On April 19, just days after returning from thumb surgery — an injury that cost him most of the season — University of Washington catcher Austin Rei (pronounced "rye") hit the hardest ball of his life. With one out in the bottom of the ninth and Arizona State closer Ryan Burr on the mound, Rei redirected a 97 mph fastball, the count 2-2, over the left field fence at UW's Husky Ballpark.
Two weekends later, against Oregon State, Rei hit three more home runs, including one off OSU ace Andrew Moore (he hit two more the next day). Then, against Arizona — his first series back behind the dish — he hit yet another home run, this time out of University of Arizona's capacious Hi Corbett field. By this point, pro scouts were coming in droves to get looks at Rei, and heading into tomorrow's Rule IV Draft (Mon., June 8), he's considered one of the class' best catchers, and likely its best from the college ranks.
He's been working out for major league teams extensively the last few weeks, a rigorous travel schedule that's taken him from Phoenix, to Los Angeles, to Milwaukee, and Seattle. Rei, a Bay Area native (he graduated from Campolindo High in Moraga), also worked out for both the A's and Giants. After visiting the Coliseum on Friday, I was able to catch up with him for a late-night interview over the phone. He had some great insights into the draft process and his development from defense-first catcher to offensive force.
The Scouting Report
When the Twins drafted Rei in the 38th round of the 2012 Draft, he was seen as a defense-first catching prospect. By his own admission, he wasn't hitting the ball to right field enough, leaving him susceptible to off-speed pitches, which made the transition from high school to college ball rough. To make matters worse, Washington's hitting coach his freshman year emphasized a ground-ball hitting approach, an approach Rei found ridiculous. The stats really bear out those struggles.
His sophomore season, the Huskies hired a new hitting coach, Donegal Fergus, who's been integral to Rei's development as a hitter. "He's a big mental approach guy. Everything that was fast about the game, he's helped me slow down ... working on breathing, slowing down and finding a focal point."
Fergus also encouraged him to let it rip more often. "He would try to get me to really go for one, not just over the fence, really try to hit it hard, punish the ball, instead of being okay with a dribbler through the four or six hole."
As the confidence mounted and Rei moved up in the order this season, following the departure of the team's middle-of-the-order bats, he started punishing baseballs. His .681 slugging percentage was a career high by more than 200 points. He emphasized that the most important thing as a hitter is knowing your role on a team, that unlike players at the top and bottom of the order, middle of the order bats need to do extra-base hit damage. He also integrated a leg kick into his swing this season, which he says helps his timing — he doesn't attribute his power surge to the tweak, though.
I asked him, hypothetically, what his approach would be with runners on second and third and two outs — would he be just as happy taking the walk as driving the runners in? He had mixed feelings.
"I'm never going to argue with on base percentage, but there's a certain — probably a bad thing to say, in some ways — but there's a certain selfish aspect, where you want to drive the runner in," he explained, "but it's not a one-person kind of game."
He also noted that while it's important to not be over-aggressive with runners on base, as a middle-of-the-order hitter, you can't be susceptible to being pitched backwards. "You have to be ready to hammer that hanging curveball instead of letting it go for strike one."
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A catch-and-throw guy when recruited to Washington, Rei has good receiving and throwing skills, a plus arm with a quick transfer that produces 1.8-1.9-second pop times to second base.- Baseball America
As a high school kid, Rei made extra cash by catching for one of the most well-know pitching coaches in Northern California. Framing, blocking, defense and handling pitchers is something that's always been a plus. If you ask him about the importance of defense, he minces no words, mentioning that despite his growing offensive game, defense is still his calling card.
"Defense is far more important than offense. If you asked me what was more important, throwing a runner out or hitting a home run, I will, every time, say throwing a guy out."
He idolized Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez as a young ballplayer, and compulsively watches and critiques opposing catchers' throwing, blocking and receiving skills.
If there are questions about his game, they're not on defense. This is an important distinction, especially in the PITCHf/x era, where understanding and praise of catcher defense is at its absolute peak.
The Draft Process
One of the first things we talked about was what it was like to go through the draft process. "It's an incredibly long process. A lot of people think it's like a two-week process, but that's completely false." Per Austin, a college baseball players' junior fall consists of doing an "unbelievable" amount of paperwork.
This is not a process only elite players are subjected to; in fact, "draft stock" doesn't have much to do with it at all. If you've flashed any skill that may have piqued the interest of a major league club, you do the paperwork. Once the information is in, the potential draftees gauge interest by the amount of calls and additional information requested by teams.
"Sometimes you end up doing more work for scouts in the fall than you do for school, which is absurd."
As the draft approaches, teams begin hosting players for private workouts. Players have to foot the bill, however, because current NCAA rules forbid players from accepting funding, whether it be from an agent or an organization. This makes part of the process somewhat preclusive and makes for tough decisions:
"The Red Sox wanted me to go to Boston on Wednesday. But I wasn't going to do that ... because it was expensive, East Coast -- not like everything else wasn't expensive."
Another consideration for players is their likely landing spots.
"I also talked to my advisors. They're good about realizing the general area of where you could get drafted, then looking at team's picks in the draft, and seeing which ones would be the most beneficial to go to."
I also asked Rei what it's like, as a prospect, being constantly picked apart with a scalpel. He compared it to how some players decide, throughout the season, whether or not to look at their statistics. "Sometimes it pumps them up, drives them to be better, and other times it gets them in a funk and gets them thinking about it too much."
He noted that one of most frustrating things about media coverage was the negative Internet scouting reports written by non-scouts, "guys ... that have never played the game before. Pretty frequently that's the case."
Rei knows the learning curve at the next level could be steep, but after facing pitchers like the Reds' Robert Stephenson (in high school), Oregon's Garret Cleavinger and the aforementioned Burr, he knows what to expect and is looking forward to the challenge. If there's anything he may need to spend some time working on at the pro level, it's his bat flips. Of the biggest home run of his life, against Burr, he said, "Before that pitch, I had never pimped a home run in my life." He continued, "I mean, I hit seven home runs this year, I don't know how to pimp a home run real well."
*Special thanks to Austin for taking some time from his busy schedule to speak with me, and his dad, Matt, who helped facilitate the process.