Taking his turn behind home plate for this instalment of C’s Chat is 2019 Vancouver Canadians catcher Ryan Sloniger.
The 22 year-old from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania joined the Toronto Blue Jays organization after they took him in the 38th round of last month’s MLB draft out of Penn State.
Sloniger was in Vancouver not for a long time but a good time. He was returned to Bluefield after getting his first taste of pro ball in the Appalachian League. The 5-foot-11, left-handed hitting backstop collected a single in his first game June 20 and homered in just his second professional game June 21.
“I loved it. It’s obviously a small town but I come from a really small town so it’s home for me being in a small town like that. I had good success there and I felt good. It kind of helped me coming here and that I had that confidence coming here. I hit a home run the night before I left there and I obviously found out that Friday night and came out on Sunday. It made it a little bit easier because I found that success already and then to come here.”
It was off to Hillsboro for Sloniger and he got his first Northwest League hit June 24 and his first RBI the next night in Everett. His Nat Bailey Stadium debut came June 28 against Spokane where he walked in his first plate appearance and added two singles with two RBI. Two days later, Sloniger singled home two runs in the eighth inning to help the C’s pull out a walk-off win against the Indians.
On Canada Day, Sloniger decided to celebrate with fireworks of his own.
It was a case of getting ready for the heater from Hillsboro Hops reliever Jacob Stevens.
“My AB before that (versus Marcos Tineo), I got a good fastball to hit early, like the first pitch, it got a little deep on me. I’m an aggressive hitter and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I knew following the double play, bases are cleared, two outs, I knew he was going to come right at me. So I went up, I hunted the fastball and I got a good pitch and I got it and got a good swing off.”
There was no doubt from Sloniger that the ball was going to carry over the big right field fence at the Nat.
“As soon as I hit it, it was one of the ones that I knew that I got it.”
Even though Nat Bailey Stadium has the reputation of being a hitter’s graveyard, Sloniger says he dealt with similar conditions at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in Penn State.
“I’ve enjoyed hitting here. My ballpark at Penn State, it wasn’t a hitter’s ballpark either so I’m used to that but I’ve had success so far.”
A couple of familiar faces on the the Canadians roster helped Sloniger’s transition to Vancouver. He was teammates with pitchers Andy McGuire and Parker Caracci a couple of years ago in summer collegiate ball with the Baltimore Redbirds of the Cal Ripken League.
“I really like the guys a lot. They really welcomed me in. It makes it easier with me, Andy McGuire and Parker Caracci all played on the same summer team two summers ago so that obviously made it easier whenever I came to be able to settle in and everything. Those were two of my best friends I have.
Everyone else welcomed me really well and I felt like I was prepared. I played four years in a Power 5 conference and I was successful. I found success and what made me really good. I think I just carried that now with what I do everyday.”
It was late on the third and final day of the MLB draft when Sloniger learned he was going to the Blue Jays. He says he was at home at the time.
“I was sitting in my living room. My girlfriend was sitting beside me, my cousin was in the room. My Dad (Jim) was out on the porch, my Mom (Sandy) was upstairs. My sister (Mary) was in Virginia because she lives there and she was sitting there watching the phone also.
My cousin actually knew before I did because the Blue Jays called me after they took me because I’m a senior and there was not going to be a lot of negotiating or anything like that. He actually saw it before I did but it was a pretty cool moment.
I had a better junior year than I did senior year and so there were some questions. We weren’t really sure what was going to go on. We had some teams that were interested. It was a big moment for all of us.”
The interest from Jays scout Tom Burns gave Sloniger an idea he might be Toronto-bound.
“There was other teams in the mix but the Blue Jays area scout was by far the most interested out of any of the other scouts. I told my girlfriend about two months before the draft that if it’s going to be anyone, it was probably going to be the Blue Jays so that was the team I was probably paying the most attention to.”
Going to Dunedin represented a new and exciting adventure for Sloniger.
“It was good. I loved getting to meet all the guys in my draft class. I got drafted on a Wednesday and flew out on Friday morning. I had been away from home and everything but it was the first time I had ever like flown on my own and done stuff like that. Just going through the physical process, it was cool to be able to do it.
And then obviously signing the contract, it was that moment that I finally realized like this is something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little kid and it was coming true.”
He is Penn State
The career leader in hits (109), doubles (35), triples (7) and RBIs (88) after his four years at Punxsutawney High School that saw him earn numerous awards, Sloniger would remain in Pennsylvania for four more years with the Penn State Nittany Lions.
After two tough seasons with the bat, Sloniger broke through in his junior season of 2017 by hitting .306 with an .898 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He had five home runs among his 20 extra-base hits and also stole five bases. The 2018 campaign saw a downturn as his OPS sank over 250 points.
“I got off to a slow start in my senior year but about the midway point of the season, things started really clicking for me at Penn State again. I hit over .370 in the last month of the season and I kind of got back to who I was. Those things that clicked for me, they’re all still there and I feel really good at the plate. I feel really locked in.
When I got down to draft camp in Florida, we had a couple of inter-squad scrimmages and whatnot and I felt that I hadn’t missed a beat from the two or three weeks I had off from the end of my season and I still feel like that right now. My swing just feels good.
It wasn’t ever anything major, I just had to clean some little things up, simplify some things. I just kind of got away from what I did really well my junior year to have a breakout year and I got back to it. It was nice to feel like I’m back to being that guy again.”
A leg kick was at the root of the problem for Sloniger.
“Just some small, little mechanical tweaks. I hit with a leg kick and everything as a junior and I hit with it still coming into my senior year but then I eliminated it because I kind of got too many moving parts and everything and I eliminated it and then I’ve been really good ever since then.”
Four years with the Penn State Nittany Lions helped Sloniger develop as a person and a player.
“If anyone ever goes to a football game at Penn State, they would understand how special a place Penn State is. Penn State is an unbelievable place. I truly think it’s the best university in the world. I thought that then when I went there and I think that now whenever I left. I think academically, it got me an unbelievable education.
And then as a baseball player, I was lucky enough I started for four years. I started when I got in there as a freshman and it just helped me mature a lot. I had failures early on as a freshman. Those failures are what make me who I am now on the field and as a person off the field because without those failures, success doesn’t feel near as good if you’ve never had those failures. Those failures are also what helps me keep pushing everyday because I know how tough it was to get to where I am now and to continue to get moving.”
Catching is something Sloniger has done from a young age.
“I became a full-time catcher when I was like seven years. And I pitched a little bit when I was growing up, played shortstop some growing up. Just the typical things like in Little League and whatnot but I’ve been a full-time catcher really pretty much the whole time, my whole life. My Dad caught back whenever he played and everything and that’s where I got it from.
Penn State, I obviously went over and played first base for some days off and everything but it was always primarily a catcher. I was lucky enough to be a left-handed hitting catcher because there’s not many left-handed hitting catchers at all right now all across baseball.”
Being in the middle of the action and working with pitchers are the things Sloniger likes when he’s behind the plate.
“I love being in every single play and I love building relationships with pitchers. I’m off (catching July 2) but I’ll be in the bullpen with those guys. I think that’s such a big thing because building that relationship with guys and then whenever we come out here, they have that trust in me. I was at Bluefield before for a few days and then came here so I’m still learning these guys here. We’re still building that trust and it gets better and better every single day.”
The finer details of catching is something Sloniger feels he needs to continue working on.
“Going from the college level to the pro level behind the plate, there’s always things you can get better at. It’s just a different style. I think I handle pitchers really well and I think I do a good job at building a relationship with them. I’ve always been a good receiver. We’re working on some things just like cleaning up my receiving right now that I try to use in games and everything. I was a really good catch and throw guy in college too. All around, I think I do a very good job. I think it’s just fine-tuning everything to make myself better everyday.”
Hailing from Punxsutawney—the home of groundhog Punxsutawney Phil—Sloniger’s sporting allegiances are clear.
“I’m a Pittsburgh sports fan through and through. Steelers, I grew up a Pirates fan, Penguins, all of that. My favourite baseball player still to this day is Andrew McCutchen. I loved watching him whenever he was in Pittsburgh and helping them turn everything around. He is someone who brings a lot of energy and everything. He brought a lot of the electricity to the whole city of Pittsburgh. He’s someone I love watching play.”
Thanks a million to Ryan Sloniger for this latest round of C’s Chat. Follow him on Twitter @R_Sloni4. Another thank you as well for C’s Media Relations Assistant Jordy Cunningham for setting up the chat.