Chourio's breakout reaching new heights in Crew system

July 7th, 2022

Back in 2016, a certain Venezuelan outfielder climbed to the Single-A level for the first time at 18 years old. A year later, he moved up three levels and became a Top 2 prospect in baseball. Two years later, he debuted in the Major Leagues at the age of 20, before winning a National League Rookie of the Year Award, two Silver Sluggers and two trips to the All-Star Game.

Single-A Carolina manager Victor Estevez looks at the path taken by Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and has thought about another outfielder from the same country, in this case, the 18-year-old Jackson Chourio.

“I know he's been good with us in the past, but right now, he's a different guy,” Estevez said. “I compare him to an Acuña type of player. Any of those young guys who made it to the big leagues early, I compare him to those types of players, to be honest.”

It’s tough to blame the Mudcats skipper for being effusive about his center fielder, given his trajectory to this point. When Chourio first arrived in the Carolina League from Brewers' extended spring training on May 3 (less than two months after his 18th birthday) -- skipping right over the Arizona Complex League in the process -- he became the youngest full-season player in Minor League Baseball. Just this week, he became MLB Pipeline’s No. 38 overall prospect, the No. 1 talent in the Milwaukee farm system and the youngest player named to a 2022 All-Star Futures Game roster.

In between, Chourio has hit .319/.371/.587 with 10 homers, five triples and 17 doubles in 53 games with the Mudcats. Among 168 qualified Single-A hitters, he ranks in the top five in average, slugging percentage, OPS (.958), wRC+ (159) and ISO (.268), and he has still yet to face a pitcher younger than him since joining Carolina.

They are numbers that would make anyone think that not only is Chourio not too young for full-season ball, but maybe he should have been there all along.

“I always had that in mind because I had a really good Spring Training,” said Chourio, who got seven Cactus League at-bats this spring, through Estevez, who served as an interpreter. “But facing reality, I was thinking it would happen in the middle of extended. … In my last at-bat over there, I hit a homer, and I think I hit three homers in that whole week. My mind was like, ‘OK, I’m ready for the next level now.’”

All the while, the Milwaukee player development staff was trying to develop its own plan. They had seen Chourio hit .296/.386/.447 with five homers and a 28/23 K/BB ratio over 45 games in the Dominican Summer League months after he signed for $1.8 million out of Venezuela. They believed he had the offensive prowess, potential power and present speed to hit the ground running, but they didn’t want to put the player in front of the person in his first official move stateside.

“What's the best for a young player like that just from a life skills perspective?” said Brewers vice president of Minor League operations Tom Flanagan. “Keeping him in extended for the first few weeks, even though it's only a month on paper, it would have been valuable for Jackson just to establish a routine. He’s still living in the apartments, going into the ballpark, so there's an off-field component there. But it's a little bit more structured. We thought that was a big thing for him just so he can focus at the park.”

Once that month had passed and Chourio could check every box, he was moved to Carolina in early May. Estevez immediately batted him third in the Mudcats’ batting order.

But what makes the 18-year-old such a gifted offensive talent already? The Chourio Special may as well be a rocket to any part of the ballpark -- left, center, right, it doesn’t matter; if he makes contact, it’s going to be loud. That’s even more amazing, given Chourio’s size at a listed 6-foot-1, 165 pounds. He may be lean and twitchy -- which helps in his defensive work in center, following a transition from the middle infield -- but he’s far from as stocky as batters with his similar slugging numbers.

Ask Chourio where his strength comes from in a Zoom call, and he shrugs into the camera. No interpretation necessary. Estevez says it isn’t in the looks.

“The way he swings the bat, when I’m coaching third base, I can hear that vroom,” said the manager. “His bat speed is really, really, really fast.”

It isn’t just the quickness with which he turns on pitches either. Chourio seems to have an innate ability to find the barrel wherever the ball is pitched, and in that way, he plugs himself right into the Brewers’ philosophy of hitting development.

“Part of our pillars is being willing to do damage to the ball,” he said. “We work around that in drills, and everyone's wanting to hit the ball hard. It's been perfect for me.”

“He's big-time into it, and he's fully on board,” Flanagan said. “His damage is off the charts and he hits the ball extremely hard to all fields. I think it starts there. Now it's just a matter of continuing to improve those other areas. His swing decisions are probably the main driver because he makes pretty good contact. But as he improves there, lets that damage take over, I think that'll be huge.”

Swinging with intent has been instilled in Chourio since he was six or seven years old when he first took instruction from his father (with whom he shares a name) at baseball and softball fields back home in Venezuela. The elder Chourio, who never made it into pro ball himself, still follows his son nightly on MiLB.TV and checks in via FaceTime with advice.

“Every time we have a conversation, he's telling me, ‘They’re just pitching outside to you. You better make an adjustment,’” said Chourio. ‘You’re swinging at those pitches in the dirt.’ Every time I call my dad, we have a really good conversation about every single at-bat.

“'If you work hard, you're going to have good rewards.' That’s my dad’s famous phrase.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that Jackson’s brother, Jaison, is off to a solid start with an .819 OPS in 16 games for the Guardians’ DSL affiliate.

To the elder Jackson Chourio’s point, his son had been struggling with outside breaking balls for a stretch as Carolina League pitchers learned to avoid pitching him middle-in at all costs. From June 22-30, he went 3-for-27 (.111) with 13 strikeouts. He has since adjusted and opened July 6-for-19 (.316) with almost as many extra-base hits (four) as strikeouts (five) in his last five games entering Thursday.

So what comes next for a player who continues to clear every objective asked of him? More tests, starting with next week’s Futures Game and then maybe a move to High-A Wisconsin in the second half, as sad as his current manager would be to see him go.

“If we want to have an Acuña type of player, we're probably going to need to move that kid a little bit faster than the other ones,” Estevez said. “Maybe High-A in the middle of the season and who knows next year.”

Flanagan said the organization will wait for Chourio to prove he’s no longer being challenged. That didn’t take long in Spring Training. It didn’t take long in extended. And right now, it isn’t taking long in Carolina either.

“Now that he's doing it at a full-season club, certainly there's no more hiding him out here,” said Flanagan. “It’s there for everybody to see.”