Draft snub shaped Lloyd’s senior season

The phone didn’t ring. There weren’t any welcoming texts or notifications from big league teams, either.

By the end of the afternoon on June 6, 2018, the final day of the MLB Amateur Draft, Matt Lloyd’s hope of landing a professional contract went unanswered.

After hitting .275 with nine home runs, pitching to a 1.54 ERA as Indiana’s closer and earning All-American honors from a pair of publications as a junior, Lloyd believed that his would be one of the 1,214 names called during the three-day, 40-round draft.

But by the end of the process, Lloyd was confronted with a difficult truth. Professional baseball power brokers just weren’t that interested.

“That definitely hurt,” Lloyd said. “It felt like I got kicked in the nuts, or punched in the stomach.”

It was a setback, to be sure. All spring, Lloyd’s bat and his reliable right arm were key components to IU’s run to a second straight NCAA Tournament Regional appearance. But there seemed to be a ceiling that Lloyd was struggling to break through, and when the draft ended without the result he was looking for, Lloyd knew what he needed.

A break.

So he stepped away from the game, took the summer off and tried to recalibrate. Often times in baseball, the most important attribute is a clear mind, and the Hoosiers’ do-it-all utility man found his peace in the calm of the off-season.

That decision seemed to work. By the start of IU’s fall ball session, Lloyd looked — and felt — like a new man.

Rejuvenated by the downtime and driven by the draft snub, Lloyd has strived to use his senior season to his advantage. As he enters his final regular season series as a Hoosier this weekend, Lloyd is focusing on closing his college career on a high note and earning the professional opportunity that eluded him a year ago.

Through 51 games at the plate, Lloyd has already established career highs in homers (15), RBIs (52), slugging percentage (.595), walks (31), runs (42) and on-base percentage (.393). With a .292 batting average entering this weekend’s series against Rutgers at Bart Kaufman Field, Lloyd is also within range of topping the career-best .301 mark he posted in 2017.

On the mound, Lloyd also continues to give the Hoosiers a shutdown option at the back end of their bullpen, working to a 1.80 ERA in 13 appearances.

Taken in full, Lloyd’s production this season comes as expected. Since joining the program out of Iowa Western Community College three seasons ago, the Alberta native has operated as one of Indiana’s most impactful players.

But simply returning to that level this spring required Lloyd to do something he’s never done before.

He had to get away.

“This (past) summer I didn’t play any baseball,” Lloyd said. “I was just getting in the weight room and getting away from the game a little bit. I think that was huge. It gave myself a chance to look at myself in the mirror and figure out what I need to do. When I got to the fall, I got back here just so hungry to work on my game and put the work in to get better and work on the things that I needed to work on.”

Last summer’s period of self-reflection provided Lloyd with a lengthy to-do list. After taking an honest assessment of himself as a ballplayer, Lloyd came to terms with the reasons why he went undrafted.

Sure, Lloyd can play nearly every position on the diamond, but he also knew he could make significant improvements at each one.

Lloyd flashed a power stroke during each of his first two seasons at IU, but he also felt there was some untapped potential that was going to waste.

Strikeouts, too, were a personal concern, and Lloyd wanted to work on having more productive at-bats.

So by the time Lloyd returned to campus for the fall semester, he had his list of goals and knew how to attack them.

“When we got in, Matt was probably the most open-minded and driven player that we had in the program,” first-year IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “He improved so dramatically, so quickly because of his mindset and how badly he wanted to improve. Honestly, he’s one of the fastest learners I’ve ever coached. He’s truly one of the most coachable players that I’ve ever coached. He does what you ask him to do directly. He applies it and he’s going to do it until he masters that task.”

With the help of Mercer’s staff, Lloyd has focused on maximizing his movements in the batter’s box. Pitching coach Justin Parker has helped him shorten his arm and use more from his legs as he strides. In the field, Lloyd has been taking balls both in the infield and the outfield to extend his versatility and enhance his draft profile.

For as much as Lloyd knew he needed to grow as a player, his development wasn’t limited to the field. Lloyd’s greatest breakthrough came away from the stadium, where he committed to a healthier lifestyle.

“That was the biggest adjustment,” Lloyd said.

All of those areas have formed together to make Lloyd the player he is today — a likely All-Big Ten First Team selection on the path toward professional baseball. As important as anything, Lloyd’s personal development has given Mercer a player to use as an example for younger players still finding their way.

As impactful as Lloyd was last season, there was still more improvements he could make. Lloyd has attacked each one and, gradually, he’s getting himself where he wants to be.

“He gives us the ability to point to somebody and say, ‘This is how it’s done,’ which is invaluable,” Mercer said. “You can’t put a price tag on the coaching points and the teaching points when you can look at a guy and say, ‘Work like he works, learn and adjust how he learns and adjusts and move the program in that direction.’ What he’s done this year, this program and this staff will never be able to repay him. We’ll always be indebted to him for what he’s done to help shape and mold the rest of the club in his image.”

And as Lloyd has come to accept, coming back to Indiana for his senior year wasn’t the worst thing, after all.

The snub hurt, but it also shaped him into the player he is today.

“I think it’ll end up being a good thing for me to be here for my last year with Mercer,” Lloyd said. “It’s just an unbelievable staff that came in. I think it’s really going to be a good thing that I didn’t get drafted.”