BALTIMORE – Randal Grichuk’s challenges establishing himself as a big-leaguer aren’t a direct parallel to those of Derek Fisher, but there are enough similarities for him recognize what the newest Toronto Blue Jays outfielder went through with the Houston Astros.
In coming over from the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2018 season after four years of stops and starts, Grichuk recalls feeling “a sense of freedom” when he was told by general manager Ross Atkins that he was going to play every day. He believes there will be a similar benefit for Fisher, long a top prospect blocked by a deep and talented Astros outfield.
“Me and some of the other outfielders (with the Cardinals) would constantly have conversations on the road when we’d get together about, ‘Hey, you’re playing tomorrow but if you don’t get two hits, I’m playing,’” Grichuk said Thursday as Fisher joined the Blue Jays. “It’s a mindset of ‘I’ve got to perform today, I’ve got to get two hits or I’ve got to have four good at-bats’ that does damage to you mentally. You start to get out of your comfort zone and you stop just trying to have a quality at-bat. It’s not a good situation.
“Teams that want to win and have good young players, you might pull the chute too quick on them because you can’t have that learning curve. You want to win, you need to win. I definitely think this is a good opportunity for him.”
Fisher wasn’t in the starting lineup for Thursday’s series opener against the Baltimore Orioles, as manager Charlie Montoyo elected to give the soon-to-be 26-year-old a day to acclimate to his new surroundings. But he made clear that Fisher, a left-handed hitter capable of playing all three outfield spots, will get regular work in a crowded outfield rotation.
The bulk of his reps will come in centre and right, as Montoyo doesn’t want to disrupt Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s defensive progress in left, although some DH days for a group that also includes Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and, for now, Billy McKinney should keep everyone plenty busy.
Like Trent Thornton, another prospect the Blue Jays acquired from the Astros blocked by a tremendous rotation, Fisher will get the type of opportunity unavailable to him with George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick and Jake Marisnick in the outfield.
“For Trent and myself alike, and plenty of other guys who have come from very good organizations, our time there, you can’t really take it lightly,” said Fisher. “Everything happens for a reason. I can’t speak for Trent, but I can think he learned a lot and to be able to come over here and use our skills and use what we learned in our time over there is something that’s pretty special.”
Fisher has appeared in 112 big-league games since debuting in 2017 – he scored the winning run in Houston’s epic 13-12, 10-inning World Series Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers that year – but has never had a consistent chance to play. Not helping his cause is that he didn’t force the issue during his limited chances, with a .649 OPS in 312 plate appearances.
That left him on dangerous, murky ground, too good for triple-A, but not quite good enough to take playing time away from someone else.
Blue Jays bench coach Dave Hudgens, the former Astros hitting coach, remembers that if Fisher “didn’t get a hit, he didn’t play the next day, might pinch-run for three or four days in a row.”
“Then you start pressing,” continued Hudgens. “He never showed it, but I’m sure he did, it’s only natural – if I don’t get a hit, I’m not going to play. When you start chasing hits, you don’t get hits. So if he can come here and relax and play his game and show what he can do, he’s going to get an opportunity. I’m excited for him.”
While the deal for him has been polarizing in Toronto – the acquisition cost of former ace Aaron Sanchez, reliever Joe Biagini and outfield prospect Cal Stevenson drawing fire – Hudgens understands it from the other end, describing Fisher as “a really highly thought-of prospect in Houston.”
“Really hard-working kid,” he continued. “Tremendous upside. Big power. Way-above-average speed. Can play any of the three outfield positions. He just needs an opportunity – he’s killed it at every level of the minor-leagues that he’s been in.”
The Blue Jays need to get a read on him quickly, since Fisher will be out of options next year, something that limits his runway if he doesn’t immediately take and other Blue Jays outfielders earn more playing time.
At times in Houston, Hudgens remembers trying to get him to swing earlier in counts, or just focus on getting a good pitch to hit rather than thinking too much. While the Astros are renowned for downloading all kinds of advanced data to their players, Fisher said he prefers to keep things relatively simple, opting mostly for information on a pitcher’s tendencies.
“I like to simply understand what they’re trying to do, what pitches they’ve used lately, what pitches they like to use to get guys out and what pitches they’ve used against me in the past,” he explained. “That’s baseball every day, it’s a cat and mouse (game) and that’s why it’s the best game in the world.”
A .374 career on-base percentage in the minor-leagues is largely the result of Fisher’s good strike-zone discipline, and if he can replicate something close to that in the majors, it’s a profile the Blue Jays are desperate to add.
“We want to get guys who grind out at-bats and understand the strike zone and make good swing decisions,” said Hudgens. “You look at really good teams like the Red Sox, the Astros, the Yankees, those guys all grind out at-bats and they all are aggressive and under-control. Those are the types of hitters we want to put up and down this lineup.”
And so, Fisher will get a chance to fit the mould with the Blue Jays, the type of opportunity he was unlikely to ever get with the Astros. What he does with it is up to him, but Grichuk speaks from experience when he describes the ease the offer of a real opening provides.
“It’s like let’s go play,” he said. “And definitely, in Fish’s case, Houston is a tough place to break in and play every day. Obviously, when guys get hurt, you go up and play here and there, and unless you’re Mike Trout, you’re probably going to get sent back down.
“It’s a great opportunity for him, I’ve heard a lot of great things about his swing, his defensive ability. I’ve never seen him play, but I’m excited to see it.”