In Tuesday night’s Midwest League All-Star Game, South Bend Cubs slugger Eloy Jimenez had done very little until the ninth inning. He’d hit an RBI groundout. That was it. His team was trailing 10-7. Eloy came to the plate with 2 men on and one out. He went to the plate looking for a curve or a slider up in the zone. That was the pitch he got, and that was the pitch he crushed to tie the game. It was a towering and majestic shot over the center field fence in Cedar Rapids. His team would score again and win the game, and afterwards, Eloy was named “Star of the Game.”
I think this is standard operating procedure for Eloy. His team, the South Bend Cubs, have come back seven times to walk off this season, several of them coming courtesy of Eloy. 2016 has been a magical year for the young 19 year-old. In the first half of the season, he’s hit .341 with 8 HRs and 45 RBIs and the Cubs won the first half Eastern Division title. In a league where the average age is 22, the teenager has performed above expectations. This is only his third year of playing organized baseball.
The Cubs signed Eloy for $2.8 million in the summer of 2013. He was the number one ranked international prospect that summer. Here is what MLB Pipeline had to say of Jimenez before he debuted in 2014:
Like Soler, Jimenez fits the right-field profile extremely well. His most impressive tool is his power potential, as he has plenty of bat speed and room to add strength to his 6-foot-4 frame. Jimenez is more advanced than most 17-year-olds at the plate, showing a precocious feel for pitch recognition and strike-zone discipline.
Though Jimenez is an above-average runner now, and he may begin his pro career in center field, he figures to lose a step once he fills out. That likely would dictate a move to right field, where his strong arm will fit nicely.
Jimenez was assigned to the Arizona Rookie League his first year. His performance was underwhelming in some aspects. In 42 games, he hit .227 with 3 HRs and 27 RBIs. Coming into the season, his weakness was considered gameplay. While he did not hit for average, he was able to drive in runs at a prodigious rate.
In 2015, Jimenez was assigned to short season Eugene. His fellow signee, Gleyber Torres, was assigned to South Bend. Jimenez’s skills were just not there yet. At Eugene, Jimenez struggled to stay healthy. He missed 17 games but his average dramatically improved. He hit .284 with 7 HRs and 33 RBIs in 57 games.
I was a little disappointed in his lack of power, but I could not discount his ability to improve his average so much in one year.
Heading into 2016, I was extremely excited to see Eloy at South Bend. My thoughts were that he would hit around .280, hit about ten HRs and drive in 35 runs in the first half. Mind you, those numbers are mine and those numbers represent peak performance. I didn’t think he would begin to reach optimal performance until the second half when the weather warmed up. I was hoping that come July that it would become “The Summer of Eloy.”
Coming into the season, MLB Pipeline had not changed his profile much. They only added the following line: “He’s adding strength to his big frame and exhibits impressive bat speed and leverage from the right side of the plate.” What they also forgot to include was his maturity.You could see early in April that when the moment arrived, Eloy wanted that spotlight, that pressure on him. He tended to thrive on it.
What I like so much about what I have seen in Eloy, the 2016 version, is just what MLB Pipeline discussed in their initial profile of him – “precocious feel for pitch recognition…”
Watching him hit from the centerfield camera on MiLB.TV, you can tell that Eloy can tell what the pitch is as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. He does not get fooled on that. However, just because he can tell what kind of pitch it is does not mean that he can hit it.
Eloy does strike out a lot despite such a high average, but those rates are improving as well as his walk rate. In April, he hit .284 with 6 walks and 25 Ks in 81 at bats. In May, he hit .364 with 7 walks and 25 Ks in 110 at bats. In 67 at bats in June, he’s hitting .373 with 11 Ks and 3 BBs. By month, his walk rates are 7%/6.3%/4.4% while his K rates by month are 30.8%/22.7%/16.4%. That’s a dramatic reduction in strikeouts showing an improved approach, but his walk rate should not be shrinking as well.
Going forward, I think the Cubs would like to see his walk rate improve. I don’t think the Cubs need to see his power numbers improve, but it would be nice. To me, it’s all about the approach that is going to allow him to pick his pitches. He’s doing that now, the ball is just not leaving the yard. His doubles output has increased every month from 6 to 8 to 10, which I find amazing! He’s had ten doubles in just 67 at bats this month. His OPS stands at .922 for the year. Imagine what it would be if he got more walks!
To me, there is no rush to move Eloy up a level this year. Let him play at South Bend. Let him hit and dominate, let him be a leader, and most importantly, let him get more walks. I think his second half might be more amazing than the first, if that is possible. Based on Eloy’s confidence right now, I think it is.