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J.J. Bleday's Power Surge Boosts 2019 MLB Draft Stock

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J.J. Bleday (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)

College juniors look forward to two things as the season approaches the finish line: postseason baseball—hopefully ending with a trip to Omaha—and hearing their names called in the draft.

Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday will have those lifelong dreams realized in 2019.

Bleday grew up in Pennsylvania before his family moved to Panama City, Fla., when he was a sophomore in high school. He prepped for two years at Mosley High in nearby Lynn Haven.

But for the past three years he has called Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field and a spot in the Commodores’ lineup home.

Bleday has been a starter since the day he arrived on campus. As a freshman in 2017 he hit .256 with two home runs, 22 RBIs and 23 runs in 51 games. He missed 22 games with an oblique injury early in the 2018 season but came back to hit .368 with four home runs, 15 RBIs and 26 runs in 39 games.

After two seasons at Vanderbilt, the numbers weren’t all there for Bleday, even if the ability and talent were.

Last summer Bleday played in the Cape Cod League with Orleans and was named the league’s top pro prospect by major league scouts. He saw the summer as beneficial to his growth as a hitter because he faced high-level competition and great pitchers from across the country.

The Cape experience also gave Bleday a glimpse of the maturity and preparation required for the daily grind of pro ball.

Bleday’s power numbers have spiked in 2019 after the lefthanded hitter hit just six home runs total in his first two seasons. He attributed the power surge—he led the nation with 23 homers as of mid-May—to being more mature in the box.

“You have a better idea of what you’re up against, week in and week out, with the competition,” Bleday said, “and you try to stay comfortable and control what you can control.”

The plan has clearly worked for Bleday, who has traded some contact for power this season while still maintaining a .352 average. Scouts clearly like the results. Bleday ranks as the No. 6 prospect for this year’s draft.

Drafted in the 39th round out of high school by the Padres, Bleday always intended to take his talents to Vanderbilt. He doesn’t regret his decision.

“It was an easy decision when you know you still have to develop,” Bleday said, “and if you can admit to yourself that you still have a lot of improving to do. Coach (Tim) Corbin and the program does a great job of developing you on the field as well as off the field.”

Bleday has always been known as a good hitter who uses the whole field. Even with this year’s uptick in power, he still considers himself more of a hitter than a power hitter. Either way, he is one the more feared hitters in college baseball.

Bleday grew up idolizing Barry Bonds, Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter. Now he compares his game to that of Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich “in terms of body type and how he sets up his swing.”

Bleday said his first two seasons at Vanderbilt had an impact on his recent success.

“I enjoy the moments with my teammates as much as I can,” Bleday said. “This is college baseball. It’s not going to last forever and it’s hard to replicate this wherever you go from here. Plus, I’ve learned how to embrace failure during my college experience.”

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Failure is not something Bleday has had to experience much this season. His 23rd home run broke the Vanderbilt single-season record previously held by Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft.

“It was really special. It’s an honor to accomplish that,” Bleday said. “If someone would’ve told me I was going to break that record at the start of the season I would’ve said, ‘You are crazy.’

“It’s one of those things that just worked out and it’s pretty special to be part of that kind of history here at Vanderbilt.”

In a display of his team-first mentality, Bleday was equally excited to talk about Vanderbilt’s sweep of South Carolina on the road or senior righthander Patrick Raby notching his 30th career win to establish a new program record.

Like many juniors, Bleday has a lot on his plate late in his draft year, including expectations for an Omaha run, doing well on his finals and the anxiety, talk and pressures of the upcoming draft.

When asked how he has multitasked all those realities, Bleday said: “It hasn’t been easy. With social media nowadays it’s hard not to pick up your phone and see that stuff, (but) I’ve tried to stay away from my phone and focus more on my team and my family.

“Then, believe it or not, it’s a funny thing, but focusing on school work has allowed my mind to go away from the draft thoughts and talk.”

Try as he may to avoid all the draft buzz and speculation, Bleday should plan to have his phone nearby on June 3, when he will come off the board early, drafted by a team thinking it has the next Christian Yelich.

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