The step to the minor leagues from amateur baseball, be it high school or college, is a transition of many facets. Players are sent to parts of the country previously unknown to them, joined with teammates they have likely never met, and immersed in an organization’s philosophy that may or may not sync neatly with how they had previously approached the game of baseball.
Some parts of taking this step are complex and particularly challenging, and some are remarkably simple. I have had the opportunity to talk to several minor league players this season, and I always start with the same question: I ask them about the experience of that transition. Whether they have come from college or high school, I want to know what they think of playing baseball at the professional level, even just Single-A or rookie ball. They all say the same thing, and it doesn’t matter the organization; I’ve talked to players from the Diamondbacks, Angels, Cubs, and Brewers organizations, and they’ve all responded the same way: “Playing every day.”
They talk about the toll this takes on their bodies, the extra work it takes to prepare, and the things they have to learn to be able to be in uniform on a daily basis. And it shows on their faces. They’re young but they’re tired, especially in the heat of August and the waning stretch of the season.
This is one of the reasons that most professional baseball players never make it out of the lowest levels of minor league ball. Devote as they might the hours, weeks, and months to retraining their bodies to playing every day at that level, many just can’t do it.
The attributes, then, that make the difference between a short-lived career in the dregs of the minor leagues and advancing can be slippery to pin down. However, some minor leaguers come with a background that screams future success, and the Brewers seem to have that in 2015 first round draft pick Trent Clark.
When I approached Clark in the clubhouse at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva, Illinois, he was sitting in just his cowboy boots and a pair of pants and his head was in his hands. And it’s no wonder. His Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Brewers’ Single-A affiliate, had just finished an intense 7-6 win over the host Kane County Cougars, and this came after a 14-inning marathon the night before. Sitting there, he had a late night bus ride back home to look forward to before turning around and hosting Beloit the next night.
The travel schedule for any professional athlete is a grueling undertaking, but especially so for the players on baseball’s minor league rosters. Here, pedigree and signing bonuses offer them no special privileges. They gather up their own belongings before each road trip and carry their own bags to the buses that idle behind minor league stadiums, waiting for them.
But in spite of all this, Clark was gracious enough to share a few minutes with me after the Rattlers’ last game against Kane County in that series.
The Brewers took Clark with their first round pick last season, plucking him out of North Richland Hills, Texas, a part of the country where all other sports compete for attention with football. However, when a player like Clark comes along, people take notice.
North Richland Hill sits just northwest of Fort Worth, and right in a hotbed of highly competitive high school baseball. Chuck Wells, his former baseball coach at Richland High School, has coached baseball for 23 years and has spent the last ten at Richland, and he saw Clark maturate as an athlete right in front of him during his time there. A natural athlete, Clark could dunk a basketball as a sophomore and was starting games at quarterback as a freshman. For the varsity team. In Texas, where high school football is king.
“He could play ping pong – anything. If there was something to compete at, he did it,” Wells shared with me when I called him to ask about Clark as a high schooler. With the memories of Clark’s athletic exploits clearly still fresh, he made it clear that even in the highly competitive athletic environment around Dallas-Fort Worth, Clark stood out.
“He had natural ability. We knew he was a phenomenal athlete from the beginning. His athletic ability was noticeable at a pretty young age,” Wells told me. Though he could clearly have excelled in at least one of two sports, Clark chose after his freshman year to stop playing anything else and focus on baseball.
“I remember talking to him on the phone going into sophomore year, making sure that’s what he wanted to do,” Wells said, describing what must have undoubtedly been a difficult conversation, given the obvious benefit to the high school’s baseball team. Wells recognized the multi-sport talent in Clark, so he was careful to let him be in charge of that choice.
Clark stuck to his decision, and made baseball his sole focus beginning in his sophomore year in high school, and he’s taken it seriously ever since.
“Everybody realized he was something special,” Wells said when describing the world around Clark as he went into his junior year, his second year of focusing just on baseball. Texas Tech offered him a scholarship, but he opted for the draft after graduating in 2015 instead.
Well has seen plenty of players go through his teams, and he described Clark’s work ethic as unmatched: “I’ve seen some other kids who are pretty good players, but their arrogance gets in the way. There’s no arrogance about him. He was always studying the game and talking to people.”
As a junior, Clark took advantage of some of the valuable connections around him to satisfy that desire to keep learning about the game and growing as a player. Wells described a time when Clark met with Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose dad still coaches in the area, and came back with extensive notes on his phone that he still has. As a senior, Clark was Wells’s student assistant in class and spent much of his time studying videos of various batters’ swings to see what they did differently and how they approached their at bats. He even watched videos on the history of the game, simply content to devour any baseball knowledge he could get.
When I asked Clark about the level of competition in the world of the Single-A Midwest League as opposed to his experiences playing in high school, he said, “All the guys I usually played against [in high school] were at this level, at a high level. So that wasn’t really a big change.”
This answer struck me in the moment as almost dismissive of the current level of talent surrounding him, but Clark has already spent years playing baseball at a very high level, so it’s not dismissiveness, it’s the product of his years of preparation. These days, Clark takes his daily routine to prepare himself physically very seriously, and he has considerable access to scouting reports and video when he needs it.
With this, Clark has learned and adapted quickly to the way Single-A pitchers approach him: “They’re a lot more consistent at doing what they do. It can be a good and a bad thing. If they see a weakness, they’re going to go after that weakness, whether they’ll start you with it or whether they’re going to try to finish you with it.”
Clark’s focus on making sure he’s ready for what’s coming has left him feeling confident in himself to handle the higher-caliber pitching: “But it’s also easier to get into a rhythm, so if you know what they’re going to do, you can attack that.”
Really, Clark was probably ready for this level of competition before he left high school. Wells spoke at length about his preparation and batting practice sessions during those years. Even as a high school student, Clark was using that time to improve as a hitter, not just put on a show. And knocking it out of the park during batting practice must have been tempting, given that by the end of his high school career, it was common to see scouts numbering in the triple digits there to watch him.
“He approached BP working on hitting the ball away, up the middle, the pull side, not just out of the park,” Wells said, adding that Clark’s experience playing for Team USA during high school helped him grow as a player, but he also brought that knowledge to his teammates. “He was a phenomenal teammate to the other players. There would be 100 scouts at a game, but not at one point did any of his friends feel like he was pushing them away,” Wells said.
This attention would only intensify when Clark would do things like hit six home runs in one weekend, like he did during a tournament in his junior year. And once during an early season game that was taking place during the school day, Clark hit a home run over the right field wall and through the trees at Arlington High School that ultimately flew through an open window and landed in a classroom.
“They found the ball in there the next day, and the coach texted me to tell me where it was,” Wells said, describing a truly Ruthian feat from a kid whose driver’s license was probably still warm from the DMV printer.
To illustrate how careful Clark was to put his team first as all of the attention was swirling around him, Wells told the story of when the Cubs’ Theo Epstein came to see him play and wanted to speak to him before a game: “He didn’t want it to be a distraction to him or his team,” Wells said, and then in reference to the entire scope of attention Clark was receiving at the time, he added, “He didn’t want any part of it to be a distraction. Because of that, kids at our high school didn’t know the magnitude because he never made a big deal about it.”
As for Epstein, the meeting and conversation was very short, and according to Wells, Clark had to be cajoled a bit to even do it because he was worried it was too close to game time.
Now, as a part of the Brewers organization, Clark is working to build on a successful start to his professional career. Last season, while splitting his time between the Brewers’ rookie affiliates in Arizona and Helena, Montana, he combined for a .309/.424/.430 slash line, and had 15 XBH in just 252 plate appearances. Of those 15 hits for extra bases, seven were triples.
At the plate this season, it is evident that Clark has a plan in his approach, and though his .727 OPS so far in 2016 may not be reflective of what he’s capable of doing, Clark missed some time earlier in the season due to injury and has since been working on refining his swing. He told me that he’s working shortening his stroke, something that caused him to scuffle at the plate early on: “I ran into problems earlier in the season with length in my back swing and getting beat, and getting beat by fastballs that I shouldn’t get beat by.”
Clark is tackling the problem, and has been hitting steadily since returning from injury. Whether or not his numbers are eye-popping this season probably doesn’t tell the whole story anyway, because he’s working on what the Brewers organization values. Clark described this top to bottom organizational philosophy to me, saying, “They want us to compete, they want us to do the little things right. They don’t want us worrying about big stats, all they want us doing is competing on the field. It’s a lot more playing the small parts of baseball.”
When I asked him about the loaded roster he’s a part of with the Timber Rattlers, he added, “It’s a very competitive organization with all the prospects – we have a lot of talented people. We know we have a chance to get to the big league level if we do our business right. There’s a fight amongst us every day.”
For now, the Brewers sit looking up at most of the rest of the NL Central, but with an organizational attitude like that and players like Trent Clark buying into it, they won’t be in that spot for long.