Astros' Ivy Leaguer Sclafani preps for Majors
Versatility could be key for Dartmouth graduate, 14th-round Draft pick
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Like many 20-somethings, Joe Sclafani looks back fondly on his college days.
"The best four years of my life," he said, smiling under his Adelaide Bite cap before a Saturday night game in the Australian Baseball League at Melbourne Ballpark.
A 14th-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft by the Houston Astros, the 23-year-old infielder is making a rapid ascent towards the Major Leagues, but he still holds his collegiate memories close at hand.
"It was a really awesome experience," he recalled of his days playing for Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "Ivy League baseball would surprise a lot of people with the level of play. We're very competitive with the big programs -- even without scholarships."
A graduate of Jensen Beach (Fla.) High School, the decision to head north to continue his education was arrived at after years of camps and tryouts, and careful thought and consideration.
"For me, the decision was, I could go to a school in Florida -- a bigger school and maybe not play -- or I could go to the best combination of academics and athletics," Sclafani said. "That's what I did and it worked out really well for me."
While at Dartmouth, Sclafani was a three-time All-Ivy First Team selection (2009, 2011-12) and a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American in 2009. He is the school's all-time leader in games played (172), triples (19) and walks (100), and ranks second all-time in hits (220) and runs scored (163).
Sclafani immediately parlayed his impressive collegiate career into a shot at the big leagues, starting with a Draft day scene right out of a movie.
"It was phenomenal," he said of getting the call from Houston. "I had just finished my college career. I had just turned in my last final paper so I was hanging out with friends and kind of absentmindedly following the Draft, and then I got the call from the Astros. It was really great because my friends caught wind of it and it made for a pretty special experience for me."
After signing with the Astros, the eager Sclafani went straight to work, beginning his professional career with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the New York-Penn League.
"It was great," he said. "It was only 2 1/2 hours away from Dartmouth and I had played summer ball in the New York Collegiate League in Amsterdam, which is only 20 minutes away, so I was very familiar with the area. The people who worked there and the people in the community were just phenomenal. It was a fantastic experience overall, and I was lucky enough that I played pretty well."
A year later, in 2013, Sclafani started the season with the Quad-Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League. After a fine start an opportunity arrived at a higher level, in the California League, and he seized it.
"It was unfortunate that somebody got hurt, but once I got up there [to the California League], I was lucky enough to play pretty well, and then our shortstop got hurt, so I got to play a little more. By that time, I had established myself as being formidable at that level [high-A], and it was a lot of fun."
In 92 games with the Lancaster JetHawks, Sclafani was indeed formidable, hitting .302 with seven home runs and 53 RBIs. He scored 81 runs, belted 28 doubles, and was 16-for-19 in stolen base attempts for a team that finished the regular season, 82-58 -- tops in the California League's South Division.
In describing his career, and his success, the bright-eyed ballplayer often credits luck and good fortune, but Sclafani has made shrewd decisions to help better his chances of ultimately making it to the Major Leagues. There is perhaps no better evidence than his decision to expand his own horizons and branch out from the shortstop position he grew up playing, and played throughout all four years of his collegiate career.
"The Astros system is just blessed with a ton of depth right now," Sclafani said, "so I've had to work incredibly hard to make myself very versatile because there wasn't necessarily going to be a set position for me. I've tried to work on being more of a utility guy.
"When our No. 1 overall pick in my Draft class was Carlos [Correa, a shortstop and the Astros' top prospect], and then Nolan Fontana in the second round, I'm pretty realistic about it. I knew I had to make myself much more versatile in that sense. I've played a good amount of second base and a good amount of third base, and I can play outfield, too. So I like to think that that's going to be my gambit, at this point."
And Sclafani has wasted no time putting that strategy into effect. After playing all 70 games as a shortstop in 2012, Sclafani was all over the infield in 2013, appearing in 33 games at short, 28 at third base and 25 at second base.
While in Australia, he plans to continue rounding out his defensive skill set, and to continue to improve at the plate.
After three weeks of play, all is going according to plan. Sclafani has hit safely in 9-of-11 contests, boasts a .333 average, and leads the ABL with nine runs scored. He is 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts, and has appeared at both middle infield positions.
"I've been fortunate to have some success," he said, "but this is just an awesome place and everybody here is fantastic. The Aussie people are so nice, and the baseball is pretty competitive. It's a good spot where I can work on things that I need to work on and still play against pretty good competition at the same time."
A young man who led the Dartmouth Big Green baseball team through one of the most prolific periods in its history, Sclafani also carries an Ivy League Government degree in his back pocket -- something you won't find in every clubhouse. But while he knows its value, he's not quite ready to put it to use just yet.
"Hopefully baseball works out," Sclafani said, "that's No. 1 one on my priority list right now. If not, maybe I'll do something in finance for a little while."
"And who knows," he added with a wry smile, "maybe down the road get into some politics and shake hands and kiss some babies."