Major League Baseball
Meet the Dodgers' James Outman, MLB's unlikeliest breakout rookie
Major League Baseball

Meet the Dodgers' James Outman, MLB's unlikeliest breakout rookie

Updated Aug. 8, 2023 7:06 p.m. ET

On Aug. 11, 2019, James Outman stepped to the plate with the bases loaded on a 78-degree afternoon in Midland, Michigan, unaware he was about to change a woman's life. 

It was the Great Lakes Loons' Miller Lite Grand Slam inning, a promotion for the Dodgers' Single-A affiliate that had run for six years without a winner, and Loons fan Lori Ford was selected as the lucky participant. A week ahead of her hip surgery, she watched as Outman sent a breaking ball over the right-field wall. 

The grand slam won her $5,000, easing the financial burden of the impending procedure. 

"After I hit it, they stopped the game, brought her on the field," Outman recalled to FOX Sports," "like it was Barry Bonds hitting 756." 


The reference to the former San Francisco slugger is appropriate for Outman, a Bay Area native whose drastic swing changes helped him develop from a little-known prospect out of Sacramento State into one of the top rookies in Major League Baseball.

It's a path no one could've predicted back when the Dodgers starting center fielder was growing up in Giants country and dominating the gridiron for the Padres of Junipero Serra High School. 

"I would say that I'm surprised," Patrick Walsh, Outman's varsity high school football coach, said. "But if this was happening for the New England Patriots or something, I would say I'm not surprised."

Walsh and the Serra High football coaches have tracked Outman's extraordinary rise with a giddy bewilderment. As Outman was bursting onto the scene this year, earning National League Rookie of the Month honors in April, his former football coaches were keeping each other updated on his latest feats and highlights via WhatsApp. 

They always thought Outman was a better football player than baseball player, but many of the traits that made him a football sensation — the athleticism, physicality, intelligence, dependability and unwavering self-belief that helped the West Catholic Athletic League Player of the Year lead Serra to a 2014 WCAL championship — also served him well as he zoomed up the Dodgers' system. 

"At the end of the day," Serra linebackers coach Jeff Thomas said, "we all know he made the right decision." 

Walsh still describes Outman as the best linebacker he has ever coached — a cerebral, instinctive, heat-seeking missile who spent the majority of the game in the opponent's backfield. The same 6-foot-3-inch, athletic build that helped Outman lead all MLB rookies in homers (seven) and slugging percentage (.615) back in April made him an unblockable force in high school, where he earned the nickname "Pitbull" for his stoic intensity and ferocious play. 

"Whatever task you give him," Walsh said, "he's going to do it as if it's the most important task on the planet."

That dedication would be crucial in helping Outman develop from a toolsy project with raw power into a legitimate prospect.

Sacramento State head coach Reggie Christiansen recruited Outman as a left-handed hitting catcher before moving him to the outfield in an effort to feature more of the football star's athleticism. As a freshman, though, Outman hit just .200 and played in only 27 games. His offense picked up his sophomore year, when he hit .253 with 11 home runs — the most by a Hornets player since Rhys Hoskins in 2014 — and a team-leading 53 RBIs. The next year, he made a demonstrable jump in the outfield, committing just two errors with 157 putouts. 

Still, he hit just .247 over three college seasons. 

"Am I surprised he's the center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers? I mean, yeah, I am," Christiansen admitted. "But he's always been that kid that just believes in himself … he's so driven and focused to keep getting better, he's not going to just be satisfied with where he's at today."

The Dodgers saw the same thing. They envisioned not what Outman was but what he could be. Dodgers scouts Tom Kunis and Paul Cogan were convinced he had the character and drive to deliver on his untapped potential. 

Dodgers' James Outman on his memorable call to the big leagues story

When the 2018 draft arrived, the Dodgers hoped Outman's modest numbers at a smaller school might deter other teams. They began talking about him as a possibility as high as the fifth round. In the seventh, it became "a no-brainer," according to Dodgers vice president of amateur scouting Billy Gasparino. 

"There's that piece that really kind of stood out in terms of his mental ability and his person and character, but physically it is what you see today," Gasparino said. "It's 6-3 and chiseled and 220 and can run and move. He would have flashes of big power and diving catches. None of it was consistent yet, and you could knock him a little bit on approach and swing, but he would flash this stuff. You don't see too many physical specimens like this on the baseball field."

Still, fixing his swing would require what Outman described as a "total rebuild." 

"I came in pro ball swinging the bat kind of like a caveman, really stiff and not much there," Outman said after getting his first call-up to the big leagues. "I tried to loosen it up and get some more length through the zone." 

That was a years-long process, the latest thing for Outman to tackle. 

He absorbed bits and pieces from a litany of Dodgers hitting coaches and instructors. Craig Wallenbrock taught him about his bat path and balance at the plate. He learned the importance of getting his swing on plane with the ball. 

"Any idea you give James," Wallenbrock said, "he takes it as far as he can take it." 

In 2019, Outman worked closely with Keith Beauregard — now the Detroit Tigers' hitting coach — going piece by piece for a month learning how to balance his back leg and focusing on coordination. He launched 19 home runs for the Loons that year, including the memorable grand slam, but hit just .226 with 128 strikeouts on the year. Still, Loons manager John Shoemaker could see the work ethic. 

"I don't think anyone on our team took more swings in the batting cage to try to perfect his craft than James did," Shoemaker said. 

Outman's biggest leaps, however, came when competition ceased. In 2020, though not among the Dodgers' players invited to the club's alternate site, he didn't want to lose the momentum he had built with his swing changes. He hit in friends' backyards, snuck into local cages and participated in bi-weekly live batting practice sessions organized by Kunis for Dodgers prospects in Northern California. 

"I really think that was the middle of his turning point, where he really started to make progress and understand some of the swing changes we wanted," Gasparino said. 

Upon a return to play in 2021, Outman turned heads. 

His revamped swing started to take shape at Double-A Tulsa. He hit .289 with nine homers in 39 games, then built on that progress last year, registering a .978 OPS with 31 home runs between Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City. His performance earned him his first call-up to the big leagues. He homered in his first career at-bat and went 6-for-12 in four games. 

"I don't think any moment's going to be too big for him," manager Dave Roberts realized. "There's just certain guys that special things are bound to happen."

Back at Triple-A later that month, he hit for the cycle twice in a span of four days. Outman looked ready for a more extended big-league opportunity. A spot on the big-league roster presented itself this spring after the Dodgers moved on from outfielder Cody Bellinger and lost starting shortstop Gavin Lux for the year. 

Roberts delivered the news to Outman that he would be starting in center field on Opening Day. Outman responded with a nod and continued chewing his gum. 

"And that was it," Roberts recalled. "It was good. I liked that."

What followed was mesmerizing. Outman homered on Opening Day. Four days later, he tripled twice in his first game against the Rockies. In the Dodgers' first road series in Arizona, he homered in back-to-back games, including a blast off Madison Bumgarner, one of the Bay Area native's idols growing up.  

By the time April ended, Outman led all rookies in homers, RBI, slugging, triples, OPS and total bases. His success did, however, include a somewhat alarming 33% strikeout rate. An elevated whiff rate was not particularly new. In his breakout 2022 season, he had the ninth-highest strikeout percentage in the Dodgers' minor-league system. 

"The player and the person better be pretty tough-minded to handle that failure and keep moving forward," Gasparino said. 

That has been the challenge, especially once the production halted. 

The Dodgers didn't want Outman fixating on his strikeout rate, which can ebb and flow throughout a rookie season. They expected that number to normalize as he figured out major-league pitching, learned the strike zone and understood how pitchers wanted to attack him. But it would require patience. 

Outman hit .165 in May as his strikeout rate continued trending the wrong way. He was frustrated and flummoxed by the way the fastball up and in — a pitch he had always looked for — seemed to cause problems, though his even-keeled nature often disguised his disgust.

Roberts thought the game was speeding up on the young hitter, who looked in between at the plate — out in front of breaking balls and behind on velocity.  Outman's OPS dipped from .991 at the end of April to .737 by the All-Star break. Still, the Dodgers never sent him down, trusting him to work through the struggles at the highest level.  

"Let's say you have 600 at-bats as a major-leaguer," Dodgers hitting coach Aaron Bates posited. "You get 200 that you're hot, or less than that, maybe 150-200 where you feel like you're hitting on the wrong side of the plate, and the rest of them you're kind of idling in between and managing that middle zone right there. The great ones know how to manage those middle and bottom ones."

Finding his way back required different types of adjustments. Physically, Outman noticed he was closing himself off too much in his setup at the plate. Mentally, he had to learn to be more selective, to only swing at the pitches he could handle, even if it meant watching an opposing pitcher paint a corner. 

"It's tough," Outman said. "There's a spotlight, you know? Everything feels exaggerated, so the attention to detail really has to be there. It's easy to forget about stuff in the minor leagues, because it's not under a microscope as much."

Too often, he felt like he was trying to make up all of his struggles with one swing. More recently, he has learned the importance of relaxing at the plate. 

That, of course, is easier said than done. 

"I wish there was a secret," Outman continued. "I don't know, maybe a little reminder it's never as bad as you think it is, it's never as good as you think it is."

To mold that mindset, his teammates offered support.  

In the midst of Outman's worst struggles in May, catcher Will Smith spoke to the rookie at lunch one day about building confidence on the little things. Smith encouraged him to find the positives in the negatives.

"Like, ‘Hey, this situation, at least I swung at good pitches,'" Outman explained. "Or, at least I moved the ball forward, stuck to my approach." 

Now, Outman is beginning to recapture his early-season magic. A strikeout rate that rose to 37% in May descended to 25.3% in July. The All-Star break helped provide another mental reset. Outman has looked far more collected in the box since, not only batting .361 but also registering nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (19) in 81 plate appearances in the season's second half.

The man whose timely hitting once funded a new hip to a lucky fan currently sports a 1.159 OPS in late/close situations, a number that ranks first on a Dodgers team featuring multiple MVP contenders. The athletic traits that intrigued the Dodgers were on display at Petco Park on Friday, when Outman set the tone for the series by robbing Fernando Tatís Jr. of a home run in the first inning and mashing a home run of his own in the second. He capped the Dodgers' series win with a 4-for-4 day Monday, reaching base in all five of his plate appearances.

"The big leagues, ups feel a little higher and the lows feel a little lower," Smith said. "Just trying to get these younger guys to understand the lows aren't too low. You're going to go through them, just keep working and realize you're going to get out of it at some point."

For those who've known Outman the longest, that's an easy bet, regardless of the sport he's playing. 

"I remember telling him when he was in high school, ‘Dude, you just need to give up this baseball thing, you're so much better at football,'" Thomas said. "Now, he's the starting center fielder for the freakin' Dodgers. So, I was absolutely wrong." 

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers' editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner. 


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