BUFFALO, NY -- Last year was tough on Anthony Alford.
The 24-year-old outfielder has spent parts of eight seasons in the Minor Leagues with the Blue Jays organization, but for the most part, Alford has only struggled on the field when he’s had issues with his health and keeping himself off the sidelines.
But last year was different. Alford began the season recovering from a right hamstring injury sustained during Spring Training, though it wasn’t long before he was back between the white lines, joining the Triple-A Buffalo roster in April. And with the Bisons, his mindset shifted.
“When I got to Triple-A last year, it was my first time experiencing how guys go up and down,” the native of Mississippi said. “Seeing all the transactions and just knowing when you’re right here, you’re close to Toronto. It’s tough to think about because it’s in the back of your mind.
“When you’re in Low A, High A, Double-A, you think okay, there’s no chance I’m about to get called up, I’m about to go out here and play to win. But here, especially because I was already on the 40-man [roster] last year, it was like I can get called up anytime. I put that unnecessary pressure on myself.”
Some of that pressure carried over into the roller coaster start to the season for Alford this year. Ahead of Opening Day, the Blue Jays brought the outfielder to Toronto, an honour he was incredibly excited about. But Alford was not activated ahead of the opener, and instead sent to Buffalo so the club could make other necessary roster moves.
Alford was recalled on April 2 when Kevin Pillar -- the team’s longest-tenured player at the time -- was traded to the Giants, but just two days later Toronto’s No. 9 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, was again optioned to the Bisons.
In the pressure cooker
All of those transactions occurred before Buffalo even opened its season, and they took a toll on the club’s 2012 third-round pick. In his first 19 games with the Bisons this year, Alford hit .125/.211/.266 and he knew something had to change. On April 28 in Lehigh Valley, in the midst of a game against the IronPigs, Alford suddenly knew it would.
“With the way the season started for me, going up, down, up, down before Opening Day in Buffalo, I put that pressure on myself,” he said. “But at the end of April, in the middle of a game in Lehigh Valley I said [to Bisons' hitting coach Corey Hart], ‘You know what? Things are about to turn around for me.’
“He asked what I meant and I said, ‘As of today, I no longer care. Not about my production on the field, but I no longer care about where I’m at.’ Because no matter where I am, I’m still obligated to do a job. Whether it’s here, Dunedin, Toronto, I’m still obligated. When I put that jersey on, 20-something guys are depending on me to do my job, and it’s selfish that I’m thinking more about myself and when I can get back to the bigs.”
Since that game against the IronPigs, Alford has hit .307/.389/.460 with three home runs, two triples and 12 doubles in 42 matchups. Over that span, he’s also scored 26 runs, driven in 23 and stolen 13 bases.
“I just had the mindset to do something every day to help the team, whether it’s draw a walk or steal a base or make a play in the outfield,” Alford said. “That way I know if I did a few things that day to help the team, whether I was 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, I feel like I can leave the field with some peace.”
An evolution of a mindset
While Alford had a shift in mentality earlier this season, his mental game has been an ongoing process since he joined the Blue Jays organization.
“It’s definitely from work and experience, and having guys along the way to help me and share their experiences with me,” he said. “[Blue Jays’ sidelined second baseman] Devon Travis has been a big one. He’s treated me like a little brother since I came to baseball full time, because my first camp we were locker buddies.
“He’s definitely played a big part, especially in the down times because those down times, you feel so isolated. But in April, he was contacting me every single day and checking on me. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s an awesome teammate and an awesome baseball player and an even better person.”
Sidelined with an oblique injury, the hope is that Alford can continue to use that experience and his altered mindset when he gets back out on the field.