The Legend of Seuly Matias: Royals prospect once milked cows, now blasts homers

Highlights of Seuly Matias from Class A Lexington

Seuly Matias has been crushing the ball for the Royals Class A affiliate Lexington Legends. Here are some highlights of Matias from the 2018 season.
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Seuly Matias has been crushing the ball for the Royals Class A affiliate Lexington Legends. Here are some highlights of Matias from the 2018 season.

The story of the Royals’ most powerful prospect begins in a pasture on the northwest coast of the Dominican Republic.

From the time he was 5, Seuly Matias milked cows for a local business. Often he was compensated with food — fresh milk or cheese, the sort of healthy fat he needed to help replenish the fibers in muscles strained by manual labor — that he would eat on-site and then take leftovers home to his family. Other times, they’d pay him small amounts of cash that he contributed to his mother’s coffers.

The routine remained for more than seven years. As the sixth of 10 children his mother raised largely on her own, Matias was desperate to help his family in whatever small way he could.

But when he wasn’t in the pastures or attending school until sixth grade, he and his friends hit rocks with plastic tubes they swung like bats. They pretended they were David Ortiz or Vladimir Guerrero or Manny Ramirez — or any number, really, of Dominican players who have made an impact on major-league baseball in the last 15 years.

There were plenty to choose from. In part, that’s what sparked Matias’ interest in pursuing the sport after he turned 11.

“I saw a bunch of baseball players who signed for a lot of money,” he said in Spanish, “and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to practice, too, to see if I can make something of myself in the game.‘”

Nearly three years after Matias became the prized acquisition of the Royals' 2015 international signing class, he has made himself into the franchise's only top-100 prospect, per Fangraphs' standards. He's shot up the rankings by hitting 20 home runs for Class A Lexington, on pace for a league-record 45 this season.

Now, as he sits on a rickety bench outside the Class A Lexington Legends' clubhouse at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, he can have faith in the future that the Royals foresaw when they gave him a $2.25 million signing bonus after he turned 16 years old. In the Dominican — and especially in his village where the houses are erected straight out of the dirt with 2x4s, blocks of concrete and zinc roofs — that’s life-altering money for an entire family.

He is clad in Royals blue warmup gear and what appear to be a gently used pair of New Balance shoes. He would have marveled at the pair three years ago — back then, even a full plate of food shocked him.

“I was in a constant state of surprise,” Matias says.

In more ways than one. Because there was a time when Matias, a 19-year-old outfielder with a still-growing 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame, thought he would never get a chance.

Before becoming the Royals third-ranked prospect, outfielder Seuly Matias learned to refine his skills at a baseball academy for prospects in the Dominican Republic. Pictured here at 15, he was already tall and muscular but had a thin frame. Maria Torres

By the time he turned 16, the earliest age at which teams can sign international players, Matias had spent a year fighting for a chance to play professionally without making headway.

No matter how well he performed at a tryout for the multiple teams vying for his services, no one approached with an offer. Most were scared off by a discrepancy with his age.

Discouraged, he gathered his belongings after a final tryout at the Royals’ academy in the Dominican Republic in late November 2014, returned to a poor barrio in La Isabela and distributed his baseball gear to children in his hometown.

“I wasn’t going to play again,” Matias said in Spanish.

The Royals didn’t let that happen. To sign him, the club exceeded its bonus pool and incurred penalties that limited the organization to minimal spending on non-domestic talent the next two years.

Before signing with the Royals, Matias had a projectable body type. His frame hadn’t filled out to the 200 pounds it’s at now, but he was tall. At 15, the muscles in his arms were well-defined — all the years spent working in the pasture had helped him unintentionally build strength.

Once he combined the rawness of his physical form with dedicated training on a baseball field, Matias’ stock grew wildly in the industry. From around 13 years old until he signed with the Royals, he lived on-site at a baseball academy run by a buscon in La Vega. For a few years, he learned to hone his skills playing organized baseball for the first time in his life in the Dominican Prospect League, the same amateur ranks that produced Royals infielder Adalberto Mondesi.

“I was watching him (after he just turned 17),” said J.J. Picollo, Royals assistant general manager for player personnel. “He was hitting off a tee on a field for a drill. Hit a ball out over the fence — and off a tee that’s an incredible thing to do.”

Scouts questioned Matias’ run tools but flocked to the overall package: He could hit for power, throw hard and swing with his bat with speed. In the 2015 signing class, which included Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto, Matias was considered the seventh-best prospect available. Multiple teams pursued him.

But when questions about his birth certificate arose — unaware he didn’t have a birth certificate growing up, Matias had to scramble to acquire the document, which set off an MLB investigation that eventually confirmed he was born Sept. 4, 1998 — teams shied away from dealing with Matias.

“My mom never had anyone to get her registered,” Matias said. “When I was asked if I had a birth certificate, I had to ask what that was. I’d never heard of one before. I was born in 1998 but before I knew for sure, I said I was born in 1997 because, truly, I didn’t know what year I was born.”

Matias said he’d received offers of about $4 million but those disappeared when the discrepancy cropped up. Even after the league cleared up the issue, teams hesitated.

Matias went home, to the pastures and the poor village where his family shared two beds that were soaked every time it rained because of the awful shape the zinc roof was in.

It wasn’t until a month and a half later, in January, that Matias’ buscon bused him back to La Vega to deliver the news that the Royals had agreed to sign him after his final tryout in November.

Everyone, including Matias’ mom and stepdad, had kept the secret from him. He still isn’t sure why.

As he wraps up this part of the tale, Matias’ expression warps with a self-satisfied grin. Because even though Matias hasn’t reached his ceiling on the field beyond the outfield wall here, he’s accomplished exactly what he set out to do from the start.

Mom lives in a three-bedroom home now. There is no more of that eight-people-to-two-beds nonsense.

There’s less, too, of the wide-eyed gawking at newfound fortune. The arrival of fresh, plentiful food and new clothes doesn’t stun Matias or his family anymore.

Normalcy was all he ever craved.

“I wanted to help my mom,” Matias said. “I always worked to help my mom. I dedicated myself to it. Thanks to God I was able to sign a good deal to help my mom, help my family, build her a house and keep them from starving.”

Lexington Legends right fielder Seuly Matias (25) celebrates after a home run during a game against the Charleston RiverDogs on April 5, 2018, at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Lexington beat Charleston 3-2. Alex Slitz Lexington Herald-Leader

Whether he accomplishes anything in the major-league ranks remains to be seen. In fact, despite the 20 homers he clubbed over a span of 49 games and 195 plate appearances with the Legends to start this season, he’s barely accomplished anything. This season is the first he’ll play more than 57 minor-league games; there’s plenty left to prove before Matias can comfortably say he’s made anything of himself.

But in this small sample size, he’s put up extreme isolated power numbers, an advanced metric that measures the average number of extra bases a player collects per at-bat. Matias’ ISO is .398, a figure that leads all minor-league batters playing above rookie-level.

Some context: The MLB-average ISO in 2017 was .171; Giancarlo Stanton, who tallied 59 homers and 32 doubles last year, amassed an ISO of .350 in the best campaign of his career.

The sustainability of Matias’ pace hinges on a few things: Among them, his recognition of the strike zone, as he’s struck out 231 times in 159 career games; and the learning curve of the South Atlantic League.

But if Matias can work on the former, what the rest of the league does to adjust to his prodigious power — the primary raw tool that got him signed in the first place — won’t matter.

He’s simply that strong.

"He has so much power, this field would look small to him,” said Rene Francisco, Royals assistant general manager for international operations, referring to Kauffman Stadium.

Matias’ name is slowly trickling into baseball’s mainstream — perhaps for good reason. Matias is unrefined gold: A talented teenager who is a few seasons of improved plate discipline away from cracking a big-league roster.

But the absurdity of his power numbers — he’s 20 home runs away from tying the South Atlantic League record set by former Indians player Russell Branyan in 1996 — isn’t lost on a few in the Royals clubhouse.

Diantre,” closer Kelvin Herrera said, using Spanish slang for “holy crap.” “That’s amazing. He should keep that up, hit 40.”

Added catcher Salvador Perez: “He’s gonna have to be at the All-Star Futures Game at this rate. They should call him up, have him hit home runs here.”

That move is years away, of course.

But it won’t be too long before The Legend of Seuly Matias reaches Kauffman Stadium.