Outfielder Robby Hefflinger is a behemoth, a local kid from Gainesville who has more raw power than any other Braves prospect. The kind of slugger that folks arrive early to watch taking batting practice.
But raw is the operative word.
Hefflinger hit 21 homers in 74 games at high Class-A Lynchburg in 2013, then struggled after a midseason promotion to Double-A, and he has looked overmatched the past few weeks in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
He hit .172 with one homer, four walks and a league-high 27 strikeouts in 64 at-bats for Scottsdale before Saturday.
“He drives the ball, and he can hit the ball a long way,” said Bruce Manno, Braves assistant general manager and director player development. “The interesting thing about him, he’s played a while, but this year he was basically the age of a college senior. It took him a while to make some adjustments, but now that he’s made them, he’s taken off.
“I think when he went to Double-A he tried to do a little too much, to make an impression, and got out of his element.”
At Lynchburg in 2013, Hefflinger posted career-highs in average (.286), homers (21) and slugging percentage (.579) in 307 plate appearances. Then he was bumped to Double-A Mississippi, where he hit .170 and homered six times in 53 games, with 15 walks and 64 strikeouts in 188 at-bats.
“(Hitting coach) John Moses helped me a lot when I was in Lynchburg for about 80 games,” said Hefflinger, whose 27 total homers were ninth-most at Double-A or lower in affiliated minor leagues. “I got to Double-A and started pressing. Who wouldn’t? You get moved up and you kind of want to show everybody what you can do. Especially after the first half I had.”
It was similar to 2012, when Hefflinger struggled after a midseason promotion to Lynchburg and was sent back to low-A Rome. He finished with a .284 average, 12 homers and career-best .362 OBP in 84 games that year at Rome, after hitting .228 with four homers and 46 strikeouts in 37 games at Lynchburg.
He started the 2013 season back at Lynchburg and looked like a man among boys — and not just because he’s built like an NFL tight end, at 6-foot-5 and a muscular 250 pounds.
“He has raw power, man,” said Moses, who completed his first season as a coach in the Braves organization and has served as Scottsdale’s hitting coach this fall. “The thing with Heff, all year I’ve been trying to get him to stay to where he doesn’t have to be a max effort every time. Three-quarters, seven-eighths swing, that’s all I’m looking for.”
Moses played parts of 11 seasons in the majors and was on big-league coaching staffs for six seasons with Cincinnati and Seattle. He knows what it takes for hitters to continue moving up the ladder and succeed in advanced leagues.
“He’s got to realize, the ball will jump off his bat,” Moses said of Hefflinger, a seventh-round pick in 2009 out of Georgia Perimeter College. “He’s got to be a little bit more selective at the plate. But for me, he hit for average and power at Lynchburg. He had a chance to go up (to Double-A) halfway through the year and struggled a little bit.”
He has light-tower power like his pal Evan Gattis, whose 21 homers in 2013 were second-most among big-league rookies.
“Me and Gattis played together two years,” Hefflinger said. “He’ll call me randomly. I love Gattis. That guy is hilarious. Just look where he gotten to. I was so pumped when he made the big league team. Me and (Braves minor leaguer Matt) Lipka and him went out to eat. You could tell he was really pumped.”
Hefflinger has plenty of work to do if he’s ever to make an impact remotely comparable to Gattis. Then again, Gattis is 3 1/2 years older than Hefflinger, who turns 24 in January. And as a two-sport athlete who focused more on football at Gainesville High, Hefflinger hasn’t played as much baseball as most ballplayers his age.
“I just haven’t had that much experience, haven’t had that many at-bats,” said Hefflinger, who’s spent time this fall talking hitting with Scottsdale teammate Tommy La Stella, a Braves second-base prospect known fo r plate discipline.
“I played football and baseball in high school, so I got done with 25 games (during baseball season) and that was it,” Hefflinger said. “I didn’t play any summer ball. I didn’t have that exposure, that experience of facing guys that were overpowering and dominant. I come to pro ball and it’s like I’m thrown in the fire.
“Finally I got experience, and when I got to Lynchburg this year, I caught on to what pitchers were doing. That’s a huge learning experience.
“This is my first time past high-A. It’s an adjustment you have to make, to figure out how guys are going to pitch you, what guys are going to throw in which counts. When I was in high-A, pitchers were just pounding me inside. Now, everything’s away. Sliders away, lot of cutters.”
Hefflinger signed with the University of Georgia as a pitcher and designated hitter out of high school, but opted to go the junior-college route when he found out he faced a redshirt season as a Bulldogs freshman.
Hitting more advanced pitching is harder than he imagined back then.
“Sometimes I wish I was a pitcher,” he said, smiling.