Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin have several things in common. Most notably, they’re among the top prospects in the New York Yankees organization. Both are outfielders with the potential to become elite hitters. Each has an interesting back story.
They are also different. The 21-year-old Austin swings from the right side and came into the season with a .331 average, and 23 home runs, in 593 professional at bats. A 13th-round pick in 2010, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer while in high school. Heathcott is a left-handed hitter who was taken in the first round of the 2009 draft. Hampered by injuries, he has hit .275, with 12 home runs, in 755 at bats. The 22-year-old had a difficult home life and battled alcohol issues as a teenager.
Heathcott and Austin are now teammates with the Double-A Trenton Thunder. They discussed their development as hitters during an early-season visit to Portland. Also weighing in on their development was Trenton hitting coach Justin Turner. Scouting reports on the promising duo were supplied by Al Skorupa.
Justin Turner on Austin and Heathcott: “Both are extremely talented. They’re natural hitters with extremely quick bat speed. They have good balance. Like any hitters, they have to get good pitches to hit in order for those things to play.
“They’ve both had success. Tyler has a lot more at bats under his belt, even though he’s a [more recent] draft pick. Slade has battled some injuries. He was drafted in 2009 but is still under 1,000 at bats for his career. Slade did really well in the Fall League, which has kind of sped up his learning curve.
“Tyler maybe has a little more advanced approach, because of those extra at bats, but Slade isn’t that far off. They’re like One-A and One-B. You’d be pulling hairs to try to figure out which one is better at this point. They’re exciting young players — the sky is the limit — but they both still need to get at bats.
“It’s tough to compare them as far swing-path types of hitters. They both have the ability to get the ball in the air. They both have power. Tyler’s has played a little more as far as home runs. Pitch selection is a reason — he does a pretty good job of getting good pitches to hit — and that’s priority number one. It’s what we talk about the most. You’re only as good as the pitches you swing at. There are constant reminders to these guys that they need to get good pitches to hit.”
Slade Heathcott: “There are still things I haven’t locked in exactly, as far as what I want as an approach. I have a pretty good idea, but I’m still messing around with things. The main thing is just seeing the ball. I think that’s the biggest thing at this level — guys that can see the ball are going to hit it.
“I try to think under-and-inside-the-ball. That’s kind of my philosophy. It gets my hands where I want them to be and gets my swing through the zone as long as possible. I couldn’t really tell you what my bath path looks like. I don’t watch a lot of video.
“Every hitter has their own mental thing in their at bats. Something I’m working on right now is trying to think about what I want to do in BP and then, when I get into the game, just letting it go. One of the worst things you can do as a hitter is try to be perfect when you’re in the game. You should be letting your athletic ability take over. I know guys who can really think about their swing a lot, but I’m not one of those guys. When I start thinking about my swing, my swing gets terrible. I get real choppy and start swinging and missing a lot.
“If I’m swinging at bad pitches and still making contact, I know I’m on the ball. The next thing is finding a good pitch — sitting on something in a zone — and then, when I get two strikes, widening up a little bit. Strike zone discipline is the number-one thing for me right now.
“I’m really just trying a find a good pitch I can drive, whether it’s “oppo” or inside. I don’t really sit on a pitch in any location. Maybe with two strikes I’ll start looking out a little more, but besides that it’s just trying to react. It’s be ready, see a good zone, then react.
“I get in trouble when I’m swinging too hard and trying to do too many things. I start chasing pitches. When I really tone back and stay with a good posture is when I start seeing pitches a lot better.
“I have to figure out how to get the ball in the air. That’s something I’m struggling with. I definitely want to get the ball in the air, whether it’s “oppo” or pull. I’m hitting way too many ground balls right now. I’m also trying to cut down on swinging and missing. There’s a compromise between the two I’m still trying to figure out.
“[Justin Turner and I] work on things, but every hitter has their niche that gets them by. I don’t think any two swings are identical, and everyone’s thought process is different. Hitting is a lot more mental than people think. It might be see-the-ball-and-hit-it — just being athletic — or it could be being really fundamentally sound and staying with exactly what they you to do. Right now, I’m trying to find what works and gets me to where I want to be. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m working on it.”
Al Skorupa on Heathcott: “This was my first viewing of Slade Heathcott and one thing that was immediately clear is that he has been hurt by the time lost to injuries. He’s raw for Double-A and looks like he needs at bats. He was often pulling his head off the ball and leaking early towards first base like an A-ball hitter. His appeal was also immediately obvious. The tools are loud and the way he hustles and plays hard leaves a very positive impression. The bat speed and raw power were evident in batting practice but didn’t show up in the game. He was fairly patient, but the approach needs refinement. I was also left wondering whether the shoulder problems last year have lingered. Heathcott is a bit of a project for a Double-A player, but there is a lot to like here.”
Tyler Austin: “I have a pretty simple swing and load. My approach is simple as well. My bat path is pretty level.
“I’m really trying to backspin the ball — I swing down to it, letting my hands go to the ball. I try not to go down and up. I’d say it’s definitely not a loopy swing. Some may say it is, and some may say it’s not, but I feel like it’s a pretty level path to the ball.
“I haven’t changed much since I signed. There have been adjustments, but nothing I’d call a change. I like it that way. I’ve always been taught to hit the ball the other way, and I’ve tried to, for the most part.
“I have natural talent, but I also come out and work hard every day. I try to get something out of my cage work and my BP. Hardly ever will you see me go out in BP and try to hit every single ball out of the park. You’ll see it toward the end of my rounds a little bit. I feel that I have a lot of power to right-center and to left field.
“You need to get a good pitch to hit, otherwise you’re not going to hit the ball. Getting a pitch I can handle, and drive to any part of the field, is something I’m looking for. I think [pitch recognition] is mostly a matter of reps. The more at bats you get, the better you’re going to be with certain pitches — the better you’re going to see the ball.
“I’m pretty much looking middle and adjusting to whatever they want to throw up there. That said, I’ll look for pitches in zones. If I’m looking away and they throw me in, the majority of time I’ll take it. But if I’m looking in, I’ll probably swing at a pitch away if it’s a fastball.
“[Justin Turner and I] don’t really have a specific thing we’re working on. It’s mainly just for me to relax up there and have fun. Relaxation is big. You have to stay calm and be loose. Sometimes I’ll get a little too hyped up. [In the opener] I was that way for my first two at bats, but I kind of settled down after that. In big games I’ll get hyped up, so I have to make sure to take a step back and relax.
“Sometimes hitting is easy. When you’re going good, it can feel like the easiest thing in the world. But when you’re going bad, it’s really frustrating. It can be tough to get out of those little funks. A key is to not think too much. A lot of people get caught up in the thinking process instead of going out there and letting their ability take over. If you can get a good pitch and put a good swing on it, you’re going to be fine.”
Al Skorupa on Austin: “Tyler Austin doesn’t have the physical tools or athleticism that stand out in a prospect, but he can really hit. He identifies and tracks pitches well, shows good control of the bat head, and barrel awareness. He keeps his hand inside the ball, uses the whole field, and hits pitches where they’re pitched. There is some loopiness and a little uppercut to his swing, but he has the natural feel for hitting and the bat speed to overcome any negative consequences of that. Those elements also benefit him by helping to create loft and backspin. His swing incorporates his lower half well. He loads his hands deep and clears his hips and this helps him utilize his well-above-average raw power. He can drive the ball to all fields, but his best power is to right center and pulled down the left field line. For a bat-first, right/right corner prospect it is easy to like Austin. I project him as a solid big league regular.
“These two players provide an interesting contrast as the appeal of one guy is largely about polish while the other features the promise of raw tools and athletic ability.”