SEE ALSO: Indy League Top Prospects
Like many players before him, being released left Art Charles shocked.
The Phillies let him go during spring training in mid-March after he hit .215/.304/.367 with nine home runs in a part-time role for Double-A Reading in 2015. For a moment, Charles said he wondered what was going to happen next. He wondered if he was done. He wondered if he needed to start looking for a day job.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was the weirdest, most awkward feeling,” Charles said. “I decided, I’ll go home and be with the family. But then I started to get calls from indy teams. It made me feel better because someone wants you, someone believes in you.”
New Jersey manager Joe Calfapietra believed, although he missed out on Charles at first. Charles initially signed with the American Association’s Laredo Lemurs, but Calfapietra acquired him for New Jersey in a trade during spring training.
It proved to be one of the best pickups Calfapietra will ever make. Charles put together one of the best seasons in Cam-Am League history, winning the league’s triple crown by hitting .352-29-101 while setting league records in slugging percentage (.699), total bases (248) and extra-base hits (60).
Charles won the league’s batting title by 11 points. He hit eight more home runs than anyone else and finished with 22 more RBIs than the next best in the league.
For all that, Charles is the 2016 Baseball America Independent Leagues Player of the Year.
“The power, you were hoping for, but the all-around package ended up being unbelievable,” Calfapietra said. “He has good plate discipline. He hit the ball the other way. He ran well. He did everything you could hope for.”
And along the way, Charles found his footing. Being released leaves its marks, but Charles handed it in a positive way. He took it as a message of what he needed to improve.
He’s a 6-foot-6, 260-pound hitter with long arms and massive raw power. For a long time he knew he needed to be a more
consistent hitter. He finished second in the Florida State League in home runs in 2014 with 19 home runs—the most-ever for a Clearwater Thresher—and led the league in extra-base hits. But he also hit .229.
“Teams are looking for more consistency. I had to put the bat on the ball more,” Charles said. “I went with the approach that I have to get more consistent. It’s shortening up with two strikes.”
What Calfapietra and the Jackals could offer was everyday at-bats and a shot to build some confidence.
Charles homered in his debut with New Jersey. He had two hits the next day. Three days later he had a three-hit game with another home run that started a 16-game hitting streak. Part of that streak included a 6-for-6, two home run explosion vs. Sussex County that reinforced Charles’ focus on contact was paying off.
“They have an opportunity to play everyday. Their confidence starts building. When that happens, you don’t know what will happen,” Calfapietra said. “We didn’t expect anyone of them to have to be ‘the guy.’ Did Art become that guy? Yes. He quickly became that guy.”
Now, he heads into the offseason hoping to prove that he’s ready to return to affiliated ball. Balbino Fuenmayor, Charles’ former teammate in the Blue Jays’ organization, provides inspiration. Fuenmayor, Baseball America’s 2014 Independent Leagues Player of the Year hit .347/.383/.610 for Quebec after struggling to hit for average in affiliated ball.
After his rebirth in the Can-Am League, Fuenmayor hit .358/.386/.591 between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha in 2015 while earning a spot in the 2015 Futures Game.
“To see him do what he did,” Charles said, “his story gave me motivation and confidence. He went into indy ball, came out and had success.”
Charles hopes to follow a similar path. In March he heard from a farm director that he was being released. He hopes to get a call soon telling him he’s been signed.