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Red-Hot Nick Fortes May Be Taking Next Step

Blue Wahoos backstop Nick Fortes is swinging a hotter bat than he has in years, and there’s reason to believe the trend could continue.

2021 Miami Marlins Photo Day Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Marlins 2018 fourth round pick Nick Fortes has more story to tell than your typical prospect on the outskirts of organizational rankings. Closing in on his 25th birthday, Fortes has been on the scouting radar for the better part of a decade at this point. A native of Deland, FL, Fortes made a name for himself as a prep underclassman on the showcase circuit before he could even drive. He built up his résumé from an early age with MVP efforts at the 16U Perfect Game World Series and WWBA Underclass Worlds. It’s no easy task to stand out against the depth of competition at such events, and the efforts instantly pushed into the upper tiers of class rankings, with some believing he had the look of a future day one draft pick.

Catching is an exceptionally difficult craft to master, and Fortes showed feel for the position well beyond his years as a teenager. He was still growing, and wasn’t popping especially hard athletically yet, but his combination of fluidity and toughness behind the plate, as well as a reputation for leadership, turned a lot of heads early in his career. While his bat lagged a bit behind the defense, there were elements of the offensive package that scouts liked as well. His bat speed has always been at least a bit above average, and while there was some pre-swing funk, evaluators noted his feel for clean contact and ability to loft the ball in games.

Elite underclass prospects often don’t quite carry their momentum all the way to draft day, and unfortunately that was a fate that befell Fortes. His play didn’t really fall off in a meaningful way, but he hadn’t developed athletically quite as teams hoped, with only modest gains to his arm strength and exit velocities in his latter high school seasons. He remained a coveted prospect, but was facing a day two draft projection coming out and elected to go to college in the hopes of improving his stock and giving it another go in 2018.

The decision really neither paid off nor backfired. Fortes was eased into action as a freshman, playing sparingly, and didn’t really get his Rebels career underway until his sophomore season in 2017. He started 44 games that year, and was a significant contributor on both sides of the ball, providing the on-field leadership he’d gained a reputation for as a younger player while also hitting at an impressive .319/.382/.486 clip in a tough conference. After a run in the Northwoods league where he held his own with the bat again, he returned to campus as one of the team’s central cogs for the 2018 campaign.

In his college draft year, Fortes enjoyed his best season to date, starting all 65 games and slashing .319/.435/.519, enough to make him one of the better players in the stacked SEC. To make the performance even more appealing, he walked nearly twice as many times as he struck out, with 46 and 25 respectively. The outstanding campaign had his name popping up regularly in draft rooms again, but unfortunately for Fortes it solidified his profile in the eyes of evaluators rather than changing it for the better. Scouts continued to love his defensive game, which had only been further polished at Ole Miss, and while he showed exceptional savvy in the batters’ box, he hadn’t been able to shake concerns about his power being a bit too light for him to impact games offensively, and his arm graded out a bit below average for the position as well.

The sum of the parts put Fortes on the fringes of the top-200 draft prospects in 2018, and he ended up outperforming that projection a bit when the Marlins selected him in the fourth round, at 117th overall. Excited to see their new toy in action, the fish got Fortes’ feet wet with a three stop tour of Rookie and A-ball levels late in the 2018 campaign, in which he accumulated 88 plate appearances. The performance was mostly unremarkable- he showed the outstanding strike zone command we’d seen from him as an amateur, but only managed two extra base hits.

Despite getting very limited action in full season ball in his debut, Fortes was pushed to High-A in 2019, where he’d remain for the entire season. He faced some real offensive adversity, managing just a .091 ISO in 297 plate appearances while hitting just .217, but he did manage to keep his strikeout to walk ratio fairly tidy, with rates of 16.5% and 8.4% respectively. It felt as though the book on Fortes was starting to come into sharper focus- while the plate discipline and intangibles continued to play, it looked as if he simply might not have enough juice in his bat to make an offensive impact. This was particularly problematic when considering his below average arm strength, as typically backup catchers are expected to have complete defensive profiles. Many still thought that Fortes might fit in such a role thanks to the rest of the defensive package and his throwing accuracy, but his margin for error to stick in the bigs was looking razor-thin.

Now on the fringes of organizational rankings, the 2020 layoff rendered Fortes something of a forgotten man—but those that did write him off may have already reversed course. From the looks of it, Fortes used that time wisely, and given the reputation his makeup carries, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Something that evaluators consistently mentioned about him in the past was how quiet, or even underutilized, his lower half was during his swing. Here’s an example of some open side cuts from his draft year at Ole Miss to illustrate:

Despite a fairly solid build, Fortes has never hit the ball especially hard with regularity, so some saw this as a potential avenue for improvement. Now, it looks as though Fortes and the Marlins may have agreed with that hypothesis, as he appears to be employing his legs and hips a bit more effectively at the dish. When we compare the above look to Fortes’ swings from 2021, the difference is striking. Here’s a topical example, his walk-off home run from last night’s contest:

Right away, you’ll notice that Fortes has added a leg kick. While that doesn’t always make a huge impact on its own, it seems to be helping Fortes to create more separation and explosion from the hips during his swing. That’s showing up in the results as well. After posting the aforementioned .091 ISO in 2019, Fortes has his 2021 figure up to .147 in the early going. That’s still a shade below average, but it evidences the more meaningful contact that he’s been making this year, and the trend arrow is firmly pointed up.

Even with the improvements that we just touched on, Fortes projects for below average power, but moving out of the 30-35 grade range and into the 40 range makes a big difference for his profile. He’s always had very solid bat to ball skills, but the lacking juice in his bat was leading to low batting averages despite that. Now that he’s driving the ball with much more regularity, a lot of that incidental contact has become more meaningful as of late, and the visible changes we’ve seen out of him at the plate have me believing that this is a sustainable step forward.

Fortes has never been a big tools guy, and he still isn’t, but the adjustments he has implemented in 2021 have helped to mask the biggest hole in his profile, which now looks very well rounded with all tools in the 40-50 range. He’s not going to charge up national top prospects lists any time soon, but in a Miami organization with oft-discussed catching depth issues, his hot start has been a welcome sight, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that he can continue to build on it.