San Bernardino, California —— The first time I laid eyes on Austin Allen, he was busy hitting batting practice pitches to the top of the scoreboard at San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino—a prodigious shot no matter how wind-swept the California League may be.
The first time I spoke to him about it, a few minutes later after batting practice had ended, I got the sense this was no big deal for the left-handed hitter.
“I’m not trying to hit home runs,” Allen told Baseball Census that day, laughing off his ridiculous moonshots to the top of the scoreboard. “When I do that, I get really long and I start to miss a lot of pitches. I’m just trying to hit line drives, and if they go out, they go out. The most perfect ball you can hit is a hard line drive right back at the pitcher, right? You’re perfectly on time and you squared it up on the barrel. Anything else, if it goes out, it’s technically a mistake. You got a little bit under the ball, but it’s a great result, and you hit it hard.”
It’s not every day you see a guy hit a baseball that far and then shrug it off as a mistake, but this is somewhat par for the course for the San Diego Padres’ catching prospect. A hulking power hitter with the family pedigree to suggest brute strength has always been in his blood, Austin Allen is the everyday catcher for the Lake Elsinore Storm in the Cal League this summer. Early on he was pacing the High-A circuit in doubles, and though he’s fallen back somewhat (he’s ninth now, with 14 through June 11), the threat is still there; put a baseball in Austin Allen’s wheelhouse, and you’re going to lose it.
“Whether you’re getting hits or getting outs, you can never go wrong if your main focus is trying to hit the ball as hard as you can and taking your best swing,” he said, eschewing the ‘hit it in the air’ revolution for a more traditional look at getting the barrel on the ball. “At the start of the year, I was fortunate to have some of those fall for me, and I also hit some right at people, but my main focus everyday is just getting a good pitch to hit, and hitting it hard.”
After a breakout season last year in the Midwest League—one where he hit .320/.364/.425/.790 in 109 games behind the plate, earning mid-season and post-season All-Star nods—Austin Allen is now on the San Diego Padres’ top 30 prospect list. He’s adjusting to better pitching than he’s ever seen before—more well-commanded breaking balls in hitter’s counts, he told me—but there’s enough raw talent in his game and more than enough raw power in his bat to leave one wondering about what he might become.
There’s an incredible value in having a power-hitting catcher, too, and it’s not just his batting practice bombs that turn heads any more. But as the catcher’s prospect status has risen and outside attention has increased, so too comes a more intense focus on opposing scouting reports. With that, Allen has noticed an uptick in defensive adjustments to counter his left-handed power.
“People shift on me, and I understand the strategy,” he acknowledged. “But if I hit something hard, it’s got a chance of falling. I want to be able to be one of those line-to-line guys, like a Freddie Freeman or a Joey Votto. Those guys are some of the best hitters in the league, and you can’t shift those guys, so they have more room to play with and more opportunities to get hits. I want to get to where I’m a good enough hitter that I can do that, day in and day out.”
It’s prescient to hear Austin Allen mention two first basemen as his inspiration for hitting through the shift, because there’s some thought that first base is where Allen will end up, too. He’s big for a catcher, listed at 6’4” and 225 lbs., and though he moves around well behind the plate, there’s a decent chance he’ll find a better fit at first base down the line—especially if he continues to hit for power.
Except, well, Austin Allen doesn’t see it that way.
“I want to catch, and I’ve made that as clear as I can to the guys in the front office, to our general manager and assistant general managers, to everybody,” he said. “I want to catch as long as I can. And if we’re being honest, that takes pressure off the bat. If I’m stuck over at first base, all the pressure is on the bat. That’s a position where you have to drive the ball, and hit homers and doubles.”
That’s a smart look at his long-term professional career, and Allen is right; catching most (or all) of the time will take pressure off his bat. And while the San Diego Padres have been working him out some at first base during pre-game drills, he’s still only ever been behind the plate in game action across his entire professional career. Now three years into pro ball, he’s really started to relish the opportunities that come with building relationships with a pitching staff.
“I like working with my pitchers, and I like to control and lead the pitching staff,” Allen said, noting the importance of social skills when it comes to navigating the different personalities on a pitching staff. “Every guy that we have on our staff, I want to have the best relationship with them on the team. It comes down to trust. Whatever fingers I put down, I want them to throw that pitch with as much intent and conviction as they have. Building that relationship is one of the best parts about catching.”
And so the San Diego Padres might just have themselves a bona fide catching prospect in Lake Elsinore right now with Austin Allen. There are some things still to be ironed out, of course; as Allen himself noted, his swing can get long at times, and his defensive future is still up in the air if only because his raw power and massive stature may help dictate where he ultimately winds up. But go back to Freeman and Votto for a minute: whether a catcher or a first baseman, there’s a reason Austin Allen’s sights are set high.
“I’ve always wanted to be the best hitter and the best player on the field, ever since T-ball,” he admitted. “That’s just always been one of my things. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a chip on my shoulder, but I’ve always wanted to prove my worth. And after the Padres took a chance on me in the fourth round in 2015, all I can do for them now is give my best every single day. That’s all I want to do.”
For more on San Diego Padres catching prospect Austin Allen, read our full scouting report by clicking here.
In this San Diego Padres / Austin Allen feature:
San Diego Padres | Lake Elsinore Storm | Fort Wayne TinCaps | Inland Empire 66ers
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