Every once in a while, Samuel Basallo’s phone will buzz with a text from Josh Bunselmeyer containing a video of one of the first swings the slugging catcher ever took in front of his hitting coach. It was all moving parts, Bunselmeyer said: “A big countermovement backwards to load up, his hands are really high, and then he kind of drifts forward, throws the hands at the ball at a steep angle and pops it straight up.”
“Who is this guy?” he’ll ask facetiously to remind the prospect how far he’s come.
Given how Basallo has started his first full season of pro ball — at age-18 in Delmarva with three home runs and a .948 OPS in 11 games — more and more people around the game are asking that question because he’s so good they actually want to know the answer.
“He’s so talented,” Bunselmeyer, Delmarva’s hitting coach, said. “He’s the quickest learner I’ve ever been around. He might just tear through the league.”
If he does that, Basallo may develop into one of the next top-level Orioles prospects for his combination of youth, power potential and prowess at the plate. Bunselmeyer, above anyone else in the organization, might have as strong an understanding of how we got here.
From the time of that video back in 2021, not long after Basallo signed for $1.3 million as, at the time, the recipient of the Orioles’ largest ever international free agent signing bonus, Bunselmeyer has been his hitting coach. They’re embarking on their first trip through affiliated baseball together now with the Shorebirds, and Bunselmeyer’s assessment of the player he’s seeing tear up the Carolina League is one vastly different from the one he filmed that day years ago.
Basallo was connected to the Yankees before he ended up signing with the Orioles as one of two seven-figure signings who were meant to sign in July 2020, but had theirs pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. That class of players who were turning 16 in 2020 didn’t have much organized baseball in that pandemic summer, then the 2021 summer was filled with instructional camps as teams sought to make up for lost development time before a brief Dominican Summer League season.
It was then they got to work on that wonky swing.
“It was just completely different,” Bunselmeyer said. “We worked on a couple different things that year, and he’s just so naturally talented that we probably could have done nothing and he would have been successful. But just to his credit, he wants to be the best player ever.”
That summer was all about toning down the moving parts and starting Basallo off in a quieter place — bat on his shoulder, ready to rotate and attack pitches. He led the Orioles’ DSL prospects with five home runs and had a .748 OPS while leading their complex group in hard-hit rate that summer.
Like many teenage prospects, his swing decisions required some work. That was an area of focus when he came stateside in 2022, spending the first half of the year in extended spring training before the Florida Complex League kicked off.
“One of the big things with Basallo is if he’s controlling the zone, he’s one of the most dangerous hitters probably in the organization,” Bunselmeyer said. “He has good hand-eye and that ability to make contact on tough pitches that he just wants to go make contact. He sometimes will put himself into a bad spot where he’ll swing at a bad pitch and let it kind of build, swing at another bad pitch. It’s like, ‘Hey, he didn’t beat you, you beat yourself in that at-bat.’ ”
While his walk rate dropped from 12.3% in the DSL to 8.3% in the FCL, Basallo hit six home runs with a .774 OPS and kept his strikeout rate broadly the same as the year prior at 20.6%, though he still swung at over a third of pitches outside the zone.
But that FCL team was one in flux last season. Many players were back and forth between the FCL and Delmarva, with the challenge of jumping to full-season ball proving to be too significant and forcing them back to Florida at one point or another.
Against that backdrop, there was hope that Basallo would be an outlier and take hold at the level quickly, but Bunselmeyer admits he was skeptical.
“I truthfully didn’t think that he would have the success that he’s currently having at this point in the season,” Bunselmeyer said. “I thought that he might have a home run, a couple extra-base hits, but truly kind of be struggling.”
He credits much of that to Basallo’s emotional growth. He said Basallo has worked with mental performance coach Kathryn Rowe a lot over the years, and now “is getting to the point where he doesn’t need other people’s help to come back mentally after a tough at-bat.”
Basallo will still get frustrated, but has taken to writing in a journal after each at-bat about his “thoughts, feelings, how the pitcher attack him, what he was feeling that at-bat,” Bunselmeyer said. As a coach who was overly hard on himself as a player, Bunselmeyer can sympathize, but urges Basallo to write his thoughts down and move on. Recently, he had to urge him to do so and Basallo responded with a double in the gap.
“That ability for him to bounce back quickly is, in my opinion, the biggest thing for him when he’s not having success, at how to get back on to having those good at-bats,” Bunselmeyer said.
While he’s not walking a ton this season and still swinging at plenty – Tuesday’s game in Fredericksburg featured Basallo’s second walk of the season as well as an opposite-field home run on a 2-2 pitch that was four balls above and two balls outside the strike zone — Basallo has leaned into the need to better recognize and lay off pitches.
Bunselmeyer counts him among the more ardent practitioners of facing fully mixed batting practice from coaches to see the variety of pitches and random order that night’s game will provide, so he’s had plenty of game-like reps before the game actually starts.
“He loves that, and it’s to his fault at times, where he gets frustrated with that,” Bunselmeyer said. “But I’d take a kid that’s going to get frustrated because he cares so much rather than someone that’s indifferent.”
Basallo does not fall in the latter category. Delmarva manager Felipe Alou Jr. said that back in the Dominican Republic, they run into each other where Basallo works out.
“I know he’s very demanding on himself,” Alou said. “Sometimes, to the point that we have to tell him, ‘This is a process, you have to continue to trust this process.’ But in the meantime, I think it has allowed him, by practicing the way he does and working the way he works, to make this transition to a long-season club this easy. … The expectation is usually that it takes time, but I think because of the way this kid works and how demanding he is of himself, I think that’s what has made this transition pretty easy.”
At 18 for this entire summer, Basallo is far from the finished product. He has work to do on his swing decisions. He boasts a strong arm and, while tall for his age, seems athletic enough to stay at catcher with improved fundamentals and pitch-to-pitch focus. But Basallo is working with more than just development in mind — he wants to move quickly through the Orioles’ system, and has told Bunselmeyer he wants to end the season in Bowie.
Bunselmeyer said: “I tell him, ‘That’s a big goal, that’s going to take a lot.’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t care, I want to do that.’ So, let’s attack every day like that’s the plan. In his mind, he thinks he can go play anywhere, and that’s awesome. I think you have to have that if you’re going to be successful.”