(First appeared in The Charlotte Observer)
Baseball history is being made by the Hickory Crawdads this summer.
The Crawdads have passed their season record of 135 home runs–and there’s still a quarter of the season left. And they’re well on their way to shattering a Class A record set in 1998.
But with the home runs come a lot of swings and misses. The team also is on pace to break the minor league record for strikeouts and become the first team to whiff 1,400 times.
The Crawdads have struck out 10 times or more in more than half of their games, and they’re hit multiple home runs in more than a third of their games. This has led them to be the fourth-highest scoring team in the South Atlantic League and the second-worst team in batting average and on-base percentage.
Crawdads second baseman Ryan Rua leads all of minor league baseball with 29 home runs. At age 23, he is older than most players in the league, and there isn’t much precedent for sluggers his age making it from Class A to the majors.
But he is playing on a team filled with potential and loaded with some of the best young talent in baseball.
On a rainy afternoon last month in Hickory, seven scouts watched the Crawdads, the youngest South Atlantic League team.
The club includes five of the Texas Rangers’ top 10 prospects, according to Baseball Prospectus, an amateur baseball scouting service. The Rangers, Hickory’s major league parent club invested $13.7 million in those five players.
That collection of talent on one Class A team is rare. The Arkansas Travelers, the Angels’ Class AA affiliate, is the only other minor league team with even four hitters among the team’s top 10 prospects.
With a starting lineup whose average age is nearly three years younger than the rest of the South Atlantic League, Hickory’s talent has keyed the Crawdads’ run to first place in the Northern Division.
“For me being the older guy,” Rua said, “it’s fun to watch them and their talents they have at such a young age.”
While manager Corey Ragsdale said the players aren’t close to where they need to be as hitters, he also said there isn’t another minor league team he’d trade his for because of its sheer talent.
“This is their first full year of baseball,” Ragsdale said. “A bunch of them would be freshman in college right now. Some of the Latin kids would even be seniors in high school still. It’s a pretty big jump; they’re facing kids older than them every day of the season.”
Third baseman Joey Gallo, 19, and center fielder Lewis Brinson, 19, have accounted for nearly a third of the team’s home runs and more than a quarter of the team’s strikeouts. The two were drafted 10 picks apart last year and have roomed together for two years.
Gallo led the minors in home runs before suffering a groin injury that has kept him out for a short stint. He has what one scout called “majestic power.” Brinson is an excellent defender with power and speed. He has 17 home runs and 16 stolen bases.
Even though they signed for a combined $3.875 million, the two live small. Gallo grew up in Las Vegas, where he often would head to the Strip for dinner and a show on the weekend. Now, he and Brinson spend a lot of time playing video games.
“Maybe we can go out to eat a little more, but that’s about it,” Gallo said.
The other three young potential stars arrived through a different route. Catcher Jorge Alfaro, 20, right fielder Nomar Mazara, 18, and first baseman Ronald Guzman, 18, signed with Texas in international free agency. Mazara got the biggest bonus of the group: $5 million.
The three live together in an apartment with shortstop Luis Marte. Mazara, Guzman and Marte, along with 11 other Crawdads played last year for Ragsdale in Arizona, where they won the Arizona League rookie title. Since they’ve been together for more than a year, they have chemistry and can overcome a language barrier.
“We always mess around, saying stuff in Spanish–mostly bad words because that’s all we know–and they say a lot of bad words in English to us,” Gallo said. “We all get along really well, and it’s a lot of fun being with people that are from different places in the world and grew up a little different than you did.”
After finishing a half-game out of first place in the first half, the Crawdads now are third in the Northern Division. For the season, they are 2 1/2 games out of first.
The fans have taken notice of the team’s talent and success; attendance which had been falling during recent years, is up slightly to 2,075 fans per game.
The players also see how special this team is and sometimes envision themselves playing together with the Rangers in the future.
“We have a tremendous amount of talent on this team,” Gallo said. “I don’t see why this whole team can’t move up together and make it up to the top.”