Payton Henry grew up in a wrestling family in a wrestling town. That’s not the sport he settled on. The 21-year-old native of Pleasant Grove, Utah cast his lot with baseball, and went on to be selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s seen by many as the NL Central club’s catcher of the future.
His backstory is one of Greco-Roman lineage. Henry’s paternal grandfather, Darold, won 10 state championships as a coach, and is a member of Utah’s Wrestling Hall of Fame. The patriarch coached 65 individual champions, including his son Darrin — Payton’s father — who captured a pair of titles. And while it eventually rolled away, the greenest of the apples tumbled from the same tree.
“I was kind of born to grow up a wrestler,” said Henry. “But then I fell in love with baseball. Once I realized I had a future in it, and started traveling a lot for baseball tournaments, I stopped wrestling. I didn’t have the time for it anymore.”
Being physically strong — weight training has long been part of his workout routine — and well-schooled in the sport’s technical aspects, he probably could have followed in his father’s footsteps. The coaches at Pleasant Grove High School certainly thought so. At the start of each year they would approach him and say,“Are you sure you don’t want to come out and wrestle?”
As temtping as those entreaties were, the self-proclaimed sports junkie — “As a kid, I played just about everything there is to play” — had been seduced by the diamond. Moreover, his father is more than a former wrestling champ. Darrin Henry is Pleasant Grove’s head baseball coach.
The No. 11 prospect in the Brewers system has always been a catcher. Beginning with his second-ever practice in competitive youth baseball, he’s strapped on the tools of ignorance. And while the rugged physique, soft hands, and strong arm have been there from the start, Henry was lacking an important attribute when he first entered pro ball. His flexibility was admittedly “terrible.” That’s no longer the case. Rather than grapple with the idea that he had a shortcoming, Henry took the challenge by the horns and is now much more lithe.
Any prospect worth his salt is going to keep a keen eye on the best at his position. The Utah native’s role models include, but aren’t limited to, baseball’s bigger backstops.
“I watch Salvador Perez,” informed Henry, who stands 6’ 2’ and tips the scales at 215 pounds. “I watch Buster Posey. I obviously watch Yadier Molina, although he’s a smaller guy than me. There’s information you can attain from everyone at that level. They’re in the big leagues for a reason. But I’ve always gravitated toward the bigger guys, watching how they receive with their big frames.”
Offensively, he’s got a lot of room to grow. Playing for the Midwest League’s Wisconsin Timber Rattlers this past season, he slashed .234/.327/.380, with 10 home runs. When Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel profiled him in our Brewers Top Prospect list, they wrote that Henry “has huge raw power,” but may need to tweak his swing in order to get to it more consistently.
Henry plans to leave any such decisions to his coaches. Acknowledging that there is indeed more power in the tank, he said that staying within himself and thinking gap-to-gap has been his primary focus. Having had “a really big swing coming out of high school,” his tutorials thus far have mostly centered on “toning everything down and being more smooth through the ball.”
His bigger-picture attitude is admirable. Having become a student of the game — wrestling’s loss is baseball’s gain — he recognizes that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Development takes time.
“I’m going into my third full season,” reasoned Henry. “I’m still learning. I’m soaking in everything I can soak in, and this year is going to be another step. I’m looking forward to spring training.”
Back before he became an executive, Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was a pitcher. Drafted out of Wake Forest University in 1995, he spent five seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization, topping out in Double-A. In his penultimate season he was the beneficiary of back-to-back web gems by a shortstop who now serves as Cleveland’s minor league defensive coordinator.
“When I was in Akron, we had Marco Scutaro playing second and John McDonald playing short,” recalled Atkins. “I remember one game where Johnny Mac made two incredible plays behind me. One of the hitters was Torii Hunter, who at the time was really fast, and the other was either Chad Allen or Doug Mientkiewicz.
“There was a hard-hit ground ball up the middle, and Johnny Mac went beyond second base and dove, fully outstretched. He rolled onto his back, then onto his stomach, and in one motion threw the ball to first base. He never even came to his knees. He literally got a standing ovation from the crowd.
“A few pitches later, another ball was hit in the almost identical spot, and Johnny Mac made the identical play. It was dive, roll, throw in one motion. He came off the field to another standing ovation. To this day, it was one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever seen defensively.”
McDonald went on play 16 big-league seasons, with eight teams, before joining the coaching ranks in 2015. Atkins spent 15 years in the Indians front office before being hired as Toronto’s GM in December 2015.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
The Random Facts and Stats portion of last Sunday’s column noted that Jim Palmer went 268-152 with a 125 adjusted ERA, while Mike Mussina went 270-153 with a 123 adjusted ERA. The intrinsic value of won-lost records aside, the comp is particularly interesting from a Hall of Fame-voting perspective. Palmer was a first-ballot inductee, while it took Mussina six tries (and many of us were surprised he didn’t have to wait at least another year).
Notable in their career records is the imbalance in… drum roll, please… 20-win seasons! Mussina had just one, while Palmer had eight. Needless to say, that particular “accomplishment” was much more meaningful when Palmer was inducted in 1990. Which leads to me to a question: What if the those 20-win seasons were flip-flopped? What if Mussina had eight, and Palmer just one? All of their other numbers would stay the same. How many years would each have been on the ballot? Would it have been six for Palmer and one for Mussina?
Something to think about while you gnash your teeth and grumble about why pitcher wins are still a thing.
More speakers have been announced for next month’s SABR Analytics Conference. Added to what was already an impressive list are Jason Benetti, Steve Berthiaume, Kyle Boddy, Eduardo Perez, and Dr. Lee Picariello.
The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, by Jane Leavy, is the winner of SABR’s 2019 Seymour Medal, which honors the best book of baseball history or biography published during the preceding calendar year.
The Phillies have hired Jimmy Rollins as a special advisor. The switch-hitting shortstop played in Philadelphia from 2000-2014 and is the franchise’s all-time leader in hits (2,306) and doubles (479). Rollins captured four Gold Gloves and was worth 49.6 WAR over his 17-year career.
The Kansas City Royals have promoted Guy Stevens, who was serving as Director of Baseball Administration/Quantitative Analysis. His new title is Senior Director of Research and Development/Strategy.
The New York Mets have added to their analytics staff with the additions of Russell Carleton and Andrew Perpetua. Carleton is a longtime writer at Baseball Prospectus and the author of The Shift: The Next Evolution in Baseball Thinking. Perpetua has worked at NEIFI Analytics, which was developed by Mets Assistant GM Adam Guttridge. Perpetua has also written for Rotographs, The Hardball Times, and MetsMerizedOnline.
The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have reportedly denied Kodai Senga’s request to be posted. The 26-year-old right-hander, who is 38-14 with a 2.90 ERA for the NPB club over the past three seasons, will be eligible for international free agency following the 2022 season.
Milwaukee’s Miller Park will host a Midwest League game on Friday, April 12. The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Brewers) will be the home team, and the Quad Cities River Bandits (Astros) the visiting team.
The International League announced their newest Hall of Fame inductees this week. The Class of 2019 includes a pair of players (Sam Jethroe and Billy McMillon), a manager (Bobby Cox), and an executive (Lou Schwechheimer).
Dave Flemming has reportedly signed a new four-year contract and will be continuing to call San Francisco Giants games through the 2022 season. The 42-year-old one-time Pawtucket Red Sox broadcaster has been behind the mic for the NL West club since 2004.
John Leahy, who calls games for the Lowell Spinners, Boston’s short-season affiliate, has been named the New York-Penn League’s 2018 radio broadcaster of the year. Leahy also won the award in 2016.
Rochester Red Wings broadcaster Josh Whetzel has contributed a handful of entertaining stories to this column in recent years. Here is another:
“My first job out of college was to broadcast games for the Liberal Bee Jays, a summer wood-bat team in the Jayhawk League. Liberal is a town of about 15,000 people way out in southwest Kansas. It’s only about 45 miles to Texas, across the Oklahoma Panhandle.
“At that time, a big Fourth of July fireworks show was held in Liberal after a Bee Jays game. This particular year, due to a rainout, we had a doubleheader. I’d been promoting the fireworks in the games leading up to the Fourth, and in the first game of the twin bill I was really promoting them.
“About midway through that first game, the GM of the BeeJays came into the cubicle on the roof of the ballpark — that’s where I broadcast the games from — and told me, ‘You need to stop promoting the fireworks show. Don’t say anything, but someone STOLE the fireworks!”
“It turned out that some juvenile delinquents had broken into the room in the clubhouse where they were stored, and actually stole them. Needless to say, this kind of ruined the Fourth of July in Liberal that year, since that was THE BIG SHOW on Independence Day.
“The kids who stole the fireworks went out into the country and started shooting off the fireworks themselves. Since southwest Kansas is the flattest part of the U.S., people could see them from all over, so it didn’t take the local authorities long to track the kids down and make an arrest.”
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At Forbes, Robert Kuenster wrote about how the Cubs built for a championship run in 2019.
At DRaysBay, Danny Russell and Ian Malinowski teamed up to explore the consequences of going cashless at Tropicana Field.
Miami Marlins coach Fredi Gonzalez is pursuing a college degree — he’s currently taking a class in business leadership — at age 55. Clark Spencer has the story at The Miami Herald.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
February 3 is sometimes referred to as “The Day the Music Died,” as chart-toppers Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper lost their lives in a plane crash on that date in 1959. Valens’ given name was Richard Steven Valenzuela, and there is a Ritchie Valens Baseball Park in his hometown of Pacoima, CA, just outside of Los Angeles.
Frank Robinson hit 316 home runs and had a 166 adjusted OPS from 1960-1969.
George Brett’s three batting titles came in three different decades. The erstwhile Kansas City Royals third baseman topped the American League in that category in 1976, 1980, and 1990.
In 1974, Pirates left-hander Ken Brett went 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA. At the plate, he slashed .310/.337/.448 with a pair of home runs in 95 plate appearances.
In 1914, Rube Bressler went 10-4 with a 1.77 ERA for the Philadelphia Athletics. He did so at age 19. From 1921-1931, Bressler slashed .314/.390/.429 as an outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Robins.
Pop Rising had three hits — a single, a double, and a triple — in 29 big-league at bats. His only big-league action came with the Boston Americans in 1905.
Coonie Blank’s big-league career consisted of one game, and two hitless at bats, for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1909. A catcher, Blank was just 16 years old at the time.
Casey Stengel’s given name was Charles Dillon Stengel.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.