THE GREAT MINOR LEAGUE HOME RUN RACE

By Josh Norris
On July 29 last year, Astros outfield prospect George Springer had 29 home runs, which led the minor leagues.

His total was tied with Ryan Rua, a Rangers infielder, and one better than Mauro Gomez, a minor league vet.

Springer was homering once every 12.9 at-bats. All of this is to say he was having a pretty fine year.

If those were his numbers this year, however, he’d be an afterthought.

More stunningly, his longball total not only wouldn’t lead the minors, it wouldn’t be second, third or fourth, either. Instead, Springer would be sitting behind four players, prospects all, who each have 30 or more home runs with about five weeks to go in the minor league season.

Those four men—Joey Gallo, Kris Bryant, Matt Olson and Peter O’Brien—have each swatted 30 or more this season.
Homerunrace
MINOR LEAGUE HOME RUN RACE
Player Home Runs
Joey Gallo 37
Kris Bryant 36
Matt Olson 32
Peter O'Brien 31
Through Aug. 3, Gallo was on top of the leaderboard with 37 homers, Bryant was second with 36, Olson had 32 and O’Brien, just traded from the Yankees organization to Arizona, had 31.

For Bryant, O’Brien and Olson, the totals had eclipsed or nearly eclipsed their career totals. Gallo’s mark hadn’t even set a season-high.

With that in mind, we’ll take a look at the competitors in what we’ve dubbed the Great Minor League Home Run Race, starting with the leader.
Joey Gallo (Photo by Bill Nichols).

Joey Gallo (Photo by Bill Nichols).

JOEY GALLO, RANGERS

Although he’s toned them down this year to better develop his feel to hit, his batting practices have been the stuff of legend.

Just as is the case in games, Gallo would use his BP sessions to launch balls to previously unreachable recesses of ballparks, dropping the jaws of teammates and opponents along the way.

And while the tamed version is more useful for his future, he let it all hang out again at this year’s Futures Game, putting on a display that rivaled anything else that afternoon. Ball after ball left the yard, including one that cracked the windshield of a pickup truck on the concourse in right field.
The truck the could not evade Joey Gallo's blasts.

This truck the could not evade Joey Gallo's blasts at the Futures Game.



One of the best seats in the house (although he had to stand) belonged to Alex Meyer, one of the Twins’ top pitching prospects, who pitched in the game and shagged balls in the outfield while Gallo and the rest of the U.S. team took their hacks.

It was his first look at Gallo, and the experience lived up to the advance billing.

“When people ask me what the most impressive thing was that weekend, that’s what I say. I’ve seen (Miguel) Sano hit and I’ve seen (Kennys) Vargas hit, but what Joey Gallo has done, I’ve never seen anything like that before.

“He was hitting balls out of the stadium like it was nothing. And that’s not to take a shot at Sano or anybody at that game, I didn’t think it was close. That’s plus-plus power that I don’t think you can really find at the big league level. To watch it, it was incredible.”

He swept the voting for Best Power in our annual Best Tools survey in both the Carolina and Texas Leagues. That’s fitting, because even though he’s been out of the Carolina league for nearly two months, he still had a five-homer cushion over Courtney Hawkins and Oscar Tejeda.

Gallo’s 37 home runs are the most in the minors at this point in a season since 2008, when Dallas McPherson had 38 with Triple-A Albuquerque in the Dodgers system.

Want even more feats of Gallo? He won’t turn 21 until November, and he’s just two home runs away from 100 for his career. As of Aug. 3, His 99 longballs amount to 23.9 percent of International League career leader Mike Hessman, who has gone deep 410 times.

Like any masher of his ilk, there are plenty of tales of awe that have followed Gallo and his prodigious blasts throughout his brief but storied career.

Mike Recchia, a righthander in the White Sox system who spent the first part of the season with Winston-Salem (Carolina), tabs one Gallo blast against the Dash as the longest he’s seen.

“We were in Winston-Salem and my buddy (Braulio) Ortiz was pitching,” Recchia recalled. “I don’t really know if Gallo got all of it. I was sitting in the dugout, but I don’t think Gallo got all of it, but he hit the top left of the scoreboard, the top sign. It was unbelievable. Oh my goodness, that was just an absolute mammoth shot.”

Chances to win: He’s never gone more than nine games without a homer in his pro career, so he remains the odds-on favorite to come away the winner once the season ends.
Kris Bryant (Photo by Tony Farlow)

Kris Bryant (Photo by Tony Farlow)

KRIS BRYANT, CUBS

Sitting one homer behind Gallo is Bryant, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft out of San Diego.

Somehow, despite putting up arguably the best all-around season in the minors and playing in one of the most high-profile farm systems, Bryant’s tremendous run hasn’t come with as much fanfare.

Perhaps it’s because his batting practice sessions aren’t as spectacular and his home runs aren’t as majestic as Gallo’s, but they are nearly as plentiful.

Since Bryant’s debut on July 21 last season, he’s hit 45 longballs—six fewer than Gallo has in that span. And just like Gallo, Bryant has played in 14 stadiums this year, and homered in 11 of them.

Even so, he’s the better prospect of the two, and he’s earned more than his fair share of plaudits from teammates and competition.

“I’ve seen him hit everything,” said righthander Corey Black, a teammate of Bryant’s for the first half of the year with Double-A Tennessee. “It’s hard to really have a game plan against a guy like that, that you’ve seen hit so many home runs on so many different types of pitches and different types of locations. It’s hard to throw to guys like that.”

Rivals, too, are enamored with Bryant’s offensive abilities.

“His hands are so quick,” Arkansas lefthander Kramer Sneed (Angels) said. “He’s never out of a count or anything. I don’t think he ever gets beat on pitches. He just seems to have really good hands and some really good pop in the bat too.”

Unlike Gallo, there are few questions about Bryant’s athletic ability and being able to stick at the hot corner. Opposing scouts cite his athleticism, skillful hands and powerful arm.

His bat, of course, would still profile in a corner outfield spot, and Justin Ruggiano and Chris Coghlan, the team’s current right and left fielders, are anything but cornerstone players.

Chances to win: He’s held the lead in the race on two occasions, only to be passed by Gallo a few days later. If he timed a hot streak with a Gallo slump late in the season, he could pull it off.
Matt Olson (Photo by Bill Mitchell).

Matt Olson (Photo by Bill Mitchell).

MATT OLSON, ATHLETICS

Perhaps the most surprising contender of them all, Olson entered his professional career with more of a reputation as a pure hitter than a power guy.

This year, it’s been the opposite. He’s become more of a three-true-outcomes player, a la Adam Dunn.

To wit, he was leading the Cal League in homers and walks, and was tied for sixth in strikeouts with 113, as of Aug. 3.

Beyond the power, the A’s have fallen for Olson’s positive attitude and dedication to improvement.

“Matt Olson is a naturally strong baseball rat that is constantly seeking ways to improve,” player personnel director Billy Owens said. “His exuberant enthusiasm and positive attitude are impressive. Plus, his 53 homers thus far in his first two full seasons are eye-opening, even though I’m more impressed by his tireless work ethic and thirst for knowledge in developing his overall skill set. He’s an outstanding defender with underrated athleticism. He reminds (me) of ex-Twins player Kent Hrbek for an all-around comparison.”

To put what he’s done in perspective, the Cal League is considered the biggest hitter’s paradise of them all. With that in mind, Zach Borenstein’s 28 homers there paced the circuit in 2013. Olson has 31 this year and has played in one fewer game than Borenstein in 2013.

Chances to Win: With three monsters ahead of him, the odds aren’t good, and a promotion to Double-A, given the probable adjustment time, would hurt his chances. Still, nothing’s out of the realm of possibility on a windy week in California.
Peter O'Brien

Peter O'Brien (Photo by Cliff Welch)

PETER O'BRIEN, DIAMONDBACKS (PREVIOUSLY YANKEES)

O’Brien’s power has been a known commodity since his college days at Miami and Bethune-Cookman and his time with Team USA. This year, however, he’s gone above and beyond reasonable expectations.He hit two of the 10 (455 and 429 feet) longest home runs in last year’s Arizona Fall League, then kept on bashing once he got back to high Class A Tampa in the typically pitcher-friendly Florida State League.

With O’Brien around, it was anything but.

He swatted 10 homers in 30 games with a .321/.353/.688 line before being bumped to Double-A Trenton.

“He’s got a clean swing,” one AL scout said. “He’s got legitimate power. It’s a good swing, too . . . He’ll put on a pretty good show in BP, too, just with the raw power. He can hit them a long way. It’s every bit of 70 (on the 20-80 scale). I don’t know if there’s many guys with 80, but it’s a surefire 70. Whatever it is, number or not, it’s pretty damn good.”

The big-time power has shown up again in Trenton. Before his trade to Arizona on July 31, his 21 homers were tied with Michael Taylor for second in the league behind Tigers prospect Steven Moya, and his strikeout rate has seen a jump of just more than 2 percent.

His signature blast at Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park came on May 20, when a shot he hit against Harrisburg cleared the center-field wall and the 32-foot batter’s eye just beyond it. Yankees special instructor Reggie Jackson—who knows a thing or two about long home runs—was in the house that night, and called the homer the hardest ball he’s seen hit in the minor leagues.

The Yankees shifted O’Brien around the diamond, trying him at right field, third base and first base in addition to his natural spot behind the plate. No matter his spot in the field, his tremendous power is going to be his ticket to the top.

“He’s strong. He’s a big, strong kid and he has a really nice, short swing path to the baseball. He tries not to do too much—that’s one thing I really like about him—he’s not up there trying to hit home runs,” Trenton hitting coach Marcus Thames said. “If you watch him take BP, he doesn’t hit that many balls out in BP. He knows his swing. He tries to stay short to the baseball and then once the game starts it just plays. He has the power that plays.”

Chances To Win: If O’Brien becomes more selective—he had just 20 walks to 106 strikeouts on the season—he could tap into even more of his power potential and catch Bryant and Gallo.
Joey Gallo and Kris Bryant (Bill Nichols).

Joey Gallo and Kris Bryant (Bill Nichols).

 
Fans at the Futures Game saw Gallo, Bryant and O’Brien put ball after ball out of all sectors at Minnesota’s Target Field.

Much like that afternoon, the real winners of The Great Minor League Home Run Race are the fans who get to follow along all summer.
SINGLE-SEASON HR CHAMPS
This year’s home run race could see one of the highest home run totals in years. Joey Gallo’s 40 home runs last year were the most since Dallas McPherson’s 42 in 2008. Ryan Howard’s 46 home runs in 2004 is also potentially in reach, although it will be hard to see anyone reaching 50 home runs for the first time since Ron Kittle hit 50 in 1982.
Year Name Leader
2013 Joey Gallo 40
2012 Darin Ruf 38
2011 Bryan LaHair 38
2010 Mike Moutakas/Mark Trumbo 36
2009 Jon Gaston/Mitch Jones 35
2008 Dallas McPherson 42
2007 Craig Brazell 39
2006 Kevin Witt 36
2005 Kevin Witt 36
2004 Ryan Howard 46
2003 Graham Koonce 34
2002 Ivan Cruz 35
2001 Phil Hiatt 44
2000 Alex Cabrera 39
1999 J.R. Phillips 41
1998 Chris Hatcher 46
1997 Russ Braynan 39
1996 Phil Hiatt 42
1995 Todd Greene 40
1994 Billy Ashley 37
1993 Sam Horn 38
1992 Bubba Smith 32
1991 Jay Gainer 32
1990 Phil Plantier 33
1989 Eric Anthony 31
1988 Luis Medina 28
1987 Rondal Rollin/Mike Simms 39
1986 Brad Pounders 35
1985 Danny Tartabull 43
1984 Joe Hicks 37
1983 Stan Holmes 37
1982 Ron Kittle 50
1981 Tim Laudner 42
1980 Randy Bass 37
1979 Rick Lancellotti 41
1978 Bill Foley 34
1977 Danny Walton 42
1976 Roger Freed 42
1975 Moe Hill 31
1974 Bill McNulty 55
1973 Jim Fuller 39
1972 Jim Fuller 34
1971 Adrian Garrett 43
1970 Hal Breeden 37
1969 Earl Williams 36
1968 Tony Solaita 49
1967 Willie Kirkland 34
1966 Dave Duncan 46
1965 Dave Roberts 38
1964 Ollie Brown/Chuck Harrison 40
1963 Arlo Engel 41
Source: Baseball America Almanacs, Spink Official Baseball Guides and BaseballReference.com.