Every time I go up there, I want to do damage. – Austin Allen
SAN ANTONIO —The emergence of Josh Naylor’s in-game power has been the biggest positive storyline to emerge in the early-going for the San Antonio Missions. After he hit just two homers in the 42 games after his Texas League call-up in 2017, he already has seven in 2018.
Though he doesn’t have the same first-round draft pedigree as Naylor, catcher Austin Allen has been right behind the young Canadian on the Texas League OPS leaderboard and has been turning heads in the process.
Allen’s hot start is also a departure from last year. The St. Louis native posted a .255/.344/.382 line through the first two months of 2017 in Lake Elsinore, despite an impressive 10.6% walk rate. However, he heated up in June. The then-23-year-old put up a .297/.357/.566 slash line from there until the end of the season. He sacrificed some walks, but added a ton of power and actually decreased his strikeout rate slightly.
That success at the dish seems to have carried over to the Texas League, a league that tends to punish hitters more than the hitter-friendly confines of the California League.
When Allen launched a walk-off solo shot for the Missions Wednesday, he became the Texas League slugging percentage leader and tied Naylor for the league lead with seven homers. He has reached base safely in 15 of his first 19 games to start the season.
MadFriars recently caught up with the Florida Tech alum, who the Padres chose in the fourth round of the 2015 draft after he was named Texas League Player of the Week.
MadFriars: How have things been developing for you since we spoke last season?
Austin Allen: I’ve been good, I had a productive offseason, trained really hard. I was with the same group of guys that I’ve been with, a few big leaguers, picking their brains about hitting, about some defensive stuff, game-calling. I lost some weight, gained some flexibility and mobility, so it was productive from that standpoint. Then I went to big league camp and learned so much there – just an unbelievable amount. The guys there welcomed me with open arms – Hedgey and A.J. Ellis, those guys took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, talked to me during games about situations and stuff. It was definitely an incredible experience.
What have you taken from big league camp and implemented in your game this season?
Pretty much everything. Me and Hedgey, we’d talk a lot about mechanics, and so would me and A.J. Ellis. One thing that I’ve learned is super important is the pitcher-catcher relationship, the game-calling that goes along with that, and the trust that the pitchers need to have in me. I took that to heart and that’s one thing that I’ve definitely been trying to do, just improving my game-calling.
What is it about Hedges that makes pitchers feel so comfortable throwing to him?
Austin Allen: Well first off, he’s a really good receiver, thrower, blocker, all of the above defensively. But what I was surprised with – because this was the first time being around him for more than just a few minutes – is his personality. He’s a super nice guy, down to earth, just a really good teammate. His reputation is that he wants to help others succeed, and that’s what people want out of teammates.
Speaking of teammates succeeding, since last time we talked, Joey Lucchesi made his MLB debut. Were you able to catch that?
Austin Allen: Yeah, I did, and I texted him too. We talked a bit, and then I texted him after he got his first win. He’s great. When he told me, I was so happy for him. I got goosebumps when he was telling me. It’s always cool when your buddies get called up or when they do something good. You definitely want to see that.
So you’re not surprised at all by his early success then?
Austin Allen: No, not surprising at all. Great guy, works hard, and he’s a competitor.
Last year, you played in the California League, a pretty good hitter’s environment, and now you’re in the Texas League. What are some of the differences between these two leagues?
Austin Allen: The weather, that definitely plays a factor. The ballparks, the ball doesn’t fly as much. But it’s baseball. No matter what level you’re at, you still gotta throw the ball over the plate, and you gotta put a good swing on it every time. And swing hard. I kept my approach that I started using the second half of the year, and it’s gone pretty well so far.
You say that it’s not as easy to drive the ball, but you’ve been driving the ball pretty well lately. Has anything in particular changed, or have you been keeping things the same since that second half?
Austin Allen: It’s definitely just approach and the intent that you have. Every time that I go up there, I want to do damage, so I’m going to swing hard, under control, and swing at good pitches in my zone. That’s basically all that I’ve been looking for, and it’s been working out for me so far.
You’ve done most of the catching this year, but the Missions also have Webster Rivas and Kyle Overstreet who can catch as well. How are you feeling about the increased playing time at first base?
Austin Allen: I played one game there last year, and I played a few games there in college, but it’s still new to me. It’s fun. It’s a challenge, and I’m all about challenges. I played there when we were at Northwest Arkansas, and it was good – once I got the first ground ball out of the way, I was at ease. It’s definitely different being on that side of the ball.
Transitioning to a new position can’t be easy. How long do you think it would take for you to really get comfortable at first base? Or are you solely focused on becoming the best catcher you can be?
Austin Allen: I want to be the most versatile player that I can, and get up to San Diego and help out any way that I can. That’s my goal. If I go over to first base and give Hosmer or Naylor a day off, that’d be great. That only improves my stock and keeps me in the lineup for a few more games instead of sitting on the bench. But for getting comfortable at first base, I just need more reps, that’s it, and then over time I’ll get used to it.
A couple of guys have come up with you from the Storm last year, including Josh Naylor, Logan Allen, and Overstreet. Who are the leaders in the clubhouse? There are a lot of young players on the squad, can you talk about what that dynamic is like?
Austin Allen: Everybody holds each other accountable. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed with this team. We’ve got some older guys here, too. River (Stevens) will definitely keep people accountable. When he talks, you listen – he’s one of the veteran guys, he’s been at this level before. We listen to him because he holds himself accountable – if he says ‘you need to run hard to first base,’ if he puts the ball in play, he’s going to run hard to first base. He definitely leads by example. But for the most part, we have a lot of guys that have leadership qualities, from the pitching staff and the position player side, so that’s really cool, you don’t get that on many teams.
You caught Cal Quantrill and Logan Allen last year and are back with them this year. Any changes in what they’ve been doing from last year, especially with Cal still recovering from surgery?
Austin Allen: Cal’s consistent. His changeup and fastball are really good, but his slider has definitely improved. One thing that I’ve seen, aside from his slider, is his intent and his mentality when he’s up there. He just wants to attack guys and put them away. When he’s stepping on the gas and he’s ready to go, the infield’s not going to fall asleep, and I’m going to stay on my toes back there. If I call a slider, I’m going to do my best to block it if I need to and be sure I’m on the same page as him. Logan doesn’t put anybody to sleep behind him either. His changeup has so much depth to it and he can throw it at any time in a count. His slider is getting better, and his fastball command is always going to be there.
You’re coming from California to Texas, so I have to ask – California Mexican food, or Tex Mex?
Austin Allen: I dunno, they’re both good. I like Mexican food from anywhere – I’ll eat Mexican food down in Florida, so it doesn’t really matter to me, as long as it’s good.
Have you been to the Alamo yet?
Austin Allen: No, but I went down to the Riverwalk for dinner, that was pretty cool.
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