With Derek Jeter Watching, JJ Bleday Produces Career Day
HOOVER, Ala. — You never know who you’ll find at the SEC Tournament. There are former players, former coaches, athletic directors, and Ron Polk, the SEC coaching legend, is always sure to make an appearance. The event also draws a who’s who of the scouting community as teams take advantage of the chance to see many prospects facing premium competition less than two weeks before the draft.
Still, it isn’t every day a team’s front office rolls four deep with high-powered executives, including a member of the 3,000-hit club, in a suite at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. But on Wednesday evening, that’s what the Marlins did, as CEO Derek Jeter, farm director Gary Denbo, president Mike Hill and special advisor Jorge Posada took in Vanderbilt’s 11-1, eight-inning victory against Auburn.
The Marlins hold the No. 4 overall pick in next month’s draft, and they have been previously linked to Vanderbilt outfielder J.J. Bleday. Those links likely grew stronger Wednesday, as Bleday went 5-for-5 with two doubles against Auburn. He became the ninth player in SEC Tournament history to record five hits and the first to do so since 2003.
Bleday this winter was voted a Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors and is plenty used to playing in front of scouts. While Jeter has a different profile than any other scout or team executive, Bleday said he wasn’t aware of the future Hall of Famer’s presence until after the game.
“Obviously, that’s pretty cool,” he said. “But at the same time, I was focused on the team, focused on the win.”
Bleday has had a stellar junior season and this week was named SEC player of the year. He is hitting .361/.471/.763 with 25 home runs and has walked as much as he’s struck out (45 of each).
Even by those standards, however, Wednesday was an exceptional game for Bleday. It was his first career five-hit game. In fact, he’d never even had a four-hit game.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said Bleday’s consistency is the key to his success.
“He never seems like he’s out of balance, never seems like he’s trying to do too much,” Corbin said. “He’s just trying to get to the middle of the ball as much as possible. Even when he hits those home runs it’s not like he’s trying to manufacture power. He’s just trying to get to the ball. And because he is, he sees good results.”
Bleday never came out of his disciplined approach Wednesday. He struggled when Vanderbilt swept Auburn in Nashville last month, going 1-for-12 with a home run in the series. He said he expected the Tigers to stick with a similar approach against him Wednesday and just tried to focus on staying disciplined at the plate.
Bleday doubled to right field in his first at-bat and singled to center field in the third. The rest of the game, with Auburn working the outer part of the plate against him, the lefthanded hitter stayed within himself and worked the left side of the field. He doubled to left in the fourth and went the other way for singles in the sixth and eighth innings.
Bleday said the discipline required to keep hitting the ball the other way starts with the work he does in batting practice every day.
“Trying to let the ball travel, see it deep and get a pitch to hit,” he said. “When that’s what you do day in and day out, it comes naturally. You don’t think about it, you just let your hands work.”
Auburn coach Butch Thompson has been watching Bleday since he was in high school. Thompson said Bleday has developed into a complete player over the last five years.
“He takes what he gives you,” Thompson said. “It’s a very intense swing but you still see the control. You don’t see swing-and-miss. And it’s not calculated—I see easy moves, I see power.”
Bleday has been a regular for Vanderbilt throughout his career. But he has steadily gotten better, going from a .256/.384/.341 hitter as a freshman to a .368/.494/.511 hitter as a sophomore. This year, he has added power, blasting 25 home runs after hitting six in 90 games over his first two seasons as a Commodore.
Corbin said much of Bleday’s development is attributable to his steady personality.
“He’s a 35-year-old man,” Corbin said. “With a lot of kids, the quicker you can get to maturity, the quicker you see positive and consistent results. His parents had everything to do with that. That’s a young man with a lot of balance in his life. He’s so consistent academically, athletically, socially.”
That consistency and maturity has helped power Bleday’s sensational junior season, putting him on an All-American track and into the discussion as the Player of the Year. It has also helped power Vanderbilt (46-10) to an SEC title and makes the Commodores a national championship favorite.
It has also powered Bleday up draft boards and has clearly piqued the Marlins' interest. They have plenty of information on him—scouting director D.J. Svihlik spent the 2016 season, which was Bleday’s freshman year, on staff at Vanderbilt. But it never hurts to impress the brass and on Wednesday, Bleday’s star shone the brightest.
On the big stage of the SEC Tournament, you never know who’s watching.