Natural righty, Blue Jays prospect models lefty swing on Ichiro

February 26th, 2023

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When Addison Barger -- who was born in 1999 in Washington State -- was roughly 8 or 9 years old, he made what now may be called a business decision.

“I was a natural right-handed hitter growing up,” he said. “Then I wanted to hit like Ichiro [Suzuki], so I started hitting lefty with the leg kick and everything. It was more of a Japanese-style swing.

“You just take reps. I told my dad, ‘I’m going to try to hit lefty too.’ After like six months of practicing, I’m like, 'I’m going to go in the game and hit lefty,' and then I switch-hit for eight years.”

Eventually, Barger completely dropped hitting righty and became a full-time lefty. Now, he’s coming off a breakout 2022 season that earned him a spot on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster and has him on the cusp of joining one of the American League’s most pronounced contenders.

The aforementioned leg kick might be the most noticeable part of the 23-year-old’s swing to this day. Starting from an open stance, he lifts the right leg even higher than Ichiro did, holds it for a brief pause and then explodes through the ball upon planting his foot back down on the dirt.

He put it on display Saturday when he yanked an 0-1 95.5 mph fastball from Pirates right-hander David Bednar 382 feet to right for a homer in Bradenton, Fla.. The 105.4 mph exit velocity was the second highest recorded by a Blue Jays hitter on the day, trailing only Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 110.7 mph dinger in the same inning.

“It's just something I've always done [since hitting left-handed],” Barger said of the leg kick that can look more like a leg chop. “It's part of my rhythm and timing. It's not to get any extra juice or anything. It's a part of my swing. It's part of who I am.”

That sense of staying in tempo is only partly what makes Barger so dangerous in the box.

Drafted in the sixth round in 2018, the infielder has added significant weight and strength over his near-five years in the Toronto system and now projects for at least above-average power. He tapped into that better than ever in 2022, leading Blue Jays Minor Leaguers in extra-base hits (61), slugging (.555) and OPS (.933) while ranking second with a career-high 26 homers spread across the top three levels of the Minors.

Blue Jays officials credit Barger’s improved swing decisions with pushing those numbers, too, and the infielder’s strikeout rate dropped from 32.8 percent in 2021 to 24.9 percent last season. Similarly, his swinging-strike rate went from 18 percent (highest among Blue Jays Minor Leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances in ’21) to 12.6 (16th among 31 with 300 PA).

As such, Barger was an easy 40-man addition when he was Rule 5-eligible back in November -- though he admitted he didn’t get the call until an hour before the deadline -- and he’s participating in his first Major League camp trying to make an impression on a Toronto club with big dreams. A natural shortstop with a cannon of an arm and some third-base experience, Barger will bump up against Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman in his attempt to make the Blue Jays in 2023, and he’ll explore some outfield reps this spring to open an avenue.

But it’s still the bat -- and the loud sounds off it -- that draw attention.

“All the tools are there for that kid,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “He has a really good idea of what he’s doing at the plate. We talked to him in his meeting and [told him], ‘Excited to see you do your thing. Your numbers speak for themselves last year. Don’t change anything.’ Off to a good start.”

Safe to say Barger’s switch-hitting days are firmly in the rearview?

“I went into 2020 Spring Training switch-hitting,” he said. “But that obviously got banged after 10 days for COVID. So I was like, 'OK, that’s my sign. I’m done hitting right-handed.'”