Changing of the stars: Arizona Fall League’s new rules for annual showcase a hit

Washington Nationals prospect Drew Millas earned his first Fall Stars selection this season after playing in Surprise last season. (Photo courtesy of the Arizona Fall League/MLB)

Washington Nationals prospect Drew Millas believes playing on a different team this year allowed him to hone his skills and earn his first Fall Stars selection. (Photo Courtesy of the Arizona Fall League/MLB)

MESA – Representing the last out in the bottom of the ninth inning in Saturday’s Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game, Cardinals prospect Jordan Walker expected to face an American League pitcher. Instead, he was surprised to see Cardinals teammate Tink Hence on the rubber in relief for the American League.

Another anomaly was the game’s continuation in the final frame despite the National League’s 7-3 lead as the home team, before Walker lined out to end the game with a final score of 9-3.

A whole new ballgame, this year’s format changes are part of the AFL’s efforts to play the maximum number of prospects and to closely emulate the MLB’s Midsummer Classic— where the National League All-Stars face the American League All-Stars in July.

On a larger scale, the AFL continues its push to grow the league and create a better experience for players, especially over the past 15-plus years. An all-star competition and a home run derby didn’t exist when the Fall League started in 1992. But that all changed in 2006, when the Rising Stars Game debuted. The league has held festivities each season ever since.

Pittsburgh Pirates first-round draft pick Nick Gonzales was honored to participate in his second Fall Stars Game and dreams of following in the footsteps of former Fall Stars to make the majors. (Photo Courtesy of the Arizona Fall League/MLB)

Nick Gonzales, a Pirates 2020 first-round draft pick, participated in the Fall League last year but said that being selected to the NL squad for the second year in a row was still an honor.

“(I am) super blessed to have the opportunity to play here. Not even once, but again, twice. It’s an incredible honor. So it’s definitely something I’m very grateful (for),” Gonzales, 23, said before the Fall Stars Game Sunday. “You know, if this is anything like (how) the MLB All-Star Game (is), that’s really, really exciting.”

While Fall League competition changes every year, Gonzales believes this year’s class included some of the best players he’s seen. Knowing some of his former teammates advanced to the majors, Gonzales’ eyes are open to his potential.

“It’s cool to see guys that were playing on the same field, the same games as you, and now they’re in the big leagues,” Gonzales said. “You know, that’s what the goal is, everyone wants to get to the big leagues. Spending two years in the Fall League now, I mean, it’s been a blast for a lot of these guys.”

Due to this year’s new format, players from the same Fall League rosters were pitted against each other. David Fry of the Cleveland Guardians and Drew Millas of the Washington Nationals both catch for the Peoria Javelinas, but the two teammates split for the Fall Stars game.

Fry, one of the Fall League’s older players, believes the main difference between last year and this year is the age of the prospects.

“Not many differences. Just a lot of super young guys and a really fun league, super laid back, and just a really cool group of guys here,” Fry said. “Just enjoying the game more, not taking it so seriously. And it’s fun watching all these kids who are 18 years old play baseball, but all of our team’s young, so I mean, guys like Jackson Merrill, (Luke) Ritter, a bunch of the guys on our team, we just hang out. It’s a fun group.”

Millas, who played last year in the Fall League, mentioned that the change in teams this season has allowed him to hone his skills and apply what he’s learned from the different organizations, ultimately earning him his first Fall Stars selection.

“I mean, just getting with a bunch of new guys and kind of learning their different approaches to the game is awesome. And new coaching staff that’s around me too, Not new, but like from different organizations,” Millas said. “Last year, obviously, I was with Surprise and we had different orgs, and I gotta see the viewpoint of those as well. So, getting another opportunity to kinda go through that has been awesome, and it’s given me an opportunity to sponge and learn a lot.”

Cleveland Guardians prospect David Fry noticed few differences between the Fall Stars game this year and the game last year. (Photo Courtesy of the Arizona Fall League/MLB)

Prospects selected to the Fall Stars roster means they have shown improvement over their time in the league. For Millas and Seattle Mariners prospect Robert Perez Jr., that selection meant that the work they put in during their time in the minor leagues has paid off.

“It means a lot. It means a lot because I represent the minors, with me having played for them,” Perez Jr. said Saturday before the derby. “It’s been a lot of fun for me and for my family.”

With the Fall Stars Weekend complete, the final week of play features Friday’s play-in semifinal between the two- and three-seeded teams, with Surprise clinching the first seed in the championship.

The championship is scheduled for Saturday at Scottsdale Stadium.

“I mean, we just wanna win. We have a good ball club and we love playing together and you know, while we’re here we might as well win it,” Millas said. “So that’s our main outlook. We got three (games) left so we might as well go do it.”

Lauren Hertz LOHR-in hertz (she/her)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Lauren Hertz expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in film and media production. Hertz has interned with PBS NewsHour West, AZCentral Sports and CBS New York.