With short season leagues now fully underway, on any given day there almost 200 Blue Jay prospects in uniform across seven North American leagues. Last night was no exception, headlined by pitching prospect Daniel Norris putting up another dominant performance. Rather than recapping the games, below I'll highlight some of the more significant action in greater depth. Since Bluebird Banter has a dedicated Buffalo correspondent, we'll start right in New Hampshire with the aforementioned Daniel Norris.
Norris started the night well, striking out the leadoff batter swinging on a 1-2 fastball at 94 mph (right after a slow curve at 72 that was fouled off). Deven Marrero followed that with a line drive hit on a 1-2 pitch that caught too much of the plate, but was caught stealing on the first pitch on a great throw from catcher Derek Chung. Norris then fell behind Blake Swihart 2-0 but got him to fly out after chasing a fastball inside at 91.
In the second inning, Norris made most of his defensive teammates redundant as after a leadoff walk on four pitches he struck out the side. After getting ahead of his first victim 0-2, he tried to go up the ladder with a fastball but went too far, though then he came back with a nasty slider at 85 to induce a weak half-swing. The second strikeout came on a well-placed 1-2 fastball on the hands at 92 that was whiffed on, and the last also on a 1-2 fastball at 93 that froze up the batter.
After a leadoff flyout to CF in the third inning, Norris got ahead of the second batter 0-2 and induced a weak groundout to Kevin Nolan at third base on a soft curveball, changing speed by about 20 mph after a fastball at 93. He was denied a clean 1-2-3 inning after Nolan couldn't cleanly field a chopper, but came back with a three-pitch strikeout on a whiff at an 0-2 pitch in the dirt.
Norris dominated Swihart to start the 4th, starting him with a fastball at 90 for called strike, getting him way out in front of a curveball at 72 and then blowing a fastball by him. After a slow grounder through the SS-3B gap, Norris got a strikeout looking and then a weak tapper in front of the mound near the baseline that he lobbed over the batter and almost over the first baseman as well.
Norris got his first clean inning in the fifth, starting with a routine groundout to second. He got ahead of the second batter 0-2 and tried to climb the ladder with a fastball that was fouled off, but came back with a beautiful change-up that started on the outside corner and just faded away for a whiff. The last out came via ninth strikeout of the night, once again freezing the batter with a 1-2 fastball.
Norris's sixth and final inning started with a well-struck fly out to left field, followed by back-to-back five-pitch walks, putting him in his first real jam of the evening. He rebounded to strike out the next batter, which was a fitting way to end as he hit his pitch count.
Overall, Norris was once again dominant, allowing just three singles and a run (which scored after he left) while racking up 10 strikeouts against three walks.
Most impressively, he got 16 swings and misses on just 89 pitches. His fastball sat 90-93 and touched 94, though it was more 90-92 the last couple innings. He was able to both spot on the corners to get ahead of batters, and blow it by them. He was able to command all three of his secondaries, piling up the whiffs on generally well placed pitches. He had a number of hitters look foolish changing speeds between his curveball and fastball. If there's one nitpick, it's that his command was all little spotty at the beginning and end, letting some pitches catch too much plate and allowing reasonable contact. In between, he was absolute dynamite.
For his two Eastern League outings, Norris has struck out 19 in 11.1 innings, while allowing seven hits issuing four walks and famously, a hit-by-pitch. But the most eye-popping number is this: Norris has thrown 177 pitches, and induced 33 whiffs, for a ridiculous 18.6% swinging strike rate.
Matt Boyd started for Dunedin and turned in a so-so line, allowing three runs (two earned) in four innings pitched, with a line of 6 H, 2 BB, and 6 K. While he was able to generate a strong number of whiffs of his secondaries, he was not exceptionally sharp and the pitch count piled up on him. That said, he only gave up one extra base hit and all the hits were on the ground except for one weird popup that the wind blew around and which landed in shallow right field.
Boyd was followed by Chad Girodo, who had a really weird, up-and-down three innings of relief. Girodo is normally very difficult on lefties, but last night he issued three walks and gave up three singles and a double to the 12 lefty batters he faced while only getting one strikeout. It was his second straight appearance he's struggled against lefties (in his previous outing he faced five lefties, with two strikeouts, two walks and a hit batter). This follows a 1/21 BB/K ratio against LHB coming into these last two outings, and may be related to him having longer 2-3 inning outings. Notwithstanding that, Girodo should have a major league floor as a LOOGY. If he can continue to contain righties as he moves up the ladder, the Jays could have another Aaron Loup-type pitcher.
Danny Barnes came in for the bottom of the eighth and was not sharp as he had been in his last few appearances. Albert Almora took him yard for what was the decisive run, and Barnes also walked one and went 3-0 to another batter.
Offensively, Dalton Pompey went 2-for-5 with a double and triple, and Dwight Smith also went 2-for-5 with a K. Gustavo Pierre went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a strikeout, and I mention him only to also mention that of all the players in the Jays' system, he is the longest tenured international FA having been signed six years ago less a week.
Canadian Shane Dawson started for Lansing, which was fitting considering Mark Buerhle was on the mound for the Jays. Dawson might be the prospect in the system who most resembles Buerhle, a soft-tossing southpaw who relies on fastball command and changing speed. Dawson's fastball spent most of the night in the low-80s on the stadium gun (per the broadcast), with his curveball in the low-70s. At one point, he threw a very, very slow curveball, which registered 56 on the gun and drew a noticeable reaction from Frank Viola.
Like Buerhle last night, Dawson was very good in the early going, shutting out West Michigan for four innings of one-hit ball with a walk and three strikeouts. Like Buehrle, he ran into trouble and his night was cut short in the fifth after allowing a two-run bomb and then allowing two more hits sandwiched around his fourth strikeout.
Alberto Tirado was the scheduled starter, but he's getting time off to deal with dead arm, so 2014 eighth rounder Justin Shafer got to make his first professional start, with a pitch count of about 65. He pitched 3.2 innings, getting five strikeouts and allowing only two singles. His fastball was clocked at 90 mph on the stadium gun, and he got a few swing and misses on his secondaries. While his command was not extremely sharp, he seems to have surprisingly good pitchability for a guy who was primarily an infielder until this year in college.
Three relievers followed Shafer, combining for a shutout of Hillsboro. The most impressive was 21-year-old Jose M. Fernandez--an under-the-radar older international signing in early 2012--who pitched the last two innings and struck out five (four looking). He's off to a decent start in Vancouver. Of note offensively, Franklin Barreto was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, cooling off after a crazy hot start to the season.
Jesus Tinoco, who signed for $400,000 in 2011 as a 16-year-old, had a much better second start for Bluefield though he still allowed nine baserunners (seven hits, two walks) in just 4.2 innings with one strikeout. On the positive side, all the hits were singles and over half the balls in play were kept on the ground.
But the real pitching story in this game was Dusty Issacs, whom the Jays drafted in the 18th round out of Georgia Tech. Replacing Tinoco with two outs in the fifth, he got a swinging strikeout on a fastball to end the inning. He pitched another two innings, with six of the seven batters retired via strikeout. Now, he's an experienced collegian going up against mostly teenagers so a grain of salt is in order, but it was impressive nonetheless.
On the other side of the ball, Anthony Alford left midway through the game for unknown reasons. 2010 bonus baby Gabriel Cenas ($750,000 bonus) was 2-for-3 with two doubles.
Evan Smith made his first start of the year and was fantastic, striking out seven in six innings while only allowing four hits with no walks. I can't add colour, but BP's Chris King was there:
Evan Smith pitched 6 strong innings today. FB 88-91 top 92. Threw inside to RH well. SL 76-78 and dropped it back foot a few times #BlueJays— Chris King (@StatsKing) June 24, 2014
This year's fifth round draftee Lane Thomas went 2-for-5, and fourth rounder Matt Morgan hit a walkoff three-run bomb in addition to walking twice.