Baseball – 2023 Shore Sports Network Player of the Year: A.J. Gracia, Ranney
Baseball is a game that demands unwavering patience, sudden action and the instinct to know which one to exercise in a split second. That is probably why Ranney graduate A.J. Gracia – the 2023 Shore Sports Network Baseball Player of the Year – is so good at it.
How good? His high school coach, Pat Geroni, has been calling him the best baseball player he has every been around since before he ever started high school. Geroni has known Gracia since he was just starting out in the game as a youth player, with Gracia growing up in Monroe and Geroni serving as the head coach at Monroe High School up until taking the position at Ranney in the summer of 2018.
Not convincing enough? John Kroeger is a an all-in-all expert on New Jersey High School baseball. He has a background playing, scouting and coaching and has been a consultant for NJ Advance Media’s baseball coverage as well as Baseball America’s national prep baseball coverage. Kroeger’s first-hand knowledge of high-school ball in New Jersey goes back decades and Gracia – by his estimation – is “the best high school baseball player New Jersey has ever seen.”
And yes, Kroeger saw Mike Trout play in high school.
Need numbers? Gracia blasted 24 homers over the past two seasons – 12 each year – and his 29 career home runs left him one short of the all-time Shore Conference home-run record. That is with COVID canceling the 2020 season – a season Gracia would have missed anyway due to a left-elbow injury that would ultimately require surgery that also cost him part of his sophomore season as well.
Homers too one-dimensional for you? Gracia posted a three-year line that included a batting average of .497, an on-base percentage of .649 and a slugging percentage of 1.077. In 282 career plate appearances – the equivalent of just under half of a full-season’s worth for a starting player in the Major Leagues – Gracia scored 121 runs, drove in 106 and stole 74 bases.
A.J. Gracia Career Batting Statistics
Hitting is just part of baseball, you say? When Gracia was not patrolling centerfield these past two seasons, he was pitching big games for Ranney. He led the Panthers in innings pitched as a junior and over the last two years, he went 9-4 with a 2.72 ERA with 58 hits, 27 walks and 105 strikeouts in 77 innings pitched.
Looking for a winner? When Gracia debuted for Ranney on April 30, 2021, the Panthers were 3-2 that season and coming off an 11-9 campaign in 2019 that marked the first winning season for Ranney as a member of the Shore Conference. From the that day through Gracia’s final game on June 3, Ranney posted a record of 66-12 – a run that included a 35-0 division record, a 2022 NJSIAA Non-Public B championship and a 2023 Monmouth County Tournament championship.
Four-plus years ago, Gracia was a sought-after incoming freshman and when he enrolled at Ranney, it signaled the start of the program – heading into its second season under Geroni – getting serious after qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament for the first time ever just two years earlier.
A.J. Gracia Career Pitching Statistics
For his Ranney career to unfold the way it did, Gracia had to first take action, then exercise patience. He made the choice to attend Ranney as a closer-to-home option than the North Jersey powers that were also in play. At the same time, it was still a private-school option with considerable upside – a vision Gracia ultimately shared with Geroni as the two passed up on a chance to stay within the Monroe public-school system.
Gracia also wasted little time making his college decision, verbally committing to Duke University within a week of his first day as a student at Ranney. Gracia remains committed to play for the Blue Devils on a full scholarship – even with the prospect of being drafted in the MLB First-Year Player Draft in July.
From there, however, Gracia’s patience came into play. Instead of bursting onto the Shore Conference scene as a freshman phenom in 2020, Gracia was on the shelf with elbow discomfort. Any hope of returning at some point in 2020 vanished, along with the entire season, when the COVID pandemic forced the cancelation of the entire 2020 scholastic sports calendar in New Jersey.
Baseball returned in the spring of 2021, but Gracia – while back to practicing following surgery late in 2020 – was not quite ready to fully contribute. He made his first appearance in Ranney’s lineup in the sixth game of the season, but was limited to serving as Ranney’s designated hitter throughout the season.
After waiting for his arm to fully heal, Gracia had two years left to leave his mark at Ranney and within the Shore Conference and he spent those two years delivering on the hype. A year ago, Gracia put up monster numbers as both a hitter and pitcher, leading the Shore Conference in on-base percentage (.688), slugging percentage (1.167), runs scored (46) and stolen bases (40) while finishing second in batting average (.527), home runs (12) and RBI (43). His last win on the mound and final homer of the season both came in the Non-Public B championship game against Immaculata, delivering Ranney its first ever state title.
Gracia’s performance throughout Ranney’s tournament schedule in 2022 validated his status as one of the best players in the state, but with Ranney playing in the Shore Conference Class B Central – which included 11 games against the smallest schools in the Shore Conference – it would be fair to view the numbers and conclude them to be inflated. This past year, however, Ranney moved into a Class B North division with high-level pitchers on just about every team in the field and Gracia’s numbers barely fell off, if they fell off at all.
During his senior campaign, Gracia again blasted 12 home runs, which led the Shore Conference. He again finished first at the Shore in slugging percentage (1.052) and runs scored (49), while coming in eighth in batting average (.467) and tying for fourth in both on-base percentage (.622), and RBI (33).
Ranney played its way deep into each of the three tournaments – Monmouth County, Shore Conference and NJSAA Non-Public B – and Gracia was a force in each one. His worst tournament-long slugging percentage game in the SCT, in which he slugged .818 and across the three tournaments, his numbers were almost identical to his season-long numbers: a .467 average (14-for-30) with a .610 on-base percentage, 1.100 slugging, four doubles, five home runs, 19 runs scored and 10 RBI in 11 games.
Another category Gracia owned in 2023 was base-on-balls. Gracia walked a Shore-best 33 times after drawing 32 walks as a junior – second only to Andrew Fischer, who, coincidentally, won Freshman All-ACC honors this past spring at Duke. His propensity to wait out pitchers who pitched him carefully to set up situations for his teammates was a hallmark of Gracia’s offensive game during his time at Ranney.
When it was time to get aggressive, that patience did not hold Gracia back. Of his 12 home runs in 2023, five came during tournament play and of the seven regular-season homers, two came off Delbarton freshman left-hander and fellow Duke commit A.J. Saccento and another came against Somerset County Tournament champion Rutgers Prep.
In the Monmouth County Tournament championship game vs. Red Bank Catholic, Gracia cranked the game-tying RBI double to the right-centerfield fence in the bottom of the seventh inning. In the Shore Conference Tournament semifinal vs. Rumson-Fair Haven, he hit a tiebreaking solo home run in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Facing Rutgers-bound ace and Jack Kirchner for the second time during the season, Gracia homered twice to spark a 4-3, come-from-behind win over Bishop Eustace in the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinal. Three days later, he gave Ranney life with an inside-the-park home run off Gloucester Catholic left-handed ace Tanner Nolan – the Panthers’ lone run in a 4-1 loss.
While those swings of the bat were examples of Gracia’s hitting prowess and composure in big moments, two base-running plays showed off his advanced baseball IQ. One pitch after he tied the game with his double vs. RBC in the MCT final, Gracia ran through Geroni’s stop sign on a single to rightfield by teammate Ryan Costello and dove into home plate just ahead of the relay home.
Before hitting the go-ahead home run vs. Rumson in the SCT semifinal, Gracia put his team ahead, 1-0, in the first inning by doubling down the rightfield line, advancing to third on a sacrifice and scoring on a wild pitch that barely got away from catcher Owen Kenney with a perfect secondary lead and jump when the ball hit the ground.
Ranney’s season ended with Gracia lofting a flyout to leftfield in the 4-1 loss at Gloucester Catholic, and while the Panthers fell short of lofty expectations to end 2023, they set a bar that will be hard for subsequent teams at the Tinton Falls school to clear now that Gracia and most of his teammates from this year’s team are moving on.
Geroni is adamant that his star centerfielder and left-handed pitcher is destined for great things and while he is happy for Gracia to be the face of Ranney baseball for the foreseeable future, he knows he won’t be getting another player like him any time soon.
"He is going to get paid to play baseball one day,” Geroni said of Gracia. “No doubt about it. I have said it over and over -- he is the best player I have ever coached and the best high-school baseball player I have ever seen. There is nothing a player can do on a baseball field that he can't do and do really well. On top of that, he is such a great kid and he's got a great future. He's a generational talent and you don't get those. You have to be really lucky."
Matt Manley's Shore Conference Player of the Year Ballot
1. A.J. Gracia, Ranney
2. Gavin Degnan, Donovan Catholic
3. Shane Andrus, Red Bank Catholic
4. Alex Stanyek, Red Bank Catholic
5. Charlie Meglio, Jackson Memorial