What better way to make your name known than by hitting a go-ahead grand slam in the ninth inning of a game that looked to be lost for the previous eight innings. Andrew Toles did just that on Wednesday night, and he might be here to stay.
Toles, 24, was signed in September by the Dodgers after he was released by the Rays in March. He was a 3rd-round draft pick of the Rays in 2012 out of the Chipola College in Florida. He dealt with some off-the-field issues there and at the University of Tennessee. Despite that, his talent won out and he was drafted.
The speedy outfielder had a solid run through the Rays’ system, which peaked with him claiming the 2013 organization player of the year honor. He hit .326/.359/.466 with 62 stolen bases in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Midwest League. However, the next year didn’t go so well for him, as he hit just .265/.304/.341 — mostly in the Florida State League (High-A), and he didn’t play at all in 2015 due to severe anxiety. From Jacob Unruh of The Oklahoman:
“Toles said he deals with anxiety, which led to some of the issues. He stepped away from baseball the final two months of the 2014 season to address them. He said he thought he had them worked out until spring training, but he didn’t.
The Rays released him, sending him to baseball purgatory at 23 years old as he struggled with anxiety.
‘I thought I was done, to tell you the truth,’ Toles said. ‘I didn’t think I was going to get another shot.’
He started seeing a counselor and switched up his medication. With things in order, he sought work at the Kroger.
But three weeks into his new job, an email arrived from Gabe Kapler, the Dodgers’ director of player development, who invited Toles to instructional league workouts and eventually signed him to a contract.
It was Toles’ second chance, and he’s made the most of it.”
He began the 2016 with High-A Rancho Cucamonga, and after just 100 plate appearances in which he hit .370/.414/.500, he was promoted to Double-A Tulsa. He hit .314/.363/.514 in 190 plate appearances, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he slashed .321/.339/.518 in 67 plate appearances and was promoted to the Dodgers.
Toles has gone back to Triple-A once since his promotion, but he’s back for good now — especially after last night’s heroics.
Let’s not kid ourselves: His .455 batting average on balls in play is completely unsustainable, as is his 25 percent HR/FB rate. In fact, most of his line is unsustainable: .397/.463/.690, .293 ISO, 204 wRC+ and so on. But, he has taken advantage of his limited opportunities thus far, and he has already made adjustments this season.
“‘I was seeing the ball well. I was putting it in play and they weren’t catching it,’ Toles said. ‘I was comfortable there but it was just mainly some adjustments I made in the minor leagues so that I can come back up here (to the major leagues) and not get beat on a couple pitches, and I guess it worked out.’
Often times when a player makes an adjustment or ‘figures it out,’ they are reluctant to talk about it in fear that MLB pitchers will make adjustments to their adjustments. Not so with Toles, who readily admits that it was former Angels slugger and current Dodgers minor league hitting coach Shawn Wooten who helped him the most.
‘Lower-half stuff, mechanical stuff,’ said Toles. ‘I was working with our Triple-A guy, our hitting coach Shawn Wooten. He saw some things in my swing that nobody else saw.'”
Let’s look at the progression of Toles’ stance and swing from Spring Training through last night.
You can see he had more of an open stance and his hands held up by his ear. He had some pre-swing noise with the bat waggle, but the biggest thing is his load had his front side turning in slightly and his hands dropping before striding and closing his front side.
Here, he has closed his stance, is crouched over and does some curious step toward the right-handed batter’s box with his right foot as the pitcher delivers the pitch. His load wasn’t nearly as pronounced, the hands don’t drop as much and he looked more like a slap hitter than anything else.
His stance here is more reminiscent of what he looked like in Spring Training, but it’s definitely not the same mechanism. One difference I see is a faster load and not as much downward movement with his hands. Perhaps most importantly, he’s not fidgeting around in the box with his back foot anymore, which could explain an upswing in power.
Over the course of six months, Toles has retooled his swing and has still produced. He definitely has the speed to be a center fielder and the arm strength to play right field in the majors, but it’s the other parts of his defensive game that need work — and perhaps that’ll just come with repetitions.
Dave Cameron wrote about Toles today and brought up a couple good points about his development and future:
“Based on his performance in both the majors and minors, Steamer is projecting Toles as a .274/.314/.403 hitter the rest of the season, which grades out to a 94 wRC+. If the high-end speed allowed him to be a plus defender in the outfield while hitting like that, then Toles would be a quality regular. But given his lack of development time, it’s fair to wonder if perhaps Toles could even outperform that forecast, especially if the Dodgers can help him begin to control the strike zone a bit more regularly.”
Good points all around. His O-Swing% is 39.9 and his swinging strike rate is 13 percent — not a coincidence. For a guy who doesn’t project to hit for even average power, let alone above-average or plus-power, those numbers are a bit concerning. His O-Swing% would be 10th-highest in the majors if he kept the current rate, and his SwStr% would be tied with Nelson Cruz for 19th-highest in the majors. For him to have long-term success in the majors, both of those numbers are going to have to come down a bit, with his contact rate (75.6 percent at present) needing to rise.
For a guy with his legitimate 70-grade speed, his fly ball rate should be right where it is at 25.5 percent (would be 14th-lowest in baseball). Toles’ 27.7 percent line drive rate (would be 4th-best in MLB) will likely come down a bit, so here’s hoping those balls are hit on the ground rather than in the air.
Toles did and didn’t come out of nowhere. David Hood of True Blue LA has been on him all season. A year ago, he thought he might not ever play baseball again. Now, he’s a key bench player (at least) on a division-leading team. He saved the Dodgers from an ugly 3-game sweep in Colorado, and now he might be in line for more playing time going forward.
Toles is going to regress, but he has shown he at least has the ability to be a quality contributor going forward. And the element of speed is something no one else on the roster has, which is another feather in his proverbial cap. For now, we can just enjoy that he has been better than even the Dodgers could have expected or hoped.