Although this year’s crop of South Atlantic League prospects may lack some of the star power of the previous two seasons, one particular player is turning plenty of heads.
Sam Huff, the catcher for the Hickory Crawdads is putting up video-game statistics; with cheat codes enabled nonetheless. He had 14 home runs in his team’s first 27 games, including an 11 game stretch in which he homered in nine of those games. To put that in perspective, last season’s SAL home run leader Casey Golden who hit 34 round-trippers, didn’t notch his 14thuntil his 64thgame. At one point, Huff’s blistering pace saw him eclipsing four teams in home runs (Columbia, Lakewood, Kannapolis and Rome), and he was tied with a fifth (Greeneville). Texas Rangers scout Josh Simpson, who was responsible for Huff’s signing said, “He had some of the most raw power I’ve ever seen.” When asked if he had ever been on this kind of offensive tear before Huff stated, “In high school, I went on a streak where I hit seven home runs in one week, it feels like that right now, it’s been fun.” Fellow Rangers prospect, Bubba Thompson briefly praised the catcher saying, “Powerful, man strength, great teammate.”
However, it’s not just the power, Huff is also making plenty of contact, hitting his way to a cool .327 batting average. In 98 at bats, he is leading the SAL in HR 14, OPS 1.172, SLG .806, RBI 27, and total bases 79. All the while playing the most physically demanding position on the diamond. Huff isn’t just an offensive profiled slugger that is mismatched for the catching position. In spite of his 6’4” 240 pound frame, he has a legitimate shot at sticking there. In fact, Simpson offered, “What attracted me to Sam was the rare combination of tools he possessed; the power, size, flexibility and athleticism he offered at a premium position is something to dream on.” This isn’t just hyperbole, Huff is proving he belongs behind the plate displaying solid receiving skills and by throwing 59% of potential base stealers (13 out of 22). His pop-times are consistently measured around 1.95 seconds, which puts him squarely within the major league average range. His scout stated, “He had a cannon for an arm, a bit of a long release, but I’m sure the player development guys have shortened that up since they’ve had the time to work with him.” In talking with Huff it is abundantly clear that he takes pride in his defense and is constantly working to improve those skills. He offers, “I’ve focused on maintaining my agility by jumping rope, doing box drills, and running hills to build explosiveness, I am focused on being a catcher because at the end of the day that’s what is going to get me to the big leagues.” He also self-effacingly acknowledged that the Rangers player development staff has helped him hasten his release, “I have shortened up a good amount, in high school they called me the pie-thrower because my hand would go flat behind my head.”
Picked in the 7thround of the 2016 MLB draft, Huff was signed to an over slot bonus of 225K (value of the pick was 189K). Before being plucked by the Rangers, he earned Perfect Game’s Arizona high school player of the year award by hitting .554 with 14 home runs during his senior year. After his assignment to the rookie league, Huff’s offense quickly impressed as he hit .330 with a .920 OPS. However, the Rangers held him over to repeat the level the following season. Huff reflects on the decision maturely stating, “I think it was to get me more time catching, wherever they put me I was going to play so I didn’t really worry about it.”
The hulking slugger hits from the right side of the plate, his set-up is mostly quiet as his feet are spread fairly wide in a neutral position. I would estimate he keeps his weight distributed about 60% on his back side and 40% on his front side. His back elbow assumes a high position, held parallel with his trailing shoulder. He deploys a waggle prior to the pitcher initiating his windup, at which point he drops his hands to the slot position and holds the barrel at a 45 degree angle before beginning his explosive swing sequence with a slight step into each pitch. His plate coverage and approach have been exemplary and from talking to him it’s easy to recognize he is a student of the game and one that truly wants to master his craft. He recalled that in spite of the offensive success he was having in 2018 he went to his coaches and asked if he could return to his old swing. “It was difficult being consistent, I couldn’t repeat it, I didn’t feel comfortable.” He also seemingly maintains an internal database of his at bats and recalled a home run that he hit this past Saturday, “It was a 1-2 count and I was sitting fastball, I didn’t think he was going to get it by me, but it kind of surprised me and got up on me quickly, I kind of just flicked my wrists and it went out to the opposite field.” I also prodded him about an at bat he had two weeks ago in which I witnessed him hit a pull side home run on a 97 mph fastball. Huff stated, “It’s fun to hit a guy’s best pitch like that, it takes away their confidence and makes them feel like they’re not good.” He acknowledges though, that it doesn’t always go his way and recalled an at bat he had last season against Delmarva’s top prospect DL Hall, “I had a 3-2 count and I was sitting fastball, instead the kid drops a curveball and strikes me out. I knew from that at bat that I had to be ready at all times.” Part of the biggest adjustment for Huff from the Rookie League to Low-A was understanding the chasm between the quality of pitching between the two leagues. Huff stated, “In rookie ball there are a lot of kids throwing really hard that don’t necessarily know where it’s going, these guys throw a lot more off speed and get it over, I had to learn quickly.”
When it comes to game calling, I recall a May 12, 2018 contest against the Rome Braves in which Hickory starting pitcher Raul Casanova served up a leadoff home run to Drew Waters. Rome hitters were punishing the fastball and quickly scored three runs in the first inning. Recognizing the Rome bats were aggressively hunting for the fastball, Huff changed the game plan and decided to use his opponent’s aggressiveness to his team’s advantage. According to Crawdads beat writer Mark Parker, “Huff changed the plan of attack and Casanova bought in, it was beautiful to watch it happen. After the leadoff double in the third, I think I had Casanova starting the next 11 or 12 hitters with first pitch off-speed.” The Crawdads went on to win the game 4-3.
Rangers fans should be very excited about Sam Huff. His assortment of skills include plus tools across the board assembled in an athletic but atypical catcher’s body. Although catchers typically develop slower in the minors due to the defensive demands of the position, his work-ethic, baseball IQ and maturity are likely to put him on a fast track toward Arlington.