Tyler Stephenson doesn’t know where it came from. He’d never done anything like it. He just reacted to the moment, and, not long after, the moment went viral.
The buildup to the baseball draft isn’t known for its iconic moments, but Stephenson’s massive bat flip in a Georgia high school playoff game had all the elements: It was dramatic, emotional, unexpected — and, most of all, it was mesmerizing.
“It just kind of happened,” Stephenson said. “I saw the Vine (online video) of it later that night, and the next thing I know I wake up in the morning and it’s got a million views. I was like, wow, I didn’t think that would happen. Now everyone says, ‘You’re that bat flip kid!’ ”
When it comes to his prospects for the upcoming draft, Stephenson has a lot more going for him than just his bat-flipping skills. He generally is regarded as the top high school catcher in the country. He has a large yet agile frame, and scouts like his ability to throw and receive and see the potential for him to hit for power.
Considering the difficulty teams have finding frontline catching, it’s no surprise Stephenson’s stock has shot up with his strong senior season at Kennesaw Mountain High in suburban Atlanta. The Diamondbacks, who own the first overall pick, have been closely linked to him throughout the spring — he attended the team’s predraft workout at Chase Field last month – and most mock drafts don’t see him getting past the Philadelphia Phillies’ selection at No. 10 overall.
“He can hit as good as any high school player I’ve ever coached, and defensively he’s the best high school catcher I’ve ever seen and I’ve been around for 23 years coaching high school baseball,” Kennesaw Mountain coach George Hansen said. “There is a tremendous upside to this kid. Nothing in the universe is a sure thing, but Tyler Stephenson is about as close to a sure thing as you’re ever going to get.”
Hansen said Stephenson’s progression from a gap-to-gap hitter to a potential double-digit home run type has changed the way scouts view him, and Stephenson credits an unusual source for being able to unlock the power. Along with working out, he also was on the high school swim team this winter.
“I just did it for the fun of it my senior year, but it actually helped me out tremendously,” he said. “It’s a full-body workout. It helps with shoulder strength and hip flexibility — you’re working everything in your body when you’re in the pool. It got me in shape really quick. I think it helped make me who I am as a player.”
At 6-4, 215 pounds, Stephenson is big for a catcher, but scouts say he moves surprisingly well behind the plate. Stephenson said he models his game after Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters.
“He’s a big catcher – he’s 6-foot-5,” Stephenson said. “He’s got a great arm. I like kind of how he carries himself, the way he calls a game. He makes it look easy for a big guy.”
Whatever team takes Stephenson will be taking a chance on a classification of player that hasn’t fared particularly well in recent history. High school catchers taken high in the draft seem to wash out at a higher rate than other positions.
“They’re all a risky,” a scouting director with an American League team said, “but I would say there’s probably a little bit of added risk (with a high school catcher) because they have to do so much to become a big leaguer.”
Catchers have to learn how to receive, throw, block and call a game all while trying to develop into a big league hitter.
“What these kids have to go through,” the scouting director said, “with the beating they have to take … I think it takes a really, really special guy mentally, not to mention physically, to deal with all the stuff you have to deal with to develop as a young catcher.”
Stephenson gets high marks from scouts for his maturity and intelligence, and many believe he has the kind of makeup needed to develop into a well-rounded catcher. Hansen calls him humble and grounded, and he says that’s what made last month’s bat flip even more incredible.
“It was so not Tyler,” Hansen said.
Facing the school that knocked Kennesaw Mountain out of the playoffs the year before, Stephenson’s home run was a sort of exclamation point on his team’s payback victory. It was a no-doubt homer the instant it left his bat, and, in one motion, Stephenson bounced out of the batter’s box and flung his bat skyward.
The home run was captured on camera by FanGraphs reporter Kiley McDaniel, who posted it on Vine, where it has been looped 2.7 million times. Stephenson said his friends even saw it on MLB Network.
“It’s something I just laugh about,” he said. “It’s going to be something that I look back on and I can say I went viral all over the world because of a bat flip.”
Position, school: catcher, Kennesaw Mountain (Ga.) High.
Height/weight: 6-4, 215.
Notable: Stephenson hit .415 (27 for 65) with eight homers and 25 RBIs this spring for Kennesaw Mountain. … Along with attending the Diamondbacks workout at Chase Field, he said he also attended workouts for the Braves and Phillies. … Said he first started to catch at age 6 because he thought “the gear was cool.”