A Thanksgiving journey for #Nats prospect Andrew Stevenson

This is a long story.  Some might think it begins on the fields of Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League World Series. It actually begins when Andrew Stevenson was growing up in Youngsville, Louisiana near Lafayette.

Many people give thanks during Thanksgiving, and Andrew Stevenson is thankful for so much. He has wonderful parents, Will III and his mother Stephanie, and his three brothers. He is thankful for his coaches and his teammates and his friends he has made along the way. He is thankful for the Nationals organization, his agent at Paragon Sports, and even to me as every time we talk or see each other he is always kind enough to thank me for my time. We have interviewed Andrew Stevenson five times now, and I had the pleasure of doing a charitable appearance with Andrew over the summer, and we also hung out with him before a Single-A game in Potomac. He has a heart of gold. You can tell that immediately. He has that ability to make most people smile when he meets them.

LSU freshman outfielder Andrew Stevenson (6) and his brother Matt take the field after the Tigers' 4-3 victory over Tulane at Alex Box Stadium. Photo by Richard Redmann

LSU freshman outfielder Andrew Stevenson (6) and his brother Matt take the field after the Tigers’ 4-3 victory over Tulane at Alex Box Stadium. Photo by Richard Redmann

They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words, and in this case probably more. You might not know Andrew’s younger brother Matt was born with Down’s syndrome. They are separated by just three years, and they share their love of baseball. Like Andrew, Matt also played in the highest levels of Little League baseball for his team and traveled to Williamsport to play with his team of special needs children in the Challenger League. Both brothers fulfilled their Little League dreams. Both brothers also attended St. Thomas More High School together where their mother Stephanie was a math teacher.

Yes, Stephanie Stevenson knows her averages, her means, her statistical variables, and can figure out and analyze sabremetrics. School and good grades were a prerequisite of playing sports, and Andrew Stevenson excelled at both football as a wide receiver and of course baseball at St. Thomas More High School, and at LSU  was an All-SEC Academic Honor Roll student.

“Getting good grades and learning was always important in our family,” Stevenson said. “My father instilled in us to do everything 100%. I liked football, but it was my love of baseball from an early age was my thing.”

But for Andrew Stevenson, his dreams were of wearing the gold and purple of LSU, and he knew his brother Matt would never get that opportunity. Andrew Stevenson’s life has been more determined and focused on taking the opportunity and seizing it. He does it for his brother Matt who is his inspiration.

“I have an opportunity that [Matt] would never get,” Andrew Stevenson told LSU Now. “It makes me grateful and gives me the drive to do what I can to give it everything I got — because I know he can’t.”

The words in that quote are powerful and undeniable. You cannot change Andrew Stevenson’s outlook even when he is struggling because he has the belief he will overcome obstacles as he has done before.

“It really teaches you to not take anything for granted and to appreciate the abilities you have,” Stevenson said. “I know [Matt] would love to be out in the field playing the game he loves. Every day I try and go out on the field and thank God for what I have.”

In 2013 on a hot Spring day, Mike Conrad was clad in red surrounded by a sea of gold and purple LSU backers at the college regional qualifiers for the rights to move on to the super regionals and then move onto the College World Series in Omaha. The LSU fans were none too happy with Andrew Stevenson who was a struggling freshman outfielder for Louisiana State University. The LSU fans were razzing their own player, and Conrad thought of saying something, but he bit his lip. It has bothered him to this day as he recalled his emotions.

Conrad was attending that game to watch his own son who played for University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and had the bonus of watching, Andrew Stevenson, his former player he once had the opportunity to coach as an eleven-year-old in the Little League World Series. They share a bond that they will cherish forever.

LSU would win that game against Conrad’s UL-Lafayette team in 2013 and eventually advance to the College World Series. Andrew Stevenson would put that disappointing .193 freshman season of 2013 behind him, sort of. He used it for motivation and to work even harder, and after the College World Series he joined up with his summer college wood-bat team in the Northwoods League which happens to be same league where Max Scherzer, Mark Melancon, and Jordan Zimmermann all played summer ball as well as Curtis Granderson and dozens of other former MLB players. Stevenson once again righted himself. He was one of the youngest players on his team in the Northwoods. Stevenson would lead his summer team offensively in 2013 as he batted .345.

In his sophomore season at LSU, he had a great season and was named to the Watch List for the Gregg Olson Award as the breakout player of the year. He was chosen by the Cape Cod League for summer ball in 2014 where he led his team in hits and the league in stolen bases and was named an All-Star. He had 21 stolen bases in just 44 games. His team won the Cape Cod League that year, and Stevenson was instantly on every MLB team’s scouting radar.

Stevenson was a force in the SEC going into his junior season at LSU as he batted .348 in 2015 which was just behind Kade Scivicque for the team lead. That LSU team was stacked, and 9 of their position players from that 2015 team would get drafted in either 2015 or 2016. Alex Bregman led all the position players as the best in the country as he got picked second overall by the Houston Astros. LSU was #1 in the country for three-quarters of that 2015 season, and they led the country in wins that year.  Andy Cannizaro was the new LSU hitting coach that season.

Cannizaro was a Lousiana product himself and a high draft pick of the New York Yankees, and a former teammate of Derek Jeter and Cano and all the other greats of that decade. Cannizaro wasn’t called up in time to face the Nationals in 2006 for that Father’s Day series when Ryan Zimmerman walked-off his team, but Andy got his chance. That chance, and others gave him enough knowledge to impart some wisdom for his players like Bregman and Andrew Stevenson.

The cream rises to the top, and it didn’t take the 37-year-old Cannizaro long before he was named Head Coach of Mississippi State University. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk about one of his favorite players, Andrew Stevenson.

“I educated Andrew on what type of player he needed to be to play in the big leagues,” Andy Cannizaro said . “Eliminate the lazy fly balls and popups I told him. I wasn’t going to change his swing as it was working, and his big league coaches would tweak that. He reminded me of an old-school Rod Carew in the box.”

Stevenson back in his college days was a very fast runner and a gap to gap contact hitter who would use the whole field Cannizaro was telling us.

“I think he’s incredible,” Cannizaro continued. “He’s an extremely hard worker and very determined. I think he has the tool-set to impact the big leagues at a high level. A ‘plus’ level defender. He has game changing abilities in center field and the versatility to play all three outfield positions.”

In college baseball you have a limited amount of time with your players, and you don’t want to generally make big swing overhauls if it is working for the players as Cannizaro was telling us his philosophy.

“The kid you have there will hit you doubles and triples and steal a lot of bases with a  lot of value to the Washington Nationals,” Cannizaro said. “He wants to be great. He’s driven.  There are so many things about him that impressed me from his speed to his baseball knowledge, but for hitting, it was his great barrel awareness that I call ‘barrel aptitude’ where he could even be fooled on a pitch and be able to make contact. That is special.  He also handles velocity really well.”

I had never heard the term ‘barrel aptitude’ before, but I liked it as it melded well with the contact philosophy the Nationals now have, and a big reason Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo used his first pick in the 2015 draft to choose Stevenson in the 2nd round since the Nats forfeited their 1st round pick when they signed free agent Max Scherzer in the off-season.

Few knew much about Stevenson at the time he was drafted. He was described as the best defensive outfielder in the draft but was also called a slap hitter by some. Oh Stevenson could slap the ball, hard! Sure, he wasn’t known as a home run hitter, but he could get his share of extra base hits.

Stevenson really got his start playing in a sanctioned Little League program in the Lafayette, Louisiana area. Little League uses a draft system. Mike Conrad would of course choose his own kids first, Jace Conrad and Brenn Conrad, for his team, and a competing coach would choose Andrew Stevenson first. For years the Conrads had to endure playing against Stevenson. When the kids are eleven and twelve years old, they form an All-Star team which Stevenson was chosen for.

Mike Conrad was named the head coach of the 2005 Lafayette All-Stars with twelve-year-old Jace Conrad as the star of the team and Tyler Douglas, and eleven year old players Andrew Stevenson and Brenn Conrad. Ryan Bergeron, Sammy Scofield, and so many others were key players. This team won the districts, won the Louisiana state tournament, then the regionals and got the rights to play in the Little League World Series at Williamsport where they were beat 2-0 by the eventual champions in 2005 which was Hawaii.

“If I had to describe Andrew Stevenson it would be that he was the fastest kid in the tournament even at 11 years old,” Mike Conrad said. “He was an incredible drag bunter. It was 14 of 15 times he bunted he got hits, and the other teams couldn’t defend against it. If Andrew hit the ball to the left side and it bounced 4 times he would beat it out every time.”

Lafayette Little League 2005 team, Facebook

Lafayette Little League 2005 team, (Facebook) Andrew Stevenson is pictured in the front row  on the left-side

Conrad said that he saw Stevenson beat out groundballs hit to the left side like that in College. You give Stevenson the bunt sign with confidence if they are playing back. He works at it Conrad told us.

“Andrew’s work ethic has always been awesome,” Conrad said. “Super competitive at an early age.”

Genaro C. Armas wrote for the Associated Press, “Call them the comeback kids” as he referred to this Lafayette, Louisiana Little League team of 2005.

Andrew Stevenson scores the winning run for Lafayette La., which rallied to defeat Owensboro, Ky. The game marked the second come-from-behind victory for the Louisiana kids. Chris Stutz, AP

Andrew Stevenson scores the winning run for Lafayette Louisiana in a walk-off to defeat Owensboro, Kentucky. The game marked the second come-from-behind victory for the Louisiana kids.
Photo by Chris Stutz, AP

Andrew Stevenson is the only player who has ever played in a Little League World Series, College World Series, a Cape Cod League Championship, and the Arizona Fall League. Not even Todd Frazier of Toms River can match that! Stevenson has been a winner and contributor at every level.  He led the entire Arizona Fall League in hits this year, and was second in batting average at .353 trailing only Yankees’ phenom Gleyber Torres. Stevenson was named as a break-out player by MLB for the AFL and as first-team All-AFL.

Photo by Don H. for TalkNats

 

Most of all this time of year, Andrew Stevenson is thankful.

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