Max Pentecost is playing the field again -- and that should come as a big relief for any prospect-loving Blue Jays fan.
After two right shoulder surgeries sidelined him for the entire 2015 season, Pentecost played 74 games between Class A Lansing and Class A Advanced Dunedin last year but did so at designated hitter. Back in the Florida State League, he's rotating between catcher (his original position), first base and DH with some scheduled days off in between -- and those are the ones hitting coach Corey Hart dreads the most.
"You want him in the lineup as much as you can," he said.
While the focus may be on the fact that Pentecost is healthy enough to play defense, his bat is so good that his future position might not matter -- even with the higher offensive threshold that comes with playing first base.
The Blue Jays' No. 12 prospect has hit safely in 18 straight games, the second-longest active streak in the Minors. In fact, the only game in which he didn't have a hit was Opening Day. In 19 total contests, he tops the offense-starved FSL with a .605 slugging percentage and ranks among the leaders in OPS (.958, fourth), home runs (six, tied for fourth) and average (.333, seventh). He's fifth with a 173 wRC+, deeming him 73 percent better than the average FSL hitter right now.
"He's pretty locked in," Hart said. "Some days he's better than others, but you know he's going to bring it every day. No matter what, his focus is on executing the plan he has for that day, and he's got a lot of bat speed to make that happen."
Pentecost, who turned 24 on March 10, is one year older than the average FSL player. Putting aside the injuries, this isn't the standard story of an older player dominating younger competition, however. Pentecost has shown real signs of offensive development in his second stint at Class A Advanced.
For starters, he's getting the ball off the ground more. Over 52 plate appearances in the FSL last year, he hit a grounder an even 50 percent of the time. That number has dropped to 35.6 percent in 81 plate appearances this season, which of course has led to more line drives (up to 16.9 percent from 12.5 in 2016) and fly balls (47.5 percent from 37.5). With Pentecost showing enough power to drive 21.4 percent of fly balls out of the park, the result is a .272 isolated slugging percentage that ranks second in the circuit.
"He's done a great job of taking his work into the game," Hart said. "He's getting in a good position to hit and just staying to the ball more. We're working on directional thinking, too, where he's trying to hit it, staying middle of the field, those kinds of things."
When asked if he's seen Pentecost make any improvements in these first four weeks, Hart jumped to say that the right-handed slugger has done a better job of being aggressive with pitches in the strike zone and laying off those beyond it. Pentecost has walked only 3.5 percent of the time, but his strikeout rate has also dropped from 32.7 percent at Dunedin in 2016 to 21.2 percent.
But the question mark around the 2014 11th overall pick is still his future position. The Blue Jays sent him to extended spring training from April 10-16 to work on his catching in the back fields, and April 18 brought his first game behind the plate since July 24, 2014. He's made four starts at catcher and, despite his shoulder history, has been run on only twice in 2017, though both stolen base attempts were successful. He's also gotten four starts at first but has yet to play the field on back-to-back days.
At 6-foot-2, Pentecost is big enough to play first and has the athleticism to handle it, but more will be asked of his bat if he sticks there. Major League first basemen this season collectively own a 113 wRC+, compared to the 87 put up by catchers. As such, the Blue Jays would love to see him be healthy enough to play behind the plate, but if he can continue hitting like he has, they may speed up his track and keep him at the less physically demanding position.
For now, Hart and the rest of the Dunedin staff are happy to have Pentecost help the club get out to a 16-12 start, even if they have to endure his occasional off-day.
"He's a leader," Hart said. "He's a quieter leader, but the guys look up to him. He leads more by his actions, and those speak loudly enough. Our whole team has been that way, feeding off each other. It's contagious, and he plays a part in that."