball. With the goal of receiving a top education and playing the highest level of collegiate baseball, along with persistent prodding by then-Dartmouth assistant coach Nicholas Enriquez, Danielak came to Hanover with the intent to make Dartmouth his pit stop on the way to the pros.
“I loved the game growing up and knew that I might have the potential to play at the next level,” Danielak said. “I wanted to have a great academic experience and felt like if I was good enough, scouts would find me anywhere. Dartmouth had a small campus where the baseball and workout facilities were very close to each other, which meant the optimal opportunity to grow as a baseball player as well as a student.”
While highly touted upon his arrival in Hanover, Danielak knew that he had to grow as a player in order to fulfill his aspiration of playing in the big leagues.
“I did not come in throwing 90-plus, and I knew that I needed to increase my velocity in order to get to the next level,” Danielak said. “[Baseball head coach Bob] Whalen was very influential in my development, but my body also needed time to mature. I spent a lot of time not just in the weight room but also working on my mechanics and learning how to be in sync with my body and getting more efficient.”
The payoff was immediate, as Danielak’s fastball speed increased five mph in just a single month in February before the season began. But patellar tendinitis — typically an injury that afflicts basketball players — flared up during his freshman fall and dogged him throughout the next few years. Though Danielak made meaningful contributions to the team as the set-up man during his freshman year, the tendinitis continued to limit his productivity as he made the transition into a full-time starter.
“It was just a nagging injury,” Danielak said. “I pitched fine freshman year, but it really caught up to me sophomore year.”
The tendinitis kept Danielak’s velocity down and caused consistent discomfort. He elected to have surgery that summer, but by the fall, the pain had not improved. Danielak had another surgery and wound up a medical redshirt during his third year in Hanover.
Still without a season during which he was fully healthy, Danielak was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 28th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft. Though intrigued by the Pirates’ offer, Danielak decided to return to Dartmouth a fifth year to get stronger and play a complete college season.
“I just did not think the timing was right,” Danielak said. “Jumping right to the pros would have also been very risky. I knew that I was not yet at the top of my game and if you do not produce in the pros, that’s it.”
Healthy at last, Danielak saved his best for his final season. Named Collegiate Baseball’s Preseason Ivy League Player to Watch, he had a chance to be a full-time starter for the first time in his college career.
“I had been a starter my whole life, and that was my aspiration in college,” Danielak said. “It was actually a big transition to start in the bullpen when I got to college because the situations you face are just different — often you just need time to find your rhythm and your stuff for that game, which you cannot afford coming out of the bullpen.”
A two-run, complete-game performance at Columbia University in Dartmouth’s first Ivy League game of the season showed that Danielak’s hot start against Miami and UCF wasn’t about to fizzle out. In nine starts, Danielak went 7-2 with a 2.64 ERA, which placed him fourth among pitchers in the Ivy League this past season. He also fanned hitters 55 times, good for third in the Ivy League, over the course of 58 innings.
After putting together an impressive and pain-free season, Danielak will likely be selected again by a big league team in this year’s draft — perhaps in a higher round.
“Teams know that I have been drafted already, which should help a lot,” Danielak said. “The goal is ultimately to have a career as a professional baseball player. A few teams have expressed interest already, but you never know how things will turn out.”
Danielak’s likely shot at the pros brings to mind the name of another former Dartmouth pitcher: Chicago Cubs World Series game 7 starter Kyle Hendricks ’12.
“He’s a great guy,” said Danielak of Hendricks, a fellow change-up thrower. “He’s gotten me tickets to some Cubs games when he pitches. I spoke with him more before he made it to the big leagues, but I hope to speak with him again, particularly about his change-up grip.”
With this year’s MLB Draft approaching in June, Danielak will be soaking up his senior spring in order to enjoy his final moments on campus. An athlete with professional aspirations, however, cannot afford to take days off. Danielak still throws and trains daily as he embarks on his dream of playing in the big leagues.
Given his track record, he will keep working until he gets there.