By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
Watching the Lansing Lugnuts take apart the West Michigan Whitecaps in their doubleheader on Friday and again on Saturday, I was struck by how complete the Lugnuts' offence is. Not only did they hit six home runs over the course of the three games but they took walks, stole bases and played small ball all around the diamond while scoring 28 runs.
The Lugnuts lead the Midwest League in runs. By a lot. The Lugnuts have scored 156 runs in 24 games which works out to being 6.50 runs per game. The next closest club is the Burlington Bees, the Angels' class-A club, with 5.62 runs per game.
To what do the Lugnuts owe their success so far in the season? Power? Well, the Lugnuts have hit 18 home runs, tied for first in the league, 51 doubles (first in the league) and seven triples (tied for sixth in the league), but all of that combines for a .416 slugging percentage which leads the league. The Lugnuts also lead the league in walks with 124 and, consequently, on-base percentage (.371). The Lugnuts also lead the league in steals with 41, getting caught just nine times for an 82% success rate.
While the on-field staff give a lot of credit to the players themselves, there appears to be a focus on the individual that's allowing the players to find their success on the field. Hitting Coach Matt Young, in his first year in the Blue Jays' organization, said that the approach is all about approach.
"We’re not really mechanical in this clubhouse and organization-wide thanks to [hitting coordinator] Guillermo [Martinez], giving us the freedom to really preach approach and let your ideas of what you want to do when your sights and your direction take you to where your body’s going to be and not get caught up in the mechanics and more of a Pete Rose 'see ball, hit ball' approach," said Young.
The Blue Jays have taken a track record of enticing players who want to keep their individuality. Bo Bichette, famously, turned down offers from other teams, agreeing to sign with the Blue Jays because he felt they were the type of organization he could blossom with. According to Arden Zwelling, when the Blue Jays were prepared to meet his bonus demands, Bichette had no hesitation in signing, saying, "I think the Blue Jays are just willing to let you be yourself. They allow players to go to them for help instead of forcing themselves on us. That’s huge for me. And you look at their big-league team: they have a bunch of guys on it who hit just like me. I wanted to be a Blue Jay."
Young insists that this philosophy is organization-wide.
"What we’ve done throughout the organization and here [in Lansing] especially is we’ve been able to get these guys to open up, tell us what they want to be, what they want to do and we’re trying to make them the best versions of themselves and a lot of that is just the approach that each one of them takes when they get in the game, when they go to early work, when they execute their routine and then execute their game plan. When they go out and try to execute their game plan and not think about, 'where are my hands, where are my feet, what am I doing,' and just execute a game plan and find barrel to the ball, that’s what we’ve been doing and the results are showing up for these guys," said Young.
The results are staggering. While the Lugnuts don't top the batting average category of the Midwest League, Kevin Vicuna sits 11th in the league with a .330 average and he's followed by Kevin Smith, also at .330. But when you look at OBP, Ryan Noda is fourth in the league (.478), Kacy Clemens is sixth (.468) and Cullen Large is eighth (.430). Smith's OBP is .381 and Chavez Young, the club's leadoff hitter, isn't far behind at .364. Noda leads the league in walks with 27 and Clemens is second at 22. Large had a four-run game on the weekend and leads the league with 23 while teammate Kevin Smith leads the league in RBI at 25. Despite recovering from a nose broken by a pitch, Reggie Pruitt still is among the leaders in stolen bases with eight (and has been caught just once). The Lugnuts have three players in the league's top 11 in the all-important OPS stat category with Kacy Clemens in second.
So why are they taking so many walks? Matt Young insists that the club is "earning" their walks.
"When you can earn the walks instead of looking to walk, I think that’s where we’re at so that’s a tip of the cap to the 12 guys, 13 guys that we’ve had in the lineup," said Young. "They’re doing enough damage at the plate, they’re being productive at the plate, being selective-aggressive at the plate where now they understand the zone a little bit more and so they’re not worried about their swing so they’re worried about is this ball in the zone, is this a ball I can hammer. I think that’s leading to more walks because pitchers are being more careful with us so it’s definitely a good thing."
The Lugnuts are doing everything in pursuit of a win. And, as you can see, it's not just the work of one or two players, the way it might have been last year with Bradley Jones, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leading the club to a dominant offensive showing. The Lugnuts are getting contributions up and down their lineup and even the guys who aren't on the leaderboards are contributing. Christian Williams has seven doubles and three home runs with a slugging percentage of .507. Samad Taylor is walking at a prodigious rate, boosting his .217 batting average to a .341 OBP. Brock Lundquist continues to work his way back from offseason hand surgery with a couple of home runs over the weekend. He also grinds out at bats and his .214/.324/.411 slash line shows that he can get even better. Kevin Vicuna, he of the .330 batting average, has only walked twice in 20 games.
With such a diverse offence up and down the lineup, the Lugnuts are sure to score lots of runs. After all, right now, they're the best offensive team, by far, in the Midwest League.
Matt Young feels that the players are well grounded despite being able to claim offensive supremacy in the league.
"We don’t talk about it much in the clubhouse," said Young. "It’s one of those things where I think we know, but we don’t want to sit there and puff our chests out and say, 'yeah we are [the best offensive team in the league], you better respect us.' We want to earn that respect every night and the guys do such a great job of coming to work every day and wanting to keep that mantle, if you will, and really focus on grinding out their at bats and grinding out wins and making the job for the pitching staff a whole lot easier."
While there's always regression to the mean, the Lugnuts are in a position to keep churning out runs and turning their lineup over. They're currently in first place in the Midwest League Eastern Division and have a game-and-a-half lead over the West Michigan Whitecaps whom they just pummeled in a five-game series that included two doubleheaders.
With the Lugnuts hosting the Midwest League All-Star Game on June 19, I think you're going to see several of these players representing their team in front of the whole league.
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