BOWIE, Md. – Sherman High graduate Chris Gittens, 25, began and ended his best professional baseball season surrounded by Major League veterans.
In between the slugging first baseman had the best season of his pro career, winning the Most Valuable Player award in the Double-A Eastern League as a minor leaguer in the New York Yankees farm system.
“The main thing was being healthy,” he said, standing outside of the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder clubhouse during the Eastern League Championship Series. “I just wanted to be healthy. All I really needed to do was stay on the field.
“Last year I missed two months. I had a groin injury and I had a quad injury. Going into this year I worked hard on my legs and my upper body and conditioning and it paid off.”
Gittens dealt with injuries early in his minor league career, which began he was drafted by the Yankees in the 12th round in 2014 out of Grayson College. He had a knee problem at low Single-A and a thumb injury in high Single-A.
In 2018 he was limited to 57 games, with 53 coming at Double-A Trenton. He went on the disabled list that June 1 with a left hip injury and was activated on June 13. Six days later he went back on the disabled list.
He is not on the 40-man roster of the Yankees but went to spring training with the team and got to rub shoulders with the likes of outfield slugger Aaron Judge and other big leaguers.
“Judge said it was the same game I have been playing since I was little,” Gittens said. “The pace speeds up. As long as you take what you know and stay within yourself you can play the game.”
This season he appeared in a career-high 115 games during regular-season play and hit 23 homers with 77 RBI with a .500 slugging percentage. It was the second time a Trenton player won Eastern League MVP honors and first since Brandon Laird in 2010.
The key was being healthy.
“If he was able to do that the numbers would show up,” Trenton manager Pat Osborn said. “He is a naturally strong kid. It has just been a fantastic year for him. He worked his butt off. He has done a tremendous job of just putting everything into a mix that allows him to stay on the field.”
Gittens stands 6-foot-4 and weights 250 pounds but is agile as a first baseman.
“He moves really well,” Osborn said. “We have some metrics that measure the first six inches and the first step, the time it takes is three feet. Both of his times in those metrics are off the charts in terms of an average Major League first baseman. He is very agile. He throws really well; he pitched in junior college.”
Gittens threw one perfect game and three no-hitters at Sherman. But now it is his bat that will carry him in pro ball.
Trenton advanced to the Eastern League championship series and Gittens hit a solo homer here in Game 3 of a 2-1 win over the Bowie Baysox, a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles.
That gave the Thunder a 2-1 series lead and the team clinched the league title with a 5-2 win on Friday night and Gittens had a solo blast in the third to give Trenton a 4-0 advantage.
Trenton got a boost in the playoffs as Major League pitchers Dellin Betances, Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino joined the club on rehab assignments. Montgomery started Game 2 on Wednesday and Severino went in Game 1.
Having MLB veterans around was helpful to Gittens and the Thunder.
“It has been great. They act like normal people,” Gittens said.
Gittens plans to work out again this winter at Grayson. If he is not placed on the 40-man roster of the Yankees he could be picked up by another organization as a Rule V selection.
“I really don’t know that much about it. If nobody picks me up, it’s fine. If somebody does I have to show them what I can do,” he said. “No other team is like the Yankees. Everyone is looking at you, seeing what you are going to do. If you can play here with the Yankees I feel like you can play anywhere.”
Is he on the right track?
“Most definitely on a good track,” he said. “Wherever they put me, the goal is the same for next year: stay healthy and stay on the field.”