Wagner gets acclimated to pro ball
By Greg Bates
Max Wagner had a whirlwind of a couple-month stretch.
He picked up his first professional base hit, multiple promotions, his first pro home run and learned plenty of tidbits about himself as a player.
The Green Bay Preble graduate and Wisconsin Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year in 2020 received the full gamut in his first shortened season in pro ball.
“It’s been unreal is the word I keep using,” Wagner said.
Wagner played in 19 games across three levels. He finished his season with a combined .243 batting average with one home run, 11 RBIs and 12 runs scored.
“I wouldn’t say I did great, but it was more about learning about myself and what to expect for a full season and try to get comfortable and try and figure out a routine of what’s going to make you successful,” Wagner said. “I had a lot of fun, learned a lot about myself and just the overall grind of the minor leagues.”
After being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles with the 42 nd overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft, Wagner signed with the team on Aug. 26. Two weeks later, he was assigned to the Orioles’ Florida Coast League team.
Getting to play in his first professional baseball game is a life event Wagner will never forget. He soaked up the moment as best he could.
“When we drove to the field, pretty much all the emotions that were going on was this is my first pro game. This is something I dreamed of when I first started playing baseball when I was a little kid. It was just really cool when we showed up, laced up the cleats and it was pretty much went back to what I’d been doing since I was a little kid. It was just warming up and then playing the game that I love to play.”
Wagner didn’t disappoint in his first pro game. Batting third in the lineup, he hit an RBI single in his first plate appearance and an RBI double in his next at-bat.
He got a cherished souvenir from his first game: the ball from his first hit.
Wagner was promoted immediately to Low-A and assigned to the Delmarva Shorebirds. In his first game, he collected a hit, was hit by a pitch three times and scored three runs.
He was off to a fast start.
“It’s just putting in work every day and every game should be just like practice, but obviously that means a little bit more,” Wagner said. “It was definitely awesome to get off on the right foot at the start of pro ball and obviously as you move up, the pitchers and competition that you face are going to get better, so you’ve just got to keep working hard.”
That’s when pitchers started catching up to the young hitter. Wagner struck out six times in his first four games at Low-A.
For the season, Wagner finished with 70 official at-bats, 18 of those were strikeouts.
“It’s baseball. You can’t ever ride the highs too much because baseball being as humbling as it is, it will knock you down right away,” Wagner said. “I’m not saying that I was riding, but I obviously had a good amount of success at Clemson and came here and didn’t have as much success as I would have hoped for. But like I said it was more about learning about myself, I wasn’t really concentrating on the success I was having or I wasn’t freaking out about the struggles that I was having, it was more about, OK, I need to work on this to become a better baseball player. That’s what I really took from it.”
After a breakout sophomore season at Clemson University in which Wagner hit .369 with a school-record 27 home runs to go with 76 RBIs in just 58 games, Wagner was awaiting his first pro home run.
He got it 14 games into career. Hitting the cleanup spot, Wagner hit a solo blast over the left field fence in his final game with the Shorebirds.
“That was an awesome moment,” Wagner said. “I think it was our last game in Fredericksburg. I saw the pitcher, it was my second AB against him, I hit a fly ball to the center to the warning track the at-bat before, so I was seeing him well. Then I just hung another one up there, got a good pitch to hit and just did the rest. It was really cool, I knew it right off the bat and kind of exhaled a little bit.”
Wagner was promptly promoted to the High-A Aberdeen IronBirds, which are owned by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr.
“It kind of came out of nowhere, I guess,” said Wagner about his promotion. “I had one more week left in the regular season of Low-A and would be done playing and would have to start instructs. I was kind of getting my routine down and hitting a little bit better, playing a little bit better through the last couple of games that I had in Low-A. I was getting more comfortable and then you’re being told you’re getting promoted. It’s awesome, but it just came out of nowhere, and that’s the name of the game. You’ve just got to play good and get promoted.”
Wagner played in the team’s final five regular-season games and then in the postseason. He helped the IronBirds advance to the South Atlantic League championship before falling in a best-of-three series.
Playing in his first season in the minor leagues was a valuable learning experience for Wagner.
His biggest takeaways from the season?
“Every pitcher has really good stuff and the (velocity) is definitely higher than college,” Wagner said.
“Then playing every day is probably I would say the biggest part and trying to find that routine that you can go to every day to help you become successful each and every day.”
With the offseason in full swing, Wagner has a good approach to what he needs to work on prior to spring training.
“I would say it’s pretty much everything just from a mental side of the game, just got to continue working on that and then getting stronger, I think that’s one of the big ones,” Wagner said. “You’re playing every day, your body’s going to get worn down just a bit, so you’ve got to make sure you’re your body is where you want to be to be able to succeed at those levels. Hitting, there’s guys thinking 97 mph sinkers, two-seamers and then they’ve got sliders going in the other way and stuff like that. Just kind of finding that tunnel of where pitches are coming out of and kind of identifying on what pitches that I should be hitting and what ones that I should be taking, stuff like that. And always improving my defensive work, pretty much any kind of ground ball, just getting comfortable with those things.”
Wagner is spending his offseason working out at GRB Academy just outside of Madison. He played with the GRB Rays in 2018 and ’19.
“I plan on training at GRB for the offseason, doing lifting, hitting, fielding, sprint work, stuff like that,” Wagner said. “I plan on doing that for up until January, February.”
Then Wagner will head to Sarasota, Fla., for spring training. He’s looking to have a breakout campaign in his first full season at the pro level.