LAKEWOOD– Jose Pujols is making a name for himself as one of the Class A BlueClaws’ most talented prospects in recent memory.
Tied for the South Atlantic League lead in home runs, the 20-year-old outfielder has shown considerable power, improved plate discipline and gleaming defense.
It was just four years ago that another young slugger garnered a lot of attention at Lakewood’s FirstEnergy Park.
At a similar point in his career, third baseman Maikel Franco, as a blossoming slugger, began impressing many with his bat.
Pujols calls Franco a friend and says the current Phillies star took him under his wing a bit during spring training this year. The one-on-one guidance, which Pujols says was in relation to on-field matters and life away from the diamond, meant a great deal to the younger ball player.
“It means a lot because that means that you have it in you to be in the Major Leagues and they see that, so when people like that come to you it’s nice because, I mean, they don’t do that with a lot of people,” Pujols said.
Coaches, fans and media types may spot similarities between Franco and Pujols in the power department. The path might be similar also.
Both players are natives of the Dominican Republic. Each of them were signed by former Phillies scout and current Indians director of Latin American scouting Koby Perez. And both men played in Lakewood as a 20-year-old.
For Franco, in the season that he turned 20, he was batting .217 with five home runs and 16 total extra-base hits through his first 50 games for Lakewood. Through 50 games this season, Pujols sported a .251 average with nine homers and 19 extra-base hits.
The remainder of that 2012 season, Franco would bat .318 with 33 extra-base hits. The following year was Franco’s breakout season when he split time at Class A Advanced Clearwater and Double-A Reading, posting a combined .320 average with 31 home runs and 103 RBI in 134 games.
It’s not far-fetched to think Pujols could be on a similar route with all his potential, says Lakewood manager Shawn Williams, who has coached at multiple levels of the Phillies’ developmental ranks in recent seasons.
“He is by far the most improved player I’ve seen since I’ve been here in four years and I’ve seen him since he was 16,” Williams said, later adding, “He’s a kid that there’s a huge ceiling for him and there’s no telling how good he’s gonna be.”
A difference worth mentioning between Franco’s and Pujols’ full-season Class A campaigns is a large variance in strike outs. Franco was fanned 80 times that entire season, while Pujols K’d 74 times through those first 50 games of this season.
According to Williams, though, the strike outs are not of great concern to those in charge of the youngster’s progress.
“For me it’s not so much the strike outs as it is about the at bats,” Williams stated. “His at bats are improving and even though he’s striking out, he’s having great at bats. Laying off a lot of tough breaking balls that maybe he was chasing early. For me, his pitch recognition has really improved. But for a young hitter, (he’s) picking up the pitches and pitch recognition, which has shown in the last month or so with increased power numbers and driving in runs.”
Last year, following a couple seasons in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Pujols showed flashes of pop with short-season A level Williamsport where he batted .238 with 15 doubles, two triples, four home runs and 30 RBI in 66 games.
This year, the six-foot-three 180-pounder had a .251 average with those nine homers and 32 RBI heading into action on Friday night.
Of late, Pujols has been focused on his hitting approach during batting practice to improve his overall efforts at the plate.
“My coaches want me to work on hitting to the middle of the field in batting practice, in the cage and all that and it’s helping me out,” Pujols said.
That is a mandate that comes from Williams, whose father is Jimy Williams, who managed the Boston Red Sox from 1997 through 2001. While hanging around Fenway Park as a teenager, the younger Williams picked up something from a two-time batting champion that he would take into his own professional career as a player and now preaches to the players that he coaches.
“I talk about it quite a bit because I used to love watching Nomar Garciaparra take (batting practice). He would take like his first three rounds and he would try to hit every ball off the (screen in front of the pitcher), which I think is one of the best things you could do as a hitter to try and get everything going toward the middle,” Williams explained.
It’s worth noting that Pujols’ game is not all bat. A right fielder that can make strong throws from that position, his coaches feel that he gets jumps on batted balls and displays range like that of a center fielder.
So, whether he’s compared to a current Phillies standout, practices like a six-time All-Star that his skipper looked up to as a kid, or displays the skill set suitable for a position he doesn’t even play, the success he’s having isn’t something that has struck the talented Pujols with any level of surprise.
“No, I’m not at all (surprised), because I am working hard and I know good things are going to happen when you work hard.”
Indeed they will. Keep it up.