TORONTO — The funny thing about an intrasquad game is that every event is both good and bad for the same team. For instance, Rowdy Tellez is off to a hot start with three home runs through the club’s first two games. That’s a good sign for Toronto’s offence. But three pitchers the Blue Jays will be relying upon to get outs during the regular season gave them up. That’s not so great.
So, within the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, how do they digest this zero-sum game? What can be taken away from it? Aside from Tellez’s right to throw out a little banter at his teammates’ expense, of course.
“Oh yeah, a little bit. All in good fun,” Tellez says. “But I think it makes everybody better. When I get out against pitchers, I want to know how they got me out. I ask those questions. And vice versa. When you put a good swing on they want to know, ‘How did it look out of my hand? What was the reason? How did you stay on that?’
“I’m bettering them and they’re bettering me because they’re telling me what I’m doing wrong and I’m helping them when they don’t execute their pitches. It’s just everybody being a good teammate.”
That camaraderie is being demonstrated in a few ways this week, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. crosses the diamond to pick up first base and, one assumes, eat into Tellez’s playing time. There will be a steep learning curve for Guerrero Jr. as he picks up a position he’s never played before, making the help of those with experience there — like Tellez — crucial to his progress.
There’s footwork to practice, situations to learn and reads to make. Tellez can and will help guide Guerrero Jr. through that. But he’ll be doing so in service of a teammate playing his position. One imagines that would be a little awkward. But Tellez says it’s quite the contrary.
“I don’t think it changes anything in the way of our team. I think having him over there is as beneficial as him at third — I think we just want as many bats as we can have in the lineup,” Tellez said. “Him being right-handed, me being left-handed — it kind of plays into that platoon situation. But I think having all of us in the lineup is going to be beneficial. We’re just here to win.”
That said, it’s pretty unlikely that the Blue Jays would run a strict platoon at first base, as Guerrero Jr.’s bat needs to be in the lineup as often as possible. That creates an interesting dilemma, as one presumes manager Charlie Montoyo would want to keep his designated hitter spot open more often than not in order to exploit matchups or get some players a day off their feet.
Conventional wisdom might suggest you’d regularly sit Tellez against left-handed pitching, but he demonstrated in a small, 126-plate appearance sample last season that he isn’t necessarily overmatched against southpaws. Tellez hit .270/.317/.513 in that exposure to lefties, putting up a 113 OPS+.
Still, 15 of his 21 homers last season came against right-handed pitching and his 2018 minor-league splits — .839 OPS vs. right-handers, .659 OPS vs. lefties — look more like what you’d expect from a hitter of his profile. But that shouldn’t take away from the results he produced last season.
Tellez says that recent success came from a slight approach tweak, as he began honing in on locations rather than hunting particular pitches. That’s similar to the adjustment Justin Smoak made prior to his late-career breakout in 2017.
“It’s about not getting myself out and chasing, but hunting a location and waiting for it to end up there,” Tellez said. “I know in 2017 I struggled with it. In 2018, when I got called up, I struggled with left-on-left. But I focused hard on it the past offseason and now I really just want to let it play out.”
Which brings us back to the question of how often Tellez will play with Guerrero Jr. now a first baseman. Probably not as much as he’d like. But Montoyo is famous for utilizing every player on his roster as frequently as possible, seldom letting players have too many consecutive days off. Tellez will be in the lineup. And if he keeps hitting the way he has early in camp, Montoyo won’t be able to take him out.
Of course, Tellez has always hit the ball hard when he makes contact — he was an 80th percentile exit velocity hitter in 2019 — which is a reliable way to find good results on balls in play. The problem has been the amount of contact, as Tellez swung-and-missed his way to a 31.3 per cent whiff rate in 2019.
It’s possible to be a productive big league hitter while missing pitches that often. Bryce Harper’s 2019 whiff rate was 34 per cent; Javy Baez’s was 35.7. But you generally have to pair it with a secondary attribute besides the hard-hit rate — Harper routinely contends for the league-lead in walks, while Baez is one of the game’s best at making adjustments in two-strike counts — to get away with it.
Tellez hasn’t been able to do that to this point in his career, but it’s important to remember the strides players can make well into their late 20’s if they keep working to improve. Smoak’s breakout in his age-30 season is a fitting example, as he went from a part-time platoon bat to an all-star thanks to some of the same approach adjustments Tellez has been working to make.
That’s how he spent the past few months while enduring MLB’s shutdown with his sister, Amy, at their father Greg’s house in Sacramento, Calif. They built a batting cage so the 25-year-old could work on his swing while conditioning continued at Tellez’s trainer’s house nearby, where he had access to all the equipment he could need.
The results so far have been evident. Now it’s on Tellez to keep that production going, while helping Guerrero Jr. find his feet at first. If both those things happen, everyone wins. Including the team.
“He’s a great teammate to start with. So, he’s not too worried about certain things, playing time, any of that,” Tellez said of Guerrero Jr. “He just wants everybody to be happy, everybody to be at their best.
“It’s a different position. Different type of footwork around the bag, different type of things that you don’t do at third base. So, all I can say is he’s been tremendous. he’s working hard over there. And I’m happy that he’s putting in that kind of work and he’s asking the right questions.”