If there’s an upside to the Blue Jays’ decision to avoid promoting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for service-time reasons — which is to say if even the dumbest of clouds has a silver lining — it is in the arrival of Rowdy Tellez. The burly 23-year-old, who has endured not only the fall of his star as a prospect but also the recent death of his mother from brain cancer, recently began his major-league stay with a bang while taking advantage of playing time that might not have been available with Guerrero’s arrival. But really, what the hell more do you need to know before you embrace a player who acquired the nickname of Rowdy while still in the womb?
Tellez (pronounced Tuh-LEZ) spent the entire 2018 minor-league season at Triple-A Buffalo, an assignment he repeated after bombing in 2017 (more on which below). His modest final line (.270/.340/.425 with 13 homers) doesn’t exactly suggest an impact bat at first base or designated hitter, though he did improve over the course of the season, hitting .248/.329/.382 with six homers in 280 PA before the All-Star break and .306/.360/.497 with seven homers in 164 PA after it. What’s more, that improvement occurred against the unimaginably sad backdrop of his mom’s decline and, ultimately, her death on August 19 at the too-young age of 53.
Just over two weeks after Lori Tellez passed away, on September 5, her son was wearing a Blue Jays uniform, pinch-hitting for Jonathan Davis in the eighth inning, roping an RBI double into the right-center gap on the first pitch from the Rays’ Jake Faria, and, after receiving a rousing ovation from the Rogers Centre crowd, pointing to the sky in tribute to his mother:
Did it just get dusty in here, or is that my contact lenses going off? Pardon me for a moment… The next night, Tellez collected three hits, all doubles, off Shane Bieber (two) and Cody Allen (one). The night after that, he hit a pair of doubles off Carlos Carrasco, and then on Saturday, his first big-league homer, off Adam Plutko:
Coincidentally, that’s Blue Jays broadcaster and longtime major-league catcher Buck Martinez, like Tellez an alumnus of Elk Grove High School in Sacramento County, California, calling the 423-foot shot. Technically, it didn’t need his help to get up and get out, but can you blame him for his exuberance? Everybody wants to get Rowdy.
According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, Tellez is the first player since at least 1908 (as far back as their game-by-game data currently goes) to collect seven extra-base hits in his first four games. Only three other players have collected six:
|Rowdy Tellez||Blue Jays||2018||7||6||0||1|
|Will Middlebrooks||Red Sox||2012||6||3||0||3|
|Will Middlebrooks||Red Sox||2012||5||7||4||0||3|
|Rowdy Tellez||Blue Jays||2018||4||7||6||0||1|
Yes, both distinctions are ultimately trivial, and founded upon small sample sizes, but as trivia goes, there’s some good company there and also Will Middlebrooks. Bay’s streak survived not only a trade from the Padres to the Pirates but also a hit-by-pitch that fractured his wrist in the lone plate appearance of what proved to be his San Diego finale. (For consecutive-game streaks, only games where a batter had an official at-bat or sacrifice fly are counted.)
So who is Rowdy Tellez? Despite the fabulous name (which puts me in the mood to re-watch They Live, the 1988 sci-fi classic directed by John Carpenter and starring wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), and the auspicious beginning to his big-league career, he remains something of an enigma due to his volatile performances over the past three seasons, and hardly in the same class as Vlad Jr. or Bo Bichette, Toronto’s other blue-chip prospect. Beyond the 80-grade name, his only standout tool is plus raw power, and the future grades on his running and throwing are well below average. MLB Pipeline, which ranks him 29th in the system, even graded his throwing as a 20.
First, the name. He was born Ryan John Tellez in Sacramento, California on March 16, 1995, already nicknamed “Baby Rowdy” because he was “moving around all of the time in the womb,” according to his father, Greg. He started racing dirt bikes when he was three years old, but outgrew that by the time he was 10, and switched to baseball. At Elk Grove, he hit a 462-foot homer in a 2011 home-run derby and earned a host of honors, including the ESPN/Cali-Hi Sports award for the best sophomore in 2011, a spot on Baseball America‘s High School All-American team in 2013, and the No. 59 ranking on BA‘s list of 2013 draft prospects on the strength of his plus-plus raw power from the left side. Having committed to the University of Southern California, Tellez was thought to be unsignable, so he went undrafted until the 30th round, but when the Blue Jays offered $850,000 — at the time, the largest bonus given to a player outside the 10th round under the slotting system instituted in 2012 — he signed.
Tellez didn’t turn many heads in his first two years of pro ball, but upon hitting a combined .289/.347/.454 with 14 homers in 447 PA at two A-ball stops in 2015, capped by a stint in in the Arizona Fall League, he entered the 2016 season ranked seventh on Baseball America‘s top-10 list for the Blue Jays, up from 30th the year before. From that year’s Prospect Handbook:
Tellez combines feel for hitting and power potential in a burly body [6’4″, 245] that he’ll have to continually monitor… He has a feel for the barrel and using the whole field, with natural strength to drive the ball to the opposite field and not just pull power… profiles as a second-division first baseman who could become a first-division player if the power keeps developing.
Tellez hit a career-high 23 homers at Double-A New Hampshire in 2016 en route to a .297/.387/.530 line, with BA lauding his improved conditioning (down 15 pounds), aggressive approach, makeup, and power production. He maintained the No. 7 seven spot on their list and placed eighth on that of FanGraphs, where Eric Longenhagen worried about his mechanics:
Tellez gets beat by velocity, up. His hands go back high and, sometimes, late, making it hard for him to catch fastballs and make meaningful contact or sometimes any at all… It also takes Tellez’s bat a while to get into the hitting zone and, while he has shown some feel for making opposite-field contact when his barrel doesn’t arrive in time to pull the ball, he hits the ball on the ground quite a bit.
[H]e’s shown an ability to take a walk throughout his career, and has the raw power necessary to torch out mistakes. I have a future 50 on the bat and a 55 on the game power, which, as long as he keeps reaching base at his established .350-plus clip, is okay everyday at first base. But while Tellez has hit up through Double-A, there are unquestionably some Quad-A traits here, too, and I know several scouts who think Tellez is going to be solved by big-league pitching.
Tellez struggled mightily at Triple A Buffalo (.222/.295/.333, six homers in 501 PA) in 2017. His mother’s condition — she was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma the previous December — preoccupied him. As he told The Athletic’s John Lott recently, “2017 was bad, really bad. I didn’t talk to anybody. I kept it to myself. I thought I could do it my own way and it ended up backfiring. I had a lot of hate and anger and frustration. Selfishness built up.”
This spring, after his mother’s condition worsened, Tellez reached a turning point. He connected with Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak and Bisons manager Bobby Meachem, both of whom lost parents at similar ages, and gained a new outlook and a support group. “I said, ‘I can’t do this on my own anymore,'” he told Lott. “‘I’m going to talk. I’m going to be an open person. I’m going to be vulnerable. I need to get this off my chest.’ And it helped me a lot.”
Nineteen plate appearances isn’t any kind of sample size upon which to make judgments; obviously, Tellez isn’t going to sustain a .444/.474/.944 line for long. Within his limited appearances, he is hitting the ball hard (average exit velocity of 90.2 mph) and in the air (average launch angle 18.5 degrees) to all fields (30.8% oppo), en route to a .395 xwOBA. He hasn’t faced much hard stuff, however. Two pitches from Clevinger represent the only ones he’s seen at 95 mph or higher; he took a high one for a ball and fouled off one that was in the zone.
The scouting report on Tellez hasn’t really changed either. Via Longenhagen, who graded Tellez as a 45 Future Value prospect entering 2017 and a 40 FV this spring while comparing him to Matt Adams and Dan Vogelbach, he still has plus raw power but “a swing and approach to contact that is geared more for doubles” making him a first-base/DH type without huge pop or much of a defensive profile beyond “serviceable” (as MLB Pipeline termed it). He tracks breaking stuff from righties well, and has a good, short two-strike approach that contributes to low K rates (16.7% at Buffalo this year), but there’s still concern about him getting beat with velocity because of how late he gets his hands moving. An assessment like, “He could be the larger half of a first base/DH platoon and hit like Yonder Alonso did before he made his late-career adjustments” is no recipe for future stardom.
In the Toronto organization, he’s got his share of obstacles in the way. Smoak, who has recorded a respectable .248/.355/.471 with 24 homers, a 126 wRC+, and 1.9 WAR, has a very affordable $8 million club option for next year. Kendrys Morales, who has recovered from a slow start to hit .257/.338/.459 with 21 homers and a 115 wRC+, also has a guaranteed deal for next year — in this case, for $12 million. Both are switch-hitters who have generally been stronger against righties in their careers — and markedly so this year. They’re occupying Tellez’s potential parking spot. Guerrero, if he’s not destined for third base, is going to begin crowding those two sometime next year. Something will have to give for our big boy to catch a break.
Maybe it won’t happen for Tellez. Maybe these few weeks in the bigs are the best of what’s to come, at least in Toronto. But in this day and age where skills appear more malleable than ever, where players like J.D. Martinez, Max Muncy, and Chris Taylor can remake themselves from fringe players to heavy hitters, maybe Tellez is just an adjustment or two away from tapping into that raw power and altering the trajectory of his career. Let’s hope so. We could all use a little more Rowdy-ness.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.