Typical Bo Bichette story: During his introduction to professional baseball last summer, an 18-year-old Bichette was absolutely tearing up the Gulf Coast League, batting .431/.450/.750 with 31 hits through his first 18 games. It was just a month after he’d been drafted and Bichette was already hearing murmurs he was close to earning a promotion. But somewhere along the way he picked up an injury to his midsection. It hurt like hell and it kept him up all night, yet it wasn’t enough to keep him off the field or prevent him from picking up a pair of hits practically every day.
But then, after two weeks of playing through it, Bichette was forced out of a mid-summer game after only one plate appearance, the howling pain preventing him from even swinging his bat. He went straight to the hospital, where they told him it was likely a virus and that he merely needed to rest. A week later, as he lay screaming in agony in his bed, Bichette reckoned it might not be a virus. So, back to the emergency room he went, where doctors looked at CAT scans and realized something was missing. Turns out, sometime over the preceding weeks, Bichette’s appendix had ruptured. Generally, when that happens, toxic and infectious substances from within the appendix spill into the abdominal cavity, which can cause extreme inflammation and, if not treated immediately, death.
Bo Bichette didn’t die. Rather, his body absorbed the burst appendix, cleaned up the inflammation, and went on about its business. “I didn’t have surgery or anything. I stayed in the hospital for like two days and then started to feel fine again,” he says. “The nurses kept calling me ‘Chuck Norris’ because they’d never seen anything like it.”
After sitting out for a little more than a month, Bichette finally returned to play in the two final games of the GCL season. He went 3-for-6 with two doubles.
If you spend any time perusing the minor-league reports of the Toronto Blue Jays, you are surely familiar with the name Bo Bichette. Playing for the class-A Lansing Lugnuts this season, the 19-year-old has been the most productive hitter in Toronto’s organization — and all of baseball, for that matter — boasting a batting line of .400/.466/.644 through his first 55 games. He hits infield singles, he hits loud doubles, he hits towering home runs. He steals the odd base, walks in about nine per cent of his plate appearances, and plays a premium position as Lansing’s starting shortstop. In both his debut GCL season and this one with Lansing, he’s been worth well over 200 weighted runs created plus (the average in MLB this season is 96). A second-round pick (66th overall) out of Lakewood High School in Florida, Bichette’s looking like the steal of the 2016 draft.
For those who watched him transform from a pudgy 14-year-old high-school freshman to one of the best young players in the state by the time he was a senior, Bichette’s daily dominance comes as little surprise. “I’m sitting there watching the draft and all these names are going by,” says Jered Goodwin, Bichette’s coach with Florida Travel Baseball, an elite program based out of Kissimmee, Fla. that has sent dozens of players to MLB. “And I’m going, ‘These guys are crazy.’ I was on the field with everybody. At Area Codes, at showcases — all the best high-school players in the country, I’ve seen them. They’re all good players. Great athletes. But Bo’s different. Bo’s going to make it.”
If he does, he won’t be the first in his house. Bo is, of course, the son of Dante, the four-time all-star and 14-year major-league veteran who hit 274 home runs and finished his career batting .299 over more than 1,700 games. Dante and his wife, Mariana, have two boys: Dante Jr., a third baseman in the New York Yankees organization, and Bo. Originally, Dante tried to get his youngest son into tennis, having seen far too many promising young ballplayers fall painfully short of their dreams. “No one fills out a lineup card for a tennis game,” he’d say over and over. And Bo was pretty good, playing varsity as a sixth grader in Orlando, Fla. with a devastating forehand. But he never felt the same on the hard court as he did on a baseball diamond.
Much of Bichette’s obsession with the game can be traced back to the summer of 2013, when his father took a job as the Colorado Rockies hitting coach and brought him out to Denver to spend a summer in a major-league clubhouse. That’s where the 15-year-old Bichette began rubbing shoulders with established big leaguers like Troy Tulowitzki, Michael Cuddyer and Dexter Fowler, falling in love with the major-league lifestyle and, most crucially, learning first-hand the work ethic and dedication it takes to not only reach that level, but stay there. That summer was also when Bichette first realized he had exceptional talent with a bat in his hands, often hitting off Rockies coaches early in the afternoon and launching balls beyond the Coors Field fences.
One day, Bichette arrived at the ballpark and was told by Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba that the final hitting group for Colorado’s batting practice was shy a player and they needed the teenager to fill in. “That’s probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Bichette says. “We were playing the Dodgers, and they were stretching on the side while I was in there hitting some bombs. And all of them were looking at me like, ‘What?’ They were freaking out. Like, ‘Who’s this kid?’ I think I went up on the concourse a few times. They couldn’t believe it.”
After that summer, Bichette’s father decided MLB coaching wasn’t for him. He moved back to Florida, this time to the St. Petersburg area so he could be close to Dante Jr., who was trying to climb the ranks with the Yankees in Tampa. Bo was enrolled in a homeschooling program, completing his work in the mornings and spending the rest of the day focusing on baseball at a warehouse five minutes away that his father bought and equipped with batting cages, a weight room and a basketball court. Bichette and his brother would often train outdoors as well, hitting and taking grounders at a nearby park called Lake Vista, which bordered a local high school called Lakewood. One day, as Dante Sr. and Jr. worked out, Lakewood’s baseball team, the Spartans, took the field for a practice. Dante Sr. walked over to introduce himself to the coach. “He’s like, ‘Hey, how ya doin? I’m Dante Bichette,’” says that coach, Jayce Ganchou. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I know who you are.’ Of course, all my kids, they’re like, ‘Who?’”
Dante asked if he could watch the practice. Afterwards, he mentioned he’d just moved his family to the area, and that he was looking for a high-school team that his homeschooled son could play for. Ganchou tried to play it cool. “I was like, ‘Well, if you want to do all the paperwork — it is a lot of paperwork,’” Ganchou says. “In my head I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be amazing.’ Next thing I know, Mariana’s at the school with all the paperwork filled out. And there’s Bo. And he says, ‘Hey coach, do you have room for a pretty good-hitting infielder?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we’ll find room.’”
Bichette practiced and played with Lakewood every day of the week during the spring, and spent his summers and falls with Goodwin’s travel team, sometimes driving more than two hours just for a practice. Still growing into his body and carrying around a healthy amount of baby fat at the time, Bichette was one of the shortest, least-imposing athletes on any team he played for — especially Goodwin’s elite program. But he had an undeniable gift for hitting. “He was our youngest guy by far and still hit in our five hole. Even with that little, short, pudgy body — and he couldn’t run a lick then, not a lick — he’d still hit balls out to dead centre at 400-foot fields,” Goodwin says. “Teams who didn’t know who Bo was, they’d see this little kid coming up after these six-foot-three, beautiful-looking guys, and they’re going, ‘What the hell is this?’ And then they’d look at the box score and Bo’s 2-for-4 with a double and three RBIs.”
As Bichette began to take baseball more seriously, he started working daily with professional strength and conditioning coaches at various Florida training facilities. His body composition improved and he increased his speed dramatically, turning himself into a stolen-base threat and a defender capable of playing up the middle. The improved physique only helped Bichette drive his country-mile home runs farther, and his newfound speed meant the doubles of his sophomore year became triples as a junior. That year ended prematurely when bone chips in Bichette’s elbow — from an injury suffered falling off a skateboard — became too painful to continue playing through. But as a senior, Bichette picked up right where he’d left off, hitting .569/.698/1.400 with 13 home runs in 25 games.
Ganchou’s got a million Bo Bichette stories: Like the time he hit a ball beyond Lakewood’s 386-foot right-centre field fence, clean over a track that rings the ballpark, past a 20-foot rain ditch, beyond another fence, and onto a football field well over 450-feet away. Or the times Bichette would purposely play shortstop from practically behind second base and tell his third baseman not to pursue balls in the hole so he could make groundballs harder for himself and pull off dramatic running plays. Or the days he’d pitch, and blow a high-80s fastball by hitters when he wasn’t getting them to swing over nasty breaking balls in the dirt. “Every day he was going to go out there and do something amazing,” Ganchou says. “And if you weren’t watching, you were probably going to see something else amazing right after.”
Bichette began making the top-prospect rounds, playing at showcases, Area Code games, and the Under Armour All-America Game — essentially an all-star game for the entire country’s high schoolers — at Wrigley Field, where he won the home-run derby, putting several balls on Waveland Avenue beyond the left-field fence. The Blue Jays started talking to him before his senior year through area scout Matt Bishoff, who eventually conceded to the young star that his draft board had him as the best player in Florida. Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava was also heavily involved, as was field coordinator Eric Wedge, who played with Dante Sr. in Colorado. “Bo had confidence, aggressiveness — just an undeniable passion for hitting and baseball in general,” says Blue Jays general manger Ross Atkins. “It was just screaming at us.”
Bichette still had his doubters. While there’s a case to be made that he was the best hitter in his class — and he’ll make it for you, if you’d like — many teams expressed doubt about his size (he’s listed rather generously at six-foot, 200 pounds), how his violent swing would translate to pro ball, and whether or not he can stick at shortstop. Bichette also had strong opinions about the type of organization he wanted to join, telling some clubs not to bother drafting him because he felt they didn’t have a track record of encouraging individuality in their player development.
The Blue Jays didn’t fall into that category. Mariana built a dossier on the methods Atkins and Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro utilized in developing young players when they led Cleveland’s organization. They delved into the background of Toronto’s director of player development Gil Kim, who had recently joined the organization from the Texas Rangers. The Bichettes were also attracted to Toronto’s high-performance department and encouraged by the fact several Blue Jays big leaguers utilized unconventional swings, like Jose Bautista’s big leg kick or Josh Donaldson’s explosive approach.
Come draft night, Bichette had opportunities to be selected before the second round, but turned four separate teams down. With a commitment to Arizona State University in his back pocket, he nearly turned the Blue Jays down as well when they called to say they wanted to take him 66th and give him an at-slot signing bonus of $978,600. Bichette says he told Toronto, “Nah, I’m good,” and hung up the phone convinced he was going to ASU. His phone quickly went off again, this time with a near-panicked Bishoff on the other end of the line, trying to convince Bichette to budge. Again, Bichette said he was good. But with one minute remaining before their pick had to be finalized, the Blue Jays called back with a final offer of $1.1 million, which Bichette accepted.
Bichette didn’t particularly enjoy that experience — “the draft was like the worst and best day of my life at the same time” — but he was determined to receive a value he considered fair and, more importantly, join a club that wouldn’t look to change what had gotten him to that point. “I know there are some organizations that would not be very happy with the way that I hit,” Bichette says. “I think the Blue Jays are just willing to let you be yourself. They allow players to go to them for help instead of forcing themselves on us. That’s huge for me. And you look at their big-league team: they have a bunch of guys on it who hit just like me. I wanted to be a Blue Jay. But, honestly, my heart was pounding out of my chest that entire night.”
Typical Bo Bichette story: In his senior year, Bichette and the Spartans took on an out-of-district team they’d never played before, Booker High School from Sarasota, Fla. Bichette wasn’t familiar with Booker, but when he got back to the dugout from the pre-game captains’ meeting at home plate, he told Ganchou there was something he didn’t like about them. “I started laughing,” Ganchou says. “Because I picked up on the same thing. Booker had this little arrogance about them. They were puffing their chest a little bit.”
In the first inning, Bichette hit a towering fly ball that dropped between Booker’s centre-fielder, second baseman and shortstop. Bichette cruised into second with a double, and Booker’s shortstop walked over and gave him an earful. Bichette doesn’t like recounting the specifics — “Ah, man, it was pretty explicit” — but he filed the incident away.
Flash forward to later in the game, when Bichette came back up and the shortstop of all people took the mound for Booker. Bichette jumped all over the first pitch and hit another tall fly ball that a Booker outfielder should have caught but didn’t, this time in foul territory. As Bichette walked back to the plate, the shortstop-turned-pitcher was chirping him again. “He’s saying all this stuff, talking all this crap,” Bichette says. “And I just looked at him like, ‘What?’ I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, ‘Dude, you’re throwing, like, 82. You’re not good. I don’t know why you would say this stuff.’”
The next pitch buzzed right over Bichette’s head. Death glares were exchanged. A Booker coach ran out to calm his pitcher down, and Bichette walked over to Ganchou. They figured the next pitch couldn’t be anything but a fastball right down the middle. Bichette stepped back in and swung as hard as he could. “So, Booker’s school was a good 50-feet beyond the right-centre field fence, which was 380-feet away,” Ganchou says. “And Bo put that pitch on top of the school. Like, this ball — Bo just lit it right up. We were in awe.”
Bichette had to do something. He flipped his bat about as high as the ball he’d just hit, walking halfway up the first base line before starting his home run trot. Of course, cameras were running. They always were when Bichette was at the plate. And the clip ended up on a popular high-school sports website, sans context, titled “Bichette’s Epic Bat Flip.”
“Yeah, I got a lot of heat for that. I definitely pimped it pretty hard,” he says. “People thought I did it just for fun. But I’d never do that. It was just, this guy … I still don’t know what he was thinking.”
On a cool Michigan night this June, Bichette offered a glimpse of why the Blue Jays are so excited about him. Long black hair tumbling from the back of his batting helmet, he walked up for his first plate appearance against the Dayton Dragons, took a pitch up and away, and then jumped all over a fastball on the plate. He crushed it. The ball came off Bichette’s bat at well over 100 mph; balls in play with a similar exit velocity and launch angle have gone for a home run 96 per cent of the time in the big leagues this year. Bichette jogged slowly out of the box, ready to round the bases at his own pace. But before he could reach first, the ball fell calmly into the centre fielder’s glove.
That should have been Bichette’s seventh home run of the season. But at Lansing’s Cooley Law School Stadium, the ball either flies, often on hot, mid-summer days, or it absolutely does not, on nights like that one, when the temperature’s low and a stiff breeze funnels in over the Lego block condominiums that stand beyond the right-centre field wall. “That’s honestly the best ball I’ve hit all year,” Bichette says, shaking his head. “I was like, ‘Alright, that’s obviously not going to work tonight.’”
Not particularly interested in flying out four times, Bichette adjusted, trying something he says he hasn’t done all year, and probably hasn’t done since he was in high school — getting on top of the baseball. A firm believer of the hit-it-in-the-air-as-hard-as-possible credo in vogue among young ballplayers today, Bichette hates grounders. But he’s also a pragmatist, and a problem solver. Like a placekicker on a breezy day or a golfer on a fast green, he knows he has to play to the conditions.
In the fourth inning, with runners on second and third, Bichette worked the count 3-1 and got practically the same pitch he drove into the wind in his first at-bat. He was sitting on the pitcher’s curve, not expecting to get challenged with a fastball, but when he recognized the heater, he pulled his hands in, maneuvered the barrel to the path of the ball, and shot a hard groundball up the first-base line and into right for a two-run, opposite-field double.
Normally, 19-year-old ballplayers don’t have the ability to be surprised by a pitch and still put it in play for extra bases. Normally, they aren’t intuitive enough to make high-pressure adjustments to their hitting approach from inning-to-inning. Bo Bichette isn’t a normal 19-year-old. “He just always finds a way to get the barrel to the baseball,” says Lugnuts hitting coach Donnie Murphy, who played 14 years as a pro and admits he didn’t begin to understand hitting the way Bichette does now until he was well into his 20s. “His approach is super advanced. He just gets it. He really pays attention throughout the game to everything that’s happening. He pays super-close attention to every at-bat. So, when he gets up to the box, he has a great idea of what the pitcher’s trying to do to him. You just don’t see it from anybody his age.”
When dealing with players at the stage Bichette’s at right now, baseball’s traditional persuasion is to quiet their swings as much as possible, eliminating any unnecessary movements so the athlete can quickly and efficiently put the bat to the ball. But Bichette’s swing is the anti-quiet. He’s never still in the batter’s box; he’s layered mechanisms on mechanisms. That’s why, in the lead up to the draft, Bichette says one team told him they thought he was the best hitter in the country but, simultaneously and somewhat confusingly, they hated his swing and couldn’t work with it. “Teams would say things like that, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” he says. “If I’m the best hitter in the country, I must be doing something right.”
Bichette’s believers say that every quirk in his swing is necessary to stay on-plane with the ball and generate the prodigious power he produces. From his wide stance, to the subtle waggle forwards and back, to the hitch in his hands, to the huge leg kick, to the spine-torqueing turn and finish — everything plays its part. Bichette will never be the biggest player on the field, but he hits pitches harder and farther than his peers built like tight ends. “It’s not bad to have movement that creates power and timing,” says Goodwin, who helped foster the swing when Bichette played for him. “This isn’t something he’s been doing for a year. This is something he’s been working on and perfecting since he grabbed a bat.”
And it comes naturally. Bichette says his father never changed a single element of his swing when he was growing up, merely telling him to do what felt comfortable and hit the ball as far as he could. When Bichette met with private hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary — who has worked closely with Donaldson — during his senior year of high school, the swing guru told him he was already doing everything he would’ve taught him. Goodwin — who’s coached 28 players who have gone on to play in the majors — says Bichette has the best hand-eye coordination and natural bat speed of anyone he’s ever instructed, and an uncommon understanding of how to get the most out of his body.
And then there’s his two-strike approach. Bichette cuts down his swing considerably with two strikes, eliminating his leg kick and adopting a low, wide stance that lets him defend against tough pitches and muscle good ones to all fields. “He’s probably one of the best two-strike hitters I’ve seen at any level. Honestly, he’s that good,” Murphy says. “He trusts it. He just lets the pitch get as deep as possible and tries to drive the ball the other way.”
Bichette works on that two-strike approach every day and is so confident in his swing he’ll let a two-strike pitch get as close as possible to the plate before he offers at it, trusting that if it’s a fastball on the plate he can shoot it the other way and if it’s a tough off-speed pitch he can foul it off. He’s already hit a number of home runs this season in two-strike counts, and through late June he was batting .346 when he put a ball in play while behind in the count. “I think it’s one of the most unique things about Bo — he has such a good understanding of his body and his swing and how to adjust it against different pitchers or in different situations to get results. I’ve never had a player at his age who’s that aware of his body,” Goodwin says. “Some of my guys who went to the big leagues, 24, 25-year-olds, are starting to understand that stuff just now. But at 18, 19 years old like Bo? No way. Not a chance.”
Typical Bo Bichette story: He lives in Tierra Verde, Fla., during the winters, not far from the Blue Jays’ Dunedin complex. One day this past off-season, Tulowitzki let him know that he’d be hitting nearby with some other big leaguers — Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins and Chris Colabello among them — and that Bichette should come by.
He’d hit with Tulowitzki and Colabello before, but he hadn’t worked with Pillar and Goins, two players with more than 800 games of MLB experience between them. After the session, they weren’t exactly keen to hit with the then-18-year-old again. “I don’t want to say that they were annoyed, but they were like, ‘Man, what the heck?’” Bichette remembers. “You’re hitting it farther than us already.”
Last year, when Bichette began his professional career in rookie ball, Ganchou asked one of his current players to set up an alert on his phone for whenever his old shortstop gets an extra-base hit. “The thing won’t stop going off,” he says. “Kids are coming to practice every day like, ‘Coach, did you see what Bo did last night?’”
Bichette was held hitless in only six of his first 55 games this season, a stretch that included 29 multi-hit games and eight with two or more extra-base hits. His .466 on-base percentage, 211 weighted runs created plus, and 31.3 per cent line-drive rate to that point were the best of any player at any level throughout affiliated baseball. He’d already put up two separate hitting streaks of 15 and 17 games. It’s all a little absurd considering Bichette, born in March of 1998, is the third-youngest player in class-A ball this year. And if he wasn’t on the same team as 18-year-old wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bichette would be the youngest player in the Blue Jays organization playing full-season ball.
He already looks too good for his level, which has an average age more than two years older than him. A 2017 promotion is inevitable, as Bichette constantly demands tougher competition with every multi-hit performance. The only thing that could hold him back is his defence at shortstop, which isn’t bad, but remains a work in progress. Bichette made 12 errors through his first 53 games in the field this season, which is one reason why it has been tough for him to shake a pre-draft reputation as a player who could be destined for the less defensively demanding confines of second or third base.
But, as always, Bichette’s working on it. He’s regularly the first Lansing player out of the clubhouse early on game-day afternoons, fielding buckets of groundballs hit by Murphy or Lugnuts manager Cesar Martin, who’s been coaching in the Blue Jays organization for 15 years. Martin drills Bichette daily on his footwork at short, creating different scenarios that challenge his reaction time and the quality of his first few steps. There’s also diligent work in the weight room, where Blue Jays high-performance staff have been tasked with improving Bichette’s agility so that those first steps become quicker and cleaner. “He makes the routine plays easily — that’s good. He’s very fluid in the field. Sometimes he just has some trouble reading the ball, making his first couple steps, finding his range,” Martin says. “But if he can transfer the confidence that he has when he’s hitting onto the defensive side of the ball — oh my god, he’s going to fly.”
Confidence is a word that comes up a lot when you talk to people about Bichette, and it’s not hard to see why when you spend some time around him. He isn’t conceited. But he is uncommonly composed for someone his age, possessing a tranquil demeanor and assuredness in everything he says and does. Martin and Murphy both say he’s one of the best Lugnuts when it comes to shaking off baseball’s unavoidable poor-luck results, and Goodwin says that even before he turned professional, Bichette’s body language and on-field presence was that of a player beyond his years. “I used to tell him, ‘Bo, you believe you’re the best player on every field you’ve ever stepped on,’” Goodwin says. “And he would just say, ‘yeah,’ and then kind of laugh it off. But, I don’t know — he may be right.”
Someday we’ll find out. And the way things are trending, that day will come sooner than later. The Midwest League was supposed to be a challenge for the teenager — not the cakewalk he’s made of it. He could finish this season in high-A Dunedin, which would set him up to arrive in double-A sometime in 2018, a level from which many top prospects are promoted directly to the majors. Considering how well he’s performed, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where Bichette is a big leaguer shortly after his 20th birthday.
That’s what Bichette wants to do — reach the majors as quickly as possible. Of course, the Blue Jays would first like to see how he responds to the demands of a full season, and how he physically and mentally withstands the toll of 140-plus games. They’d also like to see how he reacts to adversity once he begins facing stiffer competition, assuming he doesn’t just hit .400 for the rest of his minor-league career. If Bichette suffers a slump, or higher-level pitchers learn a way to get him out, will he be able to adjust? That will be key, along with his continued work at shortstop. But, all told, you can’t start a professional career out of high school much better than Bichette has. And, if you ask him, things are merely going according to plan.
“My goal is to be the best player that’s ever been on Earth,” he says. “Seriously. It’s been my goal since I was probably, like, 14. I want to be the best to ever play this game. And I work hard at it every single day to try to pursue that dream. Every single day, I try to figure out something that I can do better. My dad always told me, ‘Don’t let anybody out-work you.’ So, I don’t. Every day I just keep working. I don’t know if it’ll all translate. But at least you can live with yourself when it’s all said and done.”
Typical Bo Bichette story: Late this May, Goodwin looked at his phone after a practice and saw a torrent of texts. They were from Bichette, who was riding a bus between minor-league towns. He wanted Goodwin to go to Lakewood to scout a young player who’s currently a sophomore. Lakewood’s an inner-city school. Ganchou sometimes had to cancel practice due to police activity near the baseball diamond. Not many players get scholarships or are drafted out of Lakewood. Not many players like Bo Bichette have ever played there.
“He’s like, ‘Hey coach, this kid really deserves it. He’s a great kid. Please go see him,’” Goodwin says. “He’s in the pros, and yet he’s still trying to help kids and give them a chance to play some college ball. Kids who, honestly, probably wouldn’t have that chance without a little help.
“People don’t see that side of Bo. He’s a kid that wants to lead and wants to help others. He’s just an awesome, special kid. You don’t find many like him.”
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