It’s not as if Austin Shenton was unknown in high school. He was a familiar face at the top national showcases, representing the Northwest at the prestigious Area Code Games tournament prior to his senior season. Even before that, he played for Florida Travel Baseball (FTB), an independent national travel team whose alumni list is eye-popping. Playing with and against some of the 2016 high school draft class’ most notable names, he shined. For “consistently (hitting) the ball hard,” he was named by Baseball America to their 2016 All Area Codes Team, among an infield that included his former FTB teammate Bo Bichette. For all of the accolades, though, Shenton only narrowly snuck into Baseball America’s top 300 draft prospects that year, with BA noting at the time that a nagging ankle injury and subpar high school competition in his home state of Washington left area scouts uncertain about his upside.
Shenton’s coach at FTB, Jered Goodwin, agreed that the lack of attention Shenton received in his draft year was the product of situational factors outside of his control. “If this guy played in Texas, California or Florida, he never gets on campus anywhere,” Goodwin said, alluding to the high bonus amounts that teams offer top draft choices to sway them away from college. “He would’ve loved to have signed out of high school. If that kid’s in one of the big states, he doesn’t make it to a college campus.”
Shenton confirmed that his hope was to turn pro out of high school, but he felt that teams overlooked him based on the perceived poor talent around him. “Being from the Northwest, there’s not too many guys who come out of here,” Shenton told CBBSN. “It’s not viewed as a place where high draft picks are made. Sometimes I felt like I’ve been a little overlooked because of where I’m from. So I’ve always played with something to prove. Every day is a day to show people what I’m capable of. The Northwest has good baseball, man. People just don’t hear it or see it as much as other places.”
The challenges of scouting high school players in nontraditional areas of the country are well-documented; the talent level in the North tends to be more variable than it is in the South, and the weather can make playing and practicing difficult at all levels. The story of Mike Trout’s fall to the back half of the first round during the 2009 draft because of scouts’ difficulties gauging the talent level and predicting the weather in Trout’s native New Jersey has been told time and again. As Royals Assistant General Manager JJ Piccolo recalled when asked about passing on Trout, he admitted that he didn’t scout him, reasoning, “Oh, the competition isn’t that great. Players from New Jersey are behind the rest of the country. And, anyway, the game might get rained out.”
Of course, this isn’t to say that teams’ passing on Shenton is akin to letting Trout slip down draft boards. Washington isn’t New Jersey, and Shenton isn’t Trout. Yet it’s important to note that these situational factors- scouts’ scoffing at the quality of competition, the weather- can impact teams’ decisions. Indeed, with no deal worked out in advance, Shenton fell to the 34th round, when the Indians drafted him despite it being clear that he was going to college after all. “It was a courtesy pick in the later rounds- a nice gesture of them,” Shenton remembered.
In his first year, Shenton tore apart junior college pitching to the tune of a .395/.494/.600 line at Bellevue Junior College (WA), but he set his sights on a Division I opportunity, understanding that playing for a junior college in Washington would hardly assuage scouts’ fears that he was facing only mediocre pitching. The perfect opportunity arose when Goodwin, his former FTB coach turned Panthers’ hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, signed him on at Florida International. Shenton was quick to reach out. “Jered and I are really close, and I just called him up in May 2017 like ‘hey man, you have a spot for a left-handed hitting third baseman?’” Shenton remembered. “And he was like, ‘as a matter of fact, we do.’ It worked out really well.”
Goodwin, who noted that he had gotten close to Shenton when the player lived with him over the summer in high school, recalled the conversation the same way. “It was an interesting recruiting process because he wasn’t making it based on a campus or anything like that,” he noted. “It was just where he thought he was going to get the most development and stuff like that. To be honest, I told the kid ‘I love you and I want the best for you, so if you don’t come here, that’s fine. Do what’s best for you, but I want you to know you have a home.’ … He never took a visit or anything like that, and the rest is history.”
Emphasizing his development, Shenton wanted an assurance that he was going to play every day, even if he struggled in the early going. “(Playing time) was one of those things I wanted to make sure of,” Shenton said when asked about transitioning to Division I. “Am I going to be in the lineup no matter what? I was confident enough that I could perform at the D-I level, even if I started off slowly. And I did start off slowly at FIU. It took me a little bit to get comfortable.”
Goodwin had no qualms about the playing time requirement, having seen firsthand what Shenton was capable of at the plate. “We had 17 kids either graduate or move on to pro ball, and the majority of those were position players. So it was kind of an easy (decision) for us,” Goodwin said. “It’s funny… I try to remind people that this is a kid who hit behind Bo Bichette in my lineup and was as good as anybody on that team. We ended up having 12 kids drafted from that team, and Bo Bichette’s in the top ten (overall prospects), and Austin was hitting right behind him.”
It turned out to be an easy sell for Head Coach Meryvl Melendez, too, even though Melendez didn’t have the firsthand knowledge of the player that Goodwin did. “A lot falls in (Jered’s) lap in recruiting players that he believes would fit in our system,” Melendez said. “(Austin) played for him when he was with FTB, so there was a relationship. More than anything else, he knew that he could hit. We talked about him quite a bit, and it was clear how much Jered felt about his ability- not only to play at this level, but to be an impact player at this level.”
Of course, it didn’t take much on Goodwin’s part to convince Melendez of Shenton’s offensive ability. A look at the stat sheet would have sufficed. “There’s a saying that I use quite often: numbers don’t tell the whole story, but numbers don’t lie,” Melendez said. “Austin had been able to put up great numbers offensively at every level. That was still the case in summer ball prior to coming here.” (Shenton hit .409/.478/.560 with more walks than strikeouts that summer in the wood bat West Coast League). “We trusted that he was going to come in and be able to do something.”
Shenton says it took him some time to get comfortable at FIU, but his numbers would never indicate that. Through the season’s first 17 games leading up to conference play, he slashed .333/.425/.683. Midway through the season, though, Shenton made a conscious decision to be more aggressive at the plate, spurred on by two factors.
First was the matter of adjusting to a more pitcher-friendly strike zone than he was used to. A naturally patient hitter, Shenton worked deep counts early, only to find that the borderline pitches were going against him. He struck out nine times in his first 12 games. “I’ve never struck out very much, but this spring was the most I’ve struck out my entire life,” Shenton said. “As I hit my stride mentally, I didn’t strike out as much. I never really expand the strike zone. I’ve always said that once I get to pro ball, I’ll strike out less. I had (42) strikeouts this year, and probably 20-25 of those were looking at- in my opinion- not strikes. I feel like my strikeout numbers will continue to go down even as the pitching gets better.” (Indeed, there’s reason to believe that Shenton’s discerning eye could become more valuable as a pro, since former major leaguer Nate Freiman found in examining minor-league strike zones that umpires become more hitter-friendly at higher levels).
More importantly, though, Shenton’s increased aggressiveness as the season wore on was an implicit mandate from the coaching staff. “When you are asked to hit in the middle of the lineup, asked to drive in runs, it kind of changes your mindset a little bit, changes your approach,” Melendez noted. “Changing that mindset took him a little bit. Once he got ahold of it, once he got comfortable with not taking as many pitches…he was able to do really well.”
“It wasn’t so much about his swing path,” Melendez continued. “It wasn’t so much about the mechanical part of it, although you work on those things a little bit. He’s a seasoned hitter, he’s advanced. He needed to learn how to be a little more aggressive, whereas before he just took pitches and got deep counts. This time, as a middle-of-the-order guy, he was asked to be a little bit more aggressive, not as patient, and that took a little time.” Through conference play, Shenton maintained strong offensive numbers, finishing top 15 in Conference USA in batting average and on-base percentage and top 30 in slugging percentage.
While offense has been, and continues to be, his bread-and-butter, Shenton impressed the coaching staff defensively as well. “We joke internally that ‘hey, you better hit, because your defense is kind of suspect,” Melendez laughed, “(but) at the end of the season, he became a premier defender. He made some plays down the line where (the coaching staff) looked at each other like ‘no, he didn’t make that play.’ His reaction time became much better, and he became a really good defender.”
A third baseman in his own playing days, Melendez has unique insight into what it’s like manning the hot corner. “More than anything else, it’s (adjusting to) the speed of the game,” he said. “. He has to be able to react to balls left, right, and up, whereas a middle infielder has to position his feet the right way to come in on the baseball. (At third base), it’s more about reaction, because if you don’t react well to a ball down the line, you’re done. That ball eats you up. The game slowed down for him on the defensive side.”
When asked about his coach’s comments, Shenton noted that he committed to losing weight to become more agile entering the season. More significantly, he pointed out that playing in the Northwest impacted him on the field in addition to limiting his exposure to scouts. “We don’t have access to fields (year-round). It’s just a little bit different. In the winter, you take ground balls indoors on turf, if you can. Hitting, you can go hit whenever. (Fielding’s) just a little bit more difficult. We don’t play baseball year-round, so that was something I just didn’t work as much. When I got here, I worked on it all the time, always incorporated into my daily routine.”
Undoubtedly, Shenton’s first year at the Division I level was a success. Even if you remain skeptical of his coaches’ assessments of his defense- while effusing praise on Shenton for his progress since high school, Goodwin admitted he’s “a little biased”- he was objectively one of the conference’s top hitters. Nevertheless, Shenton’s name value continued to lag behind his production. To expose Shenton to pro-level pitching daily, the Panthers’ coaching staff sought a place for him in the Cape Cod Baseball League, the nation’s premier summer wood bat league. The opportunities were more limited than expected, with only the Wareham Gatemen going all in to secure his services. “There were a couple teams (interested), but Wareham was the only team that offered me a full-time contract,” Shenton said. “I just kind of snuck in there, and I ended up having a decent year, so I was lucky that Wareham gave me a spot.”
Characterizing his CCBL performance as “decent” is quite the understatement. His .349/.450/.490 line for the Gatemen was the league’s second-best, and he only improved when the games mattered most. Shenton went 12-23 with three home runs in the playoffs, leading Wareham to their first title since 2012 and claiming playoff MVP honors in the process.
Perform well on such a noteworthy stage, and pro teams will take notice. Goodwin confirmed that numerous scouts have called him in recent weeks to inquire on Shenton’s makeup and behind-the-scenes work. Baseball America included Shenton among its top 50 CCBL prospects, lauding his advanced hitting ability and plate discipline. Scouts will no doubt be frequent guests at Panthers’ games next spring, while analytically-oriented clubs should also be intrigued by Shenton’s strike zone awareness.
Despite his coaches’ plaudits, Baseball America noted that Shenton’s defense continues to draw mixed reviews from scouts, so he’ll need to continue to improve on that side of the ball. A second year in Miami should afford him plenty of time for on-field reps this winter. Putting aside any defensive skepticism, everyone agrees on one thing: Shenton can hit, and he reaffirmed this summer that he can hit on the big stage. He’ll also deploy a selectively aggressive approach from the outset of next season. “(Just) put my best swing on every pitch that’s in the strike zone,” Shenton said of his mindset offensively. His approach, strike zone awareness and work ethic have him poised for another strong season, as he nears a pro career delayed by skepticism over the quality of his high school competition.
Having emphatically put to bed any concerns that he can’t hit strong pitching on the Cape, Shenton should come off the board early next June. For Goodwin, it’s been far too long in the making. “This kid’s been doing it for a long, long time against very good competition. I think with the change of scenery, now more people are seeing him. More people are paying attention.”