DUNEDIN, Fla. — When Bo Bichette was being scouted as a Florida high schooler in 2015, he heard it all. Your busy swing won’t work in pro ball — you need to quiet it down. Your leg kick will get exposed against better pitching. All those moving parts will work against you when you see real velocity, real breaking balls, real sequencing. You can’t have success with a swing like that at the next level.
Well, here’s what Bichette has done at the next level: splitting his 2017 between mid- and high-A, Bichette put up a .362/.423/.565 line with 14 home runs. He ranked among the top 10 of all minor leaguers in hits (162), doubles (41) and weighted runs created plus (180). He had at least a hit in 91 of his 110 games played. In 51 of those games, he had at least two.
Simply put: Bichette just had one of the best offensive seasons of any minor leaguer in baseball. And if not for a 10-day absence this August after spraining his ankle running out a ground ball, he could have done even better. Looks like the swing works.
But even with all that success in his first full season as a professional, Bichette says he still has his doubters.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever shut everybody up,” the 19-year-old says late this August in Dunedin. “That’s the thing. I still hear like, ‘Oh, well, he’s hitting in A-ball but what about high-A? Oh, he’s hitting in high-A but what about double-A?’ I don’t know — I don’t really care. I just continue to be myself. Whether I prove people right or wrong, I’m not really into that. I just don’t really care about their input.”
And why should he? Unorthodox mechanics and all, Bichette is emerging as one of the most promising young hitters in the game. At mid-season, MLB.com ranked him as baseball’s 30th best prospect while Baseball America had him at no. 44. And those rankings were conservative. When next year’s pre-season lists are released, it’s not out of the question that Bichette could be a top-20 prospect, and possibly top 10.
You can make a case that if he wasn’t playing in the shadow of the 18-year-old wunderkind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. all season, Bichette would have garnered much more attention than he has. Facing the same pitching and with fewer professional at-bats under his belt, Bichette had a better statistical season than Guerrero, considered by many to be the best hitting prospect in the game. Not that the two should be measured against each other, but it’s arguable that due to his prodigious teammate, Bichette is being significantly underrated.
Of course, the Blue Jays kept the two promising teenagers together this year with good reason, promoting them simultaneously to high-A in July to take over the left side of Dunedin’s infield. Part of it is results: they’ve both carried an OPS over .900 throughout the season, demonstrating they’re in need of a greater challenge. Another part is that they get along so well together, and push one another to be better in all aspects of the game. And the final part is that both these sons of big leaguers are exceptionally advanced in their understanding of hitting, and have plate approaches well beyond their years.
“With Bo and Vladdy, when you talk to them, it’s like talking to a 30-year-old veteran,” says Dunedin manager John Schneider. “They just get it. They get the game. They get what they have to do. We’re dealing with two very special dudes.”
While Bichette was tearing up the Midwest League with the Lansing Lugnuts, batting .384/.448/.623 over 70 games prior to his promotion, Schneider scanned the box scores every morning and got used to seeing Bichette’s name with a pair of hits next to it. He talked to Blue Jays player development staff about the balls Bichette sprayed all over the field, particularly the bevy that went up the middle or the opposite way. And he heard about the right-handed hitter’s revered two-strike approach, which sees him abandon his leg kick, widen his feet, and fight a pitcher to the death, refusing to be put away easily.
But it’s different when you see it up close. Shortly after the two prospects joined Dunedin, Schneider and his coaches took a new interest in exit velocities. While it isn’t publicly available, exit velocity is tracked across the minor leagues, and coaches and other team officials can access the data if they so please. For Schneider and his staff, looking at the miles-per-hour numbers Bichette and Guerrero were putting up became too tempting to resist.
“We’re seeing Bo and Vladdy crush these balls every night, and we just have to know how hard it was,” Schneider says. “And we’re seeing 117’s. Numbers that are just way, way up there. These kids hit the ball as hard as anyone in the minor leagues. When you hear people say things like, ‘It sounds different off the bat with big leaguers’ — that’s what it sounds like with these two.”
When you watch Bichette’s plate appearances, you can certainly see that he’s trying to hit the ball at a very high rate of speed. He takes some mammoth swings, which is how a player listed generously at six-feet is able to hit for as much power as Bichette does. But what impresses his coaches even more is the different types of pitches he squares up. Part of the reason why Bichette raked from start to finish this season is that the opposition couldn’t find an area of the plate he couldn’t get to.
Take it from Dunedin’s hitting coach, Corey Hart, who threw batting practice to Bichette practically every day this summer. No BP pitcher is perfect — you try to put the ball on the plate with every pitch, but inevitably you miss. Yet, the more Hart threw to Bichette, the more he noticed something. When he’d miss with pitches to other hitters, they’d foul them off or make poor contact. But Bichette found a way to put the barrel of his bat on every pitch Hart threw, no matter where it was.
“Every single time,” Hart says. “It’s unbelievable. He has such great body awareness and body control. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially with his set up and all the moving parts that he has.”
That ability to get the sweet spot of his bat to so many areas of the zone makes Bichette a difficult hitter to attack. Even though it seems like his complex swing would make him susceptible to certain pitches in certain locations, Bichette possesses an uncommon ability to make small adjustments depending on the pitches he’s seeing and do the most with what he gets.
“He just swings with such precision. He gets his barrel to pitches inside, outside, up, down,” Schneider says. “It reminds me a bit of Josh Donaldson, where he can be on plane with a ball that’s at the top of the zone and then adjust his body — as the ball’s coming in — to be on plane with a ball at the bottom of the zone. It’s pretty amazing.”
Developing that ability takes an awful lot of work. It helps that Bichette grew up in major-league clubhouses with his father, and that he was homeschooled, which allowed him to log lengthy batting practice sessions every day from the time he turned 15. But no matter how many resources are available to a kid, he has to want to do the work.
To that point, Schneider calls Bichette a “baseball rat” — the type of player who loves nothing more than taking hundreds of cuts in the batting cages while carrying on a thorough conversation about hitting approach. The type of player who doesn’t only respond favourably to criticism, but who comes to his coaches with questions about certain situations and events before they even have the chance to get on him about them. The type of player who never wants a day off and leans over the dugout railing when he has one, monitoring every detail of a game he’s not playing in. Bichette doesn’t just play the game, he studies it.
“I’ll ask him questions about what he’s doing in the box, and the stuff he comes back with is so advanced and so well thought out. There’s a reason why for everything. It’s pretty eye-opening,” Hart says. “It’s funny to hear a 19-year-old say stuff like that to me. He’s just so aware of what’s going on. His approach is just above and beyond — especially for his age and especially for this level.”
Of course, not everything has gone perfectly for Bichette this season. He came into it incredibly prepared as a hitter, so the offensive results are no surprise to him. But the grind of a full professional season is something he hadn’t experienced before, and as the calendar turned from June to July, Bichette began to notice it.
He’d wake up and have to drag himself out of bed. He wasn’t as excited as he once was to go to the ballpark in the afternoon. When he was promoted to high-A Dunedin in mid-July, he started struggling with Florida’s intense summer heat, which is saying something considering he grew up with it.
“That’s why this league is tough — you’re just always out of energy,” Bichette says. “It’s a long season — it’s a grind. It’s something you can’t really prepare yourself for. You just have to experience it. I think I was prepared for it more than anybody else. But still, there’s no comparison. You can’t understand what to expect physically from it. It’s a different animal.”
Bichette confesses he didn’t take the best care of himself over the season’s first half, letting his diet slip and sometimes skipping out on pre- and post-game workouts designed to keep his body fresh. It was bound to catch up with him. And when it did, Bichette started paying closer attention to the details. He vows next year will be different, that he’ll keep closer tabs on his physical preparation in order to be at his best in games, which is a funny thing to hear from a guy who hit .362 this season.
“Whether I prove people right or wrong, I’m not really into that. I just don’t really care about their input.”
Another big focus over this season’s back half has been Bichette’s defence at shortstop. His 21 errors in 86 games is certainly less than ideal, although those who watch him play every day say Bichette has had some tough luck with balls taking bad hops and picks not made at first base. Meanwhile, he’s worked diligently on his first-step quickness and improving his footwork to allow him to move more efficiently. He’s also focusing on his pre-pitch set up, which is a small detail but one that can help massively when you get it right.
A big part of that work has involved establishing a defensive routine, something Bichette began in Lansing and has honed in on in Dunedin. Growing up, defence wasn’t a focus for Bichette, who worked tirelessly at his hitting and merely made do with his natural ability in the field. But now he’ll take a set number of groundballs every day before the game and work through a series of throws to first base from a variety of angles and areas on the field. Bichette has never focused on his defensive play like this before, and his coaches say they’re seeing results.
“On a nightly basis, he’s making a play or two that a lot of people can’t make,” Schneider says. “I think he’s shown a lot of people, himself included, that he can play short at a pretty good level.”
No one’s ever going to accuse Bichette of lacking confidence, but he admits he didn’t always believe he could be a strong defender until he proved it to himself this year. Maybe the scouting reports that said he “lacks standout defensive tools” and was destined for a less demanding position like second base or left field got to him. Maybe the knocks on his size and speed when he was coming out of high school were in his head. Maybe he just had to see it for himself.
“It’s weird. I knew I could make all the plays that every other shortstop in pro ball is making. The ones I’ve seen, at least. But, at the same time, I didn’t know if I belonged,” he says. “I have confidence at shortstop. But my whole life I’ve been told I’m going to be a second or third baseman or outfielder or whatever. So, I was pretty interested to see how I would handle shortstop at this level.
“Playing short every day, I’ve learned how to be prepared every pitch. And, when you make an error, how to bounce right back instead of thinking about it. This year, I think I’ve understood that I do belong at short and I can make plays other people can make. It’s given me the motivation to work hard in the offseason. I know what I need to get better at.”
So, when will the baseball world stop doubting Bo Bichette?
“I don’t know — probably if I do well in the big leagues,” he says. “It might not even stop then. But hopefully that’ll be when it stops.”
Which leads to a second question: how quickly can he reach the majors? Bichette’s defence will need to improve, and we all know Toronto’s current front office leans conservative when it comes to advancing its best young prospects. But if Bichette starts 2018 in high-A or double-A and puts up similar numbers to the ones he posted this year, he won’t just be knocking on the door — he’ll be kicking it in.
“I want to get there as quickly as possible, obviously,” Bichette says. “Next year, if I come in and hopefully have a good start to the season, maybe I can get up there in September if I play well. Who knows? But whatever the front office has in store for me is fine by me. It’s out of my hands.
“I’ll definitely be trying to push the envelope, though.”