Astros lefthander Tony Sipp has thrown 156 sliders so far this season. It's a reliable pitch for him. Of Sipp's 23 strikeouts this season, 14 have come on the slider. So, on Saturday night, when Sipp threw three sliders in a four-pitch battle against a rookie who had more strikeouts than hits in his minor league career, it made sense.
But Sipp's 1-2 slider missed its spot, hanging up and out over the heart of the plate. Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier recognized it and pounced on it, turning on the pitch and depositing it into the left field seats to announce his presence with a home run in his big league debut.
Frazier's blast was significant for many reasons. It signified the depth of the Yankees' youth revolution--it doesn't stop with the dominance of Aaron Judge or Luis Severino. Dustin Fowler can be called up and get hurt the next day, and the Bronx Bombers can just pick up the phone and caravan in another burgeoning star from Triple-A Scranton.
But before Frazier's big fly, before the Yankees got him in a blockbuster deal for Andrew Miller, before being on Baseball America's preseason Top 100 Prospects and before he was the fifth overall pick, Frazier was Baseball America’s 2013 High School Player of the Year after a dominant career at Loganville (Ga.) High and a dynamic talent for Team Elite, one of the nation's top travel programs. Frazier’s big league debut adds to the legend of Team Elite, which grows each day.
Clint Frazier (Photo courtesy of Team Elite)
Team Elite came about simply enough.
Brad Bouras was a first baseman with thunder in his righthanded swing. He was a two-time All-American at Division II Columbus State and after four strong seasons there, Bouras was a 21st-round pick of the Cubs in 2001.
Bouras had been giving lessons to some kids in Georgia's Gwinnett County during his pro career, and when his playing days were over in 2005, many of those kids were looking for a place where they could play and train without having to leave Gwinnett County.
"Basically I was giving lessons and trying to figure out what I wanted to do," Bouras said. "I ended up having a bunch of kids that I had been giving lessons to for three or four years when they were 12-14 while I was in pro ball.
"When I got out of pro ball they were all 15-17 and they all wanted to play travel ball on our side of town and practice locally. Basically it started by requests of the kids and their parents. They wanted something on this side of town, as far as a place to practice, so I just did it for them. And then before you knew it one team turned into three, three turned into six, six turned into 12. It was like a chain reaction."
That chain reaction really hasn't slowed since. Team Elite alumni are drafted high every year, whether they're high school seniors or dominant college players at powerhouse programs. That growth seemed to peak in 2013, when two Team Elite alumni went in the top 10 picks--Frazier went fifth overall to the Indians and Austin Meadows went to the Pirates four picks later. But the 2018 group, which includes Austin's younger brother Parker Meadows, might be the best assemblage of talent Bouras has had yet.
Parker Meadows (Photo courtesy of Team Elite)
When your older brother is the ninth overall pick and one of the top prospects in baseball, you're going to get a lot of questions about that. But any talent evaluator can tell that Parker is a significant prospect without knowing who his brother is.
Meadows has wiry strength in his lefthanded swing. He flashes present power--he hit a home run, a triple and two doubles in his 14 plate appearances at the Wilson Premier East Classic--and he's a plus runner with arm strength.
"He's just someone I really look up to, someone I model my game after," Parker said of his brother. "He's a great player and a great role model. I can call him up for advice or send him a video of my swing and he can tell me what I'm doing wrong or what I'm doing right. He's really shaped me into the player that I am today."
That kind of familial connection extends beyond the Meadows brothers. Whether it's helping each other work on mechanical aspects of the game, or talking through the process, players in the Team Elite program have each other's backs.
"Knowing that we're all going through it together is great because we can talk to each other about," catcher Will Banfield said. "We can talk to each other about experiences or ask each other questions about the process."
Each player in the program has specific areas where they're looking to improve, and they all go to Bouras for guidance. This summer, Bouras has worked with Meadows on reducing the violence in his stride, and Meadows says he's seeing the ball better since the adjustment. Bouras has worked with Banfield, raising his hands slightly, giving him more room to make adjustments when he decides to swing. Bouras has been working with top pitching prospect Ethan Hankins on improving his breaking ball, and Hankins has fully bought into the throwing program and arm care routines that Bouras has helped him find.
As Bouras teaches the players the finer points of the game, the players teach him about youth culture.
"Ethan and Will rode with me from Fort Myers (from Perfect Game National) to Sarasota (for the Wilson Premier Classic), so I got educated," Bouras said with a subtle grin.
Banfield, Meadows and Hankins are some of the leaders on the team. The players joke that they're educating Bouras--who they refer to as Coach Brad--on the "modern world."
There's a back-and-forth there. The players respect Bouras and understand what he has to teach them, but no one's afraid to have fun when the time is right. Those tight-knit relationships have led to a team-first culture that helps everyone focus less on their own individual accolades--or failure--and more on each task at hand.
"It's really humbling that our names do get thrown around all the time but that doesn't really phase us," Banfield said. "We're trying to be humble and not let that get to our heads. We're trying to play team baseball."
The 2018 draft class is particularly strong in Georgia. Hankins and fellow Team Elite righthander Kumar Rocker both have the potential to be selected in the top 10 picks next June. Banfield, who catches them both, is a rare breed--he’s got the tools to stick behind the plate, a potent righthanded bat with power potential and a long track record of success playing up against top competition. Meadows fits the classic Peach State draft profile--a tooled-up center fielder who could be a star if his hitting continues to improve.
This year’s Georgia prep class has a chance to exceed the state’s normal expectations. Georgia preps have gone high in the draft before. When Frazier and Meadows were drafted in 2013, it was the fifth time since 1990 that two high schoolers from Georgia were selected in the top 15 in the same year. The deepest year in Georgia was 2010, when five prepsters went in the top 30 picks.
Beyond the Team Elite program, Georgia has southpaw Luke Bartnicki, righthander Cole Wilcox and infielders Ryan Bliss and Kendall Logan Simmons, all of whom show the potential to be high picks themselves.
"Everybody in the state feeds off each other,” Hankins said. “I've talked to Cole Wilcox about it. We've texted back and forth, we've all met each other. We all support each other, not just us who play for Team Elite.
"We try not to pay attention to our names being thrown around, or the 'the 2018 Georgia class is something else,' talk. We try to just go out there and play our game. We don't let any of the hype affect the way that we play."
The Team Elite crew backs up those kinds of statements with their performance on the field. They don’t just talk about their commitment to the team, or their love for the game. They prove it.
Five days after dominating in Sarasota, Hankins did the same thing at the Tournament of Stars on June 28, throwing three hitless innings. The Forsyth Central High (Cumming, Ga.) righty struck out four and walked none. His velocity was the same, and he threw his breaking ball and changeup for strikes as well.
"It would be easy for a pitcher to say 'I'm not going to throw an outing and waste bullets,'" Hankins said. "But even if you're throwing a bullpen or a flat ground at home, you're not getting the in-game feel of facing hitters or being in live situations."
With the opportunity to make Team USA's 18U national team at TOS, many top prospects take a break for a few days. But the Team Elite core didn't want to do that. Many of their top prospects chose to play for the travel team at the Wilson Premier event and fly directly to TOS from Sarasota.
"It wasn't really a tough decision," Banfield said.
The catcher went from facing--and catching--mid-90s velocity in the Florida heat at the Perfect Game National Showcase straight to the Wilson Premier Classic and then straight to the Tournament of Stars. Time for a break? Nope. The Team Elite boys headed straight back to Georgia to play in PG's 17U World Wood Bat Association tournament to suit up for Team Elite.
The 2018 draft class will see plenty of Team Elite alumni hearing their names called early, but the players aren't in it for themselves. Whether it is Hankins, Banfield, Meadows, Rocker, righthanders Makenzie Stills, Ethan Smith or Alaska Abney, or infielders Tim Borden, John Malcom or Isaiah Byars--or any of the hoard of talented players in the program--they're in it for each other. They're loyal to their pack, and they're playing to win.