The Braves’ draft strategy was certainly different in 2019 than it had been in years past. Rather than banking on high ceiling prep arms early in the draft and trusting that they picked the right ones, the Braves went with proven college bats early in the draft and left the gambles for the second and third day of the draft. There are pluses and minuses to this strategy, but what we are focused on today is one of the fruits of that strategy in outfield prospect Stephen Paolini.
The number of people who had any appreciable amount of information on Stephen when the Braves selected him with their 5th round pick in the 2019 draft was pretty small. Hailing from a small school in Connecticut, Paolini wasn’t a kid who had hit the showcase circuit hard and was on everyone’s radar. Despite the lack of traditional prospect pedigree, Braves area scout Ted Lekas liked him enough to get the Braves to sign him away from his commitment to Elon University with an overslot deal. While his pro debut didn’t come with a big stat line, the Braves seemingly have gotten a player who could stick in center field, can really run, and has some pop in his bat in the fifth round albeit in a very raw form.
Stephen took time out of his schedule to chat with me about his journey to professional baseball as well as to talk about his first look at the pros and what he has been working on. Enjoy!
First things first, when did you start playing baseball and did you play any other sports growing up?
Well, I started playing baseball at the youngest level possible in tee ball with a bunch of my friends. Growing up, I played pretty much every single sport: baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse….I pretty much played them all just to see what I was good at. I was finding what I wanted to do and what I liked to do most at the time.
You didn’t take the usual path to the pros as a high school bat. Given that you didn’t do a lot of the big showcase events that a lot of high school players do before getting drafted, how did you get yourself noticed and when did you realize that the Braves were very interested in you?
I would say that I started playing travel baseball at a really young age like districts and All-Stars and stuff like that. I have always focused on baseball a good amount, but early on basketball was one of my main priorities, too. During basketball season, basketball was my main sport until around my sophomore year. About halfway through that year, I realized that my chances of going very far in basketball were not as high as they were with baseball. I still enjoyed basketball, but I decided to make baseball my main sport and I was going to devote most of my energy and time to that. I wanted to get bigger and stronger in a baseball aspect rather than a basketball aspect.
Were you worried that being from a smaller school in the Northeast was going to prevent you from getting noticed by MLB teams? When did you notice that you were getting some interest from MLB teams?
Throughout high school, I never really went to any big showcases. I would get letters in the mail sometimes, but I never really did any of that stuff. I was mainly playing in big time tournaments with teams down in Jupiter and things like that. A lot of my pro looks didn’t come until a couple of games into my senior year in high school.
During my senior year, we talked with the Padres a little bit, the Phillies a lot, and the Braves. I would say that it kind of came down to the Phillies and Braves during the last couple of weeks before the draft.
Honestly, I didn’t really think that much about this draft until the last couple of weeks. Scouts were coming to my games. At every single game, there were at least a couple of scouts there. I knew that I was better than a lot of these kids around me and I went in with the mentality that these pitchers didn’t really have anything on me, so I wasn’t necessarily worried about performing in front of those scouts. I knew that my talent was there, but I didn’t worry about it. The same thing happens when you are scouted for college. All of these coaches are coming in and you have one bad game and you think you blew that one. You have to play for yourself and play your game.
Let’s talk about the draft itself. Going into the draft, you had a commitment to Elon to play baseball there. While the draft was going on, what did you think the chances were that you were going to be drafted AND sign to play professional baseball out of high school?
Honestly, I got an adviser probably a month before the draft...likely, extremely late. He helped a lot in that process and got the most possible out of that process. That day of the draft, we basically had an idea of when I was going to be taken either between the 3rd and 6th rounds or outside of the slots, so we had an idea of when I was going to get drafted. Money-wise, it was pretty much a family decision, but we had a number in mind so once that number was reached, it was pretty much like this has been my dream and this is what I want to do, so I am going to take it now.
You elected to sign with the Braves and debuted with the GCL Braves in June where you had some struggles but some positives as well. What was the biggest adjustment for you when it came to playing pro ball and what was the biggest positive you took away from your pro debut season?
It was difficult for me at first because I felt like at the beginning of the season, and I know the numbers don’t show this, but at the beginning of the season, I was absolutely raking balls. Like, so many hard hit balls. What I noticed right off the bat is that these defensive players are completely different athletes than what you would see in high school. The balls that I hit that would normally be stand up triples were diving catches or were even routine. It just happened all the time. That was a big struggle for me because I know I am barreling up the ball and hitting it well, but it just felt like none of them would fall. It is hard to wrap your head around it...when you feel like you are doing so well, but they are just outs.
We have seen video of you from this offseason and it looks like you have grown into your body a little bit and put on some strength. In your mind, what kind of hitter do you see yourself growing into? Do you think you are going to be that power, middle of the order threat or do you see yourself as a top of the order bat that gets on base and makes more plays with your legs?
It is difficult for me to say because in high school, I was always the leadoff batter, but I would say that I also probably had some of the most pop on the team. I was always the home run hitter, but I don’t feel like I had that in pro ball so far. I want to be that guy that can put up 25 home runs and I would be willing to sacrifice a few more strikeouts for a few more home runs. I want to be that guy that can get an extra-base hit. Now obviously, we are going to take a single when they come, but I want to be that guy that provides extra-base hits.
Finally before we let you go, what have you been working on this offseason and what are you focused on as we head into the 2020 season?
Well, the obvious answer is working out in the gym and putting on some pounds because that just comes with it, but hitting-wise I would say that opening up the zone a little bit. I always felt like I would struggle a little bit with that inside pitch. That was probably one of my biggest adjustments when I got to pro ball because obviously people are throwing a lot harder and it gets in on your hands much quicker than you would see anywhere else. In season, I was almost having to sit on the pitch inside and then react to that outside pitch. Now, and we have been facing live pitching for about a month now here, we have been working on creating that space and creating better tilt in my posture to allow myself to better get to those inside pitches.
Go give Stephen a follow over on his Instagram page to keep tabs on him. He isn’t on Twitter which, if we are being honest, is probably a smart decision.