Homegrown: Anthony Volpe, the next great Yankees hope, is uniquely prepared for the pressures of New York

TAMPA, Fla. — The first rumblings about Anthony Volpe, the next great hope of the New York Yankees, were silences that spoke loudly. When a raft of high-profile shortstops hit the market ahead of 2022 — Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and Marcus Semien among them — the Yankees turned away despite coming to the public realization that Gleyber Torres was not a long-term fit for the position. When another wave of shortstops became available this winter, the Yankees once again sat out the chase.

The noise, absent from the Bronx, was instead building in the New York exurbs. First around the High-A Hudson Valley Renegades in 2021, then around the Double-A Somerset Patriots in 2022. Around a confident, poised, first-round pick who had the “it factor,” even according to GM Brian Cashman.

Of all people, Volpe was certainly aware that the din wouldn’t be dying down, not here, not for him. He grew up in New Jersey and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan during the Derek Jeter years. He chose his hometown Yankees over joining high school teammate Jack Leiter at Vanderbilt.

By the time Volpe emerged from the Somerset dugout for the start of the 2022 season, he was one of the most highly regarded prospects in baseball, and the eyes of all Yankees fans were wandering to him, to his box scores, to his scouting reports. With him playing so close to home that he lived with his parents, throngs of people Volpe knew — or who knew him — packed the park every night. Many of them whispered his name in the same sentence as Jeter’s.

“Anthony's name holds a lot of weight,” said Dan Fiorito, his minor-league manager at stops in 2021 and ‘22. “I mean, he's somebody who's seen so much success at a young age, and you know, we see where he is on the top prospect lists and everything, and it's all well deserved. It's something that he's handled amazingly well.”

Anthony Volpe, New York kid

You don’t need a cinematic origin story to build hype in this information-rich age of baseball prospect-watching. But it doesn’t hurt.

Volpe has one. Now 21, he said this spring that his earliest baseball memories took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where his family lived in some of his early years. He and his father would play baseball at a park on the corner of 96th Street and Lexington Avenue.

“It would just start [as] me and my dad, and within half an hour, we'd have a full nine-on-nine game,” Volpe said, “with just people that would just show up at the field wanting to play.”

In the intervals without full squads, Volpe and his father set up exactly the simulated games you might expect: They played out imaginary Yankees vs. Red Sox matchups, hovering a few layers of grass, dirt and concrete above the 4 train that ferries fans to the real thing at Yankee Stadium.

Volpe’s express route to the Bronx will reach its destination on Opening Day. A blistering spring — and diligent winter — have earned him a place on the roster, likely as the starting shortstop, even earlier than expected. A 2019 first-round pick out of the Delbarton School in New Jersey, Volpe was the breakout prospect of the 2021 season, which provided the first look at many minor-leaguers after the pandemic canceled the 2020 season. Sporting a power-focused swing, Volpe batted .294 and belted 27 homers, terrorizing pitchers on the bases (33 steals) when he wasn’t trotting around them. The eye-opening season wowed scouts and earned him consensus top-15 prospect status entering 2022.

After leveling up to Double-A, Volpe found himself the most acclaimed young player on the Somerset Patriots, less than half an hour’s drive from his parents’ home in Watchung, New Jersey.

“We just became the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate three years ago,” said Marc Russinoff, the VP of communications for Somerset, a former independent league team thrust into the local spotlight, “and their No. 1 prospect was from the county that we play in.”

Barely a commute from his old stomping grounds and squarely in the footprint of Yankees fandom, Volpe was a magnet.

“The Volpe and Yankees aspect of, like, actual Yankee fans coming to see him was one thing. Because obviously when you're a 40-minute drive from the Bronx, you're going to get that Yankees fan base that wants to come see their potential future star,” said Steven Cusumano, Somerset’s play-by-play voice. “But then you had the local influence, too, of people that grew up with him and had some kind of a distant connection — like a dentist from when he was a kid or one of his teachers from when he was in school.”

Russinoff said the team was inundated with media requests for Volpe, even on road trips to similarly obsessed Yankees towns such as Hartford. After games, Volpe would go back out to greet fans.

“He stayed after every game signing autographs on his own. No one asked him to do these things. It wasn't like the team or the Yankees or anybody was like, ‘Hey, you know, there's hundreds of people that came out to see you tonight that are still hanging around waiting to get your autograph or take pictures of you,’” Russinoff said. “He did it on his own. He just sat there signing away for fans — sometimes through firework shows, sometimes for another half-hour, 45 minutes after a game, you would still see him down there.”

When Volpe scuffled to a slow start last season, it wasn’t a leap to think that living under that microscope, in that fishbowl, was a big ask for a kid who couldn’t legally drink.

Learning to hit high-level professional pitching at the same time? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Anthony Volpe has managed to take the hometown pressures and the Jeter comparisons in stride. (Credit: Somerset Patriots)
Anthony Volpe has managed to take the hometown pressures and the Jeter comparisons in stride. (Credit: Somerset Patriots)

How hometown assignment helped Volpe

Talk to Volpe, and that first impression — like his slow start at Somerset — gets flipped on its ear.

He didn’t think playing under the watchful eyes of roughly everyone he has ever known amplified the pressure. On the contrary, he says, it allowed him a release valve.

“I loved it. I got to be home for a summer for the first time since probably way before I was in high school,” he said, reflecting the reality of many pros who leap straight from youth baseball travel teams to national teams to college or the minor leagues.

“I talked to some other guys on different organizations and different teams, and I have no room to complain about my minor-league experience.”

Even beyond living at home in Double-A, Volpe’s stops at High-A and, most recently, Triple-A were within 90 minutes of his close-knit family.

Most young ballplayers don’t get anything like the comforts of home. The best and most famous New Jersey high schooler of the generation, Mike Trout, left home in Millville for a news conference with the Angels in Anaheim, then reported to Arizona. He proceeded to play in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rancho Cucamonga, California, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Salt Lake City, Utah, before reaching the majors. Those were the places where he had to grow, as a player and as a person, from ages 17 to 20.

“The toughest part, probably, of professional sports and baseball is the time away from family,” Fiorito, the Somerset manager, said. “It's certainly a sacrifice. So many players aren't able to be around their parents or be around their kids for a full year, and that can definitely weigh on people.”

It’s a nearly impossible factor to control for or even assess in the field of player development, a part of the sport taking on more and more importance in recent years. The closest comparisons to Volpe probably play for the Atlanta Braves, who have kept their minor-league affiliates close and the promising players of the Deep South closer. Star third baseman Austin Riley, one of many Braves to sign long-term with his childhood team, grew up in Mississippi. Last season’s NL Rookie of the Year, Michael Harris II, hails from the Atlanta suburbs and said family members were able to come to his games throughout his rise. Had he ever played for Triple-A Gwinnett, it would’ve been 30 minutes or less from his childhood home.

Volpe’s family, according to Cusumano, was “basically part of the team.” In fact, several Double-A teammates-turned-close friends lived at the Volpe family home during the 2022 season.

“It helped me compartmentalize a lot,” Volpe said of the setup. “Once the games were over, I wasn't really focused on how I did it that day, whether good or bad. And I truly mean that.”

Instead, he says, he could go home and let his mind wander to other, lighter things, such as hanging out with teammates or “petting my dog that if I was on the road I wouldn't see for the whole year.” Those around the team also saw the family’s influence in Volpe’s calm, generous approach to being the center of attention.

“I think having his family here definitely helped with that cause, too, because having that kind of family influence and knowing that his grandpa — he called him his Papi — is watching every single game out in the stands, and his mom and his dad are at the same seats every day, he kind of understands that there's a certain way that they expect him to be,” Cusumano said. “And he likes to make them proud.”

Beginning May 18 last season, after that brief adjustment period in which he hit .170 and struck out at an alarming clip, Volpe batted .271, cut the strikeouts and whacked 17 homers to go with 35 steals, earning a promotion to Triple-A.

Yankees fans everywhere are asking: Is Volpe the next great New York shortstop? (Credit: Somerset Patriots)
Yankees fans everywhere are asking: Is Volpe the next great New York shortstop? (Credit: Somerset Patriots)

Where Volpe ranks among shortstop prospects

The narrative and the superlatives — plus Volpe’s familiar penchant for saying exactly the right thing without saying anything that would actually make a tabloid headline — can make it difficult to get a realistic grip on Volpe’s potential. Baseball Prospectus called him “one of the most well-rounded prospects in the game” this spring and ranked him the No. 7 overall prospect and the No. 1 Yankees prospect, ahead of Jasson Dominguez, the physically impressive center fielder, and fellow shortstop Oswald Peraza.

That reflects a high-probability future in which Volpe hits for at least decent average and decent power with savvy baserunning. It also reflects his lack of any one freakish talent and the uncertainty about whether he will be the best defensive shortstop on his own team.

Using No. 1 overall prospect Gunnar Henderson, the Baltimore Orioles shortstop/third baseman, and Peraza as guideposts, we can plot where Volpe’s strengths fall on the spectrum of burgeoning talents.

Jarrett Seidler, a Baseball Prospectus prospect analyst who has followed Volpe’s rise, explains the gap between him and Henderson like this: “Volpe's swing decisions and game power just haven't developed at the same rate as Henderson's. That's not a knock on Volpe because Henderson's swing-decision development is truly exceptional, and his power projection has been there since he was in high school, and now he's getting to all of it in games.”

On the other side, Volpe’s bat — the most important part of any position player’s game — remains more bankable than Peraza’s. “Volpe just projects overall to do more damage with the stick,” Seidler said. “Volpe makes better swing decisions, hits the ball a little harder, on balance probably makes better contact and has a better launch angle spray, so he gets it into games more.”

All those little edges mean Volpe shapes up as a more valuable player, despite Peraza’s having a better chance of playing shortstop long-term.

That was the backdrop of the Yankees’ spring training competition at shortstop. Peraza has only a few major-league games under his belt, but he usurped defensive specialist Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the playoffs last season and seemed to have the inside track at the Opening Day job. Volpe seemed likely return to Triple-A to begin 2023, but under this latest microscope, Volpe batted .314 with three homers, five steals and won almost daily praise from esteemed veterans.

Who has the highest expectations?

The most intangible, most elusive element of evaluating young baseball players is the mental and emotional side: How do they handle the almost inevitable failures the game serves up? How do they manage the ups and downs of 162-game seasons and social media mentions and boo birds and laudatory comparisons and — for some — almost unfathomable fame?

In baseball parlance, all that is distilled into one word: makeup.

A rise in the amount of quantitative data available on minor-league players has helped cut down on rampant and often irresponsible overreliance on scouts’ makeup assessments, but some players still stand out. When you hear about “well-rounded” players such as Volpe who absolutely everyone believes will succeed, it’s often because of that inimitable “it" factor. It’s because of makeup.

That’s what Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ major-league hitting coach, saw in February after a batting practice session in which Volpe picked his brain between taking cuts.

“He was our first-round pick. It's clear that he has talent, but the thing that happens with talent — some people take it for granted,” Lawson said. “And there's no chance that he'll ever take his talent for granted.”

With a Bronx debut still a hypothetical at this point, Volpe did indeed catch himself before even verbally taking it for granted. He said he viewed the hubbub of his summer in Somerset as something like a “mini version” of the attention to come in New York. He learned how to ask the people around him for help, for space. He developed a system, of sorts, for divvying up ticket requests. He practiced balancing life and baseball — at least as much as any player can do so before reaching the big leagues.

Fiorito, who has overseen the majority of Volpe’s professional career, saw the proof of concept in the young shortstop’s level-headed, daily approach — how he’s “able to stay neutral day in and day out.” But he also took something bigger from watching Volpe stride through the swirl of family, of top prospect lists, of being hailed as the Yankees’ future.

“His expectations for himself,” Fiorito said, “are higher than any that fans are putting on him.”

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