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Monday, December 5, 2022

Blake Sabol: A Prospect Development Story

ALTOONA, Pa. – When Blake Sabol was growing up, he was taught to be a hitter first.

As a big lefty, Sabol was pitched away often. His father taught him a common lesson, to hit the ball where it is pitched, and go the other way with those offerings.

“I was taught to just go with the pitch and hit it that way, and I would hit my singles,” said Sabol.

The Pirates want the 6′ 4″, 225 pound Sabol to hit for more than singles. Altoona hitting coach Jon Nunnally told Sabol this year that he’s a really good hitter, but makes contact too deep. Sabol was worried that if he made contact out in front, he would ground everything out.

“Nuns is just like you don’t swing up for a homer,” said Sabol. “You swing down for a homer. You catch it out front.”

Sabol and Nunnally have been working a lot in the cages, and Sabol is often picking the brain of his hitting coach.

“[I’m] starting to learn there’s different moments where I can take my chances,” said Sabol, reflecting on the lessons he’s learned from Nunnally. “I’m lucky enough where if I take my chance, it might go over the 405 batter’s eye. They want me to take those chances. … If I wanted to sit here and slap singles to left, I probably could, because that’s what I was taught to do.”

Blake Sabol grew quickly in high school, and is still learning to use his body. He never got above 210 pounds in college, but has focused on adding weight and muscle in pro ball.

Previously, he used to try and do it all — hit for average, hit for power, and even try to steal bases.

“I was still running around, I was stealing a whole bunch of bases and stuff,” said Sabol.

The Pirates want him focusing on his bat, and just being smart on the bases. Nunnally noticed Sabol running all over the field early in the season, and told him how detrimental that was to his hitting.

“Earlier in the year I was just taking off, and he was like ‘Dude, save your legs,’” said Sabol. “The big thing I’ve learned with hitting is you’ve got to be in your legs. I think that’s been the biggest learning thing in pro ball is learning to use my lower half.”

Sabol was previously more of an upper-half hitter, relying almost entirely on his hands. He’s learned this year how to use the ground to get force into the ball. The result so far this year is a .277/.346/.480 line with 13 homers in 346 at-bats at the Double-A level.

Hitting is hard, and Nunnally tries to keep things as simple as possible. A hitter has to focus on the shapes of pitches, the guy on the mound and his possible attack plan, and maintaining focus the entire at-bat. Players need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are.

“Some guys don’t know,” said Nunnally. “You’ve just got to over the course of the year get to know them, and then you can start talking to them and building a relationship. Once you build a relationship, you can say what you need to say, and nobodies feelings are hurt by it, and you go on about your business.”

Nunnally is starting to reach Sabol with how to properly lift the ball.

“I can see it now,” said Sabol. “I’m watching other hitters on other teams, and I’m like Nuns he’s going about it the wrong way. He’s going this way. He’s trying to lift it this way.”

Sabol has an added challenge with maintaining his legs. He’s been a catcher this year, which is more of a secondary position for him. His receiving skills have shown improvements this year, and he has gotten some help from one of his teammates.

“Working with [Dylan] Shockley, who I consider one of the best defensive catchers in the country, he helps me a lot off the machine,” said Sabol. “Just different tips, pre-pitch move, and stuff like that. There’s a lot of talented people out here, and for me it’s just awesome, being able to have communications with them, and just learn from each one of them.”

Sabol made the switch to having his left knee down full time this year, even with runners on base.

“That’s been a little bit of a learning curve for me,” said Sabol. “It’s been helping me blocking, helping me receiving. I think something going forward, I want to tackle the catch and throw aspect.”

As a tall catcher, Sabol has to be really short with his movements, to allow for his longer limbs to make quick throws. The Pirates used to have a tall catcher in Jacob Stallings, who Sabol watches on video. Stallings has a skinnier frame, and is more agile than Sabol, but he’s not the only guide.

“I love watching the taller catchers,” said Sabol. “I used to love watching Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer. Jonah Heim is doing a great job for the Texas Rangers right now.”

Sabol loves being in on every pitch as a catcher. It was his idea to develop at this position, which the Pirates allowed. A big challenge is how much the position wears down his legs.

“That’s why a lot of catchers don’t hit for a high average,” said Sabol, recalling a lesson taught to him from Nunnally. “Number one, it’s a defensive position, first. Number two, a lot of guys their legs start giving out a little bit, so later in the day, they’re swinging handsy.”

Sabol knows how to hit with an all-hands approach, obviously. His best value comes from tapping into his power — which could allow him to reach the majors even as an outfielder.

“I’ve always just wanted to hit, and be in a lineup,” said Sabol. “Still be able to play the outfield, I’ve been taking a couple of ground balls at first base, if that’s needed. I think it’s just building my approach, knowing who I am as a hitter, and just taking that with me every day.”

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: Exquisite Corpse

Endy Rodriguez is Looking Like the Best Prospect in the Pirates System

Liover Peguero Needs to Control His Talent

Jon Nunnally Discusses the Hitting Development Approach in Altoona

Why is Nick Gonzales Struggling to Make Contact?

Blake Sabol: A Prospect Development Story

Aaron Shackelford: “It’s definitely been a growing season, mentally”

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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ricramer

Good stuff. Hope he continues to develop and forces difficult decisions to be made by management.

emjayinTN

Not sure he remains at Catcher. Still a work in progress at that position, and the Catcher position is very strong with Rodriguez and Davis on their way. I wonder why they do not tap into the possibility of having that big target (6’4″ 225) at 1B?

patrick_kelly

If all works out, Endy, Davis, and Sabol all continue to hit and complete a 3 man C, 1B, DH combo.

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