Nick Fortes, like so many other baseball players, says he’s really just trying to keep a simple approach at the plate.
Look for fastballs in the strike zone. Adjust his swing when he recognizes a pitcher’s offspeed pitches. Avoid swinging when he knows he’ll get an unfavorable result.
And, above all, find a way to put a ball in play and hit it as hard as possible.
“I’ll tinker it here and there,” Fortes said, “but big picture, that’s pretty much just what I do. I try to keep it as simple as that.”
The simple approach has led to some simply great results for Fortes since making his MLB debut with the Miami Marlins last week. The rookie catcher has eight hits — including three home runs — and three walks through his first 18 plate appearances while striking out just three times. That’s a .533 batting average, a .611 on-base percentage and 1.744 OPS. He has reached base in six of seven games and has reached base multiple times in three of his four starts.
He became the first player in franchise history to homer three times in his first five career games. All three of those home runs came within his first 10 at-bats. Only the St. Louis Cardinals’ Keith McDonald had fewer MLB at-bats in his first five games in which he homered three times (six in 2000).
“Pretty good, right?” Marlins manager Don Mattingly asked rhetorically. “It’s hard to argue that his start’s not great.”
How it continues is what the Marlins are most interested in watching develop. Fortes is one of three young catchers, along with Alex Jackson and Payton Henry, who are with the big-league club down the stretch. The trio is rotating starts so the organization has a glimpse of what each has to offer as they prepare for the 2022 season. Catcher is a position the Marlins will likely address in the offseason.
Fortes, the Marlins’ fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, has shown the most pop of the three at the plate albeit in a very minimal sample size so far.
According to Statcast, seven of the 12 balls Fortes has put in play have produced exit velocities of at least 100 mph.
What has attributed to the early success, beyond the simple approach?
“He stays in the zone a long time,” Marlins bench coach James Rowson said. “He gets in the zone early and he keeps his bat through the zone a long time, so he’s able to hit pitches. His contact points are able to be different, but he’s also still able to hit the ball hard with those contact points. That’s what allows him on some of those offspeed pitches to really stay through the ball, catch them out front and still be able to drive them out of the ballpark. At the same time, he can catch fastballs a little deeper in the zone and still drive them through. His timing has been pretty good here and his ability to keep the barrel through the zone for a long time has been pretty aggressive.”
Mattingly noticed glimpses of Fortes’ potential in the few stints where he had his eye on the catcher during spring training and batting practice sessions throughout the past week. He has quick hands and keeps his form throughout his swing.
They are the fundamentals that helped fuel a breakout minor-league season. Fortes hit .245 with seven home runs, 17 doubles, 44 RBI and 37 runs scored over his 95 minor-league games this year split between Double A Pensacola (57 games) and Triple A Jacksonville (38 games). He also struck out just 54 times in 378 plate appearances, a 14.3-percent rate in the minors this season.
“We’re seeing it translate,” Mattingly said. “That’s a good thing for him because it helps him understand that what worked down there works here, too. It’s about getting good pitches to hit, getting yourself in the right position a lot, and what we’ve seen so far is he puts himself in a good position a lot.”
This fast rise comes after Fortes didn’t have a 2020 minor-league season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and after he played in just 95 total games during his first two professional seasons — none above Class A Advanced — before his breakout 2021 campaign.
It has led to this two-week audition in the big leagues to close the 2021 season and potentially open the door for him to make a case to be on the roster next season.
Making his MLB debut on Sept. 18 was “indescribable,” he said. Fortes had “goosebumps and chills down my spine all the way around the bases” after hitting his first MLB home run that day, a 413 feet to left-center field in the fourth inning.
The emotions of the debut stay with him. The settling in process has begun. Taking advantage of the opportunity remains the goal.
How he plans to that: Keep it simple.
“Nothing about me really changes — or at least I try not to,” Fortes said. “I try to go up there and keep the same mindset and the same approach. I think I’m just a little bit more disciplined and a little more locked in here because it is the biggest stage possible so when I step up there, I know exactly what I’m looking for, I know what I’m trying to do and I’m just super, super locked in right now.”