How does a player batting .206 with an OPS of .596 at the end of June last year at Double-A end up several months later ranked among Baseball America’s top 100 national prospects?
For Orioles shortstop prospect Joey Ortiz, it took a lot of hard work, a few swing adjustments and belief in self.
He went from a player that had left labrum surgery end his 2021 season in June to one struggling a year later on the farm. And then to one that was tearing up the sport in the last half of last year. His second half tear meant he would rise from No. 28 on Baseball America's O’s top 30 preseason last year to their No. 8 prospect at the end of the year, and now he’s top 100 at No. 95 on the list released last week.
When I talked to a pair of O’s minor league skippers about the club getting eight prospects ranked in Baseball America's top 100, it was clear that Ortiz’s rise may have meant the most to a few people in the Baltimore organization.
“I love this kid and can’t say enough good things about him,” said Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore. “He overcame the injury. That could have been it for him. He went through surgery and rehab just to get back to the field and have a chance in ’22 and he worked so hard and put himself in such a position to play with guys like Westy (Jordan Westburg) and Gunnar (Henderson). And then he breaks out. It almost makes you emotional. He was behind the eight ball a few times.”
Ortiz turned his mediocre stats last year through June at Bowie into eye-popping stats during July. He changed how he used his hands to get more consistent loft on the ball, and then the weight and strength he had added during the pandemic started to really take hold. He was driving the ball all over the ballpark.
In 23 games in July, he hit .404/.438/.674/1.112 with seven doubles, a triple, five home runs and 19 RBIs. After July 1 and through the end of the 2022 season, Ortiz batted .352/.416/.610 and led the minor leagues in hits, with 101, and with 175 total bases. His 1.026 OPS ranked seventh.
“He could have been written off, but he believes in himself and I believe in him,” said Moore who managed him for 111 games at Bowie in 2022 before his late-season move to Triple-A. “I kept writing him into the batting order at short and told him, ‘I don’t care what your numbers are. You’re hitting second or third because I believe you can do this.’ ”
Ortiz moved to Triple-A Norfolk late in the season and played his first game with the Tides on Aug. 30. In his Triple-A games only, he hit .346/.400/.567 with seven doubles, two triples, four home runs, 14 RBIs and nine walks.
“When it all clicked for him it was special," said Moore. "One of the most special things I’ve seen in my career so far. Made a bit of an adjustment with his hands and sometimes that is what it takes."
When Ortiz got to Triple-A, manager Buck Britton saw a player on a hot streak and it carried over into the International League.
“In that lost season of 2020, Joey Ortiz came back a more physical player then in 2019," Britton said. "I think that jump-started his career. He came into the organization as a plus defender and he started to get more physicality and he started to do more damage at the plate. I love Joey and I love the story. Kind of a hidden gem, commits to the weight room and puts himself on that track. Really good glove and really excited to see him on this list. Might have come out of left field for some, not in our organization, but well deserved.
“When he came back for spring training after that 2020 year, he had some of the best exit velocity in the organization. Credit to him for putting in the work to transform his body. Really excited to see him in a couple of weeks."
Britton said some of the adjustments Ortiz made to get the ball in the air more and drive it more consistently really took hold.
“He got his swing on plane more," he said. "At times it could be a little steep to the ball. Giving himself some length through the zone so he is not just sitting on fastballs and only able to hit a fastball. He has some adjustability in there. But our hitting department like (Anthony) Villa has been tremendous down here and obviously (Ryan) Fuller was a part of that before as well. Really fun to watch him come on as a hitter."
Ortiz is the lowest drafted player among the eight Orioles that populate Baseball America's top 100. He was selected in round four, No. 108 overall, in the 2019 O’s draft that has already seen Adley Rutschman, Henderson and Kyle Stowers – their first three picks that year – play in the majors.
Moore tells the story of a doubleheader at Akron where he planned to rest Ortiz for Game 2. He said between games Ortiz stormed into his office and almost demanded to play. The skipper won that argument, if we can call it that, as he said Ortiz simply needed a rest and he was going to get it right then and there.
But the dedication and passion was appreciated.
“I think that is what happens to you when you have the game almost taken away from you due to injury," Moore said. "I’m so proud of him. I really believe in him. He gets mislabeled as a glove-first guy because his glove is so uncommonly good. It’s easy to mislabel him like that. You don’t see many gloves like Joey Ortiz. But this dude can hit too. It’s normal to struggle early on at Double-A and I think it was really good for him."