It rained. It rained a lot. As the game cancellation announcement finally went out over what was left of the Friday night Cinco de Mayo crowd at Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo on Friday night one person screamed, “it’s not raining.”
That kind of denial is certainly what many Toronto Blue Jays fans were feeling as April unfolded 100 kilometres to the north.
The Buffalo Bisons have now had eight rain delays. More rain delays than they had all of last year – home or away.
The rain, however, has not stopped Buffalo from winning.
While the Jays struggled through April the Bisons have gone on a tear, leading the International League North with a record of 17-12 and, in the process, highlighting some unexpected bats.
Jason Leblebijian is a not widely known prospect. But while Rowdy Tellez and Darrell Ceciliani struggled at the plate in April, Leblebijian, a 25th-round draft pick in 2012, has impressed.
Leblebijian or “Leb,” as the multi syllabically challenged have come to call him, is hitting .337/.450/.578 with an OPS of 1.028 and 23 RBIs.
As far as Triple-A position players in the International League goes, that’s good enough for first in OBP, second in OPS, third in slugging percentage, and first in RBIs through Tuesday.
At the end of play Tuesday, Tellez is hitting just .215/.321/.333 while Ceciliani is hitting .148/.175/.164.
If you had predicted that Jason Leblebijian’s numbers would be like this through the first 29 games then you would have probably been alone. His career minor league slash line is .266/.341/.401 but over the last two seasons he’s shown improvement at the plate to go a long with his well known defensive abilities as an infielder.
Last year Leblebijian started with the High A Dunedin Blue Jays and was a mid-season All-Star before being promoted to Double A New Hampshire where he continued to hit well and where most expected that he would start this season. Instead he’s leading the Buffalo Bisons offence.
When I spoke to him in spring training he talked of a new training approach during this last off-season – more weight lifting and a focus on overall fitness. That appears to be paying off but he’s also adapted quickly to the pitching at the upper levels of the minors.
“The biggest thing is a two strike approach,” said Leblebijian last Friday while we both waited for the rain to stop. “I’m really just trying to make it a competitive at bat because at the end of the day 50 percent of your at bats are probably going to be with two strikes throughout the season.
“Being able to elongate those at bats and really make the pitcher work for what he’s trying to do. For me it’s more of a team thought mentality – being able to make him throw more pitches and maybe exhaust him.”
It’s also a team he knows well. Rowdy Tellez, Dwight Smith jr., Christian Lopes and manager Bobby Meacham were all part of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats last season.
“With Meach and Lopes and Rowdy, and all those folks I’ve been with, there’s no building of chemistry because it’s there,” said Leblebijian. “You just show up the first day and try and keep rolling from the year before.”
“He did the same thing last year,” said manager Bobby Meacham. “When he came up to Double A and hit his stride right away and all of sudden he’s hitting third in the lineup. And he’s doing the same thing here. HIs work habits are still great and we’re seeing results in the games.”
In spring training Leblebijian said he no longer sets goals for where he would like to be by the end of each year. Not anymore, anyway. But now that he’s so close? He says that’s not really on anyone’s mind despite the Jays’ early struggles.
“No one has really even talked about it,” he said. “The Jays have so many good players up there. All we can do is be here and be in the moment and take every pitch to the best of our ability and if moves are made then moves are made.”
For fans looking to the minor leagues for quick answers to big league problems, however, Bisons’ hitting coach Devon White was quick to point out how important it is not to rush development or moves to the big leagues.
“I think that’s been going on a lot with different organizations to rush guys up to the big leagues and when they come back down they struggle so we’re being very mindful of that.”
Another position player doing well this spring is outfielder Dwight Smith, Jr.
Smith is hitting .323/.384/.485 with an .869 OPS and 16 RBIs. The outfielder has had a somewhat higher profile than Leblebijian during his time in the minor leagues. He was drafted 53rd overall in 2011 and has been listed by some as one of the Blue Jays top 30 prospects.
But White views Smith in a similar vein as Leblebijian.
“I don’t think he’s ready yet,” said White. “We’re trying to make sure that when he gets enough at bats and gets enough pitches that when we do move him, we’re not thinking of bringing him back down.”
MIKE OHLMAN CALLED UP
One player that will be moving up is catcher Mike Ohlman following the move to put Russell Martin on the 10-day DL. This was certainly not what the Blue Jays’ front office was hoping for but it will be interesting to see what Ohlman can do considering his hot start with Buffalo this spring.
In 23 games with Buffalo Ohlman has hit .246/.388/.594 with a .982 OPS and leads the team with 7 home runs.
Follow Wesley James on Twitter: @WesleyJBaseball
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