Bryce Ball wasn’t even thinking of himself at first. As news was breaking first that college baseball was suspended and later that it was canceled for the entire spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, his mind wandered to his former teammates at Dallas Baptist University. After only 16 games, the
Bryce Ball wasn’t even thinking of himself at first. As news was breaking first that college baseball was suspended and later that it was canceled for the entire spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, his mind wandered to his former teammates at Dallas Baptist University. After only 16 games, the Patriots were ranked 21st in the country. The season was over before the club could sniff a chance at Omaha, and individually, upperclassmen wouldn’t be able to improve their Draft stocks with a deep spring run. Ball’s concern only increased with reports that the 2020 First-Year Player Draft could be limited to only five or 10 rounds as baseball owners try to rein in costs.
Then an Easter conversation with his mother, Rebecca, served as a simple reminder. It could have been him.
“My mom pointed out how fortunate and how blessed I’d been to not be in this situation,” Ball said. “The fact that I was so close to going back to school — I almost had my mind made up — and for this to happen to me, it would have been devastating. It still is.”
Now ranked the Braves’ No. 21 prospect, Ball is already the poster child of the late-round bloomer pick, one who might not get a chance to reach similar heights under possible 2020 Draft rules. Consider this — of the 900 prospects ranked by MLB.com, 126 were drafted in the sixth round or later. Seventy-five were selected in the 11th round or later. Ball, a 24th-rounder last year out of DBU, fits both camps and yet has climbed to his solid standing in a good system through the plus power coming from the left side of his 6-foot-6 frame.
The 2019 Draft wasn’t the first time Ball had been overlooked on the diamond. The imposing first baseman made the 2016 Des Moines Register‘s All-Iowa team after belting 17 home runs and slugging a strong 1.245 as a Mason City Newman Catholic senior. (Yankees No. 17 prospect T.J. Sikkema also made the same team three years before he was taken 38th overall by New York.) But even that type of attention didn’t send scouts or college coaches to the northern section of the Hawkeye State. Newman Catholic was a school of 200 kids total. Ball’s graduating class was 52. The numbers were outstanding, but the competition fairly less so.
“In Iowa, there are good players for sure,” Ball said. “Recruiting out of there has definitely changed since I was there. There are a lot more guys going places. I think a lot of classes since I graduated in 2016 have helped to get rid of that stigma that these small schools like mine don’t have a lot of D-I or pro talent. … I think that played a part, not facing super high competition. Evaluators might have thought it’d be hard to see how I’d do if I went to a bigger school. I think that played into it.”
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) February 26, 2020
As a result, Ball only received one offer coming out of high school — to local junior college North Iowa Area Community College. This wasn’t exactly a snub. NIACC made three NJCAA Division II World Series in 2013, 2015 and 2016 before Ball set foot on campus, and seven players (including Ball) have heard their names called in the Draft. Not bad for a community college in a cold-weather state.
Ball fit in quickly at NIACC, hitting .419/.534/.640 with seven homers and a 37/47 K/BB ratio over 58 games as a freshman. In his sophomore campaign, he traded some of that hit tool for power, posting a .294 average while doubling his homer output to 14 in four fewer games. The left-handed slugger wasn’t hiding in the crowd any longer.
“You notice when there are a few radar guns or just scouts in the stands,” Ball said. “It’s not a packed house for a Tuesday doubleheader at noon. You see those guys, and if you have some success, you know you’ll be getting some looks. That was obviously the case. I know they’re watching me, but I didn’t know what they were thinking.”
Ball received some interest from area pro scouts but always seemed destined to take his talents to NCAA ball, where he again showed he could perform against better competition. He received a handful of Division I offers — a long road from his high-school days — and went on two schools before falling in love with Dallas Baptist. He felt drawn to the philosophies of head coach Dan Heefner, particularly how the Patriots skipper could make Ball into more than just a hulking presence in the box.
“When you first step on campus, he has this Powerpoint presentation and everyone likes to talk about how we rank highly in the nation in doubles and home runs,” Ball said. “The one thing is we’re not power hitters or swing-for-the-fences guys. We’re going to be really good hitters. We’re going to be two-strike hitters. We’re going to hit a ton of doubles. Before you swing, it’s the mentality that counts. We’re going to get 1 percent better every day. That’s DBU’s saying.”
After a slow start at his highest level to date, Ball found his stroke in the spring of 2019. He led DBU with a .443 OBP, .614 slugging percentage, 1.057 OPS and 18 homers. No one else on the Patriots went deep more than eight times on the season. The recognitions flew in. Two-time national Player of the Week honors. First Team All-Missouri Valley Conference. National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association first-team All-American. American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings second-team All-American.
But again, big numbers and big awards didn’t necessarily mean big next steps would follow. Ball was a part-time designated hitter at DBU, and given his size, he was likely going to be chained to first base at the next level. If he was going to be a pro prospect, he was going to need to find a big-time believer that his batting performance would carry over to the pros. He was confident about his game, but whether another such believer was out there would take some time.
“I met with a lot of scouts beforehand at scout meetings, and I never got a great idea on what could happen,” Ball said. “They were asking me what I thought, and I told them what I thought. I thought I could be a top-10-rounder. That’s what I stuck with. Day 1 went. Day 2 went. I didn’t get picked. I was a little frustrated and exhausted by the whole thing mentally. Just wanted to let go of it. Woke up and got in touch with my agency and laid out what I thought was right and appropriate, and if it happened, it happened. If it didn’t, fine, I was happy to go back to school.”
On the third day of the Draft, Ball took his mind off things with errands. With DBU out of the Division I postseason after losing in the Lubbock regional, he needed to start packing up and thinking of heading home. The way he remembers it, the Braves were the only team to directly reach out, inquiring about taking him three separate times on Day 3 for a given number. Ball stuck to his six-digit figure. Finally after a trip to Wal-Mart, Atlanta made the decision to go for it. Ball was selected in the 24th round, 727nd overall.
“They basically gave me my offer and said, ‘If you want it, here it is at this round and this pick,'” Ball said. “I thought that’ll do and was excited. It was a little blackout of a moment. My whole dream was to play professional baseball, and I was very fortunate to get that opportunity. “
Ball signed for $197,500 within two weeks of getting that call, costing the Braves $72,500 against their bonus allotment. The agreement was closer to the slot assigned to the 220th overall pick or a late seventh-round selection, well within the range Ball originally saw himself going before he had to wait out the first two Draft Days on the sidelines.
Atlanta skipped the college product over the complex-level Gulf Coast League and sent him to Rookie Advanced Danville, where he didn’t have the slow start he required back at DBU. Ball picked up multiple hits in each of his first three Minor League games and smacked five homers in his first nine contests. He hit .324/.410/.676 with 13 long balls in 41 games with the D-Braves — numbers that eventually made him Appalachian League Player of the Year.
“My first week I was cutting myself a little bit of slack,” Ball said. “I thought it doesn’t matter what happens here. I’ve got a wood bat in my hands. Let’s just try not to do anything crazy. Let’s do the same thing. If it doesn’t work, we’ll reevaluate. Luckily, it worked. The approach worked. My swing felt great.”
The Braves jumped Ball to Class A Rome on Aug. 10, a somewhat aggressive assignment for a player whose Draft status had been up in the air two months prior. He carried his hot bat to the South Atlantic League, hitting .337/.367/.547 with four homers in 21 games.
By summer’s end, Ball had gone yard 35 times in 125 games between DBU, Danville and Rome. His power played with metal. It played with wood. It played in college and it played in the pros. It was time for people to take notice.
“It comes back to the approach,” Ball said. “My approach is to keep things super simple. When you start to complicate things and introduce too many moving parts, you’re going to get out of whack, especially with how long I am. With my arms and my legs, I can get lost really quickly. Just keeping the mind-set super simple.”
The Braves rewarded Ball with a non-roster invitation to Major League camp for his first Spring Training, and it wasn’t long before the big new guy in the clubhouse made heads turn. The club’s potential successor to Freddie Freeman at first reported early around the same time as pitchers and catchers — “it was strongly suggested,” he jokes — and quickly made an impression with his pop. Several new teammates took to calling the slugger “Drago” after Rocky’s Russian nemesis in the fourth film of that boxing franchise. The power helps, but it doesn’t hurt that Ball does have a bit of a resemblance to 1980s-era Dolph Lundgren. He backed up the nickname with a homer in his third Grapefruit League game, going deep off Orioles left-hander Bruce Zimmermann.
“I definitely walked in nervous, but it was a nervous excitement for sure,” Ball said. “I grew up watching Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis, all these guys. Just to see them and work next to them. It’s just insane to watch them work. What’s even more impressive to me was how nice they were to us first-year guys. They weren’t standoffish. They were open arms and tried to show us how to do things right.”
The 21-year-old did take some of his lumps in Florida, going just 3-for-16 with three walks and eight strikeouts, but his batting-practice power shows left an impression. Perhaps the biggest development of his spring was on the other side of the ball anyway. Ball worked directly with Braves third-base coach Ron Washington — the guy the movie Moneyball quoted as saying of playing first base, “It’s incredibly hard” — on the finer points of playing the cold corner and came away more confident with the glove than he’d been at Newman Catholic, NIACC or DBU.
“I’ve never really had a true infield coach working with me at first base,” Ball said. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re a piece of clay, and you need to be molded.’ He thought I had potential, but we needed to basically start from scratch, working on hands and then moving up to the feet and working on a lot of footwork with angles and beating the ball to the ground and not letting the ball play me. I think it was one of the best things that ever happened in my career to work with him.”
The slugging first baseman was reassigned to Minor League camp on March 6, six days before Major League Baseball canceled Spring Training. He was just getting used to some of his fellow Minor Leaguers’ faces and was a ways away from getting assigned to a club — likely Class A Advanced Florida or Double-A Mississippi — before he had to pack up again and head back to Dallas, where he’s been working out at DBU facilities while waiting out the season delay.
During this downtime, Ball remains the 21st prospect in the Atlanta system, thanks to the way he first took off in pro ball last summer. Similar production at higher levels would send him even higher in the rankings, and it would be only a short time before Braves fans started to wonder whether he could take over the cold corner from Freeman or serve as designated hitter in a world in which the DH comes to the National League.
Of course, in the hypothetical world is the other side of that coin. If Atlanta hadn’t taken in the 24th round and offered him the bonus he sought, he would have been back on DBU’s campus this spring as a senior. That final year would have been cut short, and with the Draft changes coming, there would have been no 24th round as an option to begin his pro career. It’s enough to make any young player’s head spin. But in the real world, Ball’s head is right where it needs to be.
“That scenario would have thrown a lot of things off,” Ball said of the potential of staying in college. “It might have worked out with how much better I could have gotten. Potentially if they did 10 rounds, I could have gotten drafted. But that’s a big chance. I’m so grateful it worked out. My heart goes to those guys still there. … I think about it quite often now that my mom’s brought it up.”
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.