WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. — Alicia Keys sang of a concrete jungle. Found within that jungle are concrete diamonds. Anthony Volpe knows them well.
Volpe grew up across New York City — the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, downtown — before moving out to New Jersey at age 10. During his time in Manhattan, he’d grab as many neighborhood kids as possible and gather them on whatever open slab they could find.
“When we did ground balls, we’d always play Yankees versus the Red Sox, and I’d be the shortstop,” Volpe said. “My dad would yell out simulations, like runner on first, runner on second, and I would have to make whatever play. This is when I was 7, 8 years old, so yeah, there are fun memories spent with my dad, just having fun.
“We still do that now when we’re in in the cage or doing drills. That’s what I love about the game.”
Two years removed from being taken by New York with the 30th overall pick in the 2019 Draft, the 20-year-old shortstop has raised his profile enough to become the No. 15 overall prospect in baseball in MLB Pipeline’s latest rankings.
Entering Thursday, Volpe has hit .296/.426/.613 with 26 homers and 32 steals across 105 games between Low-A Tampa and High-A Hudson Valley. He is one of only two members of the 25-25 club in the Minor Leagues this season, and his 173 wRC+ is second-best among all full-season Minor Leaguers, behind only Julio Rodríguez’s 174.
Volpe is arguably the Minor Leagues’ breakout prospect of the 2021 season, and while that may be giving others eyes as big as Central Park, it has only dug Volpe’s concentration deeper into the process that got him here.
A breakout by anyone in 2021 feels like a small miracle after the 2020 Minor League season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that may be even more true of Volpe and others in the Yankees system. New York had an alternate training site at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but chose not to do a stateside instructional league in the fall, leaving Volpe and others to work out on their own.
Volpe spent much of his summer back in New Jersey, trying his best to stay in game shape with live at-bats against other area players including high school teammate and future No. 2 overall pick Jack Leiter. By August, he gave up the pipe dream of an actual season and turned his focus inward, trying to make the most of the unexpected downtime.
“I figured it was as good a time as any to get into the cage and slow things down, work on a lot more nuanced stuff than I’d been able to in the past,” he said. “Before, there was always a game the next day. There was always a game the next night. Looking back, there were definitely times I wanted to be out there playing, but I was definitely grateful for the time I was able to spend on myself.”
He traveled from his home in New Jersey to Westchester County, where he focused on hitting with former Major League scout Jason Lefkowitz. Back over the river, he would work on strength exercises that helped him grow from his listed weight of 180 as Draft pick to 195 now. All the while, he studied videos of Major League hitters, falling down nightly rabbit holes while he dissected what they were doing that he wasn’t.
“It wasn’t exactly a wakeup call,” he said, “but I thought let’s just attack this now instead of doing it piece by piece over the years.”
Utilizing a swing with a little more of an uppercut than he’d shown as an amateur, Volpe doubled in each of his first four Low-A games while going 7-for-17 (.412) with seven walks and three strikeouts. By May 26, he had hit his second homer through 18 games, roughly half the time it took him to reach the same total at Rookie Advanced Pulaski in his Draft year.
New York’s pre-Draft experience with the shortstop included seeing him in summer travel ball and then in showcase events like Perfect Game. Yankees northeast area scout Matt Hyde even got to know Volpe better as his coach during East Coast Pro and Area Code Games stints. No one in New York’s front office was surprised when he went 17-for-37 (.459) in nine games for Team USA in the fall of 2018 — when he won a gold medal in the Pan-American Championships and was named to the all-tournament team — nor were they when he and Leiter led Delbarton School to a state title in the spring of 2019.
Ranked as MLB.com’s No. 63 Draft prospect, Volpe had drawn strong external reviews for his hitting ability from the right side, baserunning instincts and good defensive hands that many believed would keep him playing up the middle. But given all their homework, the Yankees saw a little more.
“I guess people thought he was a little bit under the radar,” said vice president of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer. “But he was hitting third or second. He was playing shortstop. It was just one of those things where he was always part of these winning teams at a high level, and he was in the middle of everything.”
Then again, even New York didn’t see this power surge coming.
“Nobody evaluated him as an amateur and said this guy is going to hit 30 home runs,” Oppenheimer said. “We thought he’d hit a lot of doubles because he hit balls hard. But we didn’t see him as strong enough to hit a ton of home runs.”
By July 11, Volpe was hitting .302/.455/.623 with 12 homers in 54 games for Tampa. His 1.078 OPS was the highest of any Minor Leaguer up to that point. It was that day he received a promotion to High-A.
Hudson Valley manager Dan Fiorito was in constant contact with his Tampa counterpart David Adams, but he still needed to see the slugging improvement for himself.
“For me, it’s been the power to all fields,” Fiorito said. “Just him driving balls out to dead center here, through the rain, out to right field, out to right-center. It has been really impressive. I think with his sense of timing in the box, how strong and compact he stays, hitting velo as well as he has, his swing decisions, he’s everything you want to see in a true professional hitter.”
The scary thing for pitchers: Volpe can’t sense his own increased pop.
“Honestly, it feels natural,” said the shortstop, who is hitting .291/.394/.602 with 14 homers in 51 games at High-A. “I never consciously thought to have more launch angle or stuff like that. I just feel like I can get to a lot more pitches, and when I’m hitting the ball hard — and I’ve been hitting the ball a lot harder — those balls that probably would have been doubles or singles in years past, a couple of those are going over the fence now.”
A coming Bronx attraction
Once thought of as a future second baseman, Volpe has also made his fair share of highlights at short. Fiorito recalled one July 29 play in which Volpe ranged and dove to his right, made a backhanded stab and threw to second to catch the lead runner. This all happened with two outs in the ninth inning to seal a 3-2 win over Wilmington.
The ability to stick to that position holds weight everywhere in this sport, but especially so in New York City, where the words “Yankees shortstop” could shine on a Broadway marquee.
It’s some coincidence that Volpe is finishing up his breakout season in the same month Derek Jeter joined the Hall of Fame. It’s also the same month that Gleyber Torres slid over to second base, calling into question who will play shortstop in 2022 and beyond.
Maybe it’s a free agent like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager. Maybe it’s Volpe, at least in the “beyond” sense.
“When Jeter went up, I remember that year before [in 1994], he started in [High-A] Tampa, went to Double-A in Albany, and then Triple-A Columbus all in one year,” Oppenheimer said. “He just hit and hit and then next year was in the big leagues. I think you can build a depth chart and have some ideas of it, but these guys, they’ll push themselves.”
Given where Volpe has been, what he’s doing and where he could be headed, it feels like — to borrow another Keys line — there’s nothing he can’t do.
“It’s a dream,” Volpe said of calling himself Yankees shortstop some day. “That’s the only way I can put it. It’s every kid’s dream to one day to be a Yankee and wear the pinstripes. It’s not something I take lightly to have the opportunity to one day do. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s the big picture.”