Bulked-up 'pro' Bleday cranks 1st MLB homer

July 28th, 2022

CINCINNATI -- Marlins No. 4 prospect made hard contact vs. the Reds all of Tuesday with nothing to show for it. He finally reaped the rewards on Wednesday night, hitting his first Major League home run in his second at-bat of Miami's 5-3 loss.

“That's baseball for you,” said Bleday, who went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. “Came around full circle, so I was happy about that.”

Bleday turned on Reds All-Star right-hander Luis Castillo’s knee-high changeup for a leadoff shot to right field in the fourth inning at Great American Ball Park. According to Baseball Savant, it would have been a homer in every ballpark except Coors Field. The ball landed in the visitors' bullpen, where the Marlins relievers were able to retrieve it. Bleday plans on giving the ball to his family when he sees them this weekend in Miami.

While Bleday appeared cool, casual and collected rounding the bases, he finally cracked a smile upon reaching the dugout and being greeted by coaches and teammates. After flying out sharply to the warning track during Tuesday’s 0-for-5 performance -- his first hitless showing since debuting on Saturday -- Bleday went deep in his 16th career plate appearance.

In his first matchup with Castillo, a former Marlins farmhand who is the top starting pitcher on the Trade Deadline market, Bleday fouled a 98.2 mph four-seamer straight back. On the next pitch, he struck out on an elevated 98 mph fastball. Like a proven veteran, Bleday was able to make an in-game adjustment the next time up.

“It was really exciting,” said Bleday, who has three extra-base hits in his first five games. “He got me on a heater up first AB, [so] I knew I was going to be able to get some type of offspeed again, and he came up with something a little more down in the zone and [I] was able to swoop it out of there.”

Bleday, who turned heads in February with a bulked-up physique, has found his power stroke in 2022. After pacing all Division I hitters with 27 homers during his College World Series championship-winning ‘19 season at Vanderbilt, he knocked just 12 for Double-A Pensacola in ‘21. Prior to his promotion, Bleday collected 20 homers in 85 games at Triple-A Jacksonville -- tied for most in the International League.

What stands out most about Bleday’s game, however, is his eye at the plate. Though his average was down (.229), he still had a high on-base percentage (.365). His 60 walks ranked third in the International League.

“One, he's such a pro,” said left-hander , who allowed five runs over five innings. “He's really mature. I've known him since 2015-16 [when] we were going to Vandy together. One thing that sticks out is his plate discipline. He just knows the strike zone so well. … It makes it tough. You've got to be specific, you know he's not going to chase much, so you kind of have to earn those chases from him. He's just a tough at-bat all around.”

That aspect of Bleday’s game is what manager Don Mattingly believes will lead to sustainable success in the big leagues. The 24-year-old Bleday is not relying solely on talent. He is more prepared, which is allowing him to put together more consistent swings.

“JJ is really what you expected,” Mattingly said. “He's going to do the right things on the field. The at-bats don't seem like they're too much. He's going to get his share of lumps. We kind of got him in [the third spot of the lineup] that he probably shouldn't be in right now. But that's OK. He's handling those at-bats like he would anywhere else in the order. So I think just the demeanor and the handling of the at-bats and the way they look, he's getting himself pitches to hit, he's going to see a lot of good stuff. So just let him go.

“Game planning at some point becomes the biggest thing here. If a guy doesn't understand who he is, what he handles, what the other guy can do, he's in general not going to hit. I don't care how talented they are. Once they show they don't understand game planning, they're going to get carved up over the course of the season”

That’s a lesson Bleday, selected fourth overall in the 2019 MLB Draft, learned the hard way. After no Minor League season in ‘20, he had a down ‘21 with the Double-A Blue Wahoos (to the tune of a .695 OPS). But Bleday bounced back to be named the ‘21 Arizona Fall League Co-Hitter of the Year, batting .316 with five homers and 24 RBIs.

While a new stance deserves a lot of the credit, Bleday told MLB.com his ability to game plan for how pitchers attack him is the difference between his success in 2022 and his struggles in ‘21.

“I'm still kind of getting my bearings, but overall I feel really good,” Bleday said. “I feel like I'm aggressive and I feel like I have a good game plan against these guys. Try to execute and just stay focused and clear minded. But the main thing is just stay aggressive, be ready to swing.”