There are few things in this game more scarce than right-handed power. Now, given the Mariners' thirst for it—and how frequently it's reported—fans around these parts may biased and overexposed to this possible trend. This, of course, after the Mariners acquired such talent in consecutive off-seasons, and then spent their first two 2014 draft picks on righty sluggers.
But for all their attempts to add right-handed punch to a lineup that is mostly lefty—and this includes a desperation call-up of Jesus Montero—the Mariners' need for such talent still exists. Though some had thought this might eventually be supplied from another player down in Tacoma, that being Jabari Blash.
Blash is a raw talent, having now only played 45 games for the Triple-A Rainiers, but the possibility still loomed that—if he put enough together—we might see him in Seattle later this season. That possibility was all but dashed Friday, as Blash was hit with a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test—one for recreational drugs, not PEDs.
Still, this comes at the worst time, as Blash had made an adjustment in Tacoma, and things had been looking like they were coming together.
"When I first came here, besides trying to do too much, I had to adjust to the pitching," Blash told Lookout Landing last week, before the suspension hit. "I started widening the strike zone for myself and I think now I’m really adjusting to the pitching, getting my pitches to hit and putting good swings on them when I can."
And putting good swings on the ball is exactly what he'd been doing. After batting .159/.257/.286 in his first 18 games with Tacoma, Blash flipped a switch, and had been hitting .242/.348/.606 in the 27 games since then—good for a robust .954 OPS.
But what had caught many fans' eyes with Blash was what he'd done before arriving in Tacoma—not the power, but the patience. In 25 games and 110 plate appearances with the Double-A Jackson Generals, Blash was running a 20 percent walk rate.
"Well he had a little bit more patience down there because they didn’t want to pitch to him, which was good for him because he did understand and did make that adjustment and stayed and waited for a good pitch to hit," said Rainiers manager Roy Howell, who'd previously served as Blash's hitting coach in seasons past.
The questions with any hitter moving up the ranks, whether it's a power guy like Blash, or a contact guy like Ty Kelly—who we profiled last week—is not how they handle the the good pitches to hit, but the breaking stuff. How can a young hitter handle a curve?
Well, Howell had some of the best advice I've heard there.
"The best way hit a good curveball is don’t miss the fastball," he said.
This is something Blash has been working hard on, though it isn't always easy.
"I’ll say, the guys here, they don’t usually miss," Blash said. "You really get one pitch to hit sometimes. That’s where I’m getting better."
He's been working on improving there, and then when he does miss that pitch to hit, adjusting elsewhere as needed.
"My adjustment to the breaking pitches is just to drive it to the opposite field, just makes me stay back a little bit," Blash said. "I can say the breaking pitches definitely got a little sharper—but it’s fun, it’s a challenge and it’s a fun game."
Oddly, when commenting on his most fun and memorable moment so far this season, Blash pointed to a moment on defense, one where he went up and robbed a two-run home run.
"I think that’s the part of the game that I really take to heart, that it’s really fun to me. On defense, I can really challenge myself," Blash said. "I’m really that guy that really wants to go out there and catch every single ball that’s hit, so I really take pride in my defense."
With a guy like Blash, fans are often wondering why he might be different—why will he not be like another big slugger, a la Carlos Peguero? One route is to be better on defense, as Blash is working on—and he does seem to move with a bit more grace than the relatively-clunky Peguero. The other would be strikeouts, but Blash and his 30 percent strikeout rate in Tacoma have a ways to go there.
"The bottom of line for a big guy like that not to strike out is really understanding his strike zone, which is bigger than everybody else’s—so the pitcher gets a little bigger target to throw at, and they get a little more aggressive, but they know if they make a mistake, he can hurt them," Howell said.
"That’s the cat and mouse part right there, not striking out is being able to get that fastball early in the count and not miss it and foul it off."
Howell said Blash is improving in that regard, in addition to taking a walk where he can get it—though, that's been harder to come by as his walk rate has dipped to nine percent in Tacoma. He credits that to the pitchers at this level.
"A lot of these guys are big league guys that are up and down, and these guys are trying to get back. They’re going to come after you," Howell said.
As many of the pitchers Blash faces are trying their to get back up, Blash is just trying to get there—and the feeling of standing on the doorstep is something else.
"It just makes everything surreal. You’re that step closer to living your dream, everything you’ve worked for paying off. said Blash, "But you still gotta get there. It’s 30 minutes down the road, but you still gotta get there."
For Blash, penalized now for a second positive test for recreational drug use, the journey to the game's highest level has likely become longer than just the 36-mile drive between Cheney Stadium and Safeco Field.
But Blash has adjusted as needed before. Let's see if he can do it again.