‘I just saw the best player on the field’: Wyatt Langford is turning heads with every thunderous swing of his bat

MLB

SURPRISE, Arizona — During the first week of spring training, Texas Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux returned to the team’s clubhouse after watching a live batting practice session and declared: “I just saw the best player on the field.” The room of coaches and assorted personnel perked up. The Rangers came into camp off a World Series title but with questionable starting pitching depth, and they were hopeful Maddux, a coach for 20 seasons, had unearthed his latest gem on the mound.

Wyatt Langford,” Maddux said.

Langford is not a pitcher. He is a 6-foot-1, 225-pound power-hitting outfielder, and for a pitching coach — particularly one of Maddux’s stature — to gravitate so quickly to Langford provided the latest evidence that the defending champions’ offense could be even better this year.

Maddux’s answer surprised no one internally. After sliding to Texas at the No. 4 pick in a loaded 2023 draft, Langford, now 22, spent two months destroying four minor league levels, hitting .360/.480/.677 with 10 home runs in 200 plate appearances. He arrived this spring “in real competition to make the club,” according to Texas general manager Chris Young, and only the Rangers’ outfield excellence stands between Langford and an every-day big league role.

Langford’s right-handed swing has impressed the Rangers so thoroughly that he was under substantial consideration to make his major league debut during the playoffs last year. Toward the end of the regular season, with right fielder Adolis Garcia injured, the Rangers discussed promoting Langford to fill out an already-dangerous lineup. They weren’t afraid of his age or inexperience. As ably as rookie Evan Carter was already garnering headlines with his impressive play, adding Langford to Carter and center fielder Leody Taveras would’ve provided a needed offensive boost.

Garcia returned, of course, going on a legendary hot streak that netted him American League Championship Series MVP honors. But Langford remained around the team during the postseason, joining the Rangers’ so-called “stay-ready squad” in case of injuries. Quickly, he distinguished himself.

The group would gather at Globe Life Field in the morning and take live at-bats. Among those on the mound were Jack Leiter, Owen White and Cole Winn, the best pitching prospects in the Rangers’ organization. Danny Duffy, a World Series champion for the 2015 Kansas City Royals with Young as his teammate, was there and already had a deep respect for Langford after playing with him in Double-A during Duffy’s attempt at a return to the big leagues.

“I got him out once, and it was the first pitch I ever threw him,” Duffy said. “It was a changeup. I didn’t want to challenge him right there. Ball was flying. I hadn’t given up a homer all year, and he wasn’t about to be my first, but he just missed one. Hit it like 400 feet in the air to the middle of center field. If he would’ve clipped it, it would’ve gone to the Embassy Suites.”

Future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer, then trying to return from an injury, didn’t know who Langford was before he faced him during a live batting practice in October. Scherzer learned quickly when Langford hammered a double off the wall. As the month went on and the Rangers cruised to the AL pennant, Langford continued to flabbergast onlookers, consistently barreling balls at 110 mph-plus, territory typically reserved for elite major league hitters. While the stay-ready crew was sent home after Game 1 of the World Series, Garcia’s oblique injury suffered in Game 3 reignited the chatter among Rangers personnel to summon Langford.

“He was right there in the conversation,” Texas bench coach Donnie Ecker said. “And if he did play, he was going right in the 3-hole.”

“I don’t know if he would’ve hit third, to be honest,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said, “but watching him in the live BPs was impressive. The numbers, what he was doing, was incredible. You can’t ignore that. And then you get to know the man and he’s got no fear. And you saw what Carter did. And so, we had that to go on too that, hey, these guys are different, these young kids. And so, we didn’t think he’d be afraid. That’s why it was legit, why he was with us.

“Looking back, I mean, it actually would’ve been pretty cool to see.”

Ultimately, Texas chose to give veteran Travis Jankowski the left-field slot and elevate utility man Ezequiel Duran to the active roster. Both had been there all year. They were capable, game-tested. With a 2-1 lead in the Series and home-field advantage, the Rangers didn’t feel the need to push the envelope. The prospect of Langford in the lineup, though, remained in their thoughts. During the celebration after the Rangers’ championship-clinching Game 5, one coach, already looking forward to 2024, said: “And we’re going to have Langford next year too.”

“It wasn’t just the performance or the results in the minor leagues,” Young said. “It was the process metrics, which we value, that suggested he could come up and have success. His exit velos were extremely high. His chase rate was extremely low. He was walking. He was showing elite discipline. It’s everything we saw when we drafted him — and he’d also performed on the biggest stage in college baseball.

“When you take that into account, the moment wasn’t going to be too big for him.”

Langford had laid waste to college baseball over the previous two years, going from a backup catcher who got four at-bats as a freshman at Florida to arguably the most productive hitter in the country. As a sophomore, Langford hit an SEC-leading 26 home runs with a 1.166 OPS. His follow-up was even better: While his home run total dropped to 21, Langford hit 19 more doubles as a junior and walked 20 more times while maintaining his strikeout rate. His season ended just one win short of a College World Series title.

As much as he would’ve enjoyed being the first position player to participate in the College World Series and the World Series in the same season, Langford saw 2023 as a grand success — one he spent the offseason trying to replicate as he trained with hopes of convincing the Rangers he would be ready this spring. Because Langford understands that dominating in college and the minors guarantees nothing at the major league level, he has used the early goings of spring training to pick the brains of veterans Marcus Semien, Nathaniel Lowe and Josh Jung — Langford’s spring roommate — to better understand the fundamentals of playing his first 162-game season.

“The biggest goal is just to learn as much as I can, make sure to just be myself and go out there and play and have fun,” Langford said. “If it happens, then awesome. If not, then I’ll go to wherever they send me to and do the best I can.

“I know if I do what I can do, they’ll give me the opportunity to showcase that.”

When he gets that chance might depend on the Rangers’ needs. With Jung and shortstop Corey Seager sidelined, they could use their 26th roster spot for a utility man to open the season. What’s clear is that the Rangers won’t keep Langford down just to keep him down — not with MLB’s rules that award a full year of service time to top rookies and incentivize teams to promote them by giving draft picks.

Especially if Rangers coaches continue to see him as the best player on the field.

“He will tell us when he’s ready,” Young said, “and if that’s now, it’s now.”

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