From Nova Scotia to New York: Sanford defies odds to sign with Yankees

Former Dartmouth Arrow Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) put up “video game” numbers at the collegiate level with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2019. These numbers helped convince the New York Yankees to draft him in the third round this past June. Photo: WKU Athletics

Former Dartmouth Arrow Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) put up “video game” numbers at the collegiate level with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2019. These numbers helped convince the New York Yankees to draft him in the third round this past June. Photo: WKU Athletics

August 1, 2019

By J.P. Antonacci

Canadian Baseball Network

Jake Sanford could have played it safe.

He’d just hit .450 in his senior year at Auburn Drive High in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, clinching his third consecutive athlete of the year award. But his only scholarship offer was to play volleyball for Dalhousie University in nearby Halifax.

It’s at this point that many a student-athlete’s dream confronts and ultimately defers to reality. They take the sure thing and try not to wonder what could have been.

Not Sanford.

Armed only with his bat and his self-confidence, the slugger from Cole Harbour headed south in search of a chance to prove his doubters wrong.

He got that chance and made the most of it. And last month, Sanford became the highest-drafted Nova Scotian ever when he was chosen in the third round, 105th overall, by the New York Yankees in the 2019 First-Year Player Draft.

“It’s still a little bit crazy,” Sanford told Canadian Baseball Network over the phone from Staten Island, where he’s been patrolling centre field for the class-A Short-Season Yankees of the NY-Penn League, the first rung of a professional ladder that could end in the Bronx.

Quite the contrast to last summer, when Sanford’s main focus was helping the Moosehead Dry clinch the Nova Scotia Senior Baseball League championship for Dartmouth.

But a lot can happen in a year.

THE KID FROM COLE HARBOUR

Sanford played minor baseball in Cole Harbour – a town that has also turned out a couple of decent hockey players – before becoming a three-sport star at Auburn Drive. From 2014-16 he was named All-Region in baseball and volleyball (he credits the latter sport for improving his agility and vertical range) and was also a talented goalie on the school hockey team.

“Having an off season is not my thing, I guess,” Sanford said. “I always want to keep going.”

Finally, though, he had to choose what sport to focus on.

“I just started enjoying baseball and I felt that I was pretty good at it,” he said.

But major league teams didn’t bite when the left-handed masher was first eligible for the draft. Part of it was limited sample size – Auburn Drive’s baseball season only consists of about 10 games spread across two weekends – while part of it is geography.

“Like so many other kids from Atlantic Canada, he needed more seasoning,” said Ken Lenihan, a former scout who covered Atlantic Canada for the MLB Scouting Bureau and also coached Sanford on Team Nova Scotia.

Lenihan explained that position players in particular are at a disadvantage in the Maritimes, where short seasons, inclement weather, and a lack of indoor baseball facilities make it tough for hitters to stay sharp all year.

The teenaged Sanford possessed raw power and good arm strength – “a tremendous athlete,” Lenihan said – but he needed to work on his plate discipline.

“He’d swing at anything and everything. When he made contact, it certainly had a lot of distance. But he was a guy who had to get a better sense of the strike zone and where his strength lay,” Lenihan said.

“It was very evident coming out of high school that Jake needed a chance to go play somewhere.”

McCook Community College was the only college Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) could find that was willing to give him an opportunity to play baseball after he graduated high school. Photo: MCC Athletics

McCook Community College was the only college Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) could find that was willing to give him an opportunity to play baseball after he graduated high school. Photo: MCC Athletics

Sanford’s mettle was tested as a walk-on at McCook Community College in Nebraska, where coach Jon Olsen gave him the chance no other college coach would by inviting the unheralded Nova Scotian for a tryout.

“I came not having a scholarship, so I had to work my butt off to get there,” Sanford said. “And once I got there, I had to keep showing why I deserved to be there. I had to prove to everybody back home and everybody there that I belonged.”

In his two seasons at McCook, Sanford proved he more than belonged on the roster, hitting a combined .356/.424/.671 in 108 games with 23 home runs, 10 triples and 28 doubles.

He paid his way through his first semester and then was quickly offered a scholarship, the break he needed and for which he thanked his coach, Olsen.

“He gave me the opportunity to play in the States and I ran with it,” Sanford said.

Watching his progress from back home, Lenihan was impressed by Sanford’s determination to stick it out long past the point that other young players might have hung up their spikes.

“He believed in himself,” Lenihan said. “He took a chance to go to that school and say, hey, I'll show you what I can do. A lot of people don't do that.”

Sanford earned back-to-back First Team All-Region IX all-star nods at McCook and drew the interest of the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers, who recruited him in the spring of 2018.

The Hilltoppers clearly saw potential in the six-foot-two, 215-pound slugger, but no one could have predicted that Sanford was about to take NCAA Division 1 baseball by storm.

ONE FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS

Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) put up historic numbers during his first collegiate season with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2019. Photo: WKU Athletics

Jake Sanford (Cole Harbour, N.S.) put up historic numbers during his first collegiate season with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in 2019. Photo: WKU Athletics

Sanford’s only season in Bowling Green was one for the history books.

The junior outfielder became the first Triple Crown winner in Conference USA history, earning player of the year honours among a slew of awards and all-star nods on the strength of a .398 average over 56 games, with 22 home runs, 66 RBIs, 20 doubles, two triples and a 1.288 OPS – “video game numbers,” in the words of coach John Pawlowski.

His 178 total bases were second in the country, while his .805 slugging percentage was tops in Division I.

Sanford’s power/speed combo and evidently sky-high ceiling had dozens of major league scouts clamouring to talk with him ahead of the draft, which isn’t something the 21-year-old could have predicted before his special season started.

“At the beginning of the year I was joking, ‘maybe I’ll get drafted,’” he said. “But then the season kinda blew up.”

GETTING THE CALL

Sanford wanted to capture the moment.

He was huddled around a clubhouse TV with his Western Kentucky teammates and coaches on June 4 – the second day of the draft – when he saw his name pop up on the MLB.com Draft Tracker, which was running just ahead of the announcements of clubs’ selections from the podium.

He knew that he was moments away from becoming a professional baseball player, so he turned his phone toward the screen while struggling to calm his nerves.

“I tried to video it, but I was shaking too much. It was pretty awesome,” said Sanford, who had been ranked 107th on MLB Pipeline’s top 200 prospect list and ended up going 105th overall to New York.

A phone call from Yankees area scout Mike Gibbons welcoming him to the organization made it real – Sanford had done it, and in the process he made history again. Prior to Sanford, the highest-drafted Nova Scotian was pitcher Steve Nelson, who went to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fifth round (160th overall) in 2001.

“It’s a huge, huge accomplishment,” Lenihan said.

Sanford will now try to become the third Nova Scotian to make it to the majors in the live ball era, following Rick Lisi of Halifax, an outfielder who had a nine-game stint with the Texas Rangers in 1981, and relief pitcher Vince Horsman, who debuted with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1991 and went on to make 141 appearances over parts of five seasons with the Jays, Oakland and Minnesota.

Sanford said he is proud to be the highest-drafted Nova Scotian, but expects to soon be challenged for that title.

“The baseball scene (in Nova Scotia) has not grown as much as it should be, but in the next few years there’ll be a couple more guys. So I think I’ll have some competition soon,” Sanford said.

When told of that assessment, Lenihan let out a chuckle.

“I think Jake’s being modest,” he said, quickly adding that he wasn’t taking anything away from any young Nova Scotian players.

“Our calibre of coaching is going up, and we certainly have some good players,” Lenihan said. Still, he doesn't see anybody in the pipeline that he expects to be drafted that high in the next five years.

“But hey, you know what, people could surprise,” he said, admitting that if he’d been asked five years ago, he wouldn’t have predicted Sanford’s record-breaking success.

NEXT STEPS

Two days after being drafted, Sanford signed with the Yankees at the club’s spring training complex in Tampa, Fla., receiving an above-slot bonus of $597,500. After quick trip home to sort out his visa, he reported to Staten Island to take his first professional swings in Yankee pinstripes.

And while after 30 games he’s settled into a new routine, the excitement of where he is hasn’t worn off.

“Getting to play baseball every day, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Sanford said.

So far with the Yankees, Sanford is hitting .250 (29 for 124) with eight doubles, three triples, one home run and a .695 OPS. He’s driven in seven and drawn five walks against 35 strikeouts.

“It’s pretty good competition,” Sanford said of the class-A Short-Season league, where teams send their top picks to get their first taste of pro ball.

It’s also the first time in a while that Sanford hasn’t posted “video games numbers” as he adjusts to the next level of competition. He sees hitting as the toughest mental aspect of the game, because as he noted, even the best hitters fail the majority of the time.

“That’s something I’ve had to get used to,” he said.

The Yankees have several “mental toughness coaches” on hand at Staten Island to talk with players about the mental side of game and strategies for psychological success. The lessons are reinforced by weekly group text messages.

“Basically they tell you to use all the skills that got you here,” Sanford said. “Play the game well, respect the game, and show up every day wanting to play well.”

While he continues to adjust at the plate, the corner infielder-turned-outfielder has also been working on his fielding with help from manager Dave Adams and the advanced metrics and analytics that let him study how to make his route to fly balls faster and more efficient.

“I feel like I’m getting a lot better at that,” Sanford said.

Lenihan has high hopes for Sanford’s potential in the Yankees system, pointing to the organization’s track record of developing young talent like power-hitting outfielder Aaron Judge.

“He's got the power, obviously. His defensive ability in the outfield has grown. He’s got the arm strength. He’s got to keep working on all of those aspects to go up the ladder,” Lenihan said of Sanford.

“He’ll work at it. I envision he'll have some good success in that organization.”

Sanford may not yet be a household name to Yankees fans, but his signing was front page news in Cole Harbour and certainly cause for his parents, Tim and Karina, and the whole family to celebrate. While back home before heading to Staten Island, Sanford was the guest of honour at a pregame ceremony hosted by his former senior team, the Moosehead Dry.

“The young kids came out to watch the game just because of him,” Lenihan said.

Time will tell if Sanford's success inspires more Nova Scotian kids to sign up for Little League, but Lenihan expects that his example will provide a major boost for those players already in the system.

“What it will do for any Atlantic Canadian kid is give them that goal to strive for and the hope to continue playing,” Lenihan said.

“If you put the work in and get the right opportunities – and make good on them – there's always that chance. It can happen.

“If it keeps a dream alive for a kid, that's tremendous."