Stefanic finishied the Major League Baseball season by hitting .400 during 10 starts at third base to finish the year with a .290 average
The summer of 2018 was fading into August when Michael Stefanic’s prospects took a turn for the brighter.
A Santa Barbara law firm offered a third turn at bat for Westmont College’s recently graduated baseball star.
“I was in the third round of interviews for a legal assistant job,” Stefanic recalled. “The plan was to go to law school and become an attorney.”
But then the Los Angeles Angels called with a different plan.
“How soon can you get to Arizona?” they asked. “We need a guy.”
Five years later last month, the Angels posed another question: Can Stefanic play third base in the big leagues?
They need a guy again.
One of baseball’s biggest underdog stories since the 1969 Miracle Mets got even more amazing during the final two weeks of this year’s regular season.
Stefanic, a lifelong second baseman, got hot while playing the hot corner for the Angels.
He batted .400 (14-for-35) in what was for all intents and purposes a tryout to remain in the majors as a utility player for the team in 2024.
“Anytime you get an opportunity in the big leagues you have to take advantage of it,” Stefanic told Noozhawk.
“Even if you’re on the 40-man roster, you’re never guaranteed another shot in the big leagues.”
“Every time you go up, it’s a proving ground,” he said. “This time we were kind of out of (the pennant race), and so they gave me a real good look.”
Stefanic hit safely in nine of the 10 games he started beginning on Sept. 20.
It’s been sweet redemption for a 27-year-old ballplayer who heard time and again that he was neither big enough nor fleet enough to become a baseball star.
The budding attorney took only one rule of baseball law to heart:
“If you hit, you can play — I’ve been told that my whole life,” Stefanic said. “I brought that with me in college and earned a spot there.
“I figured that if I can hit my way up, I can play in the big leagues, too.”
Baseball had been Stefanic’s passion from the day his mother, MiChele, pitched his first batting practice in the backyard.
He learned the rules of the game from the EA Sports MLB video game before he even stepped into a kindergarten classroom.
He grew up to become one of the top players on the Little League and high school diamonds of Boise, Idaho.
But the 5-foot-8, 155-pound infielder was still flying under the radar of college recruiters after his junior season at Timberline High School.
“I was kind of coming off a pretty severe ankle injury the summer before, and Idaho’s baseball season is only like 20-something games,” he pointed out.
“I never really got the looks from the bigger schools that I would’ve liked.”
A family friend suggested he showcase himself at a summer baseball camp at Stanford University.
“It’s one of the biggest camps in the country, with something like 600 players,” Stefanic said. “Everybody is divided into teams of 12 position players.”
Fate put him on the squad coached by Robert Ruiz, who was Westmont’s head baseball coach at the time.
Stefanic’s hustle, baseball IQ and bat-to-ball skills convinced Ruiz to invite the Boy from Boise to the Montecito campus as a nonscholarship walk-on.
“Being from Idaho, I’d never really experienced Southern California outside of a couple of family trips to Disneyland,” Stefanic said. “But I felt the best opportunity for me not only to get a good education but get onto the field was at a smaller school.
“I took a visit to Santa Barbara and Westmont, and how can you not love it? It’s stupid-nice … It’s gorgeous 300-something days a year.”
Ruiz, who now serves as the Warriors’ athletic director, did wonder where Stefanic might “fit in” on the diamond at Westmont’s hillside paradise.
“He’s scrappy, maybe a role player,” he said. “You think by his junior year, maybe he’ll have a chance to help you out.”
Stefanic had bigger plans.
He didn’t shrink into the background after being listed “third, or maybe even fourth” on the depth chart for second base at the start of fall workouts in 2014.
“I understood,” he said. “I was a walk-on … I was a freshman, just dipping my toes into it.
“At that point, I don’t think I’d ever even seen a pitch over 90 mph.”
Stefanic got up to speed quickly. He batted over .500 that autumn during Westmont’s intrasquad scrimmages and games against Southern California junior colleges.
“He had an unreal fall as a freshman, found his way into the starting lineup and never came out,” Ruiz said. “His baseball instincts and IQ are about as advanced as any player I have ever coached.
“He knows the game as well as anyone.”
Stefanic became the first Westmont player to ever make the All-Golden State Athletic Conference Team in all four of his seasons. He also won four GSAC Gold Gloves for defensive excellence.
He still holds the school record for career hits (275), doubles (50) and total bases (357), and he’s second in runs scored (157). His career batting average of .363 ranks seventh all-time at Westmont.
“I enjoyed my four years there not only on the baseball field but on campus, as well,” he said. “I just loved it there.
“And it just so happened to work out that I got an opportunity to play pro ball, too.”
Michael Stefanic was still a distant longshot for Major League Baseball.
His senior-year batting average of .392 — sixth-best in Westmont history — failed to get him selected in the 40-round MLB Amateur Draft of 2018.
But he kept taking his cuts … by splicing together a video that his father, Mike, had shot with his iPad.
The video showed Stefanic taking ground balls and batting practice from his high school coach, never missing in either pursuit.
“I sent three, four emails to all 30 MLB teams with my baseball résumé and a prospect video,” Stefanic said.
Many weeks passed before it turned into a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
An injury had Chris Mosch, the Angels’ player development coordinator, scrambling to find an infield replacement for their Rookie League team in Tempe, Arizona.
He checked out Stefanic’s video, jotted down a phone number from his résumé and gave him a call.
Stefanic almost didn’t answer, not recognizing the number flashing on his cell phone.
“I kind of had almost given up hope on the baseball career by that point,” he admitted.
He drove seven hours to Tempe the next morning and was summoned to pinch hit that evening when another injury sidelined Jose Verrier, the team’s second baseman.
“I was obviously really nervous, having never played in pro ball,” Stefanic said. “The professional debut is always a little nerve-wracking.”
He calmed himself and tapped into all the muscle memory he had collected since taking BP from his mom in the backyard … and rapped a single into the outfield.
“And it just started to become baseball again,” he said.
Stefanic has since hit at every level of baseball, compiling a batting average of .326 over the course of five minor-league seasons.
He just missed a Pacific Coast League batting championship this year, finishing second on the Triple-A circuit with a .365 average.
Stefanic’s summer in Salt Lake City included a 62-game on-base streak that started last year. It brought him to within 12 games of the minor league record.
“It was cool to do that, but I wasn’t too focused on it,” he said. “Day-to-day, I’m just trying to have four to five good at bats and help my team win.”
His play has roused the interest of Angels general manager Perry Minasian.
“Offensively, he’s been outstanding,” he said. “The ability to get on base day in and day out, we’ve all seen it. Defensively, he’s made some strides.
“He gives a really tough at-bat. So I think it’s, again, somebody who’s on the radar. He’s on the 40(-man roster) and he’s someone we really like.”
Although undrafted players get a short runway in professional baseball, Stefanic never worried about the Angels clipping his wings.
“In terms of feeling the pressure, I almost think of it the other way,” he said. “There were absolutely no expectations for me whatsoever.
“Part of that fueled me in just wanting to prove all the people wrong.
“The other part was I could just go out there and play because really nobody outside of the Angels’ organization even knew who I was.”
Damning the Yankees
A few days later, he lined a pinch-hit single to left field in the 10th inning to score Chad Wallach and give the Angels a 4-3 victory over the Bronx Bombers.
“My first walk-off in the big leagues,” Stefanic said. “It was definitely a surreal feeling. It was a big part in our year when we were fighting to stay in the playoff race.
“And besides, it’s always good to beat the Yankees … I grew up as a Red Sox fan.”
He was sent back to Salt Lake City when the injured Angels returned.
A September to remember, however, boosted both his MLB season average to .290 and his chances of becoming an Angel regular in 2024.
Stefanic also committed just two errors while compiling a stellar fielding percentage of .990 in 50 MLB games this summer. His defensive range and throwing arm have always been the biggest obstacles to his big-league future.
“That’s always been a kind of interesting thing,” he said. “They must’ve had something analytically with Statcast or something that I wasn’t aware of because I feel I made the plays when they were at me.
“I’ve worked really hard with my first-step quickness and the agility to have more range in the infield, and the ability to get to the tougher ground balls.”
Stefanic had played some third base in the minors, but the Angels made it an everyday duty during two consequential weeks in September.
“I don’t think we could have put him at third last year,” then-Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “He’s worked on his arm strength, his arm stroke.
“His hands have gotten better. His feet have gotten a little better. There’s still room obviously to get better, but I like what I’m seeing so far.”
Nobody likes Stefanic’s chances more than the coach who worked with him the most: Westmont’s Robert Ruiz.
“He is and will remain one of the best competitors we have ever had in this program,” Ruiz said. “He made those around him better and never let himself get satisfied with where he was at.”
Stefanic is spending this fall in Scottsdale, Arizona, not far from where his pro career started, to work with a trainer. He is determined to get stronger and quicker.
“You can always get better at things,” he said. “There’s no reason and no place in this game for people who feel like they have it all figured out because it will humble you very quickly.
“As long as you keep working and getting better in some aspect of the game, there’s always a new ceiling you can break through.”
Stefanic’s Law, after all, includes no statute of limitations.