Since he has been about five-years-old, Wichita Wingnuts left fielder T.J. Mittelstaedt has gone out and proven that the baseball diamond is truly his domain. With a smooth swing and an eye for balls and strikes that seems more prophetic than visual, Mittelstaedt has made himself one of the most feared hitters in the American Association. However, by the publicity around him, you just wouldn’t know it.
Sadly, this has become one of the legacies of T.J. Call him the Rodney Dangerfield of professional baseball because, despite the enormous talent and success he has demonstrated on the field, Mittelstaedt has often found himself as the forgotten man when people are talking about the next prospect to move up or the next guy to bring back to affiliate ball. It has led to the Wingnuts star posting enormous numbers on the field, but being ignored in the front offices of many organizations.
Establishing Baseball as a Career Path
From the time T.J. can remember, his dad would take the family out to see the then Anaheim Angels play. Sitting in the right field bleachers, he enjoyed watching players like J.T. Snow, Tim Salmon, and Darin Erstad, and dreamed that one day he would be playing right field for his hometown team.
When he was five he began playing little league, and found that the diamond was his domain. While playing other sports, nothing was like baseball to the youngster, and so he played the game as much as he possibly could.
Frequently, he played with the older kids, especially his brothers and his cousins. Many of his cousins were as much as 10-years older than him, and they sought to teach T.J. keys to being a success in the game. It was from that he was given a piece of advice that became the mantra of his life.
“What all of my cousins had told me was that if you’re not the best player on your team you’re not going to keep playing. So all throughout high school I just wanted to make sure that I was the best so I could be the best in college. In college I wanted to be the best so I could be the best pro.”
When he was 12 he got the opportunity to advance his abilities on the field. He was chosen to play for an all-star team from among other 12-year-olds who were playing in the area. The two coaches were former Major League players, and they taught the group not only how to improve their skills on the diamond, but also how to be a professional in the way that a player approached the game. While just 13 at the time, the lessons taught were invaluable.
“Those coaches taught me to play the game at a greater depth so that when I did reach high school I was ahead of a lot of other players because I was thinking ahead of them. They taught us how to think ahead. They were trying to teach us how to play professional baseball, and five guys on that team wound up playing pro ball.”
In high school T.J. starred and it wasn’t long before he was catching the attention of college scouts. When Long Beach State wanted him to play baseball there, he knew there was really only one place to go. Even in high school, Mittelstaedt knew that baseball was the career path he wanted for himself, and he well knew that there was no better place to go to enhance that prospect than Long Beach State.
“At Long Beach State you go there to get drafted. Pro prep. We are there to win ball games, but they are trying to teach you to be professionals. Long Beach was an easy choice because of all the names that were coming out of there. You know you are going there for a reason, and they don’t really give you a chance to not think you are going to play pro ball.”
The Lack of Respect Begins
In his freshman and sophomore seasons at Long Beach he played quite well. His freshman year he hit .389 in the Big West conference and was given All-Big West honorable mention. While hitting well, what was so astounding was his eye at the plate. He hit .296 overall, but had a .468 on-base percentage, walking 33 times.
In 2008, he played in 47 games and had another solid season. He knew that he had another level to reach, especially if he was going to follow the advice of his cousins, and that drove him to be even more focused for his junior season.
“I wanted to be a pro baseball player, and I got to see the guys that were drafted from Long Beach State; what it took to be selected. I worked really hard that summer and got myself more ready than ever.”
The hard work paid off. His junior season, T.J. was second on the team in batting (.316) and hits (59), but he led the team in doubles (12), triples (7), homeruns (6), and RBI (46). It was a truly remarkable year that led to him receiving all kinds of accolades. He had clearly proven with his bat and his glove that he was one of the top outfielders in the country but, inexplicably, scouts did not see it that way. Mittelstaedt went undrafted and returned to Long Beach State trying to prove those scouts wrong.
He did just that. In his senior season, the former Long Beach star hit .332 and walked 22 times, first on the team. He finished with the .406 OBP and added six outfield assists to his resume. If scouts did not notice him the previous year they were sure to do so this time.
Draft day came and T.J. Mittelstaedt found himself waiting a long time to hear his name called. Round after round passed without so much as a team calling to say they were interested. He simply could not understand it, especially after the draft reached the 35th round.
It was then that his coach from when he was in his teens called the Milwaukee Brewers to ask what was going on. The answer left him completely dismayed. Apparently, teams had thought he had been drafted and signed the prior year and so they were not looking at him because they did not think he was available. The Brewers finally took him in the 44th round, about 35 rounds later than when he should have been chosen.
Focused on Proving He is the Best
While a bit miffed at the events of the day, T.J. quickly realized the most important thing of all – he was a professional ball player. He also knew that his late round selection was going to be a hindrance and that he was going to have to be that much better than everyone else if he was going to get a shot.
“They have a lot of guys that they invested a lot of money in and, to them, I am a 44th round guy. I knew that I would not be given the same opportunities that others would get who were drafted earlier, so I had to really work hard. I had to be the best on every team I played for.”
T.J. was assigned to the Brewers rookie league team in 2010, where he hit .282 in 45 games with 28-runs scored and 17-RBI. He also showed that computer-like eye at the plate, posting a .383 OBP.
The success he had earned him a promotion to Mid-A Wisconsin in 2011 where he played even better, hitting .293 with a .410 OBP. He also clubbed 12-homeruns and drove in 46, while scoring 72.
The rapid ascension continued the next season when he began the year at AA-Huntsville. He became more of a role player there, not really getting to bat frequently, and his play at the plate struggled. He hit just .189 in 44 games and was sent down to High-A Brevard County where he hit .258 with a .359 on-base percentage.
The next season the Brewers moved him back to Huntsville to start the year, but he did not have a regular spot and he struggled once again. With minimal at-bats, Mittelstaedt hit just .137 in 21-games and was moved back to Brevard County, where he hit .211 in 76-games. While the average was down, T.J. still showed the same amazing eye at the plate, walking 53-times in those 76-games, giving him a .351 on-base percentage. He also hit 11 homeruns that season.
T.J. had not hit well in 2012 or in 2013, but he had shown that he had the skills to be, at the very least, a solid player for the organization. He had posted a .367-OBP overall and, one year, he had five walk-off homers in a single month. Most players don’t have five walk-off opportunities in a season, but he had five walk-off homeruns in one month. It showed that T.J. Mittelstaedt was not only a quality baseball player but that he took his game to a whole different level when it mattered the most.
The Career Path Reborn in Kansas
Following the 2013 season, Mittelstaedt was released. The organization had other players who were drafted much higher than him, and were not going to invest their time in the late round pick. This was a question of numbers; not numbers that he had produced on the field, but a number that was assigned to him the moment he was drafted – 44.
Looking for an opportunity to stay in the game, a friend of T.J.’s recommended the outfielder to Kansas City T-Bones Manager John Massarelli. He was signed and spent the 2014 season in Kansas City.
There, Mittelstaedt got his career back on track. He hit .268 in 100 games, hitting 16-homers and driving in 52. Most importantly, that famous eye at the plate was as sharp as ever under the Kansas sun. T.J. walked 92 times in 100 games to lead the American Association, and he posted an incredible .423-OBP.
Wanting to be closer to his sister who lived in Wichita, T.J. asked to be traded to the Wingnuts for the 2015 season. This not only was a good move for him, but the organization benefitted greatly. For about a two-month period of time, the Wingnuts simply could not score runs, and without Mittelstaedt their struggling offense would have been virtually non-existent. It was even a common joke around the league that Mittelstaedt’s back must be really aching from carrying his team.
Last season, he hit .258 with a .407 on-base percentage. He hit 16-homeruns and drove in a career high 65 runs. T.J. walked 86 times but also saw his strikeout numbers above 100 for the second year in a row. That, according to former Wingnuts Manager Kevin Hooper, was a consequence of the Wichita star having too good of an eye.
“Kevin would tell me that I could not take pitches that were that close. The problem is that the umpires will call strikes that are balls, and I am too hard-headed to swing at a pitch that I know is a ball,” he explains with a laugh.
This season Mittelstaedt has been even better. In 37 games so far this season, Mittelstaedt is hitting .299 with 7-homers and leading the team with 30-RBI. He also leads the team with a ridiculous .445 on-base percentage and 35-walks. The eye has not changed one bit it appears.
Will He Be Given His Rightful Due?
T.J. Mittelstaedt is the first to say that he does not feel owed by the sport in anyway. While flustered by how things have gone down, he also knows that he has been able to play the sport he loves as a job and that has made his days in the pro game very special.
“I get up every day and get to come to a baseball field as my job. There really isn’t anything more special than that. I hope I still get my shot back to affiliate ball, but that is not under my control. I love playing baseball and I have been fortunate to make it where I am.”
While humble about his playing days. The truth is that T.J. Mittelstaedt earned his place in the pro game. His is not only one of the better players you will come across, but is a true professional in every way in how he handles the game.
T.J. is apt to point out that he is never nervous about coming onto the field. Regardless of whether he going to the plate, making a play in the field, or running the bases, he is prepared for any circumstances, and has been so since he was 13-years-old.
He may not be nervous, but opposing pitchers in the American Association sure have been. He is one of the least favorite guys that pitchers like to face, not only because he can get big hits, but also because he is so difficult to get out. Maybe affiliate teams don’t show T.J. Mittelstaedt any respect, but his opponents do, and that is the biggest complement of them all for the veteran.
“I know they don’t like facing me. I have had guys tell me that since rookie ball: ‘Anyone but you.’ When you hear that you are know you are doing something right even if others don’t see it.”
It’s good to see that he is receiving the respect he deserves from the people who really matter the most. Maybe he isn’t completely like Rodney Dangerfield because, at least, he is getting some respect. Now if we can only get him to wear a blue suit and red tie.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA