NORWICH, Conn. – Jhailyn Ortiz wanted the help of an interpreter, but one was not required when the subject turned to Monday night’s Home Run Derby down in Miami.
“Did you see it?” the Phillies minor-league slugger was asked.
“Aaron Judge,” he said before Williamsport teammate Jesus Azuaje could ask the question in Spanish. “Oh what power.”
Long ball apparently is a universal language, and it is one that Ortiz is still learning but already speaks quite well. The 18-year-old native of the Dominican Republic isn’t as large as the 6-foot-7, 282-pound rookie slugger for the New York Yankees, but at 6-4 and 250 pounds, he is strong enough to launch his own majestic home runs.
“Let’s put it this way: If he were to take batting practice with the big-league club right now, you would not know that he is only 18 years old,” said Sal Agostinelli, Phillies director of international scouting. “He will be in that Home Run Derby one day.”
Ortiz, a right fielder who also has a power arm, dreams of that day.
“Yeah, with the help of God, I would love to do that,” Ortiz said. “That’s one of the things I think of a lot. I want to make it to the big leagues and be able to make it to the Home Run Derby.”
The Phillies paid a premium price for Ortiz’s power, giving him a $4 million signing bonus when he was 16. It is the highest bonus the team has ever paid for an international player, but the Phillies are confident the right-handed slugger will be worth it.
Williamsport manager Pat Borders spent three months of extended spring training and the first three weeks of the New York-Penn League with Ortiz and is willing to say things about the young slugger that he would not about other players.
“I just think he’s a special talent,” Borders said. “He’s a guy who can put the barrel on the ball all over the place. Balls up, down, in and out, he barrels them and you just don’t see that quality in every hitter. Plus, he’s athletic. He’s 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, and he can run pretty good. There’s not a negative quality on that kid. He’s smart, he works hard, and his teammates love him. I don’t talk that highly about anybody, but he deserves it.”
The Phillies decided to take things slowly with Ortiz this season. Rather than start him at low-A Lakewood, where he would have been one of the youngest players in the league, they left him in extended spring training, where he could work on plate discipline to cut down on his strikeouts.
It appears to be working. En route to hitting eight home runs in 173 at-bats last season in the Gulf Coast League, he struck out 53 times and batted just .231. Going into Thursday’s doubleheader against the Connecticut Tigers, he had three home runs in 55 at-bats and had struck out only 14 times. He also had 10 walks and was hitting .291 with a .451 on-base percentage.
“A lot of times, they don’t pitch to him,” Agostinelli said. “That’s one of the things power hitters have to learn to deal with.”
Williamsport hitting coach Tyler Henson said he could see the progress Ortiz was making during extended spring training in Clearwater, Fla.
“Those three months of at-bats didn’t count for anything, but they counted for him and his progression as a professional,” Henson said. “He made a lot of big strides. We added a toe tap to his swing, and he became more consistent at laying off balls down in the zone. That is still a work in progress, but for me, it’s just about getting him at-bats and experience.”
Ortiz wants to be known for more than just his power. His favorite player growing up was Miguel Cabrera because of his ability to hit for average and power.
“The main thing I focus on is putting the ball in play,” he said. “I have so much power that when I put the ball in play good things will happen.”
Surprisingly, he also likes to run. Despite his size, Ortiz stole eight bases in 10 attempts last season, and he has three without being caught this year.
“I have to be aggressive,” Ortiz said. “I take pride in it because I’m a big guy and pitchers do not think I can steal bases. I like to run and show my speed.”
Opposing pitchers are not the only ones shocked by his running ability.
“Every time he steals a base, we’re like, ‘holy cow,’ ” said Adam Haseley, the Phillies’ first-round draft pick last month who plays alongside Ortiz in center field. “I was nowhere near the player at 18 that he is now, and he is nowhere near the power guy he is going to be some day.”
Still, his power is already drawing attention. Azuaje did not bother asking Ortiz in Spanish if he had opposite-field power.
“Of course he does,” the Williamsport infielder said.
And, of course, Williamsport players pay special attention when Ortiz takes batting practice.
“We watch everybody,” Azuaje said. “But obviously, he stands out the most because he has so much power and he can hit the ball pretty much anywhere.”
The Phillies believe the whole world will be watching some day when Jhailyn Ortiz launches baseballs at the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby. But he knows and they know that there is a lot of work to do before that happens.