TORONTO — Tuesday afternoon, shortly after his club announced they’d recalled Rowdy Tellez from a month-long triple-A sabbatical, someone asked Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo what he wanted to see from the rookie first baseman going forward.
"What do I want to see?" Montoyo repeated. "A guy hitting bombs."
Tellez can certainly do that, having hit 14 over 78 games prior to his mid-July demotion, and seven in 26 games with the Buffalo Bisons afterwards. But in today’s three-true-outcome MLB, everyone hits bombs. A healthy home run total isn’t worth as much if it isn’t paired with an equally substantial walk number. The on-base half of the OPS equation is just as important as the slugging.
And with Tellez’s OPS sitting at .715 when he was sent down, including a .606 mark over the 35 games preceding his demotion, it was clear the 24-year-old needed some time away from the MLB pressure cooker to sort out his plate approach and find a way to get on base at a higher clip. Plus, he was starting to get beaten with a very familiar pattern, as Montoyo went on to explain.
"What happens in the big leagues is they find your hole and they keep going at it," Montoyo said. "And he couldn’t make an adjustment with that. It seemed like everybody was either high fastballs or sliders in on him. And he was swinging and missing. So, he had to make an adjustment. And he said he went down there and he did."
Story checks out. Here’s where pitchers were attacking Tellez with fastballs over his time with the Blue Jays earlier this season (left), and the rate he was swinging at them (right):
That’s a lot of fastballs up. And a lot of swings Tellez took at those pitches. But here’s how his results from those swings looked, with Tellez’s batting average against those fastballs on the left and his slugging percentage on the right:
If Tellez was doing damage against all those high fastballs, you’d see dark yellow and red splotches up in the zone. But he wasn’t. It was a hole in his swing, one opposition pitchers recognized and exploited.
Similarly, here on the left is where Tellez was getting attacked with sliders (we’ll assume Montoyo misspoke and meant sliders away rather than in) while on the right is how often he was swinging at them:
And here are the results of those swings, again with batting average on the left and slugging percentage on the right:
Another hole pitchers attacked that Tellez had trouble countering. Clearly he needed to do something differently to address the weaknesses. And so, after batting .227/.280/.436 over 78 games with the Blue Jays, off to Buffalo he went.
All he’s done since is bat .366/.450/.688, literally forcing his way back to the majors with a torrid 34-for-93 stretch over 26 games. He clubbed 16 extra-base hits. He cut his strikeout rate by six per cent. And he walked nearly as many times in a month with Buffalo (14) as he did in half a season with Toronto (17). So, what happened?
"All I did was stand up straight," Tellez said. "That’s it."
On his first day with the Bisons, Tellez sat down with the club’s hitting coach, Corey Hart, and watched side-by-side video of his swing from 2018 when he was thriving and his swing from recent weeks when he was struggling. They worked from the angle of his feet all the way up to the position of his head, and found Tellez had developed a slight hunch that was preventing him from getting his barrel to certain pitches. Hart surmised that if Tellez was more upright at the plate, he’d make more consistent contact.
"Didn’t change my feet, didn’t change where I stood in the box — literally nothing but stand up straight," Tellez said. "I think that just helps where my bat enters the zone, and keeps myself through the zone a little longer."
The adjustment is rather subtle in Tellez’s pre-pitch set-up as you can see below, the photo on the left coming in his final plate appearance with the Blue Jays before his demotion, and the one on the right coming from his final game with Buffalo on Sunday:
But it’s more pronounced when he picks up his front foot as the pitcher delivers:
It took a couple games for Tellez to rediscover his comfort zone, but the results came quickly from there. He had a two-hit night in his fourth game with Buffalo, and belted a three-run shot the following day. Two games later, he went deep twice, beginning a six-game hit streak over which he went 9-for-21 with four homers and a double.
"It felt like I went back to normal. I was kind of searching the last month here. And then when I got down there it kind of was like, ‘Okay, this is where I need to be,’" Tellez said. "With them being able to point out what I was doing wrong and me being able to accept that that’s what it was and that I needed to change it — it was just something that small. I mean, after we had talked about how I was standing upright and kind of hunched over, I kind of looked and I was like, ‘I wouldn’t have even figured that out.’"
Of course, Tellez’s stance adjustment will only help him when he’s swinging at good pitches to hit, which he wasn’t doing enough of towards the end of his major-league stint earlier this season. Through 286 plate appearances prior to his demotion, Tellez was swinging at 42.3 per cent of the pitches he was thrown outside the strike zone, well above the league average of 30.6 per cent. That led to a 14.8 per cent swinging strike rate, which was similarly north of the 11.1 per cent league average.
Becoming more disciplined is one of the toughest things for a hitter to accomplish, particularly a young player like Tellez who has minor-league options remaining and is facing constant pressure to produce in order to establish himself as a major-leaguer. But the Blue Jays will no doubt want to see something closer to the 12.8 per cent walk rate and 22.9 per cent strikeout rate he posted over 26 games with Buffalo, rather than the 5.9 per cent walk rate and 29 per cent strikeout rate he posted before being sent down.
Of course, Tellez knows that. He’s well aware why he was demoted in the first place — "I wouldn’t say it was a surprise," he said — and the fact he went down determined to improve and address what was limiting his performance speaks to his character. He figures he’ll watch more video going forward than he was in the past. Plus, this time around, he’ll seek to maintain a more positive mindset if he struggles, and avoid trying to force the issue at the plate in search of results.
"It’s frustrating because you’re at the highest level and putting more pressure on yourself than needed," he said. "But, at the same time, it is one of the toughest things to do in the world, is to play this game at the highest level. And I have to take that with a grain of salt, too, and tell myself it’s tough and there’s always going to be tomorrow. Things like that just to kind of keep me going."
Montoyo will give Tellez plenty of opportunities over Toronto’s final 39 games to prove his swing adjustments have stuck. After all, the Blue Jays are firmly in player evaluation mode as they play out the string of a losing season. The club needs to determine whether Tellez can be an everyday player for them in the coming years, or whether they’ll need to supplement a promising young position player core with a more established DH bat. No one questions Tellez’s power. Now, he has to prove his approach.
"I want to see something better than what he was doing. His OPS, I want to start getting better. Getting better at-bats. And a better approach at the plate," Montoyo said. "We need to find out about Rowdy. The main thing is he went down there and did his job. He worked hard and he did what we asked him to do. And that’s why he’s back."