KISSIMMEE, FLA./JUPITER, FLA.—Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton were only 18 last season. It sure didn’t seem like it, though.
No, 18-year-olds tend not to be nearly six and a half feet tall and 225 pounds, with good speed. They tend not to tear through their first full seasons in pro ball the way Stanton did from the right side of the plate and Heyward did from the left. And if they do have those attributes, they tend not to carry themselves with the soft-spoken humility that Stanton and Heyward exhibit.
The two would have plenty to brag about, if they chose to. Stanton’s 2008 performance was one of the best in recent memory for a teenager in low Class A. Among teenagers with at least 250 plate appearances at that level in the last 15 years, Stanton’s .992 OPS is tied for the highest. Adrian Beltre reached the mark with Savannah in 1996, and Ian Stewart did it with Asheville in 2004.
Stanton hit .293/.381/.611 last year for the Marlins’ Greensboro affiliate, and his 39 home runs tied for second in the minor leagues. Sure, it helps that the ball carries well at Greensboro’s home park, but Stanton’s OPS on the road (.988) nearly matched that at home (.996). And anyone who has seen Stanton hit—or heard the sound the ball makes coming off his bat, or the sound the crowd makes when it watches those balls fly—knows there aren’t many players at any level who can hit a baseball as far as he can.
“He’s got bat speed, number one,” Marlins hitting coordinator John Mallee said, “and number two, he’s got some serious leverage; and three, mechanically, he’s in sequence. He’s got so much torque that he creates and so much bat speed and leverage (that) it just equates to power.
“His bat speed, his power, his raw power was something I really had never seen for someone that age—it just stands out. He’s a great athlete and a very mature kid. At 18, when you talk to him, he’s really focused. He takes instruction well, he’s very smart and he’s able to make adjustments really quickly.”
Heyward batted .323/.388/.483 with 11 home runs last season, also in the South Atlantic League, with the Braves’ Rome affiliate. He then earned a promotion to high Class A Myrtle Beach for seven games in August, shortly after his 19th birthday, and seven more in the Carolina League playoffs.
“Even at an early age, when he put on a Braves uniform, he looked like he physically fit with the types of bodies that we see with major league players,” Braves farm director Kurt Kemp said. “And then when you looked at all the areas of his game—his natural hitting ability, his raw power, how well he throws, how well he runs for a man of his size and the work that he does as an outfielder—there was just not anything that you didn’t like about him.”
Along with the Blue Jays’ Travis Snider, Heyward and Stanton are two of the best corner outfield prospects in baseball. Heyward ranks fifth overall on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, while Stanton is No. 16. Heyward’s scouting report as an amateur beamed about five legitimate tools, with the strike-zone discipline, pitch recognition and instincts that would allow those tools to play in game action. Stanton was one of the youngest players and one of the best athletes available in the 2007 draft with plus-plus raw power.
So how did it come about that Heyward was there for the Braves with the No. 14 overall pick, while Stanton was still available for the Marlins 62 picks later?
Stanton starred in baseball, basketball and football at Notre Dame Academy in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Southern California offered him a baseball scholarship with the opportunity to walk on to the football team as a wide receiver or a defensive back, while Nevada-Las Vegas offered a full ride to play football. Some teams didn’t scout Stanton as thoroughly as his talent might have dictated, figuring he was more likely to take a football scholarship than head for the minor leagues.
“It was really just about 50-50, I’d say,” Stanton said. “I couldn’t really tell which one I was better at, for the most part. But I’d say I’m very happy with the decision that I made.”
The Marlins were confident Stanton would pick baseball—maybe even more confident than Stanton was.
“Maybe if we knew he was 50-50, we would’ve changed our thoughts,” Marlins scouting director Stan Meek said with a laugh. “But that’s what we felt like he really wanted to do.”
Because Stanton was a three-sport star, teams also had fewer opportunities to see him play baseball. The only chance scouts had to see him in a showcase environment came before his senior season when he participated in the Area Code Games in Long Beach.
“I didn’t really think too much of it,” Stanton said. “I wasn’t educated at all on it. Even after I got drafted I still wasn’t educated. I’m still not fully educated on the draft right now, but I’m a lot better than I was. I just thought you get drafted to a team. I didn’t realize all the negotiation. I didn’t know there were six or seven minor league teams—I thought it was just Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, not Rookie, short-season, High-A.”
On the field, teams had questions about Stanton’s ability to make contact. (He’ll still have to overcome those concerns after striking out 153 times in 125 games last year.)
“The first time I saw him was his spring of his senior year,” Meek said. “He was a big, athletic guy with bat speed, strength, a good body and very good athleticism. He had some swing and miss when we saw him, but he also looked like a guy who had good body coordination, good body control and obviously I saw him take BP and saw him show big raw power.
“It seemed like the more he played, the more we saw him not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. We saw more contact. When a guy’s not making contact out of the strike zone, it doesn’t tend to worry you if he can start to swing at pitches in the strike zone.”
When draft day came, the Athletics began a run of five outfielders selected within 15 picks by taking Oklahoma State’s Corey Brown at No. 59 overall. The Marlins gladly added Stanton with the last of those selections.
“We thought we had a guy who has a chance to be a power/speed player and be an impact bat in the middle of the lineup,” Meek said. “If you wait very long, they’re hard to draft. Was there risk involved? Sure. The risk is what had people concerned to take him that high.”
When it came time to sign, the risk paid off. The Marlins signed Stanton for $475,000, just $56,500 over Major League Baseball’s slot recommendation for the 76th pick.
“Our scout Tim McDonnell did a very good job on him,” Meek said. “Tim got to know him a little bit in the spring. Then when I was in there one day, Tim and I both got to speak with him about what he really loved, and he told us he really loved baseball.
“When a guy’s a three-sport player like that, sometimes it’s hard, but he just seemed to have fun playing baseball. He always had a smile on his face—he seemed to like it. We all felt like he really enjoyed the game, and we felt like he needed to enjoy the game because there was going to be a pull to the other sports.”
If scouts in California were worried that Stanton was too reckless with his swing, scouts on the other side of the country in Georgia had the opposite concern with Heyward. That is, why wouldn’t he swing the bat more often?
“Senior year, I did walk a good bit more than I ever have in my whole time playing baseball,” Heyward said. “They definitely pitched around me a little bit. You could tell, when we were up by five or six runs, they’d put me on base. That’s kind of expected in high school, but then there were teams that tried to challenge me, and that’s when I tried to make them pay. It didn’t happen the majority of the time, but I tried to make it happen.”
Scouts tell stories of how they went in to see Heyward multiple times, only to come away without seeing him swing in a game. How can a team invest millions in a high school player when no one gets to see him hit?
“He had a lot better plate discipline than people realized,” one American League scouting director said, “and people confused that with him not being aggressive. He made a fool of some people by being more disciplined than they gave him credit for.”
As a senior at Henry County High in McDonough, Ga., Heyward batted .520, with 29 hits—including eight home runs—in only 50 at-bats. He was at the plate many more times, of course. His high school coach Jason Shadden estimated from his records that Heyward walked nearly 40 times his senior season and struck out only five.
“I’m friends with a lot of coaches in the county, and they would tell me before the game they’re not going to throw to him,” Shadden said. “As far as his approach at the plate, he’s the most disciplined hitter I think I’ve ever seen and I’ve ever coached, period. I’ve never seen anybody who’s got an eye as good as he did. He saw the ball better than anybody and he could fight any pitch off until he got the one that he wanted.
“He was so disciplined at the plate there were times that he’d let one go by and I’m like, ‘Dadgum man. Come on, swing it.’ You know, 3-2, he’s got the count worked out, and then he makes it hurt that way too. There weren’t a lot of times when he lost composure or anything like that. He knew the game, he was a smart player—he just knew the game. He knew what he needed to do, so telling him anything was just reminding him.”
For many young hitters, getting pitched around so much could turn into a recipe for bad habits, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone or at least out of a player’s hitting zone. It didn’t seem to change Heyward.
“It’s definitely tempting for any hitter who’s not getting pitched to, because it’s hard to get only one pitch to see a game to get a good swing off of,” Heyward said. “You’ve got to be ready to go because at the big league level, you’re not going to get a cookie every time. It’s a little tempting, but I had to stay within myself, and that’s what everyone wanted to see—me not getting too aggressive and staying within myself.”
“Certain guys have a pretty good feel from a young age about the strike zone,” Braves hitting coordinator Leon Roberts said. “They’ve been coached pretty good when they were young—Little League, junior high, high school, summer ball, whatever. What happens is, somebody has sort of looked after him or impressed upon him how to hit good pitches and take bad pitches, and through time he’s developed a pretty good eye and a pretty good strike zone.”
Two things that Stanton and Heyward have in common are youth and size. Heyward turned 19 last August, while Stanton turned 19 in November. Both tower over their peers and could easily pass for several years older with a decent fake ID, though that hasn’t always been the case. Stanton said that at the end of his sophomore year of high school, he was 5-foot-11. By the time his junior year had started, he stood 6-foot-4.
“I think it helped me be a complete player,” he said. “If you’re a big guy, you’re pitched differently, regardless if they know if you have power or not. If you’re littler, they’re not as cautious, so you kind of get the best of both worlds. You’re little most of your career and then you have a big growth spurt, so you know how to adapt to both levels of play.”
Heyward hit his growth spurt a little earlier.
“Oh, my freshman year in high school,” Heyward said. “When I was in eighth grade, I was 5-9. Freshman year of high school I was 6-1 and a half. So then it just took off from there. By the time I finished high school, I was 6-4. There was a little growing in there.”
While Heyward’s feel for putting the bat to the ball is more advanced than Stanton’s, both of their swings can get long. So far they have been able to compensate with incredible bat speed.
“It’s tough because long-lever guys equate to length,” Mallee said. “Even if it’s a straight line to the ball, a straight line could be 12 inches, it could be 15 inches, 18 inches. We tried to make his levers compact and make everything short and direct to the ball. His ability to be athletic, being in control of his body and his feel for his swing and his body makes it easier; it’s like a piece of clay that you just shape the way you want it.”
So while Stanton’s superlative 2008 numbers might make it look like he’s a natural, that wouldn’t give him enough credit for the work he put into remaking his swing. “I was a lot longer in high school,” he said. “If you look at my swing now and my high school swing, it’s like night and day.”
Stanton worked in the cage and on the field with his coaches to shorten his swing. He also studied video, comparing his swing side by side with big leaguers’ swings. During the season, Mallee said Stanton chronicled his plate appearances in a notebook, recording the sequence of pitches he saw, and the name and type of pitcher he faced.
“It felt really awkward at first, but I tried to stay optimistic about it,” Stanton said. “Then you realize that, in the beginning it might not work, but you see all these guys in the big leagues, they have short swings. So they’re obviously doing something right.”
The difference between Stanton’s first-half and second-half numbers suggest that he did improve his approach. The power was always there—he batted .281/.339/.546 with 15 home runs in the first half—but in the second half he shaved his strikeout rate and started walking more. He had 16 walks and 86 strikeouts in the first half, compared with 42 walks and 67 strikeouts in the second half, in about the same number of plate appearances. What’s more, the changes also helped his power emerge even more, with 24 second-half home runs and a .306/.425/.685 batting line.
“The more at-bats he got, the more experience he got, the better he got,” Mallee said. “As the season went on, his identification of the strike zone improved just from reps and just from playing. Him paying attention—and paying attention even when he wasn’t hitting—and seeing how the pitcher’s throwing and the movement that he has, his studying and wanting to be the best, his athleticism and aptitude make him different than most people. His maturity for his age is beyond his years.”
Heyward came into professional baseball needing less refinement. He still took those close pitches on the corners of the plate that frustrated scouts who saw him in high school. Except now, the pro scouts who came in left impressed with Heyward’s ability to lay off those pitches.
“The first time I saw him was a couple years ago during instructional ball when I was a hitting coach in Triple-A,” Roberts said. “I came down to help a little bit with hitting in instructional ball. I saw a big, strong physical specimen. Pretty good eye, OK swing, but a pretty good package to start with.
“Some of the strides I’ve seen him make is understanding how to hit, how to hit for a little bit of power, how to use the whole field, how to hit off lefthanded pitching, how to take a walk when he looks pretty dangerous with them trying to pitch around him—little things like that.”
The Braves have made tweaks, but they have mostly left Heyward as is.
“We’re drafted in the positions we are for a reason, and they don’t try to do too much to change that,” Heyward said. “But they also want to keep us going in a positive direction to keep improving. They haven’t really tampered with me too much, but when I get away from what I normally do, they’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s get back to this. Let’s do this and what you’re successful at.’ “
His plus-plus power hasn’t shown up on the stat sheet yet, but that might have more to do with his environments than his skill level. His home ballpark in Rome last year suppresses power, with an average distance down the foul lines that’s longer than any other SAL park. Eight of his 11 home runs last year came on the road, and his OPS was 76 points higher on the road.
“He is just a terrific young man, first and foremost,” Kemp said. “He comes from a great family and he has been from day one respectful, hard-working—all of the good qualities that you like to see in a young man, he possesses those things. He has never acted as if he was a first-round draft choice, but he works as hard as any draft choice that we have. He was a first-round draft choice, but he takes instruction as well as any player that we have.”
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that two of the organizations that excel at scouting and player development—the Marlins have the game’s No. 2 farm system, the Braves are No. 6—wound up with these two gems. The Marlins have filled their system with California prep talent—third baseman Matt Dominguez, righthander Ryan Tucker, catcher Kyle Skipworth and outfielder Isaac Galloway, among others—while the Braves’ track record of scouting their own home turf has produced Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann.
“I think if you talk to anybody they would say it’s a privilege, and I feel the same way about it,” Heyward said. “It’s a privilege to be able to play for your hometown team—it’s an honor.”