Handing Out Futures Game Superlatives

The highlight of the Futures Game for anyone fortunate enough to have attended this year came before the game, thanks to Joey Gallo. But there were plenty of other moments that stood out in our annual Futures Game superlatives.

Best Power: Joey Gallo, 3b, Rangers

Joey Gallo

Joey Gallo (Photo by Bill Nichols)

Does anyone have a cigarette?

The show that Joey Gallo put on during batting practice (and later in the game) was the talk of the Futures Game. And if you were following along on Twitter, I wouldn’t blame if you were skeptical about whether what Gallo did was being overhyped in a medium prone to exaggeration. Because frankly, the stories of what really happened sound embellished. Joey Gallo hit two balls out of Target Field. Joey Gallo broke a car’s windshield. The crowd gave Joey Gallo an ovation after one of his BP rounds. Reporters on the field were using words their editors wouldn’t let fly in a family-friendly publication.

Gallo sent towering shots into the upper deck, including one that went to the second-furthest row back there. Another 15 feet and the Twins would have had to get a repairman out to fix a broken video board. In one round, he hit five balls out, with everything coming to the pull side today. It was the best batting practice I’ve seen in person since Josh Hamilton went bananas with 28 home runs in one round at the 2008 home run derby in Yankee Stadium.

From an evaluation perspective, it’s hard to get too carried away with batting practice. Young players especially don’t always take their BP swing to the game with them, and it’s easy for hitters to be on time when the pitcher is grooving the ball over the plate. But Gallo’s power is one of the best shows in baseball. It’s as easy an 80 grade as you can ever throw on a young hitter’s power, the lefthanded answer to Giancarlo Stanton.

Then in the game, Joey Gallo did typical Joey Gallo things. He struck out twice, getting frozen once on a filthy backdoor slider from Yankees righthander Luis Severino. Then he showed, if you make a mistake, the score is going to change. Astros righthander Michael Feliz found that out in the sixth inning, when he left a 95-mph fastball over the plate than Gallo destroyed over the right-center field fence.

Gallo’s power is what makes him special. It’s common to hear veteran evaluators say the farthest ball they’ve ever seen hit came off Gallo’s bat. But as much fun as it was to watch him deliver a fireworks display before the game, the swing adjustments and dramatical increase in contact frequency are what’s vaulted Gallo into the No. 4 prospect in baseball.

Best Power Among Mortals: Javier Baez, ss, Cubs

Javier Baez

Javier Baez (Photo by Bill Nichols)

The hype coming into the game was Gallo and Kris Bryant, and neither one disappointed. Hitters don’t use much of the opposite field during BP at the Futures Game--they want to hit dingers in a big league ballpark. For Bryant though, he showed the best home run sock to the middle of the field and the opposite field. Bryant pulled a few balls over the fence, though nothing with the jaw-dropping majesty of Gallo. He stood out more in BP for his ability to hit home runs with ease to right field. Bryant can make any part of the park look small, and in one round hit a ball over the center field batter’s eye before knocking another ball off the batter’s eye. It’s a BP approach reminiscent of Jose Abreu, and Bryant takes that same all-fields approach in games, with his home runs going to left and right field and about an equal clip.

Cubs shortstop Javier Baez made sure it wasn’t just the Gallo/Bryant show. In terms of pure electricity of his BP shots, Baez slightly outshined Bryant, his Triple-A Iowa Cubs teammate. Some players generate power with strength, while some do it more with bat speed. Baez does it with both. There’s some extraneous pre-pitch movement in Baez’s swing, but when he connects, he unleashes with fury, depositing balls into the upper deck in left field. Baez was in pull-only, home run derby mode--and everyone enjoyed it, including him.

“During batting practice, I’m just trying to have fun,” Baez said. “We all get better during batting practice, but I get better in the cage and doing a lot of routines and a lot of drills. In batting practice, I just try to have fun.

“We didn’t have much time and we had other guys hitting. I was already loose, we hit in the cage before we went out there and I was already hot, so I just started swinging the bat hard.”

Baez’s power translated in the game, hitting a first-pitch home run off a hanging curveball from Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito out of the park, only this time he went the opposite way, going deep to right-center field. With 14 home runs this year and 37 last year, going deep is a fairly routine experience. When a reporter asked Baez after the game when the last time was that he enjoyed a home run like that, Baez responded, “The last time I hit one.”

Best Swing: Jesse Winker, of, Reds

The good thing for Jesse Winker is that he hit in the same BP group as Joey Gallo, so he had one of the best views in the house for the Joey Gallo Show. It’s also a hard act to follow, and while Winker can’t match Gallo’s power, it’s obvious why he hits everywhere he goes. Winker has one of the best swings in the minors, a pretty lefthanded stroke with natural rhythm, ease and fluidity. It’s quick and compact with minimal effort, and he backs it up with above-average power, which he showed in BP by taking balls over the the wall in right field. It’s hard to gauge pitch recognition and approach in the Futures Game, but Winker excels in both areas. He showed that in the third inning against Giants lefty Edwin Escobar, taking a 1-0 fastball on the outer third, going with the pitch and driving it the other way for a double to left-center field.

Most Surprising Player: Renato Nunez, 3b, Athletics

Nunez was a high-profile player ever since he was 16, when Oakland signed him for $2.2 million out of Venezuela on July 2, 2010. At the time, some scouts felt Nunez had the best chance to hit for both average and power among hitters in the international class, even if his defense at third base was suspect. Then he went out and struggled with his free-swinging style in the Dominican Summer League, rebounded in 2012 in the Rookie-level Arizona League, then showed more power but modest on-base skills last year in the low Class A Midwest League.

This year in high Class A Stockton, Nunez has taken true steps forward. After hitting 19 home runs with 28 walks in 128 games last year, Nunez has 21 homers and 25 walks already through 81 games in 2014. Yes, part of that is the California League helping him, but from watching him today, there’s no doubt Nunez’s power would play in any environment. In BP, Nunez sent balls into the second deck in left field, then in the game smoked a 98-mph fastball with wicked movement from Twins righthander Alex Meyer into left field for a single. This is a hitter who’s figuring it out and moving in the right direction.

Smartest Play: Francisco Lindor, ss, Indians

Francisco-Lindor-Field-2014In last year’s Futures Game, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts impressed scouts with his swing, calm hitting approach and an instinctive baserunning play to dodge a throw to the plate that showed savvy beyond his years. Today, the smartest play of the game is likely to go mostly unnoticed, but it’s no surprise that it was made by Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, a player scouts gush about not just for his skills but his heady play, especially in the field.

With Kennys Vargas on second in the fourth inning, Winker poked a fly ball into shallow left field. Left fielder Steven Moya came charging in, while Lindor and third baseman Renato Nunez raced back to make the play. Lindor alertly realized the situation--one out, a runner on second and suddenly nobody covering third base--so he quickly stopped and darted back to third, which prevented Vargas from advancing as Moya made the catch. In a showcase game, Lindor could have gone out and tried to make a flashy play, but his quick decision showed why he’s so highly regarded for his baseball IQ.

“That’s part of the game,” Lindor said. “There are things like that, where you don’t want him to advance to the next base because we both went out and tried to grab the ball. I just tried to be on third base to cover the base.”

“As soon as it was hit, I started running. I saw nobody was at third, so I had to go over there. I don’t want to make the pitcher run all the way over there. He could get hurt--a guy sliding into him, stuff like that.”

As if his defense weren’t enough, Lindor truly is a pitcher’s best friend.

Best Fastball: Alex Meyer, rhp, Twins

Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard pumped 96-97 mph fastballs, one inning after Reds righthander Robert Stephenson threw 95-98 mph. Tampa Bay’s Enny Romero wasn’t too shabby for a lefty, ranging from 95-98 mph. Today, the best fastball--and if you blinked, you may have missed it--belongs to Twins righthander Alex Meyer. The extent of Meyer’s day was this: 97, 97, 98, 97 and hit the showers, if he even broke a sweat. Meyer got Mariners outfielder Gabby Guerrero to line out to left field on the first pitch, threw two pitches to Nunez, who singled to left field, then quickly erased Nunez by getting Rangers catcher Jorge Alfaro to hit the first pitch he saw to second base for a double play to end his four-pitch outing. With a mid-to-upper 90s fastball coming at hitters with heavy sink and lively armside run downhill from a 6-foot-9 release point, Meyer gives hitters a very uncomfortable at-bat.

Best Speed: Jose Peraza, ss, Braves

The Futures Game has provided memorable moments for speedsters, be it Billy Hamilton hitting a triple in 2012 or Mike Trout using his speed and hustle to turn what should have been a routine single into a double in 2010. There wasn’t any one moment like that, but Braves shortstop Jose Peraza taught Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant he better not take his sweet time the next time Peraza hits the ball to him. In the first inning, Peraza hit a routine groundball to third and beat it out for an infield single, showing the plus-plus speed that’s helped him swipe 42 bases this season.

Biggest Bragging Rights: Domingo German, rhp, Marlins

It looked like Marlins righthander Domingo German drew the short straw, entering the game in the second inning to face Bryant, Gallo and Mariners third baseman D.J. Peterson. No problem for German, who worked off a 94-96 mph fastball for a 1-2-3 inning. German threw six straight fastballs to Bryant, finishing him with a 95-mph fastball for a swinging strikeout. Gallo was next--three fastballs, then two breaking balls, the last of which Gallo swung through for German’s second whiff before getting Peterson to hit a routine groundout to shortstop. For a largely unheralded pitcher in the low Class A South Atlantic League, it was easily the biggest moment of German’s career. Given his stuff and consistent strike-throwing ability, it shouldn’t be his last.