Today, Lake Elsinore Storm catcher Austin Allen was named as the California League’s Player of the Month for July by MiLB. In 29 games, the former fourth-round pick (2015) hit ten homers, had 46 hits, and posted a .691 slugging percentage, all of which led the league. On the season, the 23-year-old is hitting .295/.364/.513, and his 18 round-trippers are a career high, easily surpassing the eight he hit last year.
Although the Cal League has a reputation for being hitter-friendly, his numbers are still noteworthy – it’s not every day that a catching prospect is able to put up those kinds of numbers. He’s also only striking out 20% of the time, one of the better numbers among ranked position players in the Padres system.
I had a chance to speak with Allen postgame on a trip up to Lake Elsinore, and he talked about what has led to his recent home run binge. Considering that he has hit 15 of his 18 dingers in the last two months, it seemed to be appropriate that he was wearing a t-shirt with the tongue-in-cheek slogan Make America Rake Again.
“The biggest thing is I just want to be on time, but on time for me is early. I tried to make that adjustment the whole first half, and it just seemed like it wouldn’t really click. After talking to Edwin (Moreno, the Lake Elsinore manager) a lot about starting early and slow, early and slow, I find myself getting into a better hitting position, and I was fortunate to get off to a good second half start.”
While Austin Hedges, the current Padres catcher, struggled with his offense in the minors while working on fine-tuning his elite defense, Allen’s path is a bit different.
“I always believe that my bat’s going to be there, but my biggest focus, year in and year out, since I’ve been drafted, has been to be the best catcher that I can possibly be. Hedges, he’s a great catcher, and I watch video of him, trying to pick up little things to make myself better, but for me, personally, I feel like my bat’s going to take care of itself, and I want to be able to help the pitching staff any way that I can.”
If there is a knock on the 6’4″ slugger, it’s his defense. Unfortunately, not many Storm games are televised on MiLB.tv, and in the game that I witnessed, I thought he looked fine, making some good picks and blocks on balls in the dirt. While stolen bases are not all on the catcher, he’s thrown out 22% of runners on the year, which is the lowest percentage of any Cal League catcher with more than 35 games played. Some project him to slot over to first base eventually, due to the dearth of 6’4″ catchers in the majors.
I asked Allen if there was something specific on defense that he’s working on honing, or if it was just a lot of small, every day things he’s working on improving.
“It’s kind of an overall package, just beating the ball to the spot and getting under it, blocking everything in the dirt, getting myself in the best position possible. We’ve been working on that every single day. Our pre-game routine is pretty down pat right now. Freddy Flores goes out there and he’s throwing balls to me and I’m blocking them, receiving them. One of my favorite catchers ever is Yadi (Molina), and I like watching him, trying to pick out little things that will make me better.”
If there’s one thing that I took away from talking with him about his defense, it’s the passion that he has for playing the position. Obviously, it’s difficult to make it as far as he has without being extremely dedicated to the craft, but I was struck by how focused he was on improving. If he does ever move away from catcher, it’s certainly not going to be for a lack of effort or heart – I think he’s got it in spades.
I recently spoke with the newly-promoted Joey Lucchesi, and when I mentioned that had spoken with Allen a few weeks prior, before I could even spit out my related question, he said “Miss that guy. He’s a good player.” When I asked him about Allen’s catching prowess, he seemed puzzled that I was even questioning it. While giving the caveat that “everyone needs to improve”, he said, “He was our main guy. He was our dude. I enjoyed throwing to him.”
Perhaps then, it’s no surprise that when I asked Allen a loaded question about the dominant pitching staff the Storm have had (“Which specific pitch by a Storm starter do you think is the hardest to hit?”), that he mentions Lucchesi right away.
“Joey Lucchesi has got a fastball, curveball, and changeup, but his changeup is like a “churve”. That’s what some of the guys around here call it, because it looks like his curveball, but it’s different, and when it’s on, it’s unreal. He’s a great guy, he’s funky, but that’s probably one of the best pitches I’ve caught. I love Cal Quantrill’s fastball, I love (Jacob) Nix’s curveball – I mean that thing’s just devastating. And (Eric) Lauer is just one of the best pitchers I’ve ever caught. I’ve been fortunate to catch some of these guys.”
He then elaborated on Jacob Nix, who was also recently promoted to San Antonio.
“I had Nix last year in Fort Wayne, and I’ve always said he has the easiest mid-90s I’ve ever seen. It’s just so smooth, and he’s got a wipeout curveball that he can throw at any time, and he knows what it’s going to do and he knows where to put it. Really, he’s just a competitor, and he’s going to fill up the zone, and he’s going to say “Here’s my stuff, I dare you to hit it.” And that’s awesome coming from a guy like him, where it looks easy and natural.”
It will be interesting to see if Allen can build on this hot streak once he leaves the Cal League (which will likely be next season). Behind Hedges, there’s not a lot of talent banging down the doors in the Padres organization. Double-A and Triple-A are full of journeyman-type guys in their mid/late 20s or early 30s. Rule 5 draftee Luis Torrens still has a ways to go offensively, hitting just .180/.255/.230. At the AZL level, Luis Campusano and Blake Hunt offer some high ceilings, but as high school catchers, are years and years away.
If Allen can keep hitting like he has, and continue working his defense, he could be the real deal. Even if he moves off catcher, he still has bat that looks like it can do some serious damage at the upper levels. But, as previously stated he’s committed to the position. He told Baseball Census, “I want to catch, and I’ve made that as clear as I can to the guys in the front office, to our general manager and assistant general managers, to everybody. I want to catch as long as I can.”