Image credit: Jace Jung (Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)
Their home run derby showdowns were hard-fought.
In a way, that wasn’t surprising. Josh and Jace Jung were brothers, and brothers compete at everything. Winning becomes a biological imperative when losing means having to stare at your grinning conqueror from across the dinner table. So the Jung brothers battled at video games and mini-hoop basketball and at cards. Things would get heated, ending only when one or the other quit or when their parents clomped up the stairs to investigate whatever was causing that damn ruckus.
The home run derbies were no different. If one brother was up by a lot, the other would frantically collect whatever baseballs remained within lunging distance of the plate, insisting the contest wasn’t over until those again had been hit. After all, beating a sibling is worth stretching the rules. But measured another way—by performance and not temper—the derbies were impressively close. Josh is three years older than Jace and yet just as often as his younger brother, he was the one scrambling for loose baseballs in a last-ditch effort to pull off the comeback.
Outside of regular Fortnite battles online, the Jung brothers aren’t often at loggerheads these days. Josh is in the midst of a strong rookie season with the Rangers, positioning himself as one of the top candidates for American League Rookie of the Year. While 25-year-old Josh conducts his first full season in the majors, Jace is adjusting to his first full campaign in the minor leagues with the Tigers. The 22-year-old Jace may soon hit his way out of High-A, where he had hit .251/.375/.460 with 13 home runs through 77 games for West Michigan. It’s the first time their paths have really diverged.
Up to this point, Jace had been drifting comfortably—and sometimes uncomfortably—in his older brother’s wake. Jace was his older brother’s echo, repeating Josh’s accomplishments after a three-year delay. Both went to Texas Tech and both were Big 12 Conference player of the year.
“Both played on Team USA. Both went to the Cape,” notes their father Jeff. “Both, when they were 12 years old, played in the Cooperstown tournament in New York, and they both won it.” Both played three years at Tech and both were drafted in the top half of the first round
Their paths have now parted, separated by three time zones in spring and 10 degrees of latitude in summer. And after years of sibling rivalry, Jace is no longer chasing Josh. The contradiction at the heart of many fraternal relationships has now been resolved. Jace once admired and emulated his older brother. He also detested him and wanted to wipe the floor with him, to “beat him so bad that he just can’t stand himself after.” He both embraced comparisons to Josh and worried about their weight on his shoulders.
But now, as he carves his own path as a pro, Jace thinks about it differently. “Getting compared to him is not a big deal to me,” Jace said. Josh is neither a rival nor a towering figure whose shadow he must escape. Josh is instead his brother, his confidant and his mentor. He’s learned a lot from his brother, but he’s also learned this:
You can’t become the best version of yourself if you’re worried about being someone else.
It was the mini-hoop basketball games that caused the biggest commotion.
The hoop was affixed to the back of Josh’s bedroom door, and given the abuse it weathered, it’s amazing it held up. That tiny hoop and that tiny ball were tools of humiliation, a way for one brother to coat the other in shame. Rules were made up vindictively and on the spot, like a game of Calvinball. Dunk after dunk would shake their two-story San Antonio home down to the foundation. Whenever the rafters shook, the stairway would inevitably creak with the footfalls of a parent, sending the brothers scrambling to their respective beds as if nothing happened. The charade never fooled anyone.
Josh and Jace were like this with everything. Wiffle ball games in the backyard would devolve into shouting matches. “I’m pretty sure they didn’t quit unless Josh won,” their father said. They weren’t games but of attrition, continuing “until they fell down or it was dark.” Call of Duty matches would morph into paranoid accusations of cheating, sometimes ending when one brother ripped the power cord from the wall before the loss officially counted. When it came to family card games, the paranoia was justified. Jace was caught more than once hiding a card under his seat.
But baseball, at least outside the home run competitions that ended each batting practice, was a shared passion. Here they could collaborate. They played together one year at MacArthur High, Josh as a senior shortstop and Jace as a freshman second baseman. When Josh pitched, they became masters at picking runners off second base, a feat their father said they accomplished in at least 10 consecutive games. They even worked together at the plate, in a way. Both Jung boys wear only one batting glove, on their bottom hand, so they shared each set. A righthanded hitter, Josh got the left glove, while the lefty-swinging Jace wore its partner. Even in college, every time Josh saw his parents, he would hand over a box full of righthanded gloves for his younger brother.
It was then, once Josh was out of the house, that their relationship blossomed. Josh would return home brimming with tips and ideas for Jace. If Jace had been previously shaped by waging frequent fiery battle with his older brother, now he was molded by the new knowledge Josh so eagerly shared. “Younger brothers get all the advantages,” Josh said, not unhappily. He enjoyed seeing his younger brother grow.
But if Jace wasn’t in competition with Josh anymore, he still couldn’t help feeling like he was in competition with Josh’s legacy. He began to chafe against it early in high school. Josh had been a quarterback, so Jace switched to defense rather than succeed him under center. Jace committed to Texas Tech after his freshman year of high school, before Josh had accomplished anything as a Red Raider. By the time Josh left, having fashioned a superlative college career that would make him the eighth pick in the 2019 draft, Jace had begun to doubt his college commitment. Maybe he would be better off somewhere else, he thought, where comparisons to his older brother wouldn’t be so obvious.
A call from Josh changed his mind. “You’ll be compared to me wherever you go,” Josh told him. “Might as well be somewhere you’re comfortable.” Jace chose Tech after all, and in hindsight, it hardly seems the wrong choice. The Covid pandemic truncated his first season in 2020, but in his second, Jace clubbed 21 home runs and won conference player of the year. By the end of his junior year, just like Josh, he was a surefire first-round pick.
If the comparisons are going to come—“This will be a thing forever,” Josh noted—might as well make sure they’re flattering.
There is a sliding doors scenario that could have seen the Jung brothers wind up in the same pro organization.
Three picks before the Rangers took Josh in the 2019 draft, the Tigers passed on him in favor of Riley Greene. Last year, the Rangers would have their chance at Jace, an outcome Josh tried to encourage. “I was teasing our front office guys about it all year,” Josh said. “I’d send them his stats.” The Rangers picked third but opted for righthander Kumar Rocker. Jace went 12th to the Tigers.
It’s the first time Jace hasn’t followed directly in his brother’s footsteps, and he’s not upset about it. That has less to do with his brother, he said, as it does the long-term presence of Rangers star second baseman Marcus Semien. “I don’t want to stay in the minors that long,” Jace said. The path to Detroit is clearer, but traversing it will require different developmental challenges than his brother faced.
Despite their constant battles as kids, Josh and Jace have always been different players. They are both standout hitters but with distinct styles. They hit from different sides of the plate and have different stances. Josh stands up right and has a sizeable leg kick, while Jace sinks more into his legs and holds his bat at a unique angle. Josh excelled at wearing out the opposite field and had to learn to lift the ball, while Jace could always do that naturally—which helped the younger Jace hold his own in those home run derbies. Most notably, Josh has proven a capable defender at third base, while scouts are skeptical of Jace’s abilities at second.
There is time yet to prove evaluators wrong on that score. What Jace lacks in range, he is aiming to make up for in technical soundness. He has worked diligently on his footwork around the bag and has regularly sought instruction from Tigers special assistant and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell. “The terminology is ‘tighten things up,’ ” Trammell said. “Not any major overhaul.” Lately, that meant working on Jace’s prepitch anticipation and movement.
If Jace hits, there will be a place to play. He is unlikely to repeat Josh’s rapid ascent to the majors. Due to the pandemic and a shoulder surgery, Josh played only one full minor league season in 2021 before earning a callup late in 2022—but like his brother, he will go as far as his bat takes him. He was considered by many to be the best college hitter in the 2022 draft, so much so that the Tigers assigned him directly to High-A to make his pro debut. Jace returned to the Midwest League in 2022, but with seven homers and a .922 OPS in June and July, a jump to Double-A Erie may be in the near future.
When that happens, Josh will be thrilled for him. He has invested in Jace’s development almost as much as the Tigers are. The brothers talk daily, with Josh passing down the wisdom he’s gained in the majors. “Everything I’ve learned,” Josh said, “I take it back to him.” It may be a while until they compete against each other again—the Tigers train in Florida and the Rangers in Arizona, sending their parents every which way to watch them—but in the meantime, they find substitutes. About once a week, whenever their schedules line up, they grab a controller and a headset and load up Fortnite on their respective game consoles.
And the brotherly battle begins again.