NEW YORK — At the corner of Prospect and Longwood Avenues in the Bronx, about a half-hour walk from Yankee Stadium, there is a Latin music store called Casa Amadeo. It’d be easy to miss it if you were just passing by. Its dull beige awning doesn’t look that different than the deli to its left and the T-shirt shop to its right. But inside a treasure trove for Latin music lovers — like Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo — awaits.
The walls are filled with stacks of CDs, new and old. Above them, framed photographs and portraits of legendary Puerto Rican musicians such as Tito Puente, Rafael Hernandez and Pedro Flores line the ceiling. The shop’s been there since the 1960’s, when Mike Amadeo, a Puerto Rican immigrant, opened its doors. He still runs it today. And whenever Montoyo’s in town on business, he always stops by.
Toronto’s Puerto Rican manager was there Monday, coming away with four or five new CDs to add to his massive collection. And he was back again Tuesday, collecting another half-dozen, which he eagerly showed off in his office before that night’s game against the New York Yankees.
Montoyo pulled up a photograph he took with Amadeo on his phone, grinning ear to ear as the pair shook hands inside the humble shop. He then feigned the excited dance he does as he exits the store with his latest haul of discs. The only other time you’ll hear Montoyo beam quite like that is when he’s talking about his family, or the young players on his roster.
Rookie Blue Jays such as Cavan Biggio, the 24-year-old sometimes second baseman, sometimes first baseman, sometimes outfielder. Of course, Montoyo speaks positively about all of his players. In some ways, it’s his job. But there’s a distinction to be made between the way he talks about Biggio and the way he talks about everyone else.
The other day, after he turned off one of those new salsa albums he was blaring from his office as he prepared for that night’s game, Montoyo was asked what he’s liked so far about Biggio’s brief big-league career.
“Everything. And I really mean it. I like everything,” Montoyo said, earnest as ever. “He plays to win. He gets guys over. He backs up plays, wherever he plays. He pulls for his teammates. Great on-base percentage. You know, his average doesn’t show how good he’s swinging the bat. He’s hitting a lot of balls hard.”
He certainly is. Biggio carried an average exit velocity of 92.7 mph into Tuesday’s game, which ranked 11th in baseball among players to have put at least 50 balls in play this season. He had the second-highest hard-hit rate in MLB (56.4 per cent) among those to make at least 100 plate appearances.
He was batting only .217, with 18 hits in 83 at-bats since he was called up to the majors for the first time in his life a month ago. But he had 18 walks as well. A .353 on-base percentage. A 113 OPS+, meaning he was about 13 per cent better than a league average hitter. Turns out batting average isn’t the measure of a hitter’s worth it was once considered to be.
But here’s something that will help that number, anyway. It was the top of the fifth inning Tuesday, and Toronto was hitless. It hadn’t even managed a base runner. A dozen Blue Jays had come to the plate, and all 12 had walked back to the bench after making outs. Biggio was up to lead off the inning. After fouling off the first pitch, and taking the next one for a ball, he went down to get a Nestor Cortes Jr. slider right at the bottom of the zone and served it to his right.
It wasn’t great contact — only 74 mph off the bat. But Biggio lofted that ball right over the first baseman’s head, dropping it into no man’s land in shallow right field. He ran hard out of the box, curved around first and slid into second ahead of the throw, losing his helmet along the way. His team’s first knock, and Biggio’s 9th extra-base hit in what have been a thoroughly impressive first 27 major-league games.
“Cavan, his approach is so far beyond his years. It’s incredible to watch,” said Clayton Richard, who started for the Blue Jays in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Yankees. “And then, on the defensive end, some of the things he does — you can see he’s thinking ahead of the game, which the elite players do on defence. They don’t just react. They’ve already gone through the possible scenarios in their head and are ready for whatever happens. And he does that at an elite level already. And he’s only been here for however long. It’s impressive.”
The way Biggio’s been playing reminds Montoyo a little bit of Evan Longoria. Montoyo managed Longoria at both double- and triple-A in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, marvelling at the way the No. 3 overall pick in 2006 commanded the strike zone and consistently made intelligent, heads-up plays in the field. He then watched Longoria fulfill his potential from afar, as the third baseman earned all-star nods in each of his first three MLB seasons, before Montoyo joined him as a member of the Rays staff in 2015.
The comparison is a lofty one. Longoria was named rookie of the year at 22 and finished sixth in MVP voting at 24. Biggio’s already 24 himself, and won’t be at this year’s all-star game. But as Montoyo has watched the son of a Hall of Famer make the jump from the minors to the majors without a significant hit to his numbers, Longoria’s come to mind.
“He was the same way when he first got to the big leagues,” Montoyo said. “He was that way.”
It’s early days, sure. But so far Biggio’s translated his 15.3 per cent minor-league walk rate into a 17.6 per cent mark in the majors. He’s posted a 12.8 per cent chase rate that ranks first among all MLB hitters to make at least 100 plate appearances.
He’s made heady, aware baseball plays that managers love such as backing up throws and moving runners over. And he’s come up with timely hits, like his eighth-inning single Saturday in Boston to tie a game the Blue Jays went on to win. Or when he broke up New York’s perfect game Tuesday in the fifth.
This time, it wasn’t enough. Biggio was stranded by a strikeout and a couple fly balls. The Blue Jays did break through the following inning as Eric Sogard and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. brought in a run each. And they got another off Aroldis Chapman in the ninth as Randal Grichuk drove in Lourdes Gurriel Jr’s lead-off single. But it wasn’t enough to overcome a four-homer night by the Yankees, who hit three solo shots off Richard and one more in the eighth off Tim Mayza.
Toronto will lose a lot of games like that this year. They already have. But if this Blue Jays season’s about anything, it’s giving young players a chance to play and finding out just what they’re capable of. And through his first month as a big-leaguer, Biggio’s shown he could be an important piece of this franchise’s future. Much like every time he walks out of Casa Amadeo in the Bronx with a fresh stack of discs, Montoyo has plenty of reason to be excited.