A new wave of young sluggers, led by prospects Joey Gallo and Kris Bryant, could be the ones to end baseball's power drought.
MINNEAPOLIS — “Did that hit the Target Center?”
This was a legitimate question, really. It was Sunday afternoon at Target Field, batting practice at the All-Star Futures Game, and Rangers third base prospect Joey Gallo was channeling Roy Hobbs. In a BP session that might be remembered for years to come as his official coming out party, the tall, broad-shouldered Rangers prospect showed off the mighty swing that could make him baseball’s next great masher. Among the 15 baseballs that the 20-year-old, lefty-swinging Gallo bludgeoned out of Target Field, a ballpark that can feel as cavernous as the Grand Canyon, one was a shot that landed just below the rightfield scoreboard, 13 rows up in the centerfield deck. Another ball hurtled back to Earth in the rightfield concourse, where it shattered the window of a Chevrolet pickup truck on display.
One of Gallo’s last shots soared high above the rightfield foul pole, and vanished, seemingly, into the clouds; presumably it landed at some point, somewhere in the plaza between Target Field and the neighboring Target Center, home of the NBA's Timerwolves. The crowd in the stands broke into a stunned applause, and it was then when an incredulous onlooker, standing just behind the cage at home plate, turned to the guy next to him with eyes as big as fishbowls and said, “Did that hit the Target Center?”
The future of baseball is not just young pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and impossible cutters. The future of baseball also includes a group of young mashers who are coming to a ballpark near you. The future is Gallo, a 6-foot-5 third base prospect from Las Vegas who has already hit 31 home runs this season in the minors. After his jaw-dropping BP session on Sunday, Gallo hit a mammoth 419-foot home run on his way to earning MVP honors in the Futures Game. The future is also Kris Bryant, another 6-5 third base prospect from Las Vegas who has also hit 31 home runs this season and also put on a dazzling BP show on Sunday that included a bomb to dead center off Target Field’s batting eye.
Bryant is 22 years old, and his legend, like Gallo’s, grows every day—the great tales of baseballs being crushed out of ballparks and into parking lots, lakes and golf courses follow him everywhere he goes. A few weeks ago, in Oklahoma City, he hit one so far that it went into a parking garage across the street. “That was probably the second longest home run I’ve ever hit,” he said at his locker before the Futures Game. The longest? Bryant cited a now almost legendary shot during his days at the University of San Diego, one that he says cleared a light tower and disappeared into a night fog—the story of that home run has been told so often that it’s reached mythical proportions. "It cleared a light tower, and Bigfoot caught it on the other side,” joked Rich Hill, Bryant's coach with the Toreros, in the retelling.
On Monday night, the Home Run Derby will take place at Target Field, a night devoted to the home run, and some of the game’s best hitters will take the stage. Players like Jose Bautista, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton will take their cuts and will all do their best to keep America tuned into an event that typically becomes a repetitive snooze after about, oh, three minutes. Yes, Stanton is one of the most exciting players in the game because of his tape-measure home runs, and yes, guys like Jose Abreu (29 home runs at the break) and Nelson Cruz (28) are having big seasons. But this year’s derby will also be reminder of how the great slugger has in recent years become an endangered species.
It’s no secret that offense has been down for the last few years in the majors, and this year, here at the All-Star break, teams are averaging just 4.13 runs per game, which would be the majors’ lowest mark since 1992. Strikeouts continue to rise like July temperatures in the Midwest as batting averages continue to fall — the current average, .252, is the lowest since 1972, the year before the creation of the designated hitter. And for the third straight year, home runs are down league-wide; at 0.89 per game, they are at their lowest levels since 1992. Over the last four seasons, just six different players have hit 40 home runs in a season: Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Curtis Granderson, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. (In the 2006 season alone, 11 different players hit 40 home runs.) Last year, Davis led the American League -- and the majors -- with 53 home runs, but just two players in the National League (Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt) hit more than 30.
Baseball’s best stories have always been about the home run — Babe Ruth’s called shot, Kirk Gibson limping around the bases, Roy Hobbs bashing the baseball into the lights at the end of The Natural — and you have to think that the scarcity of dynamic sluggers is hurting the popularity of the game. And that’s why two young sluggers from Vegas could hold the key to baseball's future. “The biggest reason pitching has dominated is because of the great pitching talent that has come into the game,” said a scout. “It’s that simple. But now you look at these guys and the wave of young power hitters on the way, and it’s very, very impressive. There’s power on the way now. A lot of it.”
That group of young hitters was on display on Sunday. There is Gallo, who has been turning heads since he was a youngster on the same Las Vegas travel teams as Bryce Harper. Gallo broke the Nevada high school record with 65 career home runs; he hit one of the longest homers ever in San Diego's Petco Park when he was 17; and last year, he was the minor league home run leader with 40, despite missing most of July with an injury. Still, Gallo, because of an alarming strikeout rate, barely cracked the top-100 prospect lists entering this season. Now, the 39th overall pick from the 2012 draft is one of the most compelling prospects in the minors, hitting .277/.371/.644 with 10 home runs in 101 at-bats at Double A Frisco after tearing it up at Single A Myrtle Beach, where he hit .323/.463/.735 with 21 home runs in just 58 games.
There is Peter O’Brien, the Yankees' catcher/third baseman who is third in the minors with 29 home runs. O’Brien grew up idolizing Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez and did a good impersonation of both with an impressive BP round on Sunday that included one off the batting eye. There is Javier Baez, the Cubs’ shortstop prospect whose swing has been compared to Gary Sheffield’s, with “light-tower power to all parts of the field,” said Marty Pevey, who manages both Baez and Bryant at Triple A. “He goes up there wanting to hit the ball harder than you can possibly hit a baseball.” Baez flashed his power on Sunday, with a eye-popping BP session for Team World — he hit seven balls out of the ballpark, including one into the third deck — and had a two-run opposite-field home run to right in the sixth inning of the game off top Nationals prospect Lucas Giolito.
And there is Bryant, the 2013 No. 2 overall pick in the draft, who has emerged this season as the best overall hitter in the minors. “He reminds me of Dale Murphy,” Pevey said. “He has tremendous power to all fields. Real power to right-center.” Asked what Bryant has left to work on at the plate, Pevey paused. “Well, he’s had a hell of a year so far. From a defensive standpoint, he just needs to get his reps playing games. Offensively? He doesn’t need to work on anything in particular.”
Bryant is on the fast track to Wrigley Field, and watching him up close, it’s clear why. Bryant’s stance is unusually spread, and his weight is in his lower half; scouts call it the “Gateway Arch,” with all the weight on the inside of the hitter’s thighs. Bryant’s swing is at a more severe upward angle than most hitters, who are normally at about 10 degrees. Bryant’s seems to be at about a 20-degree angle, which gives the ball incredible lift. Bryant’s success “all starts with his balance,” Hill said. “He’s very balanced with his approach and throughout his swing. He just creates so much torque in his swing, his front side just gets so firm, and his hips just explode through the ball.”
While there are questions about where Bryant will end up in the field — “He could be a Gold Glove outfielder," Hill said. “I think his arm plays better in rightfield than at third base” — there are no questions about his power. On Sunday during BP, he hit the ball to all fields at Target Field, including a shot into the second deck in rightfield.
The guy who stole the show on Sunday, however, was the other kid from Vegas. After Joey Gallo’s coming out party on Sunday, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki jokingly texted Gallo about joining the NL team in the Home Run Derby. Now that would make for must-see TV. The derby might be Monday night, but the real home run show of the summer took place Sunday at the Futures Game, and the message there to the baseball world was loud and clear: The power is coming, and soon.