Rancho Cucamonga, California —— Talk to any prospect evaluator that is familiar with San Diego Padres catcher Austin Allen, be they public-facing or within an organization, and the prevailing thought is the same: huge power, big guy, almost certain to end up at first base. Scouts are near unanimous in that thought, arguing Allen soon won’t be able to handle the physical duties catching requires. I’ve even pondered the same, assuming he’ll one day find a role catching part-time while playing more first base (and, if he ever gets to an American League organization, finding time as a designated hitter).
In fact, there’s really only one person who believes Austin Allen will stay behind the plate for the rest of his career — and that’s Austin Allen.
“My expectations for myself are higher than what anybody else thinks I can do,” the catcher told Baseball Census in a conversation before the Lake Elsinore Storm’s Thursday afternoon road game at LoanMart Field. This isn’t a new desire, of course; Allen has been very vocal in the past about staying behind the plate, and while time and positional need will ultimately tell the tale, a very good 2017 season buoyed by a strong finish the last few weeks is making the catching case for the San Diego Padres prospect.
“Honestly, I feel great,” Allen said, ironically just hours before he blasted his third home run in three days while also catching Jerry Keel’s complete game two-hitter against Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday night. “Other than the little inevitable dings, the foul balls and stuff, I really feel great. This offseason, I trained extremely hard every single day in order to catch as many games as I possibly can, and [field manager] Edwin [Rodriguez], he’s done a great job of mixing me in at DH, giving my legs a little break.”
“I had a weak stretch right before the All-Star Break where my legs were dead, but other than that brief period, I’ve felt the best I think I’ve ever felt [in pro ball],” he continued, noting the last few weeks have been particularly strong even as the dog days of August wear on around him. “I’ve been managing everything better. Last year helped with this. By August of last year, I couldn’t move. My knees hurt, my arm hurt, I didn’t feel good mentally. I was exhausted. But this year, I’ve looked forward to coming to the field every day and playing as hard as I can.”
That in and of itself is a critical hurdle to jump for any catcher, and especially a broad-shouldered, 6’4”, 225 lb. one like Austin Allen. The San Diego Padres prospect has spent three-quarters of his time in 2017 behind the plate, and learning how to manage his body in a full-season role like this is unquestionably a feather in the cap as he makes a case to the Padres to remain in a catching role as 2018 looms.
“This past winter, I trained for 140 games, and [this coming offseason], I’ll be training for 174 games,” Allen noted. “Remember when [Yadier Molina] came out and commented about him supposedly being tired? He said he trains for 174 games, and I took that, and I was like ‘wow, I should be doing that.’”
Austin Allen talks catching mechanics
If staying on top of the position is particularly key for a catcher the size of Austin Allen, so too is staying below it all — the baseball, that is. Here — watch this video of the San Diego Padres prospect receiving and framing this week during Lake Elsinore’s series in Rancho Cucamonga, and you’ll quickly see the unique way Allen must come set and show a target because of his size:
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As you might expect, Allen’s focus centers on picking up strikes across the lowest band of the strike zone — the most important place for his pitchers to work.
“I’ve struggled with that low strike because of my size,” Allen readily admitted, noting knee-high strikes have been his primary focus throughout 2017. “It’s harder for me to get that, so I really have to work on that a lot. My hot zone is up. I know I’ve got a really good chance on getting a call on [higher pitches], even if they are out of the zone, but I’m a little cold on the bottom of the zone.”
There are ways around this, of course, and Austin Allen has found two of them: beating the ball to the spot to help with framing, and experimenting with new lower sets in body position to start low and work up. Both are works in progress, especially considering Allen credits this summer as the first where he’s really honed in on a new level of specific, nuanced defensive work behind the plate. But the development of both more than anything else in his game will dictate whether Austin Allen can stay behind the plate for years to come.
“I’m very confident beating the high pitch to the spot, but sometimes it’s been tough to beat the low ball down to the spot, and the prep before the pitch is the biggest key,” Allen said. “Focusing on prepping down. Not putting my glove on the ground, but starting very low and coming up through it, and timing it right. Some days, it’s easier than others. If you’ve got a guy who has his command that day, you can trust yourself to stay as low as possible for as long as possible and then come up. But that’s been the big focus, beating the ball to the spot.”
To help with that is the second part of Allen’s summer development behind the plate: a significantly lower set than in years past, including going far below the crouch with nobody on base.
“John Nester and Ryley Westman, two of our catching coordinators, they’ve really got me going to one knee as much as possible with no one on base, even on breaking balls,” Allen said. “That gets me lower, it gets the target lower, and it clears the left knee so I have more room to move. I’ve become really comfortable going to one knee no matter who is throwing. I wasn’t comfortable at first in spring training, but they have emphasized doing it as much as possible. And it saves my legs a little bit. That’s huge, because I want to be able to produce offensively all year, too.”
Austin Allen showing impressive power, too
Let’s talk a little bit about that offensive production Allen mentions, because lost in this tale of his catching challenges and development is one big aspect of the prospect’s season: he’s putting up impressive numbers at the plate with yet another late power surge now even as August winds down. Entering play on Saturday night, Allen has 21 homers, 29 doubles, and a .505 slugging percentage in 432 at-bats — an impressive showing for a guy arguably robbed of a postseason All-Star nod in the California League this week.
“Our assistant farm director, he came into town one day,” Allen recalled, “and he was like ‘I haven’t looked at your average once, but I do know you’re hitting for more power than last year, you have more doubles than last year, and you’re walking more. We can’t ask for anything else. Keep trending on that, and you’ll be fine.’ Ever since then, I’ve been like, ‘OK, I can buy into that.’”
That’s not the only thing Austin Allen has bought into, either. You can now count him among the game’s launch angle acolytes in fully understanding that his future, regardless of defensive position, rests on how often he can hit the ball hard in the air.
“The whole launch angle thing you hear? I’ve bought into that, because the money is in the air,” Allen acknowledged. “I’ve changed my approach a little bit, not just hitting the ball hard, but looking more so into the flight of the ball. And if somebody says ‘oh, you’re a 15-20 homer guy,’ I want to be a 30-homer guy. If they see me as a .250 hitter, I want to be a .300 hitter. I haven’t really been looking at my stats, but it’s like what we were talking about back at Inland [Empire], my main focus is hitting it hard.”
And hit it hard, he shall.
There’s little question that Austin Allen will keep doing that — but if he continues to prove himself behind the plate against all odds and virtuallu every evaluation pegging him for first base, watch out; the San Diego Padres may yet have a bona fide catching prospect on their hands here.