Cal Mitchell Hoping to Force His Way Into the Pittsburgh Outfield

The outfield scene in the upper levels of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system has gotten crowded in the last year.

The Pirates have added Canaan Smith-Njigba and Jack Suwinski in separate trades. They’ve seen 2019 third round pick Matt Fraizer have a breakout season. Those guys join 2018 first round pick Travis Swaggerty, who is the best center fielder of the group.

It might be easy to forget about Cal Mitchell in that group. The 2017 second round pick out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego didn’t exactly dominate the Double-A level in 2021. His numbers weren’t bad though. Mitchell hit for a .280/.330/.429 line with 12 home runs in 419 plate appearances in Altoona. In a game where three-true-outcome hitters are becoming more and more common, it’s refreshing to see a guy who can hit for average while limiting strikeouts.

“I think the strength of my game is being a tough out,” Mitchell said. “I think I’m good at recognizing pitches early. I’m good at laying off balls. I’ll take my walks. But I do like to swing the bat. Usually I don’t hit a lot of foul balls or swing and miss a lot. The strength of my game is putting balls in play a lot, and hitting the ball harder more often than not. I always try to make something happen for the defensive players.”

The approach is working to limit damage, but Mitchell hasn’t been able to maximize his power potential. Praised by Pirates farm director John Baker for having some of the best force in the system, Mitchell hasn’t seen that translate to the stats in the upper levels.

“I‘m always trying to take my best swing so that I can get the most out of my swings and hit the ball as hard as I can,” Mitchell said. “I guess I’m just worried about trying to hit head-high line drives as hard as I can. Sometimes that turns out to be a double or a bomb.”

The biggest downside to Mitchell’s game this year was his line drive rate. It dropped to 12.5%, down from 20.5% in High-A in 2019. He’s hitting fly balls 45% of the time, but more line drives and fewer ground balls would be the key to unlocking his offensive potential.

The “force” that Mitchell has comes from his strong legs and lower half.

“I work really hard in the gym to get those numbers and get that force output,” Mitchell said. “That helps me over the course of a long season staying strong. It helps me to stay short with my swing, but still generate enough power to leave the yard.”

Mitchell has been getting better defensively at covering more ground and making plays that he hasn’t in the past. That’s a boost to his game, but as a corner outfielder, most of his value will be determined by the bat. His value will come from his bat, and he’s going to need more in-game power production to stand out in that group of upper-level outfielders.

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