The remarkable rise of Dalton Pompey

Toronto Blue Jays Dalton Pompey (left) sits on the bench. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – After striking out on five pitches in his first career at-bat against Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in the game, Dalton Pompey went back to the dugout and immediately sought out his hitting coach, Kevin Seitzer. He wanted to know what he’d done wrong. He wanted to know how he could get better.

Seitzer told his youngest, least experienced hitter to be patient. Hernandez had started Pompey with a fastball but then put him away with four consecutive off-speed pitches. The best approach now was to lay off anything that wasn’t travelling fast, and look for what Pompey described as “that split-fingered change or fastball or whatever it is” (Hernandez’s pitches are famously deceptive) up in the zone.

Sure enough, when Pompey got his next opportunity to face the AL Cy Young frontrunner, in just his 22nd big league plate appearance and with Hernandez on a run of retiring 11 consecutive Blue Jays, he saw a slow curveball on the first pitch and let it go for a ball. From there he worked the count to 3-1 and looked for whatever that pitch is up in the zone. And then—crack.

“I was kind of in shock for a moment, just with who was pitching and the ball that I hit,” Pompey said. “I’ve played with that guy in video games. So to think that I just hit a home run off of him was pretty crazy.”

The no-doubter into the right field seats was just the latest triumph in a year full of them for the 21-year-old Canadian who wasn’t even alive when the Blue Jays won their first World Series in 1992. It started in high-A Dunedin back in April, where he put up a .319/.397/.471 line in 70 games with nine homers and 29 steals, playing against competition that was more than a year older than him on average.

He set a goal in Dunedin—to reach double-A by the end of the season and challenge for a spot on the 40-man roster. Considering he was an unheralded 16th round draft pick out of a Mississauga high school who had never been mentioned as a top prospect and only played one full season of professional baseball, he felt it would be a sufficiently challenging goal.

And by the end of June he achieved it, getting promoted to double-A where he figured he’d spend the rest of the year. But just two months later he was promoted again, this time to triple-A Buffalo where he went on an absolute tear, batting .358/.393/.453 in his first 12 games. In his final game with the Bisons, a four-hit performance on the first day of September, he was unstoppable. And shortly after the final out he was told to pack his bags for the majors.

“I was thinking I could maybe get to the bigs when I was 22 or 23 years old,” Pompey says. “But 21? Never. I never dreamed it would happen this fast.”

He didn’t play much at first, making the odd appearance as a pinch runner, but ever since the Blue Jays fell out of postseason contention he’s been starting every day, and playing incrementally better as he gets more at-bats. He had just one hit in his first three starts, but now has three in his last two, including the homer against Hernandez and a walk later on in the same inning that knocked the Cy Young winner out of the game.

“Every game that goes by I feel more comfortable. I feel better and better about myself. I feel like I belong,” Pompey says. “I’m still trying to adjust to these pitchers. So it’s nice to be in there every day.”

That’s been the biggest thing. The pitchers he’s facing now. They’re named Fernandez and Tanaka and Kuroda. They’re the best pitchers in the world. They make millions. And they’re light years away from the bottom-of-the-organization scrubs he was taking at-bats against just five months ago.

“These guys—their pitches move,” Pompey says, emphasizing the word. “Not only that, but they move way later than I’m used to. I don’t think I’ve seen a straight pitch since I’ve been here.”

Pompey is at least at a bit of an advantage as a switch-hitter, something he’s done since he first started swinging the bat, on the advice of his parents. Hitting from both sides means he sees fewer breaking pitches, especially sliders, allowing him to focus on picking up fastballs, changeups and splitters, which are much easier to put into play.

It also permits him to work with an opposite field approach, letting pitches get deeper than most hitters can and trying to hit them the other way. It’s why Pompey seems to have such a good read of the strike zone at such a young age; he sees the ball for a fraction of a second longer, which gives him a better chance of laying off breaking pitches and getting a fastball he can react to.

“He’s just got a good swing, you know? He’s got a great idea of the strike zone,” Pompey’s manager John Gibbons says. “You look at him standing in the batter’s box and he looks like a veteran hitter.”

Pompey figures he’s a better contact hitter batting left-handed and has more power from the right side of the plate. When he was growing up he would alternate between hitting right and left handed no matter which arm the pitcher threw with so he could stay sharp from both sides. And since he became a professional, he’s logged long, lonely hours in batting cages at stadiums around the continent, hitting from both sides off pitching machines to try and maintain his swings.

“It’s really tough. I try to take more reps right-handed since I don’t see as many lefties. But the only thing I can really do is hit off pitching machines as often as possible, which isn’t the same as hitting off a live arm,” Pompey says.  “But you have to do everything you can to try to set yourself up to succeed.”

There was a time when Pompey wouldn’t be as diligent with his work. It wasn’t that long ago that he was a hubristic high schooler playing for the Oakville Royals and pissing off his coaches. He would show up late for practices and games, and whenever he made a mistake he was quick to blame someone else. Pompey was an exceptionally talented player from a very young age; baseball had always come easily to him. But when he reached a point that his attitude was getting in the way of his ability, he knew he had to make a change.

“I was stupid. I was immature. I made mistakes,” Pompey says. “I stopped working hard—I thought I was all talent. And then people started to pass me and that was a big eye-opener for me. I had to grow up. I had to take responsibility for my career and be accountable for things.”

Pompey will continue his unlikely season in the Arizona Fall League this October and November, before he’s able to get away from the game for the first time in nearly ten months. The Blue Jays would ideally like to start him in Buffalo next year and let him continue to develop away from the stress and demands of major league ball.

That’s because, in his brief professional career, Pompey has yet to fail. Scouts will tell you he’s still raw and that many a prospect like him has seen success early in their careers only to falter when the league adjusts to them. Many young players flying high on confidence like Pompey have had that self-assurance erased with one untimely slump. In spite of it all, Pompey thinks he’s ready for whatever’s coming.

“I didn’t realize how tough of a road it was until I got to pro ball. You get drafted and get a signing bonus and you feel so great about it, but then eventually it runs out. So I know I have to keep my eye on the prize and keep working hard,” he says. “I always had this goal in mind of getting to Toronto and playing for my hometown team. Even when things weren’t going well, I just had that image in my head.

“It got me here. And hopefully that image can carry me and help me stay.”

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