JOSH ELANDER GREW up in Round Rock, Texas, spending his Friday nights either shooting hoops or splashing around in the swimming pool that sat just beyond the right field fence at Express Field.
When he wasn’t doing that, he was in the Express Field stands with his father, who often made a point of telling his son that “you’re going to be here one day.”
Kicking back in the home team’s bullpen at Lynchburg City Stadium prior to a game against Wilmington this past week, the Hillcats left fielder reflected on his baseball journey, well aware that he is very close to making his father’s words prophetic.
“It’s a dream come true,” Elander said. “I wake up every morning, every day and play baseball. It’s something I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid and I’ve got to meet guys from all over the world.”
The Round Rock Express arrived in the “Sports Capital of the World” in 2000 as a Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. It eventually became the Triple-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. During that time, a young Elander witnessed the occasional established Major League star making his way through rehab assignments. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte jumped immediately to mind.
But the first player Elander saw in an Express uniform that he truly believed would be a future star was Keith Ginter.
“I didn’t really follow him after he left, but I just remember him hitting home runs all the time,” Elander said of Ginter, who swatted 26 homers with the Express in 2000 and made his big league debut that season. Ginter would go on to have a five-year career in the big leagues, topping out with 19 homers for Milwaukee in 2004.
Elander excelled at Round Rock High School and was drafted in the 37th round of the First Year Player Draft by the Washington Nationals following his senior season. He opted for college, signing with Texas Christian.
It proved to be a great move. The Horned Frogs reached the College World Series during Elander’s freshman season. Proving his durability as a junior, he played in all 62 of the team’s games, 61 coming at catcher. With a .333 batting average in 588 career college at-bats, Elander was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft by Atlanta.
“I really wanted to go to school and my parents were always education-first,” Elander said. “The opportunities I had at TCU were unbelievable. You really couldn’t put a price on my college career. I got to play in a College World Series. I played in a Super Regional, I played in a regional, we were a preseason No. 1 my junior year. I got to play for Team USA. I feel really blessed I had the opportunity to go to TCU.”
Those three years, as it has done for all players drafted out of college, aided Elander’s transition to professional baseball.
“I would like to think I came out more polished,” he said. “Just playing better competition in college and having a little better instruction and playing four games a week instead of in high school, where you played two. Just getting out there and doing more. You learn how to carry yourself and take care of yourself and develop a routine.”
Elander signed quickly with the Braves and spent the remainder of 2012 with the club’s Appalachian Rookie League affiliate in Danville. Last season at Rome, Elander batted .318 in 74 games, swatting 22 doubles, three triples and 11 home runs to earn a midseason call-up to Lynchburg.
His combined line for the season had him finishing with a .293 average, 34 doubles and 15 home runs. That was good enough for him to be named the Braves’ Minor League Player of the Year.
The Braves returned Elander to Lynchburg for additional seasoning at the plate and to continue his education in left field. After catching in Danville, he transitioned to the outfield at Rome and is still learning the position.
“I feel good at the plate. Going into spring training, I really wanted to work on getting disciplined at-bats from the first pitch,” he said. “I feel like I have carried that over into the first two weeks but we have a long way to go and it’s easy to have a good two weeks . The test for me is to see how disciplined I can stay over the course of the next four to five months.”
Elander’s words were on target. As a bird of prey in a lineup of hummingbirds, he batted .311 and drove in seven runs during the season’s first two weeks, thanks in part to the speedy one-two punch at the top of the Lynchburg order, Jose Peraza and Kyle Wren.
That night against Wilmington, Elander went 1 for 3 in the first game of a double header, but managed just one other hit the rest of the week. In the process, his average slumped to .239. There was, however, indications Elander was suffering from bad luck, rather than truly slumping. During the slide, he drew nearly as many walks (5) as strikeouts (6).
Finally on Wednesday at Salem, Elander appeared to turn a corner, with a hit and a pair of walks in Lynchburg’s 4-2 defeat. Despite the low batting average, Elander’s on-base percentage is a respectable .341 and he is batting .310 with runners on base.
In the final analysis, Elander said he believes this season will be the one that determines whether or not he can fulfill his father’s vision for him.
“I feel like at this level, from guys I’ve talked to at Double-A or in the big leagues, this is the level where your mental toughness and discipline start to separate you,” he said. “If you look around, everyone is talented in this league. It’s about having an approach but staying disciplined.”