Like so many people associated with baseball this year, Blue Jays Minor League Hitting Coordinator Hunter Mense could write a book about the past year. In the past twelve months, Hunter became a Dad, watched his beloved Chiefs capture the Super Bowl, and led a baseball existence that he likely never thought possible as a result of COVID-19.
We caught up with Mense this week in Florida, where camps for the team’s minor league prospects were in the process of winding down. After being with the team in spring training, Mense saw time in Toronto for Spring Training 2.0, then was at the alternate site in Rochester, and has spent the last six weeks in Florida, instructing at the club’s Development, Rookie, and Dominican Instructs (moved stateside) camps. While he was able to get home to his wife and young son every 1-2 weeks during the alt site season, Mense says he spent as much time away from home this season as he did last season, his first in the Coordinator role after serving as New Hampshire’s hitting coach in his first season with the organization in 2018. Friday marked the end of the camps, and he was looking forward to his off season finally getting underway. He was just dropping some of his charges off at their hotel when we spoke.
Future Blue Jays: Your 2020 experience, to say the least, was unusual. Tell us what the alt site experience was like.
Hunter Mense: The guys wanted a game experience-like situation, but that was difficult to put together, and some of them were disappointed at first. Once they learned that there were things that they could work on without the pressure of a game experience, they really learned to enjoy it.
FBJ: Let’s get right to talking about the alt site guys, because those are the guys fans want to hear about the most. And that conversation would start with Alejandro Kirk.
HM: Kirky doesn’t have that prototypical elite athlete look – he seems to have do to things right over and over again to make people become believers. But to me, he was the star of 2.0 in Toronto – he hit a couple of Home Runs, and it seemed like everything he hit was hard.
The thing that works for him is that because of his size, he’s learned how to connect, especially with spin, and the high fastballs that hitters see so much of nowadays. Because he’s a shorter guy, there’s more of a direct route to the ball, and he doesn’t get jammed as much as bigger hits tend to.
We have an internal grading system for hitters, Kirky was far and away our overall leader last season – in fact, the was top of the list in all of pro ball. He’s still learning, particularly with getting the ball in the air. There’s just an elite ability to get the barrel on the ball there.
FBJ: Riley Adams was a player who we’d had multiple good results on at the alt site. With the emergence of Kirk and Gaby Moreno, he’s kind of been pushed down the depth charts, but the news appears to be encouraging.
HM: Kind of the opposite of Kirky, Riley has a prototypical athlete’s build. At the plate, he’s struggled with moving efficiently, and we worked with him on making adjustments throughout the alt site camp. Finally, about three-quarters of the way through, he settled on several of them, and he hit something like 5 Homers in the last week and a half. He’s moving the ball forward, and trending in the right direction now – everything was coming off his bat fast by the end of the season.
FBJ: Similar to Adams, Josh Palacios is another guy we’ve heard good things about. He’s one of the toolsiest players in the system, and it sounds like he’s putting things together.
HM: Josh is what I call the MVP of how it’s done. At Rochester, he swung at all the right pitches. He’s always been able to barrel up pitches, but he started making really good decisions at the plate, and developed a much better two-strike approach. He really earned his way onto the taxi squad at the end of the season. He’s one of the model citizens in the organization, and is one of the hardest workers. His work in the batting cage is what all players’ should be like. He’s a bit older (24) now, and has a better sense of himself. He’s really showing signs of putting it all together.
FBJ: We can’t go much further in this conversation without talking about Austin Martin.
HM: He makes such good decisions at the plate. He has an excellent feel about how to work at at bat. He’s advanced for such a young (21) age, and he had really good ABs at Rochester. He was thrown into such an odd situation (because of the pandemic) – he couldn’t get regular work after he signed, because everything was shut down.
At the plate, he’s in complete control, even when he has two strikes on him. He has elite bat-to-ball skills, and now he’s learning when to take chances, and how to drive the ball more effectively. His best week was probably at the end of the season. We haven’t even come close to scratching the surface with this guy. He’s definitely “hitterish” (one of Hunter’s favourite terms, and one of ours, too).
FBJ: Gaby Moreno is one of the best athletes in the system, and has developed in leaps and bounds over the past two seasons. He came part way through your time in Rochester, but what were your impressions of him?
HM: He’s a completely under-the-radar guy, and he was the best hitter in Rochester. He has among the best bat-to-ball skills in the organization. Moreno reminds me of Bo (Bichette) – he makes contact, and he knows that he can hit pitches outside of the strike zone. Sometimes, he’ll lay off a pitch in a spot that he knows he can’t do much with, then go after one out of the zone because he knows he can drive it. When Nate Pearson came to Rochester, Moreno turned on a 98 fastball about 6 inches off the plate. He drove it down the line just foul, with an exit velo of 105.
FBJ: Orelvis Martinez joined you late in the season at Rochester. How did he fare against higher-level pitching?
HM: Like a lot of other guys in his situation, Orelvis hadn’t seen live pitching for several months. His first day in Rochester, he went 0-3 in live BP – swung and missed at 9 pitches. The next day, he put 3 balls in play. The day after that, he put 4 balls in play, and one of them was a Home Run.
FBJ: Jordan Groshans is a guy we’ve been itching to hear more about.
HM: Jordan led the group in Homers during the summer. He had a very productive time in Rochester – he learned to create a routine in the cage, and he gained a better understanding of his swing. It was fun to watch him grow up and mature throughout the summer.
FBJ: Let’s talk about some more recent hitters. Tell us about the guys you worked with in Florida. Leo Jimenez is a guy we heard was making some noise.
HM: Leo is a guy who has always been able to hit, and has hitterish tendencies. We’ve just let him continue to hit, and he’s starting to hit the ball hard. He’s gotten stronger, and his fall he hit the hardest ball he’s ever hit in his life – 104 exit velo. We’re just pushing him to do the things he needs to do to get better.
FBJ: Miguel Hiraldo, like Orelvis and Jimenez, was a guy we were looking forward to seeing at Lansing last spring. What was his camp like?
HM: Another guy who hadn’t faced live pitching in a while, Hiraldo struggled early on, but hit well towards the end of camp. On one of the last days, he went oppo on a pitch, really was drilling the ball.
FBJ: Anyone else stand out in Florida for you?
HM: Phil Clarke was really driving the ball in camp. He’s another guy who makes good decisions at the plate, and he’s gotten a lot stronger. He led the camp in 100+ batted balls. Will Robertson gets into good counts, has some real strength, and hit a couple of HRs. Samad Taylor is another guy who impressed. He’s making better decisions, and it resulted in better contact. He chased about 15% less than usual, and he made around 10% more contact. Both he and Chavy Young, who was banged up in camp, are headed to Australia to get some more reps.
We’re all starved for news about minor league baseball. It was great to talk to Hunter about players we didn’t get to see (outside of Kirk) this summer.