, pub-3283090343984743, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 Bazzana Comes From a Land Down Under. You Better Run, You Better Take Cover
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Bazzana Comes From a Land Down Under. You Better Run, You Better Take Cover

Travis Bazzana
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Travis Bazzana, the no. 2 draft prospect on The Board at the moment, had a big day Sunday against Oklahoma State. In four at-bats, the Oregon State second baseman hit four balls 108 mph or harder, coming away with a double and two home runs for his trouble. The first of those home runs was crushed so hard that the outfielders didn’t bother chasing it — one of baseball’s great subtle aesthetic signifiers. More than that, the DJ at Globe Life Field was able to spin up the theme from The Natural before the ball even landed:

That’s how you know it’s gone.

Having watched a ton of Chase Utley as a young man, I have a foolish optimism over college second basemen with quick, compact hitting actions. Of course, Utley is an impossible comp to drop on any prospect; in addition to being an MVP-level hitter, he was the best defensive second baseman of his generation and one of the best baserunners at any position in any generation. The latter two qualities Bazzana does not possess.

But he can rake. In eight games, six of them against power conference competition, Bazzana is 14-for-32 with five home runs and five walks. He’s scored in all eight games. It’s quite a start, especially because the other college infielder currently in the mix for the top pick in the draft, West Virginia’s JJ Wetherholt, is nursing a hamstring injury.

We’ve got a long way to go from now until the draft, and even longer until the 21-year-old Bazzana settles in as a major league regular, if that happens at all. But I wanted to take this opportunity to dive a little deeper into something I only touched on in my college preview two weeks ago. Bazzana is Australian, and he’s already one of the best position players his country has ever produced.

As much as major college baseball is a good ol’ boys’ network, there is the occasional interloper from overseas. For a while, I got Edouard Julien — then of Auburn, now of the Minnesota Twins—mixed up with another left-handed-hitting French-Canadian second baseman from the SEC, Kentucky’s Émilien Pitre. The Australian George Callil played about 100 games for South Carolina earlier this decade. The most famous Australian college player is probably Craig Shipley, who starred at Alabama in the 1980s and went on to play parts of 11 seasons in the majors as a utility infielder, mostly with the San Diego Padres.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. Australia isn’t in the very top echelon of baseball nations with the U.S., Japan, the Dominican Republic, and so on, but it’s very much a second-tier power in the sport. Australia has figured in every World Baseball Classic; in 2023, the Aussies beat South Korea en route to their first-ever berth in the knockout stages of the tournament. Australia also won the silver medal in baseball at the 2004 Olympics.

Unfortunately, baseball does not exactly follow the multi-sport tradition of giving each Australian national team an adorable, usually marsupial-based nickname. On Wikipedia’s list of 88 such nicknames, the national baseball team is listed as the Southern Thunder. External corroboration for this moniker is (puts on thick Australian accent) sparse. Moreover, Southern Thunder is merely a less evocative version of the Thunder From Down Under, a nickname currently occupied by an all-male cabaret dance troupe. Given a couple more years, Nike and Fanatics might bring baseball to that point eventually, but we are not there yet.

But back to the original point: There’s no shortage of Australian players in the majors. Or at least that’s what you’d think. Grant Balfour was a really good reliever. So was Graeme Lloyd. Damian Moss had one really good year back in the day. Between Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and the one time Liam Hendriks spent a whole inning swearing into a hot mic, there’s a proud history of Australian pitchers becoming quality broadcasters as well.

But those are all pitchers. And believe it or not, according to Baseball Reference, there have only been 34 Australian-born major leaguers ever, dating back to 19th-century infielder Joe Quinn. From Quinn’s debut in 1884, he was the only Australian to play in the majors until Shipley came along 102 years later.

The SABR bio for Quinn tells quite a story. His parents were Irish refugees who both traveled to New South Wales, where they met, in the mid-1850s. They married, had their first child in 1857, were displaced by a flood and moved 600 miles to Queensland in 1860. Baby Joe was born in 1862, and when work dried up, the family moved back down to Sydney and eventually to Dubuque, Iowa, in 1873. So in the span of about 20 years, these two came way closer to circumnavigating the globe than Magellan ever did.

Quinn learned to play baseball as an adolescent in Iowa, and ultimately played on both the best and worst teams in major league history in his 17-year career. But he didn’t hit much. Nor did Shipley. Of the six Australian position players since Shipley to register at least 80 career plate appearances, a third of them have hit worth a damn, and a third of them have been named Trent. There is no overlap between the two categories:

Australian-Born Position Players in the Majors
Player Pos. From To G PA HR BA OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Joe Quinn 2B 1884 1901 1772 7370 30 .262 .303 .328 78 6.4
Dave Nilsson C 1992 1999 837 3153 105 .284 .356 .461 108 10.0
Craig Shipley INF 1986 1998 582 1433 20 .271 .302 .371 79 -1.6
Luke Hughes INF 2010 2012 106 348 8 .218 .277 .331 67 0.0
Trent Durrington INF 1999 2005 140 261 2 .196 .250 .268 31 -1.9
Trent Oeltjen OF 2009 2011 99 194 5 .220 .299 .384 83 0.2
Justin Huber 1B/OF 2005 2009 72 175 2 .224 .276 .304 55 -1.1
Curtis Mead INF 2023 2023 24 92 1 .253 .326 .349 95 0.2
Minimum 50 career PA

The jury is still out on Mead, who is 23, held his own in his first (albeit extremely limited) confrontation against major league pitching, and just got ranked at no. 31 on the global Top 100 Prospects list.

But with just 24 major league games on his CV, Mead has a ways to go before he catches Nilsson for the title of best Australian position player ever. Nilsson had a solid eight-year career behind the plate, as well as at first base and in the outfield corners, for the Brewers in the 1990s. Nilsson’s final season was among his best: He made the All-Star team and hit .309/.400/.554 in 115 games. Even in the 1990s, that was a 137 wRC+, and he made 91 starts at catcher that year.

If anything, Nilsson’s career is more impressive than it looks, because he was done in the majors after that remarkable 1999 campaign. Nilsson is Mr. Australia Baseball — at the end of his playing career, he spent millions of dollars of his own money trying to build up the Australian Baseball League into a sustainable professional organization. After retirement, he managed in Australia, and is currently the manager of the (coughs into hand) Southern Thunder.

Nilsson wanted badly to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics, which were held in Sydney, so much so that he left the Brewers for a brief and unsuccessful spell in NPB. MLB sat out the Olympics and sent only minor leaguers, but the Chunichi Dragons promised to release Nilsson for the duration of the tournament. Australia finished seventh in their home Olympics, and while Nilsson was still around for the silver medal campaign in Athens four years later, he never made it back to the majors.

There’s something incredibly romantic and endearing about putting one’s professional career on hold in order to chase national team glory — I kept waiting for star hockey players to bail on the NHL for a year when the league wasn’t sending its players to the Olympics, but it never happened. But while Nilsson probably lost a few WAR off his career total by chasing an Olympic medal, he’s still by far the best Australian position player ever.

A top-five draft position would set Bazzana up to at least challenge Nilsson for that distinction. And it invites the question: Why are most of the best Australian ballplayers not just pitchers, but relief pitchers?

The same reason most of the world’s marsupial species live in Australia and I’m probably never going to see Ball Park Music live: Australia’s really far away.

I’m not going to act like it’s easy to be a relief pitcher, but it’s not as complex an art as playing a field position, or even starting. It’s certainly not as developmentally reliant on getting playing time against equally skilled opponents — you can set up a radar gun and cameras in a warehouse and get most of the way to professional competency as a one-inning fastball/slider guy. That’s as true in Wollongong as it is in Washington State.

Until recently, if an Australian position player wanted to face off against high-level amateur or minor league competition from a top-tier baseball power, that meant a 5,000-mile flight to Korea or Japan, or a 7,500-mile flight (if not more) to the continental U.S. And American scouts and college coaches don’t have the resources to scour the Antipodes for the next big thing.

But since the revitalization of the ABL as a winter league that mixes Australian players with players from the North American minors, the cultural exchange between the U.S. and Australia has grown stronger. Mead was a semi-regular in the ABL at 17. Bazzana actually played in the ABL starting at age 16, on a Sydney Blue Sox team that featured three former or future major leaguers. That’s how you get tested against high-level competition, develop to the point where you’re capable of starting on a national championship contender as a freshman, and get noticed by the right people.

As streaming media and pitch tracking technology put more information in more hands than ever, I’d expect the baseball world to continue to shrink. And while Australia is so far away we still won’t get to see Gang of Youths tour North America every summer, I’d bet that we won’t wait as long for the next Bazzana as we did for the next Nilsson.