GLENDALE, Ariz. – At quick glance, Mitchell Tolman’s stats don’t look bad.
He hit for a .267/.364/.393 line in the very pitcher friendly Florida State League. That includes good secondary ratios, with an 11.7% walk rate, a 17.2% strikeout rate, and a .125 ISO, which is good for a middle infielder in the FSL.
But watching Tolman, there is some reason for concern. Too often, it seemed that he would be letting pitches go that he could hit, and working himself into deep counts. This led to a strong walk total, but also led to a lower average than he was probably capable of, as well as lower power numbers than he could produce.
I saw a similar passive approach at the plate in Arizona, only seeing Tolman for a few games, but seeing a lot of strikeouts after he worked himself into 3-2 counts by barely offering at any pitches. Since he was going up against a better class of pitchers, he didn’t fare as well, leading to more strikeouts and a lower average.
That has led to his focus in the AFL, and will be a focus for him as he goes to Altoona in 2018. Tolman is aiming to be more consistent with his at-bats, focusing on his zones, and trying to attack mistakes more frequently.
“You can only advance that skill as you keep going,” Tolman said of attacking mistakes. “You see guys in the big leagues who do a really good job of not missing mistakes. I think that’s what I’ve seen here, is guys are good enough where you get one, if that, mistake in an at-bat. Those are the ones you have to take advantage of. If you miss those, guys are good enough to put you away if you miss that one mistake they give you.”
His hitting coach, Keoni De Renne, summed it up best what the problem was with a more passive approach.
“For any hitter, when you start becoming passive and you start shrinking the zone, you’re going to find yourself behind in the count a lot,” De Renne said.
Tolman added that in his limited experience against upper level pitchers, he found they knew how to pitch better, and knew how to read swings. That combination, along with various other skills, means it’s much less forgiving when falling behind, versus when the same thing happens in A-ball.
“If he has the mentality that he’s ready to hit from pitch one to pitch five or six of the at-bat, and not let a pitch go by, he’s going to be that much more ready to hit, which is going to translate for him to hopefully get something out over the plate that he can handle,” De Renne said.
Tolman isn’t the only person who has had this issue. It can be a common one, to the point where you don’t have to think hard about another recent middle infielder who was impacted by the passive approach. Max Moroff was the same way in A-ball, letting the bat sit on his shoulder for entire games at a time, drawing either walks or strikeouts, and occasionally connecting with a big hit when he capitalized on mistakes.
When he got to the upper levels, Moroff started getting more aggressive earlier in the count. His power and average went up, and his walks and strikeouts stayed consistent. It hasn’t been like flipping a switch. He still has some issues, and is still working to be more aggressive. As Tolman said, it’s a skill that needs to be advanced the more you move up.
Tolman will go to Altoona next year. The Pirates have a lot of middle infield options ahead of him, with Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer expected to open in Triple-A, and Cole Tucker expected to start at shortstop in Double-A. Tolman will need to do something to emerge and keep his name in that group of prospects.
He’s got the eye to control the strike zone, and avoid high strikeout numbers. He has some power for a middle infielder. He’s got the contact skills to hit for average. It’s just a question of whether he can make similar adjustments that Moroff made, and see his tools carry over more consistently to the game.