Sunday, November 6, 2016

Anthony Alford Finds Redemption in the Desert

  Professional baseball players are not like the rest of us.  Since about 3rd Grade until the time they enter pro ball, almost all of them have been wildly successful at the sport - they've been the best player on just about every team they've played on.  Many have had to work hard at it, but the game just came naturally to them from a young age.

  Playing in the minor leagues can be their first extended experience with failure in the game.  Playing far from home, experiencing the rigours of playing every day, and having to take care of their own daily living tasks can compound matters.

  For Toronto Blue Jays top prospect Anthony Alford, 2016 was a trying time - his own first lengthy taste of adversity in the game.  Healthy and getting consistent reps, he's regained much of his former prospect lustre in the Arizona Fall League.

   The only athlete to ever be named both Mr Baseball and Mr Football in the state of Mississippi in the same year, Alford's pro baseball experience was very limited prior to last year, when he rocketed up the top prospect lists.
   Drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, he was labelled a first round talent, but most teams backed away due to his college football commitment.
   The Blue Jays, always one to roll the dice on a high risk, high reward athlete during the Alex Anthopoulos/Blake Parker days, took a gamble on Alford, signing him to a $750 000 bonus,  agreeing to allow him to play a modified baseball schedule while he chased his football dreams.
    For his part, Alford maintains that baseball was his first love all along, but the pressure to play college football as one of the nation's top Quarterback recruits was impossible to overcome.
    For his first two pro baseball seasons, Alford would report to Florida once the school year and spring football practice ended, catching the last few weeks of extended spring training, then suiting up for a month of Gulf Coast League action before heading back to college in early August.
    The Blue Jays patiently sat by, hoping that Alford would one day commit to baseball.  In the summer of 2015, they quickly promoted him to Lansing, and he left a huge impression after only a week with the Lugnuts.  Toronto waived a pile of cash at him in order to convince him to finally give up on football, and Alford admitted that while it was tough to turn down, he still wanted to pursue his goal of a pro football career.
   The two sides were at something of a crossroads.  The Blue Jays, for their part, were having their patience tested.  One of their top hopefuls, a three quarters of a million dollars investment,  had amassed all of just over 100 plate appearances to show for three minor league seasons.  Alford's draft class peers were speeding past him in terms of development.  Alford was going through a transitional period himself - after transferring from Southern Miss to Ole Miss after his freshman year, he had to sit out a year, and was readying himself for a new team and a new position (Defensive Back, with some kick returning duties) with the Rebels.
   The gifted Alford, who teammates good naturedly call The Freak due to his off the charts athleticism, had turned a lot of heads in his short time with Ole Miss.  His talents were obvious, but due to his relative collegiate football inexperience, his game skills were raw.  After starting the first few games of the year with the Rebels, he found himself in a reserve role, and was beginning to question his devotion to football.
   In late September, Alford shocked both the baseball and college football worlds by leaving Ole Miss for the Blue Jays.  After a three year courtship, Toronto finally had their man.  Alford quickly left Oxford for Florida for a few weeks of play in the the Instructional League, then packed his bags with his young bride (Alford had left Lansing in mid-July in order to get married before football season started; the Blue Jays brass was reportedly less than thrilled) for Australia, where he suited up for the Canberra Cavalry of the ABL.
   Alford was over matched against the veteran Aussie league pitchers.  He expanded his strike zone, and saw fewer strikes as the season progressed as a result.  "It's like they pitch you backwards," he said after facing a lot of breaking pitches early in the count.  "I saw a lot of breaking balls and fast balls out of the zone. I put myself in a bad situation a lot of the time by being too aggressive."  Still, he was undeterred, reflecting after the experience, "I really came over here to learn as much as I can.  I wasn't really worried about the stats.  I know they will come."  The crash course in pitch recognition he received Down Under served him well when he returned stateside.  Sent back to Lansing to resume his baseball education, Alford hit .293/.418/.394 in 50 games for the Lugnuts before being promoted to High A Dunedin.  Against tougher Florida State League pitching, Alford didn't skip a beat, posting a line of .302/.380/.444 for the D-Jays.
   His 2015 season put Alford firmly on the radar, establishing him as the Blue Jays top prospect, and a Baseball America Top 100 prospect on the basis of his strong showing.  The sky appeared to be the limit for Alford, and at 21, he had resurrected his baseball career, and seemed to be on an expressway to the major leagues.

    Alford repeated Dunedin to start the year, which raised some eyebrows who thought he was bound for AA New Hampshire, with maybe a cameo at AAA Buffalo before the year was out (a visitor to the Phillies Minor League complex in March for a spring training game against the Blue Jays saw Alford in New Hampshire's lineup).  There was a new administration running the farm department, and they felt it was best that Alford spend at least another half season at High A, giving him one full year at that level, while he continued to work on his strike zone management, and developing his power more.
    Alford's season began in a promising way - he drew a lead off walk in his first at bat, stole second, and later scored on an RBI groundout.  The ability to get on base and game-changing speed - Alford's two biggest calling cards - were already on display.  In his third plate appearance, Alford reached on an error, and two batters later, rounded 3rd and headed for home on a single to left.  The throw came in high, and the Catcher leaped to snare it, and came down right on top of a sliding Alford.  He got up and walked off the field on his own, but it didn't look good:

   The club was mum on the extent of the injury, but Alford, who had ACL surgery on his right knee as a junior in high school, missed a month, and returned with a brace on that knee:
Eddie Michels/Rocketsports photo

  The combined effects of the brace and rust from the month-long layoff caused him to struggle at the plate, and he didn't get his batting average over the Mendoza Line until later in the month.  He was in the midst of an 11-game hitting streak when he raced in for a pop up just over the head of Dunedin SS Richie Urena in an extra inning game on June 10th. Alford and Urena collided, and Alford was carried off on a stretcher and spent the night in hospital.  A CT scan revealed no fracture, but he was diagnosed with a concussion.  Alford had not been formally diagnosed with one before, but as a football player, had absorbed his share of hits over the years, and the Blue Jays were rightly concerned.
   Alford missed only a dozen games, but the compounding effects of his injuries and missed time caused him to struggle for the rest of June and the first half of July.  It wasn't until August that he began to feel comfortable at the plate, and it showed in the .280/.352/.452 line he put up - most encouraging to the front office was the 7 Home Runs he hit in July and August, evidence of his growing power. One redeeming aspect of the season was that Alford was sharing the outfield on his birthday with a rehabbing Jose Bautista on July 20th - both homered in that game.  He did admit that it was an up-and-down year, though: "Most definitely, it's been an emotional roller coaster for me this year. On and off the field. I've learned a lot though.  But it does suck being injured a lot."

   So, Alford had some time to make up for, and the Arizona Fall League was the place to do it.  Created by MLB in the 90s, the AFL has served as a sort of finishing school for top prospects, where they can get some extra reps against elite competition on MLB fields, with team medical staff nearby if needed.  Teams used to send these players to various Caribbean Leagues for this added experience, but playing time and adequate medical facilities in the event of an injury were not guaranteed.
   Assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox with fellow Blue Jays prospects Conner Greene, Danny Jansen, Justin Shafer, Tim Mayza, and John Stilson, Alford started slowly, but his game has taken off, and he's drawn considerable attention.
   One source I wanted to share is the venerable Bernie Pleskoff, a former MLB scout who now writes for several publications.  Pleskoff is covering the AFL, and is impressed by Alford's toolkit, especially his speed:
He has exceptional speed for such a big man. Looking bigger and stronger than his listed height and weight, he has a very strong and powerful upper body and a very well proportioned frame that can help him drive through the ball at the plate. Power will continue to develop.
  He's also been impressed with Alford's play in the outfield:
Defensively, Alford has looked very capable as a center fielder with very good instincts and a strong, accurate arm. He looks natural in the outfield as he closes quickly on balls hit to the outfield. He has shown no signs of being intimidated by the difficult-to-play high, sunny skies in the Arizona desert.
  On the downside, Pleskoff is not certain that Alford's power will develop:
 In the time I have scouted Alford in the Arizona Fall League I have noticed that his swing lacks loft. He is rather flat through the ball, relying on pure bat speed to hit the gaps. He can start running and keep on running. He may be more of a doubles and triples hitter than one that hits a large number of home runs. If he gets a bit more uppercut in his swing, the loft might increase. For now, however, his swing is fine and the results will come.
   Pleskoff is also concerned about Alford's knee and injury history.  Just the same, he acknowledges, " His speed, defensive prowess and his projected hitting ability and potential power are especially exciting for a center fielder."  He gives Alford a grade of 55 (out of 80) on the scouting scale - a solid, potential everyday MLBer who is still raw, and learning about the game.

   Bobby DeMuro pitched in college and for a season in independent ball, and now writes for several media outlets, including (like Pleskoff), Today's Knuckleball.  He also filed a report (with plenty of video) on Alford.
   Like Pleskoff, DeMuro is impressed with Alford's size, which he terms a testament to his years of football.
DeMuro is fully on board with Alford's top prospect status:
Despite now transitioning to baseball full-time, he’s never lost his overall strength and athleticism, and he’s really put it to good use during his adjustment process of becoming more sport-specific for baseball. No longer a two-sport athlete, Alford is here full time trying to break through with Toronto, and his physical tools, including his exceptional speed, are on full display.
   DeMuro breaks down Alford's hit tool first:

   DeMuro is concerned somewhat about the movement in Alford's set up:
At the plate, Alford is a sight to see with an approach more advanced than his football-dominated past might suggest, and a very athletic swing that finds him making hard, consistent line drive contact. Granted, a big leg kick and considerable hand movement at load leave some holes in his swing, and Alford is susceptible to getting beat with hard stuff on his inner half considering how many moving parts he must get in line along the way. Further, he often finds himself leaking out in front of off-speed offerings simply by virtue of the momentum from his elongated leg kick and load, and the challenge in consistently timing his swing mechanics to each pitch and pitcher. That all results in some swing-and-miss in his game, and he’ll likely always strike out at a decent rate.

   At the same time, he acknowledges Alford's ability to make adjustments, and his "mature understanding" of how and when to hit the ball to right field that helps to compensate.  He admits that Alford is "one of those guys you stop and watch every time he comes to the plate, because he swings hard, hits the ball hard, and has the speed to make things interesting on the bases."  Alford's athleticism will allow him to hammer mistakes, and while there will always be that swing-and-miss element (a 29% K rate this year), Alford sees a lot of pitches in most of his at bats, walks at a decent rate, and uses the whole field.
   Like Pleskoff, DeMuro terms Alford as still relatively young in baseball terms, but thinks the sky is the limit for the toolsy prospect:
There is still work to be done here, and yet Alford’s physical tools have never been in question, and his mature approach to the game is encouraging considering his relative lack of high level experience to this point. To me, there’s little question this equation will produce an exciting big league outfielder one day soon.

   It's no secret that I have been a huge fan of Alford's for some time.  I've followed him since his freshman year at Southern Miss, where an off-field incident caused him to leave the school and transfer to Ole Miss. He has overcome a difficult upbringing to find himself as a player and a person - Alford is not a one-dimensional jock.  He faithfully responds to correspondence, and helps to run a mentoring program back home in the off season.  He is the real deal, and even though his baseball education is not complete, and there may always be some rough edges to his game as a result, he has the skills to become a fixture atop the Blue Jays batting order, and patrol centrefield at the Rogers Centre for years to come.


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