Samuel Basallo’s goals heading north this spring for his first full professional season were at once modest and ambitious for a teenager: a .295 batting average, 15 home runs, improvement behind the plate — and a season-ending assignment to Double-A Bowie.
That he’s blown past his developmental targets says plenty; he ended Sunday’s game with Aberdeen batting .307 with a .945 OPS and 20 home runs in the low minors, making him one of the most productive teenagers in all the minors. That the Orioles smashed some recently established development guidelines by moving him to Double-A Bowie for the final week of the season after just six weeks in Aberdeen shows just how advanced the 19-year-old catcher might be.
“What he’s been doing is pretty special,” Aberdeen manager Roberto Mercado said.
Basallo’s promotion comes on the back of an eye-popping end of the season for the IronBirds. He hit three home runs last weekend in Jersey Shore, then returned home to hit home runs in three straight games — including a towering blast Wednesday in front of Orioles general manager Mike Elias, director of player development Matt Blood and senior director of international scouting Koby Perez, and then a walk-off home run Thursday.
Many Orioles prospects hit a stumbling block upon arriving at Aberdeen — top prospect Jackson Holliday being the exception. Basallo, who was the Orioles’ highest-paid international signee ever when he joined the organization for $1.3 million in January 2021, was still just 18 when he came from Delmarva after a red-hot June there with a 1.007 OPS. He struggled his first week in Aberdeen before quickly adjusting to the level. He went 2-for-26 that first week, then entered Sunday with a 1.363 OPS, eight home runs and 15 walks against 16 strikeouts while batting .400 in his next 20 games.
The underlying batted ball data is impressive, too, and it makes sense for a player whose idol growing up was legendary catcher Yadier Molina but who now tries to emulate Astros slugger Yordan Álvarez, one of the game’s most prolific power hitters and a hard-contact specialist.
Basallo entered Sunday hitting 43% of balls in play over 95 mph, with a 90th-percentile exit velocity of 106.1 mph. Through Sunday’s games, just 53 teenagers had at least 400 plate appearances in the affiliated minors — High-A or above. Only three had a higher OPS than Basallo this season, and one of them was Holliday.
Of the 26 qualified full-season Orioles prospects, Basallo’s 13% walk rate entering Sunday was sixth best, as was his strikeout rate of 20.1%. Basallo has improved in many facets over the course of the season, notably his swing decisions; he had a 35% chase rate last year, down to 32% this year even as he’s faced more advanced competition.
“Power to all fields, and another big thing for being so young, too, is just the swing decisions,” Mercado said. “They’re really advanced for his age. He’s taking some really tough pitches and trying to find pitches he can do damage with.”
Basallo credited the Orioles’ mixed batting practice drills, where coaches vary which pitches they’re throwing to help players learn to recognize fastballs, breaking balls and changeups in game situations.
“My favorite part is the mix,” Basallo said, with the help of Mercado’s interpreting. “We have a lot of coaches that can throw BP and really bring it and really challenge me, not just fastball — curveball, slider, changeup. That’s my favorite part, being able to ask for it and the coaches being able to do it for me.”
Delmarva hitting coach Josh Bunselmeyer always found Basallo to be voracious for extra work. Mercado called him one of Aberdeen’s hardest workers.
“The way he prepares every single day is elite,” Mercado said. “He’s one of those guys who is really in tune with what he wants to do.”
That includes improving behind the plate. Listed at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Basallo has grown into his frame and presents as big for the catcher position. But he has an elite throwing arm and has improved his flexibility and movements behind the plate, as well as his receiving, with an appetite for more. With a rare day out of the lineup Friday in Aberdeen, he did an extended receiving session with Ironbirds fundamentals coach Chase Sebby to work on finer points of catching.
The Orioles wouldn’t be moving him up to Double-A to join a Bowie team pushing for a playoff spot in the final week of the season if they weren’t comfortable with his defense. It’s his bat that has made his climb through the minors unprecedented.
Even though he’s the second 19-year-old to reach Bowie this season — and Holliday is now at Triple-A Norfolk, having begun the season with Basallo at Delmarva — Basallo’s move to Bowie has come after a shorter stint in Aberdeen than any comparable prospect in recent years.
Basallo had 115 plate appearances at Aberdeen, far fewer than Holliday’s 207 there. Gunnar Henderson arrived in Aberdeen just before his 20th birthday in 2021 and was there long enough to compile 289 plate appearances. Coby Mayo was 20 all last season and had 255 plate appearances in Aberdeen.
Promoting Basallo at this point is more about next year than anything else, getting him acclimated some to Double-A — where he’ll presumably start 2024 — and to extend his season at a time when he’s playing well. Bowie has at least one more week left, and learning the challenges of Double-A before he goes home this winter will benefit Basallo.
Although he already boasts some of the most impressive power and strength in the system, he plans to get stronger this winter in hopes of solidifying his major league future even further.
“The big thing for me is to continue to get stronger — continue to physically get more mature, continue to work on the defense, and just continue to improve on that and come back next year and be ready to go,” Basallo said. “I’m going to look a little different next year.”