Feature Photo: Anthony Alford, CF, Blue Jays
Editor’s Note: 2080 Baseball is publishing weekly profiles of former Perfect Game All-Americans as they progress through the professional ranks. The series will be published each Wednesday and run through the 2017 Perfect Game National Showcase, to be held June 16-21 in Fort Myers, FL. We’d also like to offer our special appreciation to David Rawnsley, vice president of player personnel for Perfect Game, and Patrick Ebert, PG’s managing editor and scout, for their contributions to the PG in the Pros series. – Mark Shreve
For many two-sport athletes, the decision to choose one path over the other can be excruciating. Toronto Blue Jays’ center fielder and top prospect Anthony Alford — the first high school athlete to be named both Mississippi Football and Baseball Player of the Year — struggled with the decision between baseball and football for years.
Football was admittedly Alford’s first love and the game came naturally to him. Despite being only 5-foot-11 at the time, Alford was the starting quarterback for the Petal (Miss.) High School football team as a freshman thanks to his speed and raw athleticism. As a senior, Alford threw for 2,058 yards and 20 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,731 yards and 24 touchdowns, and he drew significant recruiting interest from FBS college programs.
At the same time that Alford was developing into a highly-rated prospect on the gridiron, he was also building a reputation on the baseball diamond. While Alford didn’t see himself as particularly gifted at baseball at a young age, he credits his older brother, Bernard Williams, for getting him interested in the sport and working with him to improve, specifically at the plate. Williams was a 2004 48th-round draft pick by the Tigers in 2004, although he turned down the opportunity to play professional baseball to pursue academics.
“He [Williams] really started training me at a young age, around 11 or 12 years old,” Alford said. “He got me on a select ball team and I really had fun.”
Under Williams’ watchful eye, Alford quickly became a pro prospect in baseball. As a sophomore, he hit .390 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs for the Panthers. The following year, Alford continued to improve, slashing a whopping .451/.606/.718 with four home runs and another 25 RBIs.
During his senior season, Alford hit 11 doubles over 30 games for the Panthers, finishing the year with another huge slash line of .483/.569/.793 to go woth 31 RBIs. Alford earned recognition as one of the top high school baseball players in the country, participating in the 2011 Perfect Game National Showcase.
The MaxPreps National Boys Athlete of the Year in 2012, Alford came to the end of his high school career with a big decision looming: should he focus on only one sport, or continue playing both?
Patrick Ebert, managing editor and scout with Perfect Game USA, says it was clear Alford would have to choose one sport over the other eventually.
“In high school, he was a very physical player,” Ebert shared. “Obvious two-sport guy and overall just jacked up. It was also clear that if baseball were to be his future, he would need to focus on it.”
Alford, however, wasn’t ready to make that decision. Instead, his goal was to find a college program that would allow him the opportunity to pursue both baseball and football.
“I had my mind made up at the time to go to college and play baseball and football, play for three years and decide which one I’d want to do,” Alford said.
When the MLB Draft rolled around in 2012, Alford didn’t expect to sign. The Blue Jays took a flier on him anyway, selecting Alford as their third-round pick. They presented Alford with the opportunity to go to Southern Mississippi and play football while also playing in their minor league system. Ultimately, Alford bought into the idea, and signed with the club for a $750,000 bonus.
After signing, Alford appeared in just five games for the Rookie Gulf Coast League Blue Jays before leaving for Southern Miss and the 2012 football season. Football didn’t offer many bright spots for Alford, as the Golden Eagles went 0-12 during his freshman year.
Alford’s time at Southern Miss was also marked by an off-field incident in November 2012. An altercation on campus led to Alford being charged with aggravated assault for tangible involvement with another member of the group who was in possession of a weapon. Following the altercation, Alford was among those suspended. Several days after the incident, the assault charge against Alford was reduced to a misdemeanor, allowing Alford to avoid going to trial. He was reinstated by the school, but by then, he was ready to move on, transferring to Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference for his sophomore season.
While sitting out the 2013 season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Alford continued to progress as a prospect on the diamond. In September 2014, the time had finally come where Alford had to choose between the two sports. On Sept. 30, 2014, he announced that he was leaving Ole Miss to concentrate on baseball full time.
“I knew it was coming close to the time where I had to choose one sport or the other,” Alford said. “It was really difficult with growing up with football as my first love and all of a sudden, I have to walk away from it, but I felt like I was going to have a better future in baseball. I wanted to do what was best for me and my family.”
It took some time for Alford to adjust to life without football. Former Blue Jays performance coach Steve Springer made it his mission to work with Alford to put his focus solely on playing baseball and not off-the-field distractions.
“It was all about getting the right Anthony Alford to show up every day [in 2014],” Springer said. “It doesn’t mean you get three hits every day. It means you get the right guy playing because we all have two players in us. I’ve got confident Anthony, who is a really good player and I’ve got non-confident Anthony, who sucks.”
The confident Anthony Alford showed up for much of the 2015 season. Filling out to a solid 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds at this point, he split his 2015 campaign between Class A Lansing and High A Dunedin, Alford hit a combined .298 with 25 doubles, 27 stolen bases and 35 RBIs in 107 games, posting a respectable 19.2% strikeout percentage.
Adversity caught up with Alford again in 2016, however. A season-opening knee injury cost Alford the first three weeks of the regular season. Fast forward to June, where Alford was doing his best to survive the steamy weather in Florida with the High A Dunedin Blue Jays. Arriving to the stadium, he was admittedly already exhausted. As the day rolled on, Alford registered his fourth double of the season before jogging back out to center field in the 12th inning. A pop fly that inning resulted in a scary collision on the field.
Alford remembers racing to shallow center field in an attempt to chase down what ultimately would be ruled an infield fly. What he didn’t realize was Dunedin shortstop Richard Urena had the same idea.
“I remember the moment,” Alford said. “I just remember running after the ball and looking at the ball and all of a sudden, I woke up on the ground.”
Following the collision, Alford spent about 15 minutes on the ground before being stretchered off the field and hospitalized. Although he was released the following day after a CT scan confirmed he didn’t have any fractures, Alford had another obstacle to overcome.
“I had to do the concussion protocol, obviously,” Alford said. “Once I passed that test, I felt fine, but I felt like I was playing the game more timid, like I didn’t want to get hurt.”
Springer worked closely with Alford to get him over that mental hurdle. Springer says that Alford’s natural ability and drive allowed him to return much quicker than most players.
“I’d give credit to his makeup, to his aptitude, his work ethic, the coaching staff that worked with him and I’ve said this kid is special, man,” Springer said. “He’s a better person than he is a player and he’s a really good player.”
Alford returned to Dunedin 11 days after the collision and finished the year with a .236/.344/.378 slash line with 18 stolen bases. He was able to salvage his season that fall in the developmental Arizona Fall League, posting a .789 OPS for the Mesa Solar Sox, showing patience at the plate (11 walks in 23 games) and some pop (.440 SLG). Here’s some video of Alford from the AFL, courtesy of 2080’s Alec Dopp.
Outside of the obvious raw athleticism, Alford’s biggest draw as a prospect is an undeniable combination of speed and power. 2080 Baseball’s John Arguello spotlighted Alford during the 2016 AFL, highlighting his double-plus speed. In the years since he gave up football, Alford has improve his approach at the plate, and, according to Arguello, Alford now has stronger pitch recognition. Arguello also noted that Alford’s speed allows him to cover more than enough ground to hold down center field at the major league level.
After his strong showing in the AFL, Alford was added to the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster in November and he participated in his first big league camp this spring.
“It was awesome to see that they would protect me and add me to the roster,” Alford said. “Obviously, it shows a little bit about how they feel about me as a ball player, so it was pretty exciting for me.”
Nearly two months into the 2017 season, Alford is proving that the Blue Jays were right to give him a reason to walk away from football. After hitting .325 with seven doubles, three home runs and 11 RBIs and a .411 on-base percentage over 33 games with Double-A New Hampshire in the Eastern League (see some video below of a BP session two days before the call-up, courtesy of 2080’s Mark Shreve), Alford received the call to the big leagues on May 19. He made his major league debut that same day, going 0-for-2 with a strikeout in a 5-3 loss to the Orioles.
29-year veteran scout and 2080’s senior advisor, baseball operations and special assignment scout Ted Lekas sees Alford finding a permanent home in center field with the Blue Jays.
“He projects as a plus center fielder who should stick at the position in the big leagues so long as the health stays good,” Lekas shared in his recent spotlight of Alford for 2080 Baseball. “He shows above-average first-step quickness and it pairs well with plus range, thanks to his plus to double-plus speed.”
As Alford will be the first to testify, with success comes its share of adversity and it came calling again on May 23. Fouling off a 2-1 pitch that would ultimately end in a strikeout, Alford suffered a left hamate bone fracture and he was placed on the Blue Jays’ 10-day DL the following day. Following surgery, Alford is expected to miss 4-to-6 weeks.
For Alford, it’s one more roadblock, but don’t expect him to take it lying down. Watching from the sidelines, Springer continues to predict a bright future for Alford.
“This guy’s got a chance to be an impact in the community, him and his wife, Bailey,” Springer said. “I absolutely love him as a person. I just think that with the God-given tools that God gave him and now you’ve got makeup, now you’ve got integrity, now you’ve got, like I said, some aptitude.”