DUNEDIN, Fla.—Seems like just a few minutes ago they were boys, sprouts of fine baseball pedigree, splish-splashing into the big leagues.
Now there’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — recently married — accepting 24th birthday congratulations at his locker from teammates. And Bo Bichette, who reached the quarter-century mark 11 days earlier, midway through spring training for his fifth full season with the Blue Jays.
“It’s crazy,” he admits, about arriving at the meat of a baseball career and how it has all raced by so quickly. Before hastening to assure: “I’m not getting married any time soon.”
The maturity, however, is writ large in his demeanour, on and off the field. Still lighthearted in temperament, because baseball is a kid’s game after all and the fun of it is baked into the game. But the passage of time is concurrent with the gaining of wisdom between the lines.
There’s a more serious mien on a team that is done with making whoopee and callow shenanigans in the dugout, committed to grown-up ball. By design or happenstance, the Barrio — a mostly Latino component of merrymakers and pranksters — has been broken up with Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. shipped out of town, swapped for a more sober-minded crew.
“I think that everybody can look back at last year and realize that we probably needed a bit more professionalism and a little bit more maturity,” Bichette allows. “Not that we were immature, but that is part of the growth for us as players and young players.
“I’m not sure if that’s what they were intending with (Hernández and Gurriel); that’s not my job. Those are great players that we lost, but we replaced them with good players, too, guys who are here ready to compete and working as hard as they can, ready to do everything possible to win. So, sad as we are to see those guys go, some people that I’ve made great friendships with, I’m really excited to see what this group can accomplish.”
The frame of mind Bichette has brought into this camp is of a player who’s found his footing and his mental equanimity: “I definitely feel more comfortable with myself and comfortable with my surroundings, comfortable as a leader, just more comfortable in every area.”
Certainly at ease and unperturbed by the MLB-mandated banning of the extreme infield shift, compelling two players on each side of second base until a pitch is thrown, all infielders with both feet on the dirt. The shortstop hasn’t sensed any impact of the new rule on his play afield.
“You make little adjustments, move around the field a bit. But when you’re a shortstop, you play shortstop, third base plays third base, second base plays second base. It’s kind of like playing when you were a kid. I mean, I’m an athlete, I’ll just have more room to run around. I think it gives me a bit more freedom.”
At the plate — where Bichette is averaging a hit per game in 12 appearances under the Florida sun, with a pair of home runs and a .387 batting average — he says the unshift shift has made zero impact “because I was never shifted anyways.” Because he sprays the ball to all fields. “I can’t remember even one time where I was ever shifted.”
What he’s trying to forget — or at least put into perspective, take the cringe out — are the errors: 23 (11 fielding, a dozen throwing) in 2022, second only to Detroit’s Javier Báez. The kind of negative numbers that given oxygen to a cohort of observers who pine for Bichette to be plucked from short and shunted to second, where the Jays are yet again not locked into one player who owns the base. But Bichette is a shortstop in body and soul.
Don’t think those errors — 24 the previous season — haven’t haunted him. They’ve hung over his head. He’s determined they won’t define him.
“I’ve struggled with that mindset a lot in the past. It’s something that people have talked about and it’s something that I’ve hyperfocused on. But right now, I’m in a great place mentally. I understand that those things are going to happen. So, my main focus is when somebody hits me a ball and it should be an out, to make that out. And not worry about anything bad that can happen.”
The anxiety in that split-second about airmailing a throw to first, or missing a skittish ground ball that gets past him, can trigger a misstep. He’s tried to pound muscle memory into his brain and reflexes by taking thousands of ground balls at fielding practice, hour after hour with coach Luis Rivera before teammates even venture out of the clubhouse.
“You have to find comfort in yourself, or peace within yourself, I guess, in the player that you are. And I think I’ve found that. I’ve looked back on my seasons and I realize that there’s not a play on the field that I can’t make. I can make every play that any other shortstop in the league can make. It’s really just about trusting in myself and being that player.
“I’ve put in the reps. Everybody has seen how many ground balls I’ve taken, things like that. When I take ground balls, I don’t make mistakes. So it’s really just about trusting yourself and catching the ball and making a good throw, and doing it over again. And not making it more than it is.”
That’s part of the ripening, so doubt doesn’t take root in his head.
“I’ve had moments in the big leagues for long stretches of being a really good shortstop. Those times that I haven’t … you think about things instead of just playing the game. My goal this year is just to keep it simple: catch the ball, make the throw. Sometimes I’m going to make a mistake, but you go on to the next one.”
The juicy upside to Bichette is his hitting knack, his contact and on-base skills. He puts balls in play, and since 2021 has led MLB in hits on the first pitch (96). Tied for third in doubles. And, memorably, he was the hottest hitter in baseball over the final month of last season, putting the team on his back after struggling through significant spans of the campaign. Down the home stretch, Bichette exploded with a slash line of .406/.444/.562, seven home runs and 27 RBIs across his final 27 games. No indication that he’s cooled off down here.
Bichette remembers exactly what triggered his dramatic turnaround at the plate.
“We were in Boston. It was at the end of August, and I struck out twice on fastballs away. I didn’t swing at them. All year I’d been really worried about making strikes on good pitches, not chasing and all that.
“I looked back at the at-bat and I realized that I’d taken two fastballs on the plate that I normally — when I’m going well — would crush. And I would never take that pitch. So that day I told myself: I’m not striking out looking one more time this year.
“For that reason it clicked, and from that point on I just was more aggressive. I had a bit of freedom within myself. I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. I wasn’t afraid to fail.
“That was the day.”
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