BUFFALO, N.Y. – On Monday, the Buffalo Bisons had an off-day so Anthony Alford popped over to Toronto to enjoy the city and escape from baseball. While there, he sent a text to Randal Grichuk, who was across the continent in San Francisco ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays’ series against the San Francisco Giants, just to say hey.
The two have gotten to know each other during camp the past two springs, and the chat quickly turned to their seasons. Grichuk knew Alford endured a tough April, one that included a dismal stretch with an .197 OPS. How are you feeling now, he asked, before offering his fellow outfielder some encouragement, some words that resonated.
“You can’t get caught up in five at-bats or 10 at-bats, even in 20 at-bats,” Alford says outside the Sahlen Field clubhouse Wednesday before going 1-for-4 with a run scored in Buffalo’s 6-2 loss to the Gwinnett Stripers. “If you’re getting 550-600 at-bats a year, if you allow that stretch to determine how you feel when you show up the next day, 10 or 15 at-bats turn into a 70 at-bat struggle, which I feel like I just went through.
“Look at Grich last year, he was hitting .100 at the end of April and then he came back, he had a reset mentally and he started banging and it turned his season around. It just shows, hey, it’s still early. I still have a long time to recover, I have a long time to make those adjustments.”
The 24-year-old prospect has already started recovering from that dismal 14-game tailspin April 12-28, when he went 2-for-42 with 21 strikeouts, going 11-for-45 in the 12 games since with two homers, two doubles and a triple against 14 strikeouts. Much work remains – the slide may have cost him a big-league opportunity, as the Blue Jays recalled Jonathan Davis last week when the Socrates Brito experiment was mercifully shut down – but Alford has his bearings again.
A mechanical adjustment to his swing at the end of April has, in large part, allowed him to stabilize at the plate. Working with hitting coach Corey Hart and coach Devon White, Alford identified a hitch in his backside that caused his bat to travel through the zone with an upwards lurch, rather than a more optimal flat path.
It explained why, “I was swinging through pitches I should be crushing,” said Alford, and as he struggled with his feel in the box, his mind started working more during plate appearances, “to a point where I wasn’t seeing the ball.”
“Whenever you’re thinking OK, my hands should be here, I should go like this, I should start now, the ball comes in like a blur – I’m thinking so much it clouds my vision,” he explained. “Now my focus is down to, be early and see the ball. Those are the only things I’m worried about right now. I feel like I can be athletic enough if I can just get my front foot down and if I can see the ball, I can get myself in position to barrel a ball.”
So Alford has been working to get his mind and swing right and has made sure to chase barrels rather than hits. He’s focused on making daily contributions to the team and not worrying about the numbers, an issue Bisons manager Bobby Meacham feels has impacted a number of players on the roster.
The volume of data now available can sometimes amplify statistical anxieties, Meacham believes, as where once hitters worried about their average and pitchers their ERA, they now obsess over things like launch angle, exit velocity, spin rates and axes of movement.
As an antidote, he preaches playing a rounded game that makes a player indispensable to his manager. Essentially, worry about the basics, let the rest resolve itself.
Alford almost seems to be parroting Meacham when he talks about recommitting to “trusting the process and focusing on having good at-bats and trusting that the results will be there.”
“I’m doing that and trying to do something every day to help the team win and going out there to have fun – that’s when I’m going to be at my best,” said Alford. “Even if I don’t get a hit, say I walk, steal a base and score a run, I can leave the field with some kind of peace knowing I’ve done something to help the team win. That’s been my main goal, going out there seeing if I can do one, two or three things to benefit the team.”
There is plenty at stake in his progress, especially with neither Teoscar Hernandez nor Billy McKinney taking their current opportunity and running with it. Davis is getting some run now and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., is nearing a return to the majors, growing increasingly comfortable in the outfield after regaining his footing at second base with the Bisons. Cavan Biggio’s promotion doesn’t feel quite as imminent, but it will if he continues to force the issue the way he is right now.
A freakishly gifted athlete widely recognized for his leadership and teammate qualities, Alford offers a dynamic upside that could drastically impact the Blue Jays rebuild. His path thus far has been uneven since giving up football in 2014 and locking in on baseball, with massive swings between success and struggle, plus a handful of progress-pausing injuries sprinkled in. His 139 games at triple-A since 2017 have largely been star-crossed.
Still, the Blue Jays would be doing themselves a disservice by not giving him a real opportunity at some point, although for now it’s on Alford to really get himself right and allow his performance to force a promotion.
“I’ve seen that guy play really well in spring training now for two years and look like he can be one of the better players for most teams in the big-leagues,” says Grichuk. “I pretty much let him know, hey, last year I started really bad and I didn’t do what I wanted to do but I finished with a somewhat successful season. Just let him know, breathe, play the game the right way, play the game hard and it will even itself out.
“He knows he’s talented, I didn’t need to reassure him of that. I just reassured him that he’s good and that I want to play with him up here at some point, so let’s go.”
With files from Ben Nicholson-Smith in San Francisco