Bichette’s aggressive swing a main contributor to his historic start

Bo Bichette makes his Rogers Centre debut for the Toronto Blue Jays, hitting a home run and adding a double, but it wasn't enough as the New York Yankees win 12-6.

TORONTO — So, when did Bo Bichette feel like he was truly a big-leaguer? Was it his first MLB plate appearance when he ripped a single to left? Perhaps the night following when he picked up two more hits? Or the day after that when he had three, including his first double and a home run? Maybe it wasn’t until seven games in, when he had his fifth multi-hit night and went deep again?

Turns out it was none of that. It was Monday in St. Petersburg, Fla. where his Toronto Blue Jays began a three-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays. Preparing for that game, which he’d play in front of friends and family from the nearby neighbourhood where he grew up, Bichette finally felt like he’d arrived.

“I’m not sure why,” Bichette said Thursday, ahead of his first career game at Rogers Centre, a 12-6 Blue Jays loss to the New York Yankees. “I think it was because we were facing a really good team — one of the better teams in the big leagues. And I got to face Charlie Morton, who will probably get some Cy Young votes this year. So, leading up to that game, I was kind of was like, ‘Okay, I made it. Like, this is when the battles start. This is when you’ve got to outthink opponents. This is when you’ve got to out-prepare the opponent.’”

So, how’s he going to feel when he wakes up Friday? Because on Thursday, Bichette became the first player in MLB history to hit a double in nine consecutive games. He also hit his fourth home run, and 13th extra-base hit, only 11 games into his career. He now has 20 hits and four walks over his first 53 big-league plate appearances, good for a .408/.453/.837 batting line, and nearly a full win above replacement.

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All in fewer than a dozen games. Entering the season as a top-10 MLB prospect at just 21, many expected Bichette to do some pretty special things. But his start has been literally historic. His 11-game hit streak, the 20 hits, and the 1.316 OPS are all franchise records for a player in the first 11 games of their career. The doubles streak is an MLB record. The 13 extra-base hits are a record as well for a player’s first 11 career games.

“I mean, I’d be lying to you if I said I thought I’d be breaking records. But I do expect to play well,” Bichette said. “And I think those records are just the by-products of putting in the work and going out there and being aggressive.”

Certainly, no one’s questioning Bichette’s aggressiveness. Not when he’s up there taking swings like this:

That was the first pitch he saw during his third plate appearance Thursday. Blue Jays fans have gotten used to seeing it. Over the nine games he spent leading off during Toronto’s latest road trip, Bichette swung at the first pitch of the game seven times. Four resulted in a foul ball, two were hit for doubles, and only one was a swinging strike. And over those nine leadoff plate appearances he reached base six times — four doubles, a single, and a walk.

And yet, Thursday’s game was a departure. He took the first pitch he saw in each of his first two plate appearances, ultimately skipping a groundball to second base each time. Not the outcome he wants. So, of course, he went back to swinging aggressively at the first pitch his third time up. And here’s what he did to the pitch that immediately followed:

That’s 107.5-m.p.h. off the bat and 441-feet to left, where it clanked off the facing above the second deck. And the 97-m.p.h. Chad Green fastball he smoked for a double his next time up came off his bat nearly as hard — 106.8-m.p.h. — towards the right-centre field wall, where history rattled around as Bichette raced into second. Nothing the kid does is quiet.

“Growing up, my dad always told me to swing hard, to run hard, to throw hard,” Bichette said. “Every time you take BP, hit the ball as far as you can. Whenever we throw, throw as hard as you can. It just goes on and on. For me, it’s just kind of second nature.”

Dad, Dante Sr., and mom, Mariana, were in the stands at Rogers Centre Thursday watching it all play out. It’s a great reward for all the time and effort they poured into giving their son — and his brother, Dante Jr. — every opportunity possible to be the best ballplayer he could. Whether it was Dante Sr. bringing him out for batting practice at Coors Field in Colorado, where a 15-year-old Bo would put balls up on the concourse, or Mariana compiling research on Toronto’s development methods when the club showed interest in their son heading into the draft.

And it continued earlier this week in St. Petersburg, where Dante Sr. and Mariana took care of all those ticket requests so that Bo could simply focus on playing the game.

“That was helpful for me,” Bichette said. “Having them around in the minor leagues and my whole life has been awesome. I wouldn’t be here without them. Especially this quickly. My mom’s been always following me around. My dad obviously gave me all of the baseball stuff I needed to be successful. So, just to have them here supporting me is all I can ask for.”

This blitzkrieging start to a career is no doubt more than he could’ve asked for. And this is the part of the article where we must note that it can’t continue forever. This run he’s on is incredible — it’s exhilarating to watch. But baseball has a way of evening things out.

Over his first 10 games, Bichette swung at 55.9 per cent of the pitches he saw, well north of the 47 per cent league average. And he offered at 41.4 per cent of the pitches he was thrown outside the zone, a full 10 points higher than the league average rate. Teams will see that and counter.

Bichette shouldn’t be surprised if he soon starts seeing fewer fastballs, and fewer pitches of any kind on the plate. He also shouldn’t be surprised if his batted ball luck takes a turn. His .471 batting average on balls in play is obviously unsustainable. Even if he keeps barrelling the ball, he’s due to hit a few right at fielders, particularly as teams begin shifting their defensive alignments to his tendencies.

But that’s the game, isn’t it? Adjustments, counters, cats and mice. It’s what Bichette’s been preparing for his entire life. Plus, his bat is so quick, and his ability to make contact is so good, that Bichette can still get his barrel to a variety of pitches all over the strike zone and shoot balls to all fields. If he’s disciplined and selective, he can mitigate some of the more careful pitching he’s due to encounter in the coming weeks.

Of course, hitting’s only half the game. Bichette’s transition defensively has been a rockier ride, as he committed four errors through his first eight games as a major-league shortstop. It’s to be expected. Exit velocities are consistently higher in the majors than in the minors, and runners get up the line to first base quicker, too. As a fielder, you’re working with a different clock. You have less time to read and react, less room for inefficient movement, and less margin for error.

But the last thing you want to do is dwell on that time you don’t have. And Bichette reckons the misplays — a couple of them on routine groundballs any big-league shortstop should handle — were the product of overthinking.

“I think it’s only faster if you make it faster. And I think for a couple of games, defensively, I made it faster than it is,” he said. “It’s just about making adjustments. I knew stuff like that would happen. And I’m sure it’ll happen offensively at some point. It’s just about how quickly you can get out of it.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

To that end, Bichette was out taking groundballs prior to Thursday’s game, getting a feel for how the ball skips off Rogers Centre’s turf and infield dirt. A fungo bat in the hands of Blue Jays third base and infield coach Luis Rivera isn’t exactly perfect at simulating game conditions. But with Bichette in the majors at just 21 — the age of the average player in short-season A-ball this season — he needs to utilize every opportunity he has to continue his development.

Which is what’s most incredible about this start. He’s not even halfway to 22. Bichette’s doing things Babe Ruth didn’t do, Barry Bonds didn’t do. And he’s doing them in his first 11 career games after an aggressive progression through the minors. It won’t always look this easy for him. He’s still growing, still learning what it takes to be a big-leaguer. But the aggressiveness, the confidence? He’s got that part down.

“I’m going to be aggressive. I’m going to run the bases hard. I think that’s really all you can ask out of somebody, is for them to go up there every single at-bat and never give it away,” Bichette said. “You can feed off your teammates when they do that stuff. And I think that’s what I bring.”

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