How Blue Jays’ Bichette got out of his own way — and back to being himself

DUNEDIN, Fla. — There are some things you should’ve come to understand about Bo Bichette by now. He’s direct, honest, blunt. He may not always say much. But what he says, he means. He keeps things simple and concise because that’s the approach that’s worked for him everywhere else. At shortstop, in the batter’s box, sitting on the bench after groundouts or home runs. Unafraid to be himself, to tell everyone how he really feels, to play the game freely and unapologetically. It’s produced results.

So, if you found Bichette’s comments following another ho-hum, three-barrel, 800-plus feet of home runs afternoon on Monday — in which he said he discovered late in the 2022 season “that I’m really good, to be honest,” — oddly candid, don’t be surprised. Bichette’s been saying and doing bold, straightforward, and frank things for years.

At 15, he was hitting bombs onto the Coors Field concourse during batting practice thrown by his father, Dante, as stunned big-leaguers looked on. At 17, he was telling multiple organizations not to select him in the 2016 draft because he didn’t believe in their player development approach. At 18, on draft night, he came this close to not even turning professional, initially telling the Blue Jays he’d be honouring his commitment to Arizona State University when he didn’t feel the club’s initial bonus offer reflected his true value.

He reached the majors three summers later, at 21, singled off the second pitch he saw, and spoke following the game about being there to win a World Series. Ten days later, when he became the first rookie to notch an extra-base hit in nine consecutive games since Ted freaking Williams did it in 1939, Bichette shrugged off the feat and took the opportunity to recall conversations Dante and Williams had about hitting when he was young. Last spring, at 24, after leading the American League in hits and before doing it again, he rejected a nominal raise from the Blue Jays because he disagreed with the formula the organization used to value pre-arbitration players.

This is who Bichette is. True to himself and his approach through thick and through thin. If anything, the challenges he experienced over the first five months of 2022 — as much as a 106 wRC+ against MLB pitching can even be considered a challenge — were a result of not being himself. Bichette spent those five months trying to be someone else — the player he thought everyone else wanted him to be. It wasn’t until he realized he’d gotten away from himself that he unlocked his mindset and proceeded to set the world ablaze.

“I always knew the player I was capable of being. I always knew I was good. But now, I fully realize who I am. I feel like I am that player I was in September,” Bichette says. “What I did in September — that’s what I always thought I was capable of. I just hadn’t done it. And now that I have, I know.”

What Bichette did in September — plus the five days the regular season stretched into October — was bat .406/.444/.662 with 19 extra-base hits over 133 plate appearances. He torched everything, running a 10.6-per-cent barrel rate while cutting more than five points off the whiff rate he carried into the month. He put up four-and-a-half times more multi-hit games (18) than hitless ones (four). He finished the season batting .290/.333/.469 with a 129 wRC+ after entering September at .260/.305/.420 with a 106 wRC+.

Over that torrid month, Bichette was finally the player he’d spent the previous five trying to be. Prior to September, he’d been putting immense pressure on himself — to not chase outside the zone, to work deep counts, to crush every hittable pitch he saw, to be perfect. And as Bichette searched for results, his self-criticism compounded. He was his own worst enemy. Bichette’s endlessly confident. But he couldn’t get out of his own way.

“I always knew that I was a good player. I was just trying too hard to show everybody who that player is. Instead of just being that player,” Bichette says. “And in September, I wasn’t worried about looking a certain way for anybody. I wasn’t trying to prove myself to anybody. I didn’t really care. I was just out there competing as best I could. Wanting to beat the pitcher every time I went out there. I wasn’t trying to force it. I was just being myself.”

Bichette describes himself at his best as “prepared, aggressive, and fearless.” That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. There’s a temptation to want to dig deeper when Bichette says things like that. But that temptation is a mistake. He isn’t thinking about anything else at the plate.

That’s because Bichette’s found what it takes to be successful is stripping away everything else. Disregarding how he’s perceived when he goes down swinging at three sliders; forgetting the swing decision scores the Blue Jays distribute to their hitters; not take the field looking to prove anything to anyone else — only to prove what he already knows to himself.

“That was September. I wasn’t worried about that kind of stuff,” Bichette says. “I just became comfortable in being aggressive, comfortable in making mistakes.”

When Bichette’s in the box, he can sense if his mind’s in the right place or not — if he’s prepared, aggressive, fearless. Walking back to the dugout after failing to reach base, he knows if he got himself out. And if he did, he grabs a solitary seat on the bench and takes a moment to compose his thoughts. How do I get my mind right? How do I get myself back to a mental place from which I can be successful?

What does Bichette do when he is in a good mental place but the pitcher beats him? He grabs a tablet and assesses the plate appearance pitch-by-pitch. What did this guy do to get me out? How do I counter that next time?

It’s the same simplicity he’s learned to apply to everything he does. Take Bichette’s two-strike approach. We make so much of it. The elimination of the leg kick. The pitches he fouls off. The battles he gets into. The results many believe that produces.

It’s just another misunderstanding. Things aren’t going well when Bichette’s in his two-strike approach. In actuality, the vast majority of Bichette’s damage comes early in the count.

Over the course of his career, Bichette’s a .189/.235/.281 hitter with two strikes. In non two-strike counts, he’s batted .274/.326/.451. Of the 172 extra-base hits Bichette has through four big-league seasons, 133 — over 75 per cent — have come before a pitcher got a second strike on him.

That’s because when Bichette’s feeling good at the plate, he tends to hit what he swings at. And Bichette likes to swing. His 56.4-per-cent swing rate since entering the league is a top-10 mark among qualified hitters. He’s trying to be aggressive. He’s trying to hit a pitch early in the count because that’s often his best pitch to hit. It’s when Bichette’s not feeling his best that he misses those pitches or fouls them off and is forced to keep his front-foot down and battle.

He’s still prepared to hit in those situations. You should always be ready to hit. But Bichette at his best isn’t in those situations at all. During his September/October run last year, Bichette saw a two-strike count in only 15 per cent of his plate appearances and batted .267/.323/.417. In the remaining 85 per cent of plate appearances that didn’t reach two strikes, Bichette hit .385/.434/.606 and came away with 14 of his 19 extra-base hits.

If you’re waiting for Bichette to embody your patient, disciplined ideal of a big-league hitter, you’re going to be waiting a long time. He spent the first five months of 2022 trying to be that guy and we all saw how that worked out. Meanwhile, Bichette’s hit .414/.417/.692 when putting the first pitch of a plate appearance in play since he reached the majors. He has more first-pitch base hits over the last two seasons than any other player in the game.

Don’t get him wrong — Bichette doesn’t want to give away strikes. He’s trying to make good swing decisions. He knows he needs to be offering at pitches he can do damage against. But he also knows that being aggressive, that swinging early in the count, that avoiding two-strike situations, has most often produced that damage. He knows how it feels to try to force it, to try to fight against the style of hitter he is. And now, he’s ready to simply be himself.

“For me, it’s really that simple,” he says. “I was a good baseball player. An above-average baseball player. But I believed I was better than that. I knew what I was capable of. I just hadn’t yet reached it. And then I did for an entire month. And now I understand who I am.”


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