FORT WAYNE, Ind. – In the 2017 amateur draft, the San Diego Padres selected left-handed pitcher MacKenzie Gore, who nearly everyone knew about going in and continues to impress in his ascent up the system.
While Gore alone could make the draft a huge success, the pair of high school catchers the club selected next – Luis Campusano, and Blake Hunt – also might make it one for the ages. Campusano has established himself as one of the top prospects in the High-A California League. Hunt, taken with the third pick out of Mater Dei High School in Orange County renowned for producing many top athletes, got off to a late start with a shoulder injury that limited him to 130 plate appearances, nearly all of them as a Designated Hitter, in his first pro season in the Arizona League.
Last year, with his injuries behind him, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Hunt put up put up solid numbers as a 19-year-old with the Tri-City Dust Devils in the short-season Northwest League. His overall .271/.371/.377 line was bolstered by a big August when he hit .316/.378/.506.
After another slow start with the TinCaps this year, Hunt has again heated up. Since May 26, Hunt has slashed .316/.356/.443 with eight doubles, a triple and 11 RBI. Despite a .695 OPS that’s just above the league average, his underlying numbers suggest – as Fort Wayne announcers John Nolan and Evan Stockton have frequently noted – that he has been a victim of bad luck. Even though he’s struck out at a career-low 18% clip, his .284 BABIP has supressed his total production.
We caught up with Blake in Fort Wayne to talk about the change in going from the short-season to a full-season league and how he uses advanced statistics.
MadFriars: What is the biggest difference playing in the Midwest League compared to last year in the short-season Northwest League?
Blake Hunt: Obviously the pitching, but I’ve found that I am reacting to failure a lot better. I’ve found that it’s much more of a mental game than I thought before. If I go up to the plate and I have the right attitude and right mental approach, I don’t care who is up there.
Guys throw harder, have better off-speed and better scouting reports but if I am doing things correctly on the mental side I am going to give myself a better chance for success. Last year there was some there was a little immaturity and room for growth on my part.
You did put together some good stretches.
Blake Hunt: I did, and I finished strong too. But I needed to learn how to ride that high a little better and work with the lows. It’s just part of a learning curve. Looking back, it was a blessing that I got to go to short-season last year because I don’t think I would have been as prepared as I am this year, both mentally and physically, for a full-season team.
Is the biggest difference as you move up leagues just the level of consistency?
Blake Hunt: Absolutely. The pitchers are getting better. But I’ve put in the work too, so I am also getting better.
I’ve been hitting the ball hard, but also there is some randomness. I’ve been hitting the ball hard into shifts and at guys, but that is what you want to do.
Your knowledge of advanced statistics specifically hard contact, has to help you keep a positive mental framework even when the overall numbers might not be what you want them to be?
Blake Hunt: One of the ways that I have grown mentally is that I have been listening to a lot of stuff by Steve Springer. He is all about the approach and the mental side of the game. His point is that [batting] average really shouldn’t matter to the hitter if you hit the ball hard you know you beat the pitcher. The pitcher knows you beat him, and the pitcher’s mom knows you beat him along with everyone else in the stadium.
After that, there is nothing else that you can do. I am slowly adapting to that mindset. If I keep hitting the ball hard, things will work out.
You really seem to enjoy the mental side of the game. As a catcher, you have so much information coming to you on both sides of the ball. How do you figure out what you need and what you do not?
Blake Hunt: At the plate, I’m trying to shut my brain off and just have an aggressive mindset. Behind the plate, everything that goes into the game is going to be from before the game starts.
I’m going over the scouting reports, what the starter throws and how we want to attack the hitter with [TinCaps manager Anthony Contreras] and with Matt Williams, our pitching coach. That’s part of it, and also to make in-game adjustments.
As you move up it also must be more fun to catch as the pitchers’ command improves?
Blake Hunt: Oh yeah, it makes my job so much easier.
People always talk about catchers’ ability to work with a pitcher. How do you know which guys to push a little more?
Blake Hunt: It just depends on the guy. I’ve caught MacKenzie Gore and Chris Paddack, and those guys are pretty fired up to begin with. Chris actually took me by the reins and it was kind of like, ‘here is what we are going to do, and here is how we are going to do it.’
All of our pitchers really work very hard on their focus, being there for each pitch.
Last year you talked that all catchers have a bit of ADD. This year you have also been playing a little bit of first base. Is there enough action going on over there for you?
Blake Hunt: The biggest difference is when I am in the dugout between innings as opposed to first, but on the field, I am pretty locked in. I’ve DHed a few days and that is when I really have to focus on being locked in for every pitch.
As a catcher do you find yourself thinking in the on-deck circle about how you would approach pitching you or does that screw you up?
Blake Hunt: That is something all of us catchers talk about and I try to avoid that. I’ve done that in the past and really screwed up. At the beginning of the season, a pitcher got me to lunge at a curveball. I stepped out of the box and though if it were me, I would want another curveball.
So it’s 3-2, ninth inning and we are in Wisconsin and I took a fastball down the middle and froze. So I need to turn the brain off.
I interviewed Robbie Podorsky in Spring Training and he said the same thing. If he is thinking in the box, he’s dead. He said sometimes he will even step out and yell “shut-up” to himself.
Blake Hunt: I take charge in the batter’s box, I am not passive. I will call time-out and step out if I am thinking too much.