This article appears in the final 2015 issue of the Play Ball magazine, which can be picked up for free at any of the remaining eight regular season home games scheduled for Monday, August 31st through Monday, September 7th. For details on the promotions scheduled for the homestand, click here.
April 9, 2015 marked a monumental shift in Fresno Grizzlies history. The colors didn’t change and Chukchansi Park was relatively the same, but for the first time in 18 years the home team was affiliated with someone different. Seventeen years with the San Francisco Giants was done and gone as the Bay Area boys chose to move their Triple-A home in the fall up Highway 99 to Sacramento. With the Fresno Grizzlies as a Triple-A free agent, the Houston Astros evaluated their options and singled out Fresno after having their 3A team in Oklahoma City for the previous four seasons.
Despite the unfamiliar player names and Houston being a 25-hour drive from the Central Valley, the energy inside Chukchansi Park on Opening Day April 9th was unlike anything the city of Fresno had witnessed for a professional sporting event. Media was shooting live from inside the park as early as 5 AM, two street festivals welcomed fans heading towards the park, while all ballpark seats were adorned with a white Growlifornia Republic poster card, aerial performers from NOCO Dance Company were twirling into the night sky, and mascot Parker T. Bear made an impressive entrance via Valley Children’s Hospital Air George Helicopter.
The game began at 7:09 PM to 12,090 fans hoisting their white poster cards in the air as the first pitch from right-hander Brad Peacock breezed by Las Vegas shortstop Matt Reynolds. After working a clean top of the first, Fresno shortstop Nolan Fontana became the first Houston Astros’ farmhand to bat for the Fresno Grizzlies. With all eyes on him, he did something that the previous 17 Grizzlies’ clubs didn’t do much of. He worked the count and drew a leadoff walk.
Leave it to a self-proclaimed picky hitter to set a new tone for the new affiliation. Fontana, who currently leads all Pacific Coast League batters in walks, has helped the 2015 club destroy the previous franchise record for team walks in a season and is a microcosm for what the 2015 Pacific Northern Division Champions are all about. Work the count. Get on base. Force the opponent into mistakes. Play solid defense.
“[Teammate] Andrew Aplin and I talk about that all the time,” mentions Fontana leaning against the visiting clubhouse hallway during a recent road trip in Des Moines, Iowa. “When we make an out on offense, the last thing we want to do is give up a hit to someone else. All of the guys on this team challenge each other defensively and I think that’s why we’re so good overall.”
Armed with a slew of fly ball pitchers, the defense has had to make up for the least amount of double plays turned in the league with some SportsCenter Top 10 plays. A lot of fans can recall Tony Kemp making a handful of ‘hair raising’ type catches, while outfielder Andrew Aplin has piled up an array of wall crashing and backward summer salt catches. Fontana has been one of the more versatile Grizzlies throughout the season, beginning the year at shortstop, sliding to second base with the arrival of No. 1 Prospect Carlos Correa, and then also picking up time at third base. It was at third base during a game against the Isotopes where he raced straight back along the left-field foul line and made a running over-the-shoulder catch to take away a hit from Roger Bernadina.
“I’m definitely most comfortable at shortstop, but being able to play third and second the last two years has been a welcome addition,” states Nolan. “I’ve learned to simplify the differences in playing other positions. You catch the ball and throw the guy out before he touches the base.”
Breaking defense down to a Barney and Friends type level surely helps, but at the plate it’s been adjustment after adjustment that has aided the 24 year old to handle all that’s been thrown at him in his first year at the Triple-A level.
He started off well, batting .263 with five doubles, a triple, homer, and 14 walks over his first 18 games, but then saw the floor drop when he turned in a .159 mark and struck out 21 times in 69 at bats over 22 games in May.
“Early on this year I was picked apart and it took a lot of adjustments. You have to continue to refine your approach and learn the tendencies of not only pitchers, but the catchers.”
In conversations with hitting coach Leon Roberts, the left-handed hitting infielder was urged to take the “Governor” out of his approach at the plate. Become less choosy and less dependent on seeing that one special pitch, adjust for the situation, and drive the baseball.
That’s how the Texas born, but Florida raised Astros’ farmhand was able to become more than a player who could work a count. He went from one homer and eight RBI from April-May to collecting two homers and 31 RBI over the past three months.
“Ever since I can remember I haven’t had trouble getting on base, but the power element is where I thought I could improve. I know it’s in there, but you have to pick your times depending on the situation. Is nobody on base? Are guys in scoring position? The different scenarios make up the approach I take to the plate.”
That can surely be seen in the numbers. Fontana has a .207 average with four extra-base hits and 40 walks when the bases are empty, but hits .272 with 12 extra-base hits and 31 walks when runners are on base. He’s been even more dynamite with the bases loaded, going 5-9 with a homer, 13 RBI and seven runs scored.
Currently listed as the No. 24 Prospect in the Astros system, Fontana will be a key ingredient to the Grizzlies postseason success, a setting they haven’t been in since their inaugural season of 1998.
With the club lacking the power hitters that darted the lineup earlier in the year, it’ll be guys like Fontana, Andrew Aplin, Tony Kemp, Tyler Heineman, Joe Sclafani, Alex Presley, and L.J. Hoes to lead the offense in the postseason. None of those six players have more than three home runs on the season, but all but one owns an on-base percentage of at least .337 and have all contributed to help the Grizzlies lead the Pacific Coast League in runs scored all season long.
The names of these guys aren’t household in Fresno, but they’ve altered the expectations of an organization and fan base that would be able to routinely make vacation plans the day after the regular season ended. That changes this season. The Grizzlies were the first Triple-A club to clinch their division and a postseason berth, and will host the first ever playoff games at Chukchansi Park on Wednesday, September 9th and Thursday, September 10th.
This story also appears in the eighth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that begins Saturday, August 1st and runs through Sunday, August 9th. Purchase tickets here.
The water begins to drip on the three scoops of grounds inside the BUNN CWTF 15-2 Automatic Coffee Brewer and falls into the decanter seven hours prior to first pitch. This is the signal that the Grizzlies coaching staff has arrived into the home clubhouse to begin their preparation for the game ahead.
Three stat packs, three Fresno rosters, three opponent rosters, 2015 Fresno batting stats against the opposing pitchers, media game notes, a Fresno Bee, and an extremely detailed Houston Astros-crafted scouting report have turned the desk of manager Tony DeFrancesco into a sea of white. He sits in his chair 45-minutes removed from working out at a north Fresno gym as he types the Fresno lineup onto an excel spreadsheet. While he weighs the pros and cons of organizing his lineup, he stops, gets up and walks one office over to hitting coach Leon Roberts and development specialist Jeff Murphy and closes the door. This type of conversation is private, which DeFrancesco prefers when it comes to talking about players. Not even 30-seconds later, he emerges from the door and crosses the hall to pitching coach Ace Adams, discussing a starting rotation change due to a recent callup and then circles back to his office.
This cycle of back-and-forth is constant as all four coaches digest gobs of information in hopes that they can gain an edge on the opponent for roughly three hours each night, even though none of them will step into the batters box, field a ground ball, or throw a pitch.
“Every day our job is to make sure the nine guys on the field, no matter their experience, can make a great play, give a quality at bat and continue to develop into a winning player,” responds DeFrancesco when asked what comes from the countless hours of reviewing scouting reports, stats, and video.
“We also want to win,” he says with a stone cold look that almost thrusts the weight of contributing as a professional ballplayer into the bones of anyone who could see him.
DeFrancesco came to Fresno with a reputation for being fiery, straightforward, committed to developing his players, and addicted to winning. The eight previous managers in franchise history never were as outspoken about the latter, which maybe attributed to the combined .471 win percentage and one playoff appearance (1998) in 17 years the Grizzlies were the Giants Triple-A affiliate.
The 52-year-old even made a point to differentiate from the previous regime in his introductory press conference by saying the team goal would be to make the playoffs and develop players for the Astros. He took it a step further two months later at the Grizzlies Community Fund Hot Stove Dinner when he said ‘We’re going to kick their ass’ in reference to playing the Sacramento River Cats, a team he once managed to seven winning seasons, six division titles, three league championships, and the 2007 Triple-A Championship.
Now months into his first season leading the Fresno Grizzlies, it’s safe to say DeFrancesco has lived up to his strong statements, proven by his staff and players working together to race out to the second-best start in franchise history.
When the Grizzlies begin play on August 1st, they’ll have led their division for 101 of 114 days. For those that like percentages, that equates to 88.6% of the 2015 season.
What has helped the four coaches balance the rigors of the season is the routine they’ve set for themselves before arriving for work. DeFrancesco gets up, heads to Starbucks, reads the paper, and then hits the gym. Roberts chooses golf, loves to read about everything that’s happening at the big league level, and will grab for a small bag of potato chips as he goes through notes on the opposing starting pitcher. Adams arrives to the clubhouse the earliest, preferring to set his mind through exercise by walking around Chukchansi Park and pouring a post-walk cup of black coffee that he appears to sip on the rest of the night. Murphy, noticed by his fu manchu mustache, lives out of his trailer that he drove to Fresno, hits the golf course in the morning, and then goes over the previous game when he gets to the park before putting his focus towards the catchers, which is his specialty.
For DeFrancesco, who is well through his 21st season managing in the minor leagues, the routine dates all the way back to 1994 when his first managing gig was with the Arizona Rookie League Athletics. After leading the rookie Athletics to a second place finish, he leveled up and migrated to the Pacific Northwest to become the skipper of short-season Southern Oregon. What has since become the site of a Walmart Supercenter; Miles Field in Medford, Oregon was where DeFrancesco really cut his teeth as a manager, turning in his only back-to-back losing seasons. Despite the 62-90 combined record in those years, the 1995 Southern Oregon A’s roster did have 21-year-old Miguel Tejada, who was making his professional state-side debut with the Athletics organization after rising from the slums of Bani in the Dominican Republic. He was the first of many high profile players DeFrancesco has come to manage and help develop over the course of his career.
The most recent star player to spend time playing for him is current Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, who won the American League Rookie of the Month for June and is the Astros’ No. 3 hitter night in and night out as they battle the Angels for first place in the American League West. With the former No. 1 overall pick on the roster for 24 games, the Grizzlies went 16-8 and established a large first-place cushion, which is part of the reason DeFrancesco is about to lock in his 17th winning season in 21 years.
“My m.o. to the players is always that we’re going to go out and compete and try to win every game,” states DeFrancesco. “If I ask them to sacrifice bunt, or come in to get a lefty out, that’s all about developing you into a player with a winning mindset.”
That outlook is spread throughout the Astros organization, something Astros GM Jeff Luhnow instilled when he was appointed to his position back in December 2011. On a recent visit to Fresno, he reaffirmed that winning at every level is important and that Tony’s success at developing players at the Triple-A level makes him invaluable.
However, like any motivated person, Tony seeks another opportunity to manage at the big leagues.
“It’s a compliment,” he responds when asked if there’s a stereotype that he’s too valuable at the Triple-A level to have elsewhere in an organization.
“Like any other coach, you’re always trying to get another opportunity. I was able to spend 41 games up their as the Astros [interim] manager in 2012 and it’s something I’ll cherish and remember for the rest of my life no matter what happens. I feel like I’ll get another opportunity.”
The 41-game experience at the big league level also gave him plenty of self-reflection.
“Surely I’ve evolved as a manager over the years and especially since experiencing the big league level. Early in my career, I took full responsibility if a guy missed a cut off man or if a pitcher didn’t execute a pitch. I thought it was all on me to make sure the players knew how to play the game right, and at times I was probably too hard on the players. Baseball is not a perfect game and I’ve worked to accept that in my managing style.”
As frustrating as the miscues can be for any player or coach, DeFrancesco has understood it’s more of his job to keep the players calm and motivate them to learn from their mistakes. That’s precisely why he’s one of the few managers to take the team out for infield/outfield and pitchers fielding practice throughout the season. For most team’s it’s something that’ll happen in the month of April and die off, but to this day the Grizzlies head out there at least once every homestand or road trip to knock out the fundamentals.
The other noticeable thing is that none of the Fresno players wear any symbol of the big league club, and that’s by design.
“You play for the city of Fresno and you’re a Grizzly,” Tony begins to describe. “Even though their ultimate goals is to put on an Astros uniform, you’re here [with Fresno] and I want them to understand what it means to represent a city on and off the field.”
The players and coaches have begun to understand what they mean to a city that initially feared Triple-A Baseball was in jeopardy when the Giants moved their Triple-A affiliate north to Sacramento.
“I feel bad for the Grizzlies fans,” he says when told of the ongoing playoff drought that’s lasted 16 years. “[The fans] haven’t been able to experience that August rush and see the guys celebrate on the field. Our goal is to get into the playoffs and win a championship. At the same time we’re going to do what we can to help out Houston and make sure we can send guys up to help them, but we can have winning on both sides.”
Houston Astros 58-45 – 1st place.
Fresno Grizzlies 59-46 – 1st place.
You sure can have both.
Team records entering July 31, 2015
This article also appears in the sixth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs through Thursday, June 25th. Purchase tickets here.
Story by Ryan Young
After the final out at Chukchansi Park on any given game, General Manager Derek Franks gets his second wind. From his second floor office behind home plate, his light is one of maybe two still on as the cleaning crews get to work on making sure the stadium is set for tomorrow’s game.
Franks, 30, is feasting on the analytics from that night’s game. He inputs everything from how the Grizzlies Team Store did prior to first pitch down to how many slices of pizza were sold at stand one. He goes beyond the numbers and replays the in-game skits the entertainment crew did, how well giveaway distribution was executed, and even has ran out to the corner of Van Ness and Inyo street to direct cars to parking lots when an attendant didn’t show up. This is more of what a general manager of a Minor League Baseball team can expect to be a part of on any given day.
Unlike most GM titles that are known to many fans as the taskmasters of player transactions, Franks’ job duties are geared in an opposite direction.
“My role is to build the business around the players and coaches and be a venue for entertainment,” he states. “The only player transactions I get to be involved in are in my fantasy baseball league.”
The confusion is there, especially when highly-touted No. 1 Prospect Carlos Correa was promoted to Fresno from Double-A Corpus Christi back in early May.
“I’m getting used to those emails that ask me why it took me so long to call certain players up, but I stay patient in explaining that it’s the Astros who get to decide which players wear our uniform.” Franks says with a smile.
Named to his position on March 5th of this year, the Kingsburg native started with the organization way back in 2004. He’s a true farm grown talent having worked his way from intern to the top decision maker in the organization.
Within a short amount of time atop the organizational chart, he’s been critical in strengthening the relationship with city officials, cutting the organization deficit in half within 12 months, and being the steady presence during the only affiliation change in club history.
That’s right. What challenge could be more daunting to a new GM than transitioning the Fresno Grizzlies from a 17-year relationship with the San Francisco Giants to the Houston Astros, who were virtually an unknown to the entire Central Valley. But to know Derek Franks is to know that he’s someone who likes to present the challenges faced and then find the solution right there and then. So back in October, he used the strength of his front office to unveil a local Grizzlies’ brand to the community that finally tied the club to it’s location.
“I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve been able to brand this a Fresno team,” he says reflecting on the last few months. “We’re wearing Fresno on the front of the jersey. I’m seeing the Growlifornia Bear Flags on people’s lawns or hanging from their balconies when I’m driving around town.”
He speaks glowingly of the ability for the front office to make adjustments on the fly and see change as an opportunity.
“We’ve definitely tried things that haven’t worked, but we’ve shifted and tried something different the next day.”
The difference has been the organization becoming much more transparent to the city and fan base. The Grizzlies hosted an open-to-the-public Q&A panel with Astros front office members back in October, posted a mailbag through their website on hard hitting topics, and connected into the community like never before.
Marketing Ninja Sam Hansen, appointed by Franks to handle marketing shortly after the affiliation change, harkens back to a moment this past fall at a Fresno State football game when public interaction showcased how much work would need to be done prior to Opening Day to get people to invest in the Grizzlies.
“People walked past our booth saying ‘How sad’ and even refused to even interact with us because the Giants left,” recalls Hansen. “There I realized even further about the opportunity we had. We needed to brand unapologetically Fresno and not rely on our affiliation to justify who we are.”
And so it began. The Grizzlies have run with a brand that has local energy since October 2014 and seemingly won’t alter that approach in the coming years.
Factors outside of the control of the team have also presented challenges. The temporary closure of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino has been a hot topic with media and has made fans question if that means a death blow to the Grizzlies.
“Obviously Chukchansi is our biggest partner and key to making Triple-A Baseball in Fresno possible. Without them, it’s hard to do,” answers Franks when we asked him about an update. “We have a naming rights contract with the Chukchansi tribe that goes through the 2021 baseball season. All signs point to them re-opening and it’s obviously taken longer than a lot of people wanted, but everyone is motivated to get them back up and running. We don’t know when, but we do know we have a contract with them to be the naming rights sponsor through 2021 and hopefully many years beyond.”
That continuing theme of not dwelling is one of his strongest traits. Where many want to make more of a situation, Franks hits it head on, delivers an answer, and gets on to the next task. During the fall, one of those tasks that took more than a simple answer was convincing a season-ticket holder base that the Fresno Grizzlies were worth their annual investment.
Franks decided to sell it as more than just the players on the field. The first part of the recipe was advertising it as “Fresno’s” team. He then challenged the marketing department to come up with new promotions, the entertainment to improve the in-game experience, and the ticket and corporate sides to develop new methods that added additional value to the overall Grizzlies’ atmosphere.
He believed if the club could continue to capture the heart of their die-hard fan base, they’d be able to build it and grow the core exponentially over the next 12 months.
“Those season-ticket holders we have are part of the core and always have been. The question came up this year about if you’d still be part of the core if the players don’t come from your favorite baseball team’s affiliate. A lot of people stayed and some dropped off, which we understand. But for those people who stuck with us, they’re glad they did. Those fans that stuck with us are important and we consider them family. I love all of those people.”
There’s something to be said for a man in a position who expresses that sense of care. It’s surely not a weakness, especially in the family-oriented nature of Minor League Baseball.
One of the things people will see be implemented by 2016 will be the addition of ritual elements that detail the history of the baseball club and celebrate the local heritage inside Chukchansi Park.
“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of capturing the history of the Fresno Grizzlies inside the ballpark. I’d like to go back to 1998 and help give fans a perspective of where we’ve been and the story of the franchise. We added a few elements this season, but we want to bring more of that heritage into the ballpark.”
Franks is focused on evolving the story of the organization into the minds of locals and believes that it’s something they will sink their teeth into once it’s complete.
So far, the buttons he’s pushed have gotten responses. Opening Day this season had the feeling of an NBA Playoff game according to one fan on social media. No matter the difference in sport, the point was that the energy had noticeably changed and the experience transcended into the fibers of each fan.
“We’re only halfway through the season and we’ve already put together some of the best promotions you’ll find anywhere in the country. Combine that with a first place team and we’re confident that a Fresno Grizzlies game is going to be the place to be this summer.”
This article also appears in the fifth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs Saturday, June 6th through Tuesday, June 9th. Learn about the promotions for the four home games and purchase tickets here.
Story by Ryan Young
“Hey! How’s it goin’?” says Fresno Grizzlies catcher Max Stassi about a notch higher than the average person. The grinning Yuba City, California native is quite possibly the most upbeat professional baseball player you’ll ever meet. Even before moving past general pleasantries, you can notice he has a special presence about him.
“Good to see you,” he follows up while circling the batting cage at Chukchansi Park upon returning from a recent eight-game road trip. He makes his way up to me, puts out his hand and completes a handshake so hard that he turns my right hand completely over.
“I got you there,” smiles Stassi as he enters the cage to get in some pregame cuts.
Noted, the 24-year-old backstop is the type of guy who will take you by surprise.
But in a day and age where catchers are normally hulking six-foot plus in height, Stassi sticks out for being the exception. He only stands at 5-10 and could even be mistaken for a middle infielder. His build is similar to that of Toronto catcher Russell Martin, who’s in his 10th season and has established himself as one of the premier backstops in all of baseball proven by his 5-year, $82 million contract signed prior to this season. That’s certainly a lofty comparison at this point in Max’s career, but it does prove that there’s a big leaguer in his physical mold succeeding at the highest level there is.
Stassi, like Martin, surprises you with his tools instead of his stature. The youngster has power to all fields and his athletic ability behind the plate is an asset pitchers at the next level prefer. However, it could be the intangibles that help put him over the edge of his competition. There’s baseball history in his bloodline, with his father Jim pitching in the Giants organization back in the early 80s, while his older brother Brock is currently a Philadelphia Phillies prospect batting over .300 at Double-A Reading.
“The good kind of baseball lifer,” said an American League scout of Max on an early season trip evaluating Fresno’s talented roster.
Maybe he attracts that kind of description due to the catcher’s equipment being a second skin. During a May 27th day game, he was perched on the top step of the dugout outfitted in his mask, chest protector, and leg guards while the Grizzlies were at bat with no outs and the sun attempting to adhere the equipment to his body. Unlike the fans that escape to the last few rows of the lower level to find shadows, he seemed oblivious to the heat, focusing only on watching the opposing pitcher to pick up an extra edge for his upcoming at bat.
Despite the ability to block things out, the top catching prospect in the Astros chain has had his patience tested with things beyond his control. After making his major-league debut for the Astros in 2013, he spent the entire 2014 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City before receiving a September callup and appearing in seven games for the Astros. But months later, he witnessed the big league club trade for catcher Hank Conger and C/OF Evan Gattis in separate deals. Both of those moves meant a good chance he’d have another full season at the Triple-A level despite accruing a solid 10-game cup of coffee in the bigs.
“You have to keep it all in perspective,” stated Stassi when asked about battling for a big league job. “You have to go out there and have fun no matter what.
The fun has been tested on the offensive side where he’s regressed a touch since the 2013 season when he batted .277 and slugged 17 homers for Double-A Corpus Christi.
Over 133 career games at the Triple-A level (through May 29), he’s batted .236 (118-501) and owns an on-base percentage under .300. However, the power has certainly returned this season, where’s he smacked five homers in just over 100 at bats and is currently on pace to break his mark of nine from last year.
“I can do both,” he responds when asked if he falls into the stereotype of being a one-dimensional catcher. “I haven’t really shown what I can do offensively so far [in 2015], but I feel I’m hitting my stride here recently.
He’s absolutely right. Lately, Stassi has shown the offensive punch of years past. In a recent stretch in late May, all four of his hits went for extra bases, including two homers. Weighing the stress of his slow start could definitely have wrecked him mentally, but he remains grounded in some advice he received from former big league catcher Matt Treanor who spent nine seasons in the big leagues with Florida, Detroit, Texas, Kansas City, and the Dodgers.
“Something that Treanor told me a while ago was that you shouldn’t focus on what everyone else is saying about you. If somebody says something good about you, you can buy into it too much, and if somebody says something bad about you, you can buy into it too much. That type of mental approach has helped me focus on just going out and playing.”
Through two months of the 2015 season, he’s been a bedrock for the Grizzlies. He flips between ranking first or in a tie for first among Pacific Coast League catchers in games played and has slowly begun to build back his throw-out percentage on basestealers.
Even when he finds the occasional day off from the starting lineup, the guy puts in work. Roughly 90-minutes before a day game against Memphis, the catcher was using a resistance band while doing push ups in the gym. After 40 minutes of working out, he walked out, but then appeared restless and ventured back into the gym for another 15 minutes.
“Ultimately, the thing I’ve always wanted to do is play baseball. This is the right career path for me.”
Keep developing kid. You’re going to get up there and stay soon enough.
This article also appears in the fourth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs Thursday, May 21st through Thursday, May 28th. Learn about the promotions for the eight home games and purchase tickets here.
Alex Presley has been in this situation before. Surrounded by top prospects and other outfielders with a foot in the door due to being on the 40-man roster, Presley is left making sure his talents stand out to the coaching staff and in the box score every chance he gets in order to force a callup back to the big leagues.
The Louisiana native is in his second season with the Houston Astros organization, but is back in the Triple-A circuit for the first time since 2013. In a numbers game that went against Presley, he found himself the odd man out in an Astros outfield at the end of Spring Training and began the year with the Grizzlies. Needless to say, it’s rekindled a fire that burnt back in 2010 when he was part of a rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
Then a 24-year-old who was making his first foray into Double-A ball, he wasn’t even listed among the Top 30 Prospects in the Pirates organization. Outfielders Jose Tabata, Starling Marte, Gorkys Hernandez, and current Grizzlies teammate Robbie Grossman were the buzz of the Pirates farm system, while non-prospects like Wesley Freeman (out of baseball), Rogelios Noris (out of baseball), and Quincy Latimore were even listed ahead of him.
“I’ve never been that big prospect, whether it was high school, college, or pro ball. I’ve always had to outperform others to get a chance.”
Later in that 2010 season, he finally received that chance. With Pittsburgh fans and media clamoring for a callup, Presley received it thanks to a combined .320 average that included 28 doubles, 13 triples, 12 home runs, and 85 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A ball. Two seasons later, he’d play in a career-high 104 big league games on a Pirates team that won 78 games. However, a year later with the Pirates in playoff contention for the first time in 20 years the odds struck against him when he was packaged in a trade to Minnesota in exchange for first baseman Justin Morneau.
He finished the year with the Twins, but then found himself in a battle for a roster spot with Twins prospect Aaron Hicks the following spring. After Presley struggled through Spring Training, he was put on waivers by Minnesota and claimed by the Astros where he’d appear in 89 games.
“I had a pretty versatile role with the Astros last year, which is what I’m pretty good at and have become known for. It’s not the easiest job when you’re not out there every day, but the role you play can constantly change.”
Through all the twists and turns in his career, he’s kept a focused mindset that doesn’t fluctuate too high or low. Whether there’s been an up-and-comer on his heels or competition with his fellow teammates, he refuses to allowed his demeanor to be influenced by factors out of his control. Proof of that outlook is in his start to the 2015 season, where he’s batted .320 (31-97) through his first 27 games, which is good for second best on the team.
He’s even connected with the local Fresno fans, as evidence by his 20-minute dugout chat with 11-year-old Jackson Standifer shortly before first pitch on April 15th. Going mostly unnoticed, Presley spoke with the youngster who was three months removed from beating Stage-4 Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
“I try to focus on where I am now and do the best I can with that situation.”
That commitment to making the most of his time with Fresno can be credited to his years growing up just outside of Monroe, Louisiana. Whether it was encouraging his father to take him to the batting cage for extra work, being the kicker on his high school football team his senior year, allowing his older sister to persuade him into doing back hand springs, or setting records for the University of Mississippi as a wide-eyed freshman, there’s an energy that permits the 29-year-old to embrace the moment when given the opportunity to showcase his talent.
You can begin to notice that there’s more to Alex Presley than what you glance at in a box score, and that’s precisely what the first place Astros will look to add in the coming months. They’ll need someone with a fire that can push away fear in a key moment.
“Another opportunity will be there,” he says when discussing the chance to join the big league club.
That appears to be a given considering his determination to make it happen.
This article also appears in the third edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the upcoming homestand that runs Monday, May 4 through Monday, May 11. Learn about the promotions for the eight home games and purchase tickets here.
Written by Ryan Young
Forty-five minutes before first pitch of any game, you can find Fresno Grizzlies outfielder Preston Tucker standing up from his clubhouse chair, turning the corner, and walking down the hallway towards the office of hitting coach Leon Roberts. By now, there’s no need for Tucker to even speak words.
“Ready?” says Roberts as he drops the scouting reports on the opposing pitchers when he catches sight of Tucker.
The two head to the batting cage steps outside of the clubhouse to get in a few more swings before the game.
“I don’t like the two hours of down time,” Tucker says, which is the time between the end of batting practice and first pitch.A seventh-round pick by the Houston Astros out of the University of Florida in 2012, Tucker has been a proficient hitter in lineups from Plant High School in Tampa, Florida to his current stop at Triple-A Fresno. Through the first 19 games of the 2015 season, he stands apart by leading ALL of Minor League Baseball in home runs (8) and RBI (27). Those numbers are big reason why Fresno has jumped out to an 11-8 first place start. The run production may not be something new for anyone who has followed his path, but the early numbers should pop out considering he’s on pace to shatter his own personal highs and take a stab at remaining among a Minor League leader in both categories.
“My mindset is to put together quality at bats and produce for this team,” he says when asked if the power numbers are a focus for him. “My role is to drive in runs and the guys in front of me have done an unbelievable job of getting on base.” True story, since leadoff hitter Nolan Fontana has flirted with the Pacific Coast League lead in walks all season, while No. 2 hitter L.J. Hoes was hitting .418 (23-55) before being called up to Houston on April 27th.
The team focus is one that spreads throughout the roster and is a unique attribute, considering the competitive nature of Triple-A Baseball where guys are consistently competing for select rosters spots on the big league club throughout the season. However, a lot of these guys on the current roster have been moved through the minor-league system together and it’s offered more of a support group than moments of jealousy.
“It’s fun to see guys succeed along with one another and progress through their careers,” says Tucker. “We’re getting to that point where we’re starting to see it flourish and help out the big league team.”
The April success by Tucker has already hit newsstands in Houston and has been a conversation starter for media with Astros manager A.J. Hinch. Given the Astros 13-7 start (through April 28), anytime a Triple-A player can be brought up in a pregame conversation and take seconds away from the 25 guys on a first place team, it’s a good position to be in.
Surely the power numbers are getting Tucker noticed, but the 24-year-old left-handed hitter continually refutes that it’s his only hook. One glance down at his popeye forearms tells a person that it’s just a factor of the work he puts in. Whether it’s the offseason or an eight-game road trip, he believes in a routine of workouts, especially during the season when it serves as a way to combat the energy zap a 144-game regular season can do to a mind and body.
For instance, when the team took to the road in mid-April for an eight-game swing to Las Vegas and Salt Lake, he’s attempting to confirm shuttle times to the gym instead of planning what sights to see in his down time.
This primary focus became evident when he struck for a two-run moonshot homer in Las Vegas at Cashman Field on April 18th. The ball was still at it’s apex as it screamed past the lights and landed somewhere in the darkness. Yet, the first thing out of the mouth of strength and conditioning coach Trey Wiedman is, “He’s probably going to tell us all he should’ve hit it farther. Yep, he’ll be in the gym first thing tomorrow.”
But it’s that reputation that shows off his rare qualities and lets you know Tucker is destined for a special career. Surely he is a little quiet, but not definitely not shy, and he’s focused not on what he’s already done, but what he needs to do in the present. That mindset, combined with his special skills on the diamond, reminds us of a certain 2014 Fresno Grizzlies player that went on to contribute to a World Championship in his rookie season — Joe Panik.
Tucker has recorded a RBI in 13 of 19 games and has reached base safely in all but two contests for the Grizzlies. The question then may be, where’s the hole? Is he not hitting lefties? Nope, he’s hitting lefties to the tune of .360 (9-25) with a double, two homers and eight RBI. He’s hitting even better with runners on base, featuring a .436 mark (17-39), and also crushes when he’s playing left field, batting .405 (17-42).Now in his fourth year in the Astros organization, he’s beginning to showcase the type of hitter he’ll be at the next level.
“I’ve tightened things up and have shifted to simply trying to hit the ball hard every time instead of trying to pull it here or there.”
A sign that he’s actually doing what he preaches. On April 27th at Chukchansi Park, he put the bat head out on a pitch and sent a long home run down the line in left that landed on the concourse past the row of bleachers. The opposite field home run, feet within the left field foul pole, surprised a man that’s seen quite a bit of baseball in his life.
“In my 13 years with this team, I’ve never seen a left-handed hitter, opposing or home, hit a ball like that in this ballpark,” noted Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster Doug Greenwald.
See. Preston Tucker does things that aren’t normal. We’ll enjoy watching him in Fresno while he’s here.
This article also appears in the second edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the upcoming homestand that runs Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Purchase tickets to those games here.
Written by Ryan Young
The story of Fresno right-handed reliever James Hoyt spans two countries and 10 states. Part of his movement has been by curiosity and the other by virtue of chasing the ultimate dream of playing Major League Baseball. In what may be construed as a long and strange trip, it has taken two colleges, a job working on sail boats, three independent league stops, a stint in Mexico, and play across three minor league levels to get him to where he is today.
“For me, it’s obviously not the normal route to professional baseball,” smiles Hoyt as he sits on a bench at Cashman Field in Las Vegas prior to the Grizzlies series finale during part one of a two-city road trip. His casual tones suggest that he’s completely at ease with the unconventional route he’s taken to ascend to the Triple-A level, but there’s also a heavy sense of determination in his eyes that tells of the learning experiences he’s gathered along the way.
When reflecting back to his days as a 6-6, 190-pound high school senior, the thought of sitting in a dugout as a member of the Houston Astros organization couldn’t even be imagined. The 28-year-old notes that he had average stuff at best when he graduated from Boise High School in Idaho and moved to attend Palomar Junior College (Calif.) on a baseball scholarship. The San Marcos-based school was in a familiar area to him, as yearly visits to his mom’s side of the family in San Diego (35-minute car ride south) made the transition easier than most for a young college kid.
After a successful freshman and sophomore campaign on the diamond, an opportunity opened up to transfer to Centenary College in Louisiana and pitch at the Division I level.
“I thought, ‘well this is cool’, since it meant I’d get to pitch against LSU, Texas A&M, and some other big schools,” recalls Hoyt. “I started to get a little more interested in baseball and thought I may have a chance at getting to the next level. Coming into my first year at Centenary, I had finished up a really good fall and I was more than likely going to be the closer.”
Then, the door shut. A transfer rule unbeknownst to him and others with the team required that he transfer in with 80% of his major credits completed to be eligible to play baseball. Problem was, Hoyt only had roughly 68% wrapped up and would be forced to sit out his entire season. The ordeal even included a school staff member losing their job, while the lanky pitcher was relegated to practice and fell off the radar of Major League scouts.
The kicker came near the end of his season away from the live baseball, when a knee injury lingered into his senior year and limited him to a just few appearances. He’d graduate from Centenary, but he’d go undrafted in the MLB First-Year Player Draft and returned to Boise to re-evaluate his life plan. Back home, the itch to start his postgrad life eventually led him back to San Diego, where he worked for Seaforth Sportfishing.
“I went into that job not knowing a lot, but I was mostly doing maintenance [on sail boats]. There were even times I had to clean the crap off the boat.”
Unpleasant duties to most, he enjoyed everything about the job and quickly gained more responsibility. However, thoughts of baseball never ventured too far from the back of his mind and sooner than later he began the journey to get back into the game.
He circled the independent league, pitching for managers such as Jose Canseco and Tony Phillips. The time allowed him to work on different grips for his fastball, splitter, and slider, the last of which has always been his bread and butter. The success in the circuit led him to latch on with Olmecas de Tabasco of the Mexican League, which is comparable to the Triple-A level in the states. It’s there that he was able to build his velocity from 87 mph into the lows 90s, even hitting as high as 94 mph. Now equipped with big league stuff, the Atlanta Braves saw the potential and signed him to his first professional contract.
“When [the Braves] signed me, I went to Arizona to train with Tony [Phillips] before the season and he got me to really dial in mentally. He reassured me that my stuff was good enough. That confidence boost was important.”
Hoyt finally made his professional debut on April 7, 2013 in a blowout win at High-A Potomac, which was quite the graduation from pitching to his youngest sister in the backyard growing up in Idaho. He’d surrender three runs over 2.1 innings in that appearance, but he stuck and remained with the team through June until he received a callup to Double-A Mississippi. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, he limited opponents to a .147 (17-116) batting average and turned in a 2.48 ERA (9 ER/32.2 IP) over 22 appearances. He’d return to Double-A the following the season, even entering the year as the Braves No. 30 Prospect according to Baseball America, and eventually make his way up to Triple-A after posting a 1.14 ERA (4 ER/31.2 IP) in 28 appearances at Mississippi.
He’d toss four straight scoreless appearances to begin his time with Gwinnett, but like everything in life, learning comes with adversity and Hoyt received a heavy dose on July 31, 2014 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when he surrendered five runs in 2/3 of an inning.
“One bad outing as a reliever can kill your year,” he mentions when thinking back to that forgettable night. “My pitching coach pulled me aside after that game and said ‘Numbers wise, your season is done. You could go scoreless in August and still not get your ERA down. So let’s just work every day.’”
The ERA was gnarly, sitting at 8.20 and jumping off any stat sheet that a fan, coach, or baseball operations department would glance at. But, Hoyt refused to let it define his season and he finished the campaign by allowing only one unearned run over his last seven appearances. Moreover, he ventured to the Dominican this past October to build more confidence in his pitching and succeeded. He went 0-1 with a 2.88 ERA (8 ER/25.0 IP) and a .223 (21-94) opponents’ average in 26 games with Gigantes del Cibao.
In the midst of the Winter League season, another chapter would soon be added to his story. On January 14, 2015, the Atlanta Braves traded him to the Houston Astros. He found out via text from his friend, who offered congratulations and reassurance that the move would be great for him.
“I thought, what the heck is he talking about?” mentions Hoyt who said he had no clue about the move when he read the message. “But about five minutes later [Astros General Manager] Jeff Luhnow called me to let me know I was involved in the trade.”
He impressed Astros management this spring training by surrendering only three unearned runs over 9.2 innings and limiting hitters to a .132 batting average at big league camp. Working mostly one inning each time, he got the idea that the plan was for him to work late innings wherever he ended up.
“I like to think I’m that guy,” he says straight up when asked if the late inning pressure is something he is up for.
His pedigree sure offers the eclectic mash-up of successful big league relievers. So what would a Major League callup mean to the right-hander?
“So much,” says Hoyt as he pauses for a second. “I wouldn’t have taken this route and put so many things on the back burner. I’m looking forward to that day.”
So are we. The more people hear this story, the more backers you’ll have in your corner.
See the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in action at Chukchansi Park Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Tickets are available now at the Chukchansi Park Box Office or online at FresnoGrizzlies.com. For questions, call 559.320.TIXS during normal business hours (Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.). The box office opens at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 25 and Sunday, April 26.