It can be distracting, this obsession of Cullen Large’s. Even when he’s far from the ballpark, the Toronto Blue Jays infield prospect often finds his mind drifting to hitting.
“We’ll be in the grocery store and I’ll be like, ‘Maybe I can try this hand placement,’” Large says.
A 23-year-old switch-hitter, Large was initially selected by the Blue Jays in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. Now he’s playing in the Arizona Fall League, looking to establish himself as a bona fide prospect after reaching double-A in 2019. If he does, it’ll be thanks to his bat — and the uncommon level of curiosity he brings to all things hitting-related.
Large has enjoyed hitting ever since he was a kid in Virginia cheering for Chipper Jones, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he became obsessed with it. A natural right-handed hitter, his left-handed swing blossomed during his sophomore year at the College of William and Mary.
It was around that time that his mind started drifting constantly toward hitting. Ever since, his drive to learn about it has been hard to satisfy.
“I like to think that I’m hitterish,” he explained before a recent AFL game. “I really like that word. I like when people use it — not just for myself but for anyone else. If somebody describes someone as hitterish, I’m like, ‘Not only does that guy probably have a pretty good swing, he understands hitting. He’s able to do a lot of different things at the plate.’”
Sounds like he’s hooked.
“Exactly,” Large replies. “Hooked’s a great word.”
The Blue Jays view Large as an intelligent player with good bat speed who controls the strike zone well. He doesn’t currently rank among the top 30 on any publicly available Blue Jays prospects rankings and his Arizona Fall League OPS is just .652, but there are those who believe Large can exceed expectations. People with the Blue Jays view him as a sleeper prospect and one rival scout recently identified him as a potential big-league bench player.
“Oh my God, he’s fun to watch,” says Cesar Martin, the Dunedin Blue Jays manager who now manages Large in the AFL. “Especially at the plate — the approach that he has at the plate, really believing in himself.”
That approach initially translated to success for Large, who posted a .979 OPS at Class A Lansing in 2018. But a left shoulder injury soon sidelined him and he was limited to 27 games.
While injured for the second half of ‘18, he’d often spend hours talking hitting mechanics. He’d also watch big-league games on TV when possible, keeping a close eye out for personal favourites like Mike Trout, Ben Zobrist and Francisco Lindor. Large would watch their body language, drawing inspiration from Zobrist’s calm approach and Lindor’s ever-present smile, while also observing on a far more technical level.
“You can tell a lot about a hitter by the way he takes pitches,” he says. “What he’s looking for if he takes it. Obviously if it’s a fastball in and you see he’s late getting (his lead foot) down he’s probably sitting off-speed.
“I always say the best hitters in game are able to get what they’re looking for and able to take,” he continues. “So if they’re looking change-up and they get change-up they’re able to take it once they realize it’s out of the zone. The better hitters are the ones who are like, ‘Nope, it’s out of the zone.’ They show that plate discipline.
“It’s that alongside of when they get fooled a lot of times on swings, they still make really good contact. It’s the adjustability as well as the plate discipline. It’s impressive to watch them do that in games against the best pitching. Sometimes they get fooled, but that’s just pitchers beating hitters. It happens.”
Sounds like a veteran hitting coach, not a 23-year-old, right? Even so, Large had trouble converting that perspective to results after earning a promotion to double-A this past summer. His offence fell off at New Hampshire, where he hit just .234 with a .603 OPS in 24 games down the stretch.
“The jump from high-A to double-A was probably a little bit bigger than I was expecting,” he acknowledges. “Pitchers knew what they were doing, guys had stuff that guys in high-A didn’t really have. Even from an experience standpoint, guys had been there for longer, too. The combination of those things made the jump pretty big, but once you understand all of that it’s still baseball. You adjust.”
Defensively, the transition to third went more smoothly for Large, who played second in college. He now feels more comfortable with the footwork required at the hot corner, and the Blue Jays believe his work ethic will allow for further improvements.
But with Large, it always comes back to hitting. When the 2020 season begins, he’ll be 24, entering his fourth season in pro ball. Chances are he’ll begin the year back at double-A with a chance to rebound from those initial struggles. And wherever Large ends up, we can safely assume his thoughts will keep returning to the same topic.
“I love hitting,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get away from it even if I’m outside of the game. It’s an art and I guess you could say I’m addicted to it.”