Pirates Prospect Blake Sabol Has a Plus Bat and Pittsburgh Connections

PNC Park Pittsburgh Pirates
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Blake Sabol has versatility, Pittsburgh ties, and a bat that could be providing thump to the Pirates’ lineup in the not-too-distant future. A left-handed-hitting catcher who also plays the outfield and first base, Sabol, 24, is coming off a season where he slashed .284/.363/.497 with 19 home runs between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis . The seventh-round selection in the 2019 draft has other notable qualities, as well. Along with being a stat nerd, the former University of Southern California Trojan has an engaging personality that promises to make him a fan favorite if he reaches the majors.

Sabol talked about his multi-faceted game and his connections to the city he hopes to soon play in during his recent stint with the Arizona Fall League’s Surprise Saguaros.

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David Laurila: I understand that you play multiple positions and have put up some good offensive numbers. How do you see yourself?

Blake Sabol: “Defensively, I kind of consider myself a Swiss Army Knife. I’m primarily a catcher, but I can be in the outfield and have also been catching some ground balls at first base. I’m hoping to be like a three-level player.

“With the bat, I’ve had a couple of good seasons under my belt — I’ve been able to hit for power and have a good OPS — so I feel I can impact the game that way. I think I can help a big league team. Instead of having a guy who is only a catcher, maybe just a backup catcher, I can be playing multiple spots, or even be in the lineup as a DH.”

Laurila: Your goal isn’t to be a starting catcher in the big leagues?

Sabol: “My goal is ultimately to be in the big leagues, anyway, anyhow. I mean, I would love to be a catcher. There’s a lot of value there, and I think I could do it. But ideally, and I’ve talked with Henry Davis about this, even if we’re splitting games behind the plate, I can go in the outfield or be a first baseman. I just want to be in the lineup as much as possible.”

Laurila: An obvious advantage of not catching full time is that the position can take a toll on offensive performance.

Sabol: “For sure. In high school, I was a [Perfect Game] All-American at catcher, and then I went to college and was a catcher. But I was drafted as an outfielder for much that reason; we wanted to preserve the bat. I also ran a little quicker back then. Now I don’t run as fast.”

Laurila: What is your height and weight?

Sabol: “I’m 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. In college, I was around 6–4, 205, so I’ve put on 20 pounds, which has actually helped me in pro ball. I’m better able to withstand the long year, plus it helps me hit for a little bit more power. When I touch the ball, it goes.”

Laurila: Your on-base numbers have been pretty solid.

Sabol: “Something I value that not all players do is walks. I take that very seriously. Growing up… I mean, it’s not sexy to walk. Every kid wants to hit doubles and home runs — it’s obvious they want to hit doubles and home runs — but getting a walk is like hitting a single. Drawing a walk can turn a 1-for-4 game into a 1-for-3 game, so they’re a big part of OBP. By extension, they’re part of OPS.

“I’ve worked with my coaches on developing an approach of taking my chances early in counts, certain counts where I think I can do damage, and then if I get to two strikes, just fight to put the ball in play — fight to get on basis any way I can.”

Laurila: With damage in mind, not all strikes are created equal. Some are harder to drive than others.

Sabol: “Exactly. When I’m playing my best, I’m staying stubborn with my approach. If the pitcher doesn’t give me something I’m looking for, I’m okay with getting behind in the count. It’s okay to take a strike. They give you three to play with, right? Whether you get a hit on 0–0 or 3–2 doesn’t matter. It all counts the same, and ultimately, we’re just trying to touch the plate as many times as we can.”

Laurila: Where is your hot zone?

Sabol: “I’m always looking up in the zone, basically to keep me off of chasing balls down. My hot zone, per se, is maybe more middle-away. Being a bigger guy and usually hitting more in the middle of the lineup, I’ll get pitched backwards fairly often. I will have more breaking balls or changeups to hit compared to fastballs. But I think I’ve proven over the last couple of years that I can drive any pitch over the fence; it’s just a matter of swinging at the right ones.”

Laurila: A lot of hitters are hesitant to say where they like the ball, and while I understand why that is, it’s not as though most every team you face doesn’t know what your hot and cold zones are.

Sabol: “100%. That’s something I’ve learned, especially moving up through the system. And we have the hot zones for the pitchers, too. We know what they’re trying to do against us. A lot of hitters go up there with the approach of, ‘OK, he’s really good at the top of the zone, so I want to push him down,’ but I know what I’m good at. If there’s a pitcher with some ride at the top, and he likes going up there, then we’ll go mano-a-mano and see what happens. If he beats me, it’s tip-your-cap time. But there will be times I’ll come out on top as well.”

Laurila: Which of your numbers matter the most to you?

Sabol: “When I look at my own stats, I pay attention to my walk rate. I’m also trying to get my strikeout numbers to come down a little bit. But overall, I like wRC+ — that or OPS+ — because it rates you versus league average. When I go to FanGraphs and look at my numbers… but I’m also never going up to the plate thinking that I need a hit to boost my average, or that I need a walk to boost my OBP. I’m just trying to help us win the game. I think the biggest message I would have for anyone, whether it’s a kid or one of my teammates, is that if you’re out there trying to win, the numbers will take care of themselves.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts?

Sabol: “I have some random fun facts that a lot of people don’t know about me. I have some real Pittsburgh ties. Troy Polamalu is my second cousin — my mom used to babysit him, and I used to watch games with his dad — so I was always a Steelers fan growing up. And when I was at USC, one of my best friends was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was obviously with the Steelers for a couple of years; he’s with the Chiefs now. So yeah, I definitely have some ties to the city. I always tell people that I would love to have somewhat of a Polamalu-esque career in baseball.”

Laurila: You don’t have Troy Polamalu’s hair.

Sabol: “No, Troy has the full Samoan flow going. I’m half white, half Samoan. My mom is straight from Western Samoa. My dad is just from California, from Garden Grove, and my ancestors from my dad’s side are from Croatia. I’m Samoan and Croatian.”

Laurila: As well as a good hitter who plays multiple positions.

Sabol: “That too.”

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