March 5, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
The graduation of A.J. Murray, last year’s home run leader, left big shoes for Georgia Tech to fill in the power department in 2016.
The Yellow Jackets may have found an answer in freshman Brandt Stallings. At 6-4, 217 pounds, the Buford, Ga., native certainly measures up — he’s two inches taller and two pounds heavier than Murray, who’s currently catching with the Minnesota Twins’ Rookie League affiliate in Elizabethton, Tenn. — and his powerful swing is helping fill the void production-wise.
“He’s got tremendous power,” said Head Coach Danny Hall. “We’ve had some guys here in the past that have a lot of power. I would put Brandt Stallings up there with them just in terms of raw power and bat speed. He is a dangerous guy when he gets in that batter’s box.”
Stallings, who hit in all three games of the White-Gold Series for Gold, batting .333 (4-for-12) out of the leadoff spot, had to wait his turn to prove how dangerous he could be, but when opportunity knocked on Saturday, Feb. 27 against UMBC, he came out swinging.
Hitting out of the eighth spot, Stallings blasted a fourth-inning two-run homer then added an eighth-inning sacrifice fly in the 9-2 win. The following day, he again had the Retrievers play fetch, this time looping a fifth-inning single to center. Then, on Tuesday, against Georgia State, making his third straight start, he blasted a fourth-inning three-run shot to right-center field. He’d add an RBI single to center in the fourth.
“Early in the season we were giving guys opportunities and it took him a few games to get into the lineup,” said Assistant Coach Bryan Prince. “We knew eventually he was going to be in there but wanted him to see the game at the level that it is before he went in and put too much pressure on himself. He’s fit right in. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s a great hitter and he’s got a lot of power. So he can help us with his speed, he can help us with his power, he can help us in a lot of different ways.”
Stallings has, heading into the weekend series against Western Carolina batting .417 (5-for-12), with two homers and .917 slugging percentage, the homers and slugging are team highs, and a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in right.
“I’ve just been seeing the ball really well, have been loose in the box, not feeling any pressure,” he said. “I know the team’s got my back, the coaches really support me. Everything’s going well, clicking.”
The powerful right-handed hitter has worked hard to make such a seamless adjustment from Kings Ridge Christian High School, where he graduated having belted a school-record 23 homers, 11 his junior season, to college.
Tailoring his swing has been a big part of it.
“The one thing Brandt gets in trouble with is he can hit the ball as far as anyone but he tries sometimes, he gets long. He doesn’t have to,” Prince said. “It could be shorter, it could be more loose, and it could be more free and you can have the same results. It’s not a total overhaul, just a few changes to shorten his swing for longer pitch recognition.”
“I had a really long batting-practice, home-run swing I guess you could call it, where I knew a fastball was coming I’d be able to turn on it,” Stallings said. “But in a game you don’t always know that fastball’s coming. You have to be able to adjust and have a fastball timing with being able to adjust to the curveball. So shortening my swing and being able to recognize pitches were the biggest things for me.”
Even with his immense power Stallings is anything but a conventional slugger, as he uses the entire field. Stallings credits his high school coach and former Major Leaguer Dallas McPherson for his commitment to going the other way.
“In high school I was taught a lot to hit the ball to the right side,” he said. “Coach [McPherson], if I pulled balls out in BP he’d make me go chase them. I learned to hit the ball to the opposite field and now, with Coach Prince’s help, [Volunteer Assistant Coach and four-year Major Leaguer] Mike Nickeas, Coach Hall, these guys are teaching me how to pull the ball and still be able to hit with power to the right side. It’s just been a constant, on-going learning process.”
Brandt has found hitting at Russ Chandler Stadium very much to his liking.
“I love the fact that it’s big, which I know sounds contradicting as a hitter, but my high school field was very large as well,” he said. “To get a ball out here you have to actually hit it well. There are no weak shots that barely clear the fence.”
He’s learned and is learning about clearing Russ Chandler by being around sluggers like Matt Gonzalez and Kel Johnson, each of whom has excelled in the TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby — Gonzalez was a finalist in 2013, Johnson a semifinalist last year. While they’ve been role models they also have brought out the competitor in Stallings, something which had been showing up in batting practice.
“There’s no doubt it’s a competition — a fun competition,” said Stallings, who also has home run derby experience, having won the 2014 Perfect Game Home Run Challenge at Petco Park in San Diego. “We’re brothers, we’re teammates and so nothing’s too serious or cut-throat, but, of course, everybody pushes each other to be better, do the best that they can.
“I’ve cut back on that a lot but at the beginning, as a freshman coming in, being able to hit home runs, I would say it was a little bit of a competition for me — not necessarily for the older guys,” he added. “Now I’ve cut back and I’ve tried to get some solid swings in, make sure my bat has a good plane, make sure my swing feels good rather than just trying to hit balls over the fence. If I just try and hit balls over the fence in BP I might not get as warm or as solid of a BP to do certain jobs that I’m needed to do.”
Coach Hall made cutting back on the impromptu home run derbys easier.
“Kel Johnson last year was I guess where Brandt is this year, had hit a lot of home runs. It was almost like they tried to out-do each other and I wasn’t sure that was good for either one of them,” he said. “So I separated them to where they don’t hit in the same batting practice group anymore.
“And we need all the baseballs,” he added, with a laugh. “We kept losing baseballs left and right. So I had to separate them.”
Prince can see Stallings following a similar path to Johnson, who was Second-Team All-ACC and Freshman All-America, then was electrifying at the TD Ameritrade Home Run Derby.
“They’re both big, physical guys, they both hit with power. I want them to take their hits as opposed to try to overswing and try to just hit for power,” he said. “I want them to become a complete hitter and that’s what we work on every day. It’s going to be hard to replicate what Kel Johnson did or what he’s capable of doing and what he did in the collegiate home run derby this summer but if there’s anybody that can do it it’s Brandt Stallings.
“What we try to do is we just try to teach him, ‘Take an A swing’ every time you get in there,” he added. “Generally, going the other way it’s taking the same swing but just letting the ball get in deeper over the plate. He’s hit a homer the other way, he’s gotten some doubles and base hits, it just proves that his hard work and his attitude and the way he approaches the game is paying off for him.”
Hall is eager to see Stallings continue to progress.
“Like a lot of young guys he’s got a lot to learn,” he said. “But I feel very confident that if he goes to the plate and gets three swings on somebody he has a chance to do damage.”
That damage might be as bad for Georgia Tech football as for opposing pitchers.
“John and Mary Brock’s building down there is in trouble,” Hall said, with a laugh. “When Paul Johnson starts spring practice he might want his guys to keep their helmets on.”