LAKEWOOD, N.J. — It was 4:30 p.m. Monday, 13 hours after the Lakewood BlueClaws’ bus rolled in from a road trip to North Carolina, when Jhailyn Ortiz dug in for batting practice. He took a half-dozen rounds of swings and didn’t hit a single ball over the fence at FirstEnergy Park.
Consider it part of Ortiz’s maturation.
There’s always a temptation for the top power-hitting prospect in the Phillies farm system to simply muscle up, turn on a ball, and belt it to a faraway spot beyond the left-field fence. But that was how Ortiz got in trouble early in the season. It was what caused him to strike out 20 times in his first 38 at-bats. It’s exactly the bad habit he’s trying to avoid falling into again.
So, with manager Marty Malloy standing nearby and hitting coach Tyler Henson watching from the behind the cage, Ortiz spent one round working solely on hitting the ball the other way to right field. After that, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound slugger sprayed line drives across the outfield. There was no power display, no home-run derby. And that was just fine.
“Some of that is part of the reason why he is having success right now,” Malloy said. “Early on, he did want to yank everything. He wanted to hit everything out to left field as far as he could hit it. It made him swing and miss more. He’s understanding himself now. He’s understanding these pitchers, this league, what it takes to be a true hitter. And that’s part of why today he’s in a better place than he was on Day 1.”
Indeed, the South Atlantic League in April can be a cold, dark place for a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic.
Three years ago, the Phillies signed Ortiz as an international amateur and gave him a franchise-record $4 million bonus. The rightfielder showed big power in rookie ball in 2016, hitting eight homers in 173 at-bats. Last year, he was one of the best all-around hitters in short-season Class A ball, batting .302 with a .401 on-base percentage, 15 doubles and eight homers in 159 at-bats.
In April, though, Ortiz was beginning his first full season of pro ball. Spring had not yet arrived on the Jersey Shore, and the weather wasn’t much better in Kannapolis, N.C., or Salisbury, Md. The travel was exhausting, too. Going 0-for-4 is never fun, but it stings even more in sub-50-degree weather and with a nine-hour bus ride looming.
And the 0-for-4s were piling up. Through 11 games, Ortiz was 3-for-38 with 20 strikeouts. That’s about when he began feeling soreness in his left shoulder. In hindsight, Ortiz figures he could’ve played through it. But the Phillies decided to put him on the disabled list and send him to their spring-training facility in Clearwater, Fla., as much to clear his mind as to rest his shoulder.
“I’m not going to say it was a good thing because he had to deal with a setback with a minor injury,” Malloy said. “But while he was down there, I think it gave him the opportunity to realize what this truly is all about — the full season, the lights on versus the day games [in rookie ball], the whole situation here. I think it made him hungry. And I can see that in him. He’s a different player right now.”
Lately, Ortiz has been the best hitter in the league. During a six-game road trip last week, he went 10-for-23 with three doubles and two homers, including an opposite-field shot against Hagerstown lefty Seth Romero, a first-round draft pick by the Washington Nationals. Through Tuesday, Ortiz was 15-for-44 (.341) with 14 strikeouts in June and 29-for-90 (.322) with 25 strikeouts since returning from his one-month Florida hiatus.
“I don’t think [the shoulder] was the problem. It was more to come back here and to concentrate on my plan,” said Ortiz, his English having improved enough to do his first interview without a translator. “This is my plan now: Put the ball in play and see what happens. I don’t think a lot about strikeouts. I’m just staying with the plan.”
Ortiz’s natural strength will net him plenty of home runs. Malloy describes “a different sound” when Ortiz barrels a ball and only half-jokes that it’s “a little bit scary” to coach third base when he is at the plate.
But when he doesn’t drift from his oft-mentioned plan — and he’s often reminded of it by Malloy, Henson, minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Tracy and director of player development Joe Jordan — Ortiz reveals power to all fields.
“I think it was a positive thing that he got to sit back from the game a little bit and relax, get his mind right and get back to what we need him to do to be successful,” Tracy said. “It looks like Jhailyn’s on the path right now, and we like where he is.”
Other aspects of Ortiz’s game stand out, too. While some scouts wonder if he has the athleticism to stay in right field, Malloy no longer shares those doubts. Not after seeing Ortiz’s strong arm and his desire to show it off against runners who challenge him.
Put it all together and it’s clear why Phillies officials believe Ortiz can reach the big leagues in two or three years, as long as he continues to learn what it takes to be a professional.
“This is my first full season, so I need the preparation every day,” Ortiz said. “Come here ready for everything. I need to do it every day, going to the cage and practice, focus on the game and just concentrate on my work.”
Said Malloy: “The tools are there. Now, it’s learning how to play every day in the grind — the travel, the weather, the ups, the downs, the good days, the bad days. Him playing the game every day is his best teacher right now.”