The Vanderbilt Commodores baseball team settled into the lounge at their baseball facility Monday night with two televisions airing the MLB Draft. Star outfielder JJ Bleday, wearing a light blue dress shirt and jeans, sat front and center. He remains calm, stoic even, as the biggest moment of his career is about to flash before his eyes.
A record-setting junior season on one of the country’s top college baseball teams and a strong summer in the Cape Cod League had propelled Bleday from a potential fringe first-round pick to an almost guaranteed top-10 selection. Monday night wasn’t a matter of if Bleday would be the 15th Vanderbilt player to be drafted in the first round under coach Tim Corbin but when his name would be called..
“Everybody was nervous,” said Raymond Bleday, JJ’s father. “We were nervous the day before. We kind of had an idea where he would be picked. We were just waiting.”
“It was like on pins and needles,” added Shane Stout, the president of the Indiana Prospects, JJ’s high school travel ball team. “It was a very quiet, electric atmosphere.”
The wait didn’t last long.
About 45 minutes into the draft, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred made his way to the podium for the fourth time. The Vanderbilt lounge hushed to a silence.
“With the fourth selection of the 2019 MLB Draft, the Miami Marlins select JJ Bleday, an outfielder from Vanderbilt University.”
Bleday smiles and lowers his head before being embraced by his teammates. His dream two decades in the making has become a reality.
Bleday now joins a list of Vanderbilt first-round picks under Corbin that started with David Price going No. 1 overall to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007 and includes 10 players who have played at the MLB level. Among them: All-Star Pedro Alvarez (No. 2 in 2008); starting pitchers Sonny Gray (No. 18 in 2011), Carson Fulmer (No. 8, 2015) and Kyle Wright (No. 5, 2017); and Atlanta Braves starting shortstop Dansby Swanson (No. 1, 2015).
“It feels unbelievable,” Bleday, 21, said. “You grow up waiting for this moment.”
His professional baseball journey in the Marlins organization will begin soon enough. First, Bleday and the Vanderbilt Commodores are looking to finish their hunt for a College World Series title. Vanderbilt (52-10), the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA tournament, hosts Duke (34-25) in a best-of-3 super regional beginning at 6 p.m. Friday for a chance to make it to Omaha, Nebraska, for the eight-team CWS field.
The hope after that is that Bleday, a consistent power-hitting left-handed bat, will be a core piece to bring a rebuilding Marlins baseball team back to relevance.
“You’re talking about an advanced college bat that’s hit first with power,” Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill said. “We’re excited to have him as part of what we’re doing.”
But know this: Bleday is more than just what he does on the field.
Ask anyone who has coached Bleday about the slugging outfielder, and the answer is more or less the same.
Bleday is a talented baseball player, one who can hit the ball anywhere on the field and has a strong sense for the strike zone. That has almost never been questioned.
But his persona magnifies that talent. Belday is laid back — “relaxed” is the word he uses — and goal-oriented. It allows him to hone in on his strengths when he stands in the batter’s box or tracks down a fly ball.
“He’s quiet, confident, respectful,” Corbin said. “As I got to know him, nothing ever changed. He’s always been the same. He’s always been comfortable yet respectful. He can converse with anyone.”
“If you didn’t know it,” Stout added, “you would think you were around a 35-year-old man. He’s just that professional.”
Todd Harless, who coached Bleday during his junior year at Mosely High in Panama City Beach, put it in the simplest terms.
“He’s an old soul,” Harless said. “He’s that kid that you want your son to be and the kid you want your daughter to date.”
Harless continued: “This game’s tough. It throws a lot at you. He learned how to take failure and build upon it. He’s not going to stress out about going 0 for 4 because he knows it’s coming at some point.”
The rare moments when his emotions come out are ones that sink in.
For Harless, that came during Vanderbilt’s road series against in April. A rowdy Alabama Crimson Tide fan base struck a nerve with Bleday, harping and yelling and screaming as he took the field.
Bleday responded by hitting four home runs over the three-game sweep, at one point putting his hands out toward the crowd as he rounded first base.
“He was hitting missiles everywhere,” Harless said. “At that point I thought, ‘He’s arrived.’”
His baseball talents were evident early.
Bleday’s baseball career started in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a small town of about 5,000 people in the northwest portion of the state. His grew up cheering for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his favorite player is Robinson Cano. He started Little League at 8 and followed in the athletic footsteps of his older brother, Adam.
The two spent most of their childhood outside, playing catch whenever the weather permitted. JJ followed Adam’s path in playing travel ball before breaking out at the high school and college levels. They played one year together in high school. JJ started in right field as a freshman. Adam was in center field. JJ still considers that his favorite memory of his athletic career.
“I’m super happy for him,” said Adam Bleday, who is three years older than JJ and is working as development coach with the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A Advanced affiliate Frederick Keys. “I would say I take a little pride in us growing up together and him wanting to learn from me.”
He impressed on the travel ball circuits and won regional titles all four years in high school — two at Titusville High in Pennsylvania and another two at Mosely after his family moved to Florida before his junior year — before heading off to college at Vanderbilt. He started out as a two-way player, utilized as a pitcher and an outfielder.
“His swing has been there since Day 1,” Raymond Bleday said.
That swing, starting with his bat high above his shoulder and following through with a quick come-around that flattens out at it reaches the strike zone, has made him a dangerous hitter his whole career.
“He’s the real thing,” said Mike Hlad, Bleday’s high school coach at Titusville. “He really is. And I don’t say that much about players around here because we don’t see that often. We may get two or three or four guys a year in northwest Pennsylvania who could go on, but you never hear about them going to where JJ has gone.”
He has done enough to impress Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. After the Marlins drafted Bleday, MLB Network showed a clip of Griffey analyzing the outfielder’s highlights.
“Stay there,” Griffey Jr. said. “Stay right there. Don’t do anything different. You’re hitting the ball to all fields, driving in runs, playing solid right field. Just keep it going.”
Look no further than Bleday’s past 12 months for validation of his potential.
After two pretty good seasons to open his college career at Vanderbilt — a .306 batting average, six home runs, 37 RBI and 49 runs scored in 90 games — Bleday had a breakout summer in the Cape Cod League, considered the best summer-ball circuit for college players, before posting career numbers this year for the Commodores.
At the Cape, Bleday hit .311 with five home runs, 15 RBI and 29 runs scored and was named the league’s top pro prospect by MLB scouts.
“When you’re playing with the wood bat and you’re playing every day against some of the best competition, it only builds your confidence regardless of the results,” Bleday said. “It’s a lot like pro ball. You’re on your own. You have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of your body. It’s a good learning experience. … When you see it start to take shape, it’s cool to have that happen.”
That success has continued this year. Even with all eyes locked on him and external expectations rising as the 2019 season progressed, all Bleday did was hit a school-record 26 home runs while posting a .353 batting average with 68 RBI and 75 runs scored heading into this weekend’s super regional. He’s the SEC Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a finalist for both the Dick Howser Trophy and Golden Spikes Award.
“And he wasn’t harvesting on average pitching,” Corbin said. “This was a guy that when the pitching was amplified, he was a better hitter. I just felt like the power was always in there, but after the extra 12 months of learning and hitting, I thought ‘OK, this kid is what he is.’ He’s just a very good, professional baseball player.”
Bleday knew how much a strong junior season would impact his professional future, but he didn’t let that define his year. He focused on the present, knowing it would benefit his future.
“I just put the energy on the team and stayed away from it,” Bleday said. “It helped me relax and stay focused and accomplish what I had to do.”
But Bleday’s best baseball, the Marlins hope, is still ahead of him. They see him as the type of athlete who can move quickly through the minor leagues.
“Numbers are numbers,” said Marlins director of amateur scouting DJ Svihlik, who was Bleday’s hitting coach at Vanderbilt in 2017 before joining the Marlins organization, “and if you look at what JJ has done since his freshman year through this year, this is what you want to see hitters do. You want to see hitters that enter the college ranks and can be good — which he was — and then continue to make a steady progression.”