When you go 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, nearly every story about you is a tall tale. It’s fitting, then, that newly acquired first base prospect Bryce Ball has been dubbed “Ball Bunyan” as a result of his size and his prodigious exploits on the diamond. The legend began at Mason City Newman High School in Iowa and continued at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City. He later starred at Dallas Baptist University, so perhaps he could even be “Pecos Ball.”
For more on Ball’s origin story and a few of the anecdotes you’d expect from a small-town sports hero, check out Tommy Birch’s piece for the Des Moines Register from back in April. At the time, Ball was just a kid who’d received an unexpected invite to the Braves’ big league camp in 2020 spring training before spending time at their alternate site during the shortened season.
If you knew nothing else about him, reading the superlatives from coaches and evaluators along the way would have you believing Ball was a heavily recruited player and a can’t-miss prospect all along. Even the part about him attending NIACC might not throw you off if you assumed he only went there to get a little college experience while hastening his draft eligibility.
But Ball stayed close to home because he didn’t get any Division 1 offers, then he fell to the 24th round (pick 727) because scouts felt he was more of a lumbering ox than a lumberjack. You almost have to wonder if people underestimate him not in spite of his size, but because of it. Even for as much as baseball feels tailor-made for such characters, it’s not beyond typecasting.
Ball has been knocked along the way for being too slow, not facing a high level of competition, and not having the best glove. But power will make up for a lot of that and Ball is driven to improve his areas of weakness.
“Everybody doesn’t have power like that so you go to the ends of the earth with guys like that too because you just can’t find it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told Birch. “And I’m going to tell you what, to his credit, from when he came into camp a year ago, I was leery about putting him in games because he’s still a little rough around the edges and he’s got a ways to go but he’s worked and really improved the defensive side of the game too.
“He’s got the tools to be an everyday first baseman in the major leagues.”
At least one bombastic national baseball writer tweeted about this move signaling the Braves’ desire and ability to re-sign Freddie Freeman, which could lead Cubs fans to believing Ball’s arrival ushers in the imminent departure of Anthony Rizzo. To temper that somewhat, Ball just turned 23 on July 8 and is still toiling with a .744 OPS in 214 at-bats with Atlanta’s High-A affiliate. He’s walking at an incredible 18.7% clip, however, and his 110 wRC+ indicates he’s still an above-average offensive producer.
What’s more, his production has been trending up since opening the season in a bit of a slump. Even with his average hovering a little too close to .200 for traditionalists, Ball has trimmed the strikeouts while improving his slugging. Even as they’ve made significant changes to their developmental philosophy and infrastructure, the Cubs love players who’ve shown the ability to work through struggles with their performance on the field.
Ball was rated the Braves’ No. 11 prospect by FanGraphs, which gushed over his power while offsetting his lack of athleticism with a better approach than you might expect.
“What separates him from most power goofs is some intrinsic hitting ability as well, as while he’ll never be confused with Luis Arraez, he makes more contact than most players with his profile,” read the scouting report from Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein. “His approach got a bit aggressive following a promotion to Low-A Rome in 2019, and he needs to begin focusing more on pitches he can drive as opposed to ones he can merely hit.”
MLB.com is a little less bullish on the lefty-batting slugger, dropping him from 12th on Atlanta’s list to 29th among the Cubs’ top prospects now that the trade has been completed. Ball is the only first baseman on the list at this point, though, and he has a big league ETA of 2023. At the very least, this feels like a pretty solid return for two months or so of a player the Cubs knew would be trade bait when they signed him.
It is a little disappointing from an emotional standpoint because Joc Pederson quickly became a fan favorite due to an infectious personality that included a cheesy teenage mustache and a Chicago-themed glove. Adding to the cognitive dissonance is the Braves’ 44-45 record, which puts them just a half-game ahead of the Cubs and in the same third-place divisional standing. Them being buyers while the Cubs are clear sellers might strike a nerve with some fans.
But Jed Hoyer has to keep his eye on a horizon that stretches far past September, which means we’ll probably see more moves like this over the next two weeks. By that I mean players with limited Cubs tenure who could actually bring back greater relative value without creating as much of a PR hit. It’d be nice if Hoyer can unearth a few more folk heroes from other organizations as well because those guys are really fun to write about and I could really use some new material.