[Conor Doherty contributed to this article]
“I guess you could say that going from Staten Island to [the Gulf Coast League] might be a step back, but I think I needed that step back to figure myself out as a player,” Wagner said. “I understand why I [was there]. I don’t think I saw it as a demotion, I just need to improve my game.”
Wagner lost about ten pounds between the offseason and Extended Spring Training which has helped him move and run faster. It has benefited him both offensively and defensively but he still is working on improving both phases of his game, especially with continuing to improve his swing.
“I lost ten pounds, I can move better now, I’m just trying to get stronger and to overall improve my swing,” Wagner said. “I think offensively I figured some stuff out. I’m able to hit the ball harder and [more] consistently.”
In 2015 with Staten Island, Wagner had a .228 batting average and 49 strikeouts off of 162 at-bats. However, this year in the Gulf Coast League Wagner he had a .283 batting average with only 18 strikeouts in 106 at-bats. Aside from the stats, however, Gulf Coast League Yankees manager Raul Dominguez saw the great work ethic that Wagner had been putting forth all season.
“For me it’s more what he does in the morning in the cages, in batting practice, the way he works, the way that he prepares. I think that’s more important,” Dominguez said. “That’s why he gets those results in the game, he’s focused on practice offensively.”
Wagner has been working diligently on improving offensively. His swing has improved and he also continues to get good contact, so much so that is he is quickly developing into one of the better hitters at the lower levels for the Yankees. Despite Wagner’s improvement, he never changed his strategy on becoming a better hitter.
“He has improved, especially offensively," Dominguez said. "Every time he puts the barrel of the bat on the ball, he can really hit the baseball. For me he is one of the good hitters. I didn’t see him worrying about the strikeouts. The next day he had the same plan in the cages. He believes in the process and that’s why he has improved.”
Defensively, Wagner, a third baseman in college who was tried out at second base in his debut season last year, knew that he needed to improve. Before switching to first base this year, he was not comfortable playing at second or even in the outfield. The change to first base gave Wagner the confidence he needed to become a better player defensively and offensively, which was part of the Yankees plan.
“Second base didn’t work out and I played a little bit in the outfield. I’m at first base [now] and getting comfortable there,” Wagner said. “They [the Yankees] wanted me to improve defensively and I was struggling hitting-wise, being on time consistently. I’ve been working on those two things a lot.”
The switch over to first base has taken off some of the pressure to perform in the field. Playing a new position can be tough though but Wagner continues to work and ask questions so he can continue to improve as a first basemen.
“He was still on second base when he started Extended," Dominguez said. "When we started the season, we moved him to first base from the outfield. I saw more confidence in him, I saw him smiling more. He has a lot of questions between innings because it is a new position for him but he’s learning very fast on first base.”
Overall, Wagner took full advantage of being in the Gulf Coast League. He was able to improve all around and gain more confidence in himself both offensively and defensively.
“I got a lot better in Extended, I think I improved my game a lot in Extended,” Wagner said. “I [went to Extended] and I knew I had to work on a lot of stuff and I accomplished a lot of things in Extended.”
He clubbed five home runs in the Gulf Coast League and slugged .509, a near 150 points higher than he had a year ago in Staten Island. With his confidence soaring and no longer pressing in the field defensively at second base, Dominguez believes that Wagner has a lot of potential as long as he continues to work as much as he’s been working in 2016.
“He is really good now and if he keeps working with the same work ethic every day he can move up fast,” Dominguez said, “But he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. The way he is working now, he is going to move up fast."
Playing in Extended was just the push Wagner needed because on August 3, 2016 Wagner was moved up from the Gulf Coast League Yankees to the Pulaski Yankees in the Appalachian League.
“I was just really happy when I was promoted,” Wagner said of the move to Pulaski. “A promotion is always a good thing and I want to make the most of it.”
“I told him that he would have to hit his way out of the GCL and that is what he did,” Pulaski hitting coach Kevin Mahoney said. “We had a chance to work together a lot during Extended Spring Training so I knew a lot of the things that he had been working on and I knew what he had to do in the GCL to get up here.”
While the results thus far have been quite solid -- hitting .275 and exactly matching his GCL OPS to date [.876] -- the consistency hasn't been quite the same yet at the new level. He has just two multi-hit games in his last 14 played but then again he has gone hitless in two straight games just once since his arrival too.
“I just have to stick with the same approach, even if I go 0-5, 5-5,” Wagner said. “The game is the same wherever you are playing, whether it’s Gulf Coast games or big league games. You got to be ready to play whether its 12 [pm] or 7.”
Most of his Appy League production thus far has been at home too. All three of his home runs have come at home where he's hitting nearly 120 points higher too. Despite the big home-road split that he has, Mahoney knows that he is a player that will eventually figure it out.
“He’s got a good approach, he knows what he is trying to do at the plate and he was having a bit of success early on here,” said Mahoney. “He’s keeping a level head so he’s doing everything I expect him to do.”
It’s good that Wagner knows what needs to be done for him to be successful here, especially on the defensive side of the game, where he feels that he has a lot of room to grow.
“I’ve played first base since I got here and I feel that I just need to work on everything on that side of the ball,” he said. “It’s a big part of what I need to work on, by finding a spot defensively and really get good at it.”
Though he has made huge strides so far in 2016 and his step back this year seems ready to pay off in a big leap forward in coming years, Mahoney also agrees that Brandon has a lot of room for improvement.
“There’s never not something to work on, whether its hitting or any other aspect of the game,” Mahoney said. “Right now, I like where he’s at and we’re just going to move forward and if something arises, we’ll work on it, but for now, he’s doing a really nice job.”
“I just want to improve everywhere as much as possible,” Wagner said. “I’m still getting used to playing every day and I have to make sure to go in and compete every night.”