Hardwood hero A.J. Vukovich makes good on the diamond
The NBA may be "fantastic," but baseball has always been king for Hillsboro Hops infielder A.J. Vukovich.
The third-year professional and second-year player — minor league baseball didn't play in 2020 due to COVID-19 — from Wisconsin made his mark on the state's high school basketball history books, finishing his career at East Troy High School as Wisconsin's 25th all-time leading scorer with 2,155 points. But despite his success on the hardwood, the 20-year-old slugger made one thing very clear.
"Yeah, I miss basketball, especially the energy, the atmosphere and the games themselves," Vukovich said. "But baseball is what I've wanted to do my whole life."
And he's doing it.
Vukovich started last season with Visalia, the Arizona Diamondbacks' Low-A affiliate, but after 62 games, he was promoted to Hillsboro. As a Hop, he's batted .277 with nine home runs and 46 RBIs over 80 games.
This season, the 6-foot-5 slugger is batting .264 with six home runs and has a .406 slugging percentage, which is third-highest on the team of players with at least 30 games played.
Hops manager Vince Harrison said earlier in the season that while he's been impressive to this point, he believes Vukovich is just beginning to scratch the service of what he can be as a baseball player going forward.
"He's a guy that we joke about not knowing how good he is," the manager said. "He's doing great. If we keep him consistent and keep him doing what he does, he's going to continue to impress people."
Growing up in Mukwanago, Wisconsin, Vukovich didn't play baseball for East Troy High, choosing rather to play for Hitter Baseball Academy in Caledonia, Wisconsin — a training facility and competitive playing organization considered by many to be tops in the Midwest.
By his freshman year in high school, Vukovich had committed to play collegiate baseball at the University of Louisville. That all changed when he was taken as the 119th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.
While happy with his decision to bypass college and immediately begin his professional career, he'd be lying if he said that playing for the Cardinals doesn't cross his mind, he admitted.
"I think about it all the time," Vukovich said. "It was a hard decision, and playing for them would've been awesome, but I was always working with pro ball in mind, because this is where the best talent is and I'm always pushing myself to be better."
So far, so good for the second-year player.
Many minor leaguers have found themselves "ahead of the curve," due to MLB's minor-league reconfiguration a year ago, which eliminated a quarter of its teams and forced younger players into a higher level earlier on in the process. Vukovich said he's not been bothered by the expedited learning curve, and in fact, he believes he's benefited from it.
"I feel like it's been good for me, because I don't really know anything else," he said. "I've always done better growing up playing against better competition that's going to challenge me, and it gives me the confidence I need to excel out there."
Being a "COVID senior" in 2020 and missing a summer of ball, one might think Vukovich and his peers' growth may have been stunted by the time away from the competitive game. But Vukovich says otherwise, speaking to what he called a "great opportunity" to work on some of his weaknesses prior to his first professional season.
Without the ability to work in groups or indoors, he said he and his father would cross the street to a park near his home in Wisconsin and hit, field and throw, with improving upon those weaknesses in mind.
"Me and my dad, we're out there every day because we couldn't really go anywhere else," Vukovich said. "We really got down to business about making pro hitting adjustments, and we kind of turned it into a positive."
That development has continued over the past year as well.
The minor leagues are primarily about developing prospective major league talent into major leaguers. Vukovich feels good about the direction he's headed, pointing to "consistency" as his primary focus. He's confident in his talent and athleticism, but it's the ability to display it on a day-to-day basis that he said will allow him to improve and advance within the organization.
"At this point everyone knows the talent that I have and the athleticism, but it's about being a pro and showing them I can do it every day," he said. "If I'm not hitting well, I can still help with my defense, run the bases well, and just help the team. I want to show my versatility, but I need to be consistent. Major leaguers are the best at that, which is why they're in the major leagues."
But while the goal is always to get better, don't tell Vukovich that winning isn't important. Last year's Visalia team finished 38-82, and the Hops had a rare down year, finishing 52-60 and fourth in the High-A West. That left a bad taste in the 20-year-old's mouth and he believes it's his job, in part, to build a winning culture not just in Hillsboro but beyond it, in the interests of the organization as a whole.
"It's not fun to walk out there and feel like the other team feels like they can push you around," Vukovich said. "I feel it's important to build a culture with the Diamondbacks of winning. It starts here and builds all the way through the big leagues."
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