TORONTO – So much of baseball has evolved in recent years, but despite all of this rapid change, many constants remain in place. Among them: if you play first base, you have to hit.
With a little more than two weeks remaining in the season, the 30 MLB teams have gotten an average of 27 home runs from their first basemen, who have combined to post an .802 OPS. From Freddie Freeman to Pete Alonso to Anthony Rizzo this group includes some legitimate sluggers.
Eventually, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo would like to see Rowdy Tellez become one of those middle-of-the-order bats. Even before Tellez homered again in the Blue Jays’ 8-0 win over the Boston Red Sox, his manager sounded optimistic about what he offers.
"He’s got big-time power," Montoyo said from his office before the game. "I want him to be that guy–my first baseman next year with an OPS of .800 or .900. He’s got the tools to be that."
To this point in Tellez’s career, those tools haven’t translated to results as often as the Blue Jays might hope. There’s undeniably power within Tellez’s 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame (Montoyo gives him an 80 on baseball’s 20-80 scouting scale) and he’s still just a rookie, but his 19 home runs have to be viewed in the context of today’s unprecedented home run rates.
A new single-season home run record was established Wednesday with 6,106 homers and counting. Even defence-first players like Kevin Pillar (21 home runs) and Freddy Galvis (22) are putting up big home run totals. If you’re a first baseman–and, according to the publicly available metrics, still below-average on defence–20-plus home runs is the baseline.
With four home runs in his last eight games, Tellez has reminded the Blue Jays how promising he looks when he’s hot. We saw that last September, when Tellez hit double after double on his way to a .943 OPS, and we’re seeing it again now.
A year later, Tellez’s OPS sits at .726 even after his recent hot streak. Sustaining that level of production has proven to be a challenge – especially since he sometimes helps pitchers out by expanding the zone. To that end, the Blue Jays hope Tellez starts chasing fewer pitches, Montoyo said. Perhaps that could help him raise a 6.2 per cent walk rate that’s below league average.
“It’s not something I think about,” Tellez said when asked how he can chase less often. “This is just a personal opinion: I don’t don’t think you can work on that. It’s something where you’re going to swing or you’re not. You have less than a second to make a decision. I think with time and maturity it’ll get better, but right now I’m just trying to focus on hitting the ball hard when I swing."
Partly because of Tellez’s hot streak, Justin Smoak has been playing only about once every second game lately. There’s perhaps less long-term intrigue with Smoak than with the 24-year-old Tellez, but it’s still on Montoyo to mix Smoak in regularly before he hits free agency this fall–something to watch over the final two-plus weeks.
The Blue Jays’ other home run came from Teoscar Hernandez, who started in left field for the first time since May. While Hernandez has struggled defensively in recent weeks, Montoyo said the decision to move him back to left had more to do with another outfielder.
"It’s just because J.D. Davis is our best outfielder, so whenever he plays he should play centre," Montoyo said. "It has nothing to do with Teoscar."
"In the outfield he’s played really well until the last two weeks or three weeks (when) he’s misplayed a couple of balls."
The start for Davis meant Anthony Alford began the day on the bench yet again. On paper, September would have been a potential chance to evaluate Alford against big-league pitching before he’s out of options next spring, yet the 25-year-old appears to have slipped on the Blue Jays’ depth chart after posting a .754 OPS at triple-A. While he was viewed as a consensus top-100 prospect as recently as last spring, the Blue Jays no longer appear quite as high on Alford, preferring to reward Davis, who posted an .831 OPS.
On the mound, the Blue Jays combined to pitch a two-hit shutout against the Red Sox, who remain an impressive offensive team even as their season spirals on them. Wilmer Font began the game with two scoreless innings setting up Trent Thornton’s first-ever appearance behind an opener.
It could hardly have gone better. Thornton went five hitless innings while walking one and striking out seven. It was an impressive recovery for the rookie considering he had allowed 12 earned runs over his previous four innings of work against the Red Sox, and one made possible by teammate Clay Buchholz.
During Thornton’s latest side session Monday, Buchholz showed him his preferred curveball grip. Thornton, who grew up rooting for the Red Sox teams Buchholz played on, was intrigued. He tried the new grip, liked how it felt and went for it. After Wednesday, he’s not about to go back.
"That was probably the most effective my curveball’s been all year," Thornton said. "When you’re striking guys out with his pitch, you might as well keep using it"