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How worried should the Marlins be about JJ Bleday?

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One of Minor League Baseball’s most talented hitters is still searching for consistency in his first full professional season.

Outfielder JJ Bleday stands in the batter’s box awaiting the next pitch Photo courtesy of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos

With both Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Jesús Sánchez matriculating to The Show, JJ Bleday ought to be the must-watch position player in the Marlins minor league system right now. He was the 2019 NCAA home run leader and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the subsequent amateur draft, he received the challenging assignment of making his professional debut at the High-A level, then was prominently involved in big league spring training each of the last two years. He’s a consensus top-100 MLB prospect.

I was part of the baseball industry majority that entered the 2021 Minor League Baseball season predicting Bleday would earn a Marlins call-up by season’s end. His trajectory has been altered, however, by underwhelming production through his first eight weeks at Double-A Pensacola.

On the positive side, Bleday has played in 47 of the first 48 Blue Wahoos games—good health cannot be taken for granted given the unusual circumstances of last year’s MiLB cancellation. Also keep in mind that the 23-year-old is younger than 90% of the pitchers that he’s faced this season, according to Baseball-Reference. Having observed 17 error-free starts from him in center field, Pensacola broadcaster Chris Garagiola told Fish Stripes last week that Bleday has a legitimate chance to stick at the position long term (34-minute mark of the podcast episode).

But outside of an awesome stretch in early June, Bleday’s campaign has been devoid of power. Sunday’s 0-for-4 effort dipped his season slash line to .193/.296/.333—that’s a .629 OPS in a Double-A South league where the norm is over .700. His strikeout rate is adequate and his walk rate is much higher than he posted in a comparable sample size at High-A. Even so, the irregularity of his quality contact is potentially concerning. It leads us to believe that the professional player needs assignment help.

Browsing through my archive of Marlins virtual media availability videos, I came across this interesting Bleday quote from March 27: “Derek (Jeter) was talking about how he noticed that the higher he got up, the easier it was to hit, just because guys are filling up the zone.”

Only 60% of total pitches to Bleday this season have been strikes; the MLB strike rate is 63.8%. It’s reasonable to assume the proportion of pitches to him that are located in the actual strike zone is less than half. Perhaps Bleday is consciously chasing more often than he normally would in an attempt to do something interesting with his plate appearances rather than accruing bases on balls. That wouldn’t fully explain away his struggles as I’ve watched him swing through a surprising number of hittable pitches, too.

Bleday is due for improved batted ball luck. The wind blatantly robbed him of one homer, as Garagiola explained on our podcast, and his batting average on balls in play is only .233 (among the lowest of any Double-A South qualifier). A .306 BABIP like Bleday had in his first pro season would certainly close the gap between who he’s been in May/June 2021 and who the Marlins project him to be for the rest of this decade.

Poll

Will JJ Bleday make his MLB debut in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Yes
    (33 votes)
  • 32%
    No, but he’ll get promoted to Triple-A
    (91 votes)
  • 55%
    No, he’ll spend the full season at Double-A
    (154 votes)
278 votes total Vote Now

The 28-20 Blue Wahoos have had no shortage of individual success stories. Max Meyer, Edward Cabrera and Jake Eder are frequently dominant on the mound. Peyton Burdick is mashing even more taters than he did in college or at the lower minor league levels. A 2018 draft pick, Nick Fortes may finally be breaking out. Several standout relievers have already advanced to Triple-A Jacksonville.

Bleday hasn’t worked his way into that paragraph (yet).