There was no alternate training site or instruction league for Anthony Volpe in 2020. The 2019 first-rounder spent the canceled Minor League season trekking back and forth between hitting instruction with former Major League scout Jason Lefkowitz in New York’s Westchester County and strength training back home in New Jersey.
It was the best he could do, but none of it was the genuine article.
“We weren't playing every night,” the Yankees' told MLB Pipeline earlier this month. “We weren't in the clubhouse with our buddies and doing the stuff that makes you love baseball. So it's just been awesome to get back out there, get back in the box and compete.”
The Yankees’ top prospect is MLB Pipeline’s 2021 Hitting Prospect of the Year following his breakout season split between Low-A Tampa and High-A Hudson Valley.
With a .294/.423/.604 slash line, Volpe had a 1.027 OPS and 170 wRC+ -- both tops among all qualified full-season Minor Leaguers. His 68 extra-base hits are tied for second in the Minors, and he’s the only one in the top six of the category to reach that height in fewer than 110 games. His 27 homers and 33 steals made him one of 16 20-20 players in the Minors this season.
He was not a free swinger either. MLB's No. 15 prospect struck out in 19.7 percent of his plate appearances. He was one of only two Minor Leaguers to fan less than 20 percent of the time while posting an average of at least .290, an OBP of at least .400 and a slugging percentage of .550 or above. (Twins prospect Jose Miranda was the other.)
Elite numbers like those helped Volpe fend off Royals prospects Bobby Witt Jr. (a 30-30 threat in 2021) and MJ Melendez (the Minor League leader with 41 homers) for this year’s Pipeline award.
“He stays on the ball for a really long time, but his attacking ability is great,” said Hudson Valley manager Dan Fiorito. ”He finds a way to get the ball in the air and drive line drives to all fields. He has a great ability to keep the ball off the ground.”
After a 2020 filled with swing breakdowns alongside Lefkowitz and efforts to achieve an efficient swing that would allow Volpe to hit any pitch in the zone, the quality of his contact took off in 2021. His 27.8 percent groundball rate was the lowest among Yankees Minor League qualifiers and 10th-lowest among full-season qualifiers in all of the Minors.
“Honestly, it feels natural,” said the right-handed slugger. “I never consciously thought to have more launch angle or stuff like that. I just feel like I can get to a lot more pitches, and when I'm hitting the ball hard -- and I've been hitting the ball a lot harder -- those balls that probably would have been doubles or singles in years past, a couple of those are going over the fence now.”
That’s all the more notable given what was projected for Volpe when he first entered the Minors.
Listed at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds -- Volpe says he’s now up to 195 with added muscle -- the shortstop was scouted heavily by the Yankees, not only as a local kid with New York/New Jersey roots but as a Team USA participant not shy to the big stage. The Yanks liked the Vanderbilt commit enough to sign him for above-slot at $2,740,300 as the 30th overall pick in 2019, but even they thought he lacked the size to produce more than average pop in the pros.
“Nobody evaluated him as an amateur and said this guy is going to hit 30 home runs,” vice president of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer said earlier this month. “We thought he'd hit a lot of doubles because he hit balls hard. But we didn't see him as strong enough to hit a ton of home runs.”
Volpe also beat expectations in the stolen-base department with his 33 thefts in 42 attempts. He was always seen to have above-average speed, and he certainly put it to good use by taking advantage of pickoff rules at Low-A and High-A that were meant to encourage more steals. But Volpe credited Yankees baserunning coordinator Matt Talarico with getting him to push the envelope on the basepaths.
“He views it like a lost art and something that's not valued probably as much as it should be in the modern game,” Volpe said of Talarico. “It's all about minimizing risk and trying to get as much reward as you can. We worked really hard every single day in Spring Training, for at least half an hour every day. Over the course of a season, you can just try and pick your spots and if you do it the right way, the way we practice, there really shouldn't be any risk.”
Good hit tool. Improving power. Aggression on the basepaths. Volpe was always a prospect who looked better as the sum of his parts than any specific loud tool, but now that sum is pretty loud in its own right.
“There have been snapshots throughout each game,” said Fiorito. “It’s just little things about the person he is and the makeup he has. In game, I’ve been able to watch him for the last couple months and being able to see how often he’s barreling baseballs and laying off tough pitches, it’s this culmination of the whole season. That’s been the most impressive thing.”