Leading off in this edition of C’s Chat is 2019 Vancouver Canadians second baseman/shortstop Tanner Morris.
The Toronto Blue Jays rolled the dice that they could convince the Virginia Cavaliers shortstop to turn pro as they took the draft-eligible sophomore in the fifth round of this year’s Major League Baseball draft. Ranked No. 49 on Baseball America’s Top 50 2019 College Baseball prospects as a draft eligible sophomore (C’s teammate Will Robertson from Creighton was rated 50th), Morris could have returned to campus as a junior to improve his draft stock. After much deliberation, the Crozet, Virginia native decided to sign with the Jays for a $400,000 bonus.
“I had a few conversations with my coach and I kind of got a clear picture as to what my future would be like at UVA. I talked with Toronto’s developmental guys a little bit and it took me a couple of days just to sit on it and feel what was best for me and my family.
At the end of the day, we just decided that (I was) going to play pro ball as a draft-eligible sophomore. I’m just 20 years old, (there) wasn’t much left for me at the University of Virginia.”
It was on the golf course that Morris learned about his professional destination.
“I decided I wasn’t going to watch the draft process on the TV. I was with my family. We were at a golf course called Swannanoa, it’s in the Afton area. I was texting my friend Andrew. Before, I originally thought I was going to go somewhere in the third or fourth round-ish and I slipped out of the fourth.
I was texting him and the Twins had called me. I think the Twins were two picks after the Blue Jays and they were going to take me. And so, I was told I was going to be a Twin and then two picks before that, my friend texted and goes, ‘The Blue Jays just took you.’
I was kind of shocked, and then my advisor called me and we talked about that and then I talked to the area scout for the Blue Jays and kind of got squared away with (laughs) how that went down. I think, two days later I reported down in Dunedin.”
Minnesota would take shortstop Will Holland from Auburn two picks later.
No Miller Genuine Draft
Getting drafted was something Morris thought would happen two years ago but he was not taken even after helping the Charlottesville-based The Miller School of Albemarle win a state championship in 2017.
It was a productive five-year stint for Morris as he won second-team All-State honours in 2013 and 2014 and first-team honours from 2015-2017. He was coached by former major league closer Billy Wagner.
“I played for coach Wagner at Miller. I played for him since I was 13 with his son Will in travel ball. What sticks out to me about that is playing for a coach that also played so he understands the dynamic between being a player and coach. It was awesome to experience a coach that understands what a player is going for versus playing for a lot of coaches that never played at that high level.”
Other influences on Morris’ career include his parents George and Lauren and a long-time hitting coach from Charlottesville.
“Todd Proctor‘s been my hitting coach since I was probably eight, seven years old in Charlottesville, he’s done a lot. Both my parents, just travelling around, taking me to travel baseball. Doing extra work after practice with my Dad on the field. Those three are probably the most influential.”
The 6-foot-2 Morris rolled together two good years at the University of Virginia. After a strong .397 on-base percentage in 2018, he slashed .353/.460/.521 with 26 extra-base hits in 2019 which represented a 210-point boost in his OPS.
Noting the big home run increase in the majors, the left-handed hitting Morris second-guessed himself about not trying to hit for more power during his two years with the Cavaliers in which he hit a combined seven home runs. Still, Morris felt his time on campus was invaluable.
“It was a good time. I definitely learned a lot about the approach when it comes to hitting and about sitting on off-speed and trying to figure out what pitchers are doing, looking for sequences and stuff similar to that. I got to take a lot of reps with ground balls, practicing three to four hours everyday. I got a lot of reps hitting and fielding and over the two years, I think I became a better baseball player.”
Cape Cod League
In between seasons with the Cavaliers, Morris further established himself as a player to watch by being named the Most Valuable Player of the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League. With the wood bat, he slashed .331/.404/.449 where he had 11 extra-base hits, 20 runs batted in and five stolen bases.
“That was nice, It was my first time playing almost every day. College is about four games a week. Every now and then, you play five. In the Cape, it’s six games and one off-day. That was really nice for me to find a rhythm, playing six days a week, seeing pitching that was all between say, 87 and 95 (miles per hour), somewhere between there so all the guys are throwing all around the same speed versus in high school and college.
You have mid-weeks where they’re maybe throwing 83 and then facing a guy Friday night throwing 95. It was nice to just have a little more consistency in the Cape Cod as to what you were facing. And when you have that consistency, if you change your approach to what you know you were going to get, the results are going to be there.”
Virginia to Vancouver
Morris’ first professional assignment was to report to Vancouver, bypassing the Bluefield Blue Jays in nearby West Virginia. That meant his parents would not be able to witness their son’s first professional game.
“My parents have seen me play every game since I was five years old and they got to see both years of me in college. They still listen to the games on the radio here. Them seeing my first pro debut wasn’t a huge deal for me.
I’ve never been to Bluefield but it’s a blessing to be here in Vancouver. For me, traveling is not my favourite thing but being here in Vancouver, it’s a nice city and it’s a different experience that I’ll remember the rest of my life.”
One thing that Morris appreciates about his time in Vancouver is how clean it is.
“It’s different than Virginia in the fact that, even just in the United States in general, what I really like is the fact that you can tell they care about the environment a little more. A lot of recycling and you can tell that they try to do minimal damage to the environment. It’s nice to see that.”
After playing primarily as a shortstop in college, Morris has split time between second base and short with one game at third base to date for Vancouver. He noted there were some differences at each position.
“With the different positions, a little bit of a different angle. I think third base is just different in general from college to the pro game. Just because in pro baseball, hitters try to lift and pull the ball a lot and so when they miss, they (hit) really hard ground balls to third base. That’s just an adjustment as far as the balls are really hit hard in pro ball to third base. Your preparation for the balls (that are) hit, you have to be in a way lower position that what I am used to over at shortstop.
And then as far as second, I think the first game was a little rough but overall, it’s been a comfortable transition for me. You can kind of sit back on the baseball a little more and you have a little more time so you kind of just stay in front of it and even if you have to boot it, if you keep it in front, you can still get him out.”
No matter where he is situated on the diamond, Morris enjoyed fielding ground balls at Nat Bailey Stadium.
“This field is probably the best field that I’ve ever played on. Another really good one was Georgia Tech but this field is awesome. They keep the dirt nice and moist, it doesn’t get rock hard. And of course, the grass is really nice and even so the ball stays down nicely in the infield.”
One thing that has carried over for Morris with the Canadians so far is his batting eye as he is among the top five in walks and top 10 in on-base percentage in the Northwest League. That has led Vancouver manager Casey Candaele to fill out Morris’ name at the top of his lineup card more often than not.
“Here, it’s kind of funny. A lot of the pitchers honestly don’t throw a whole lot of strikes so my plate discipline has been okay. I think it can still get even better with just zoning in. You’re just looking for a pitch that you can do damage with, not just looking for a pitch that you can just put in play.
I guess, the last two weeks I’ve gotten even a little better at that, just looking for pitches that I can drive versus just trying to put the ball in play and get a hit. It’s something that I still think I need to continue to work on. Zoning in on your hot zones and focusing on where you hit the ball the best.”
Even though Nat Bailey Stadium is not hitter-friendly, Morris says it’s not all bad.
“It’s definitely a pitcher’s park just because the air, I guess, is so dense here and the ball doesn’t travel quite as well but it’s got a nice backdrop where you see the ball really well. For guys that are hitting the ball in the air, they just got to hit it a little farther but other than that, it’s the same.
I know the Northwest League is considered a pitcher’s league because the ball doesn’t travel as far but other than that, if you’re hitting line drives, you’re going to get the same hits.”
One exception to the pitcher-friendly environment of the Northwest League is the bandbox known as Everett Memorial Stadium where he bounced a ball over the top of the right-center field fence before it went over for a home run July 13.
“That’s true. Everett is like, I don’t know what it is, like 350 (feet) in the gap? Something like that, it’s really short. In this field, you going to have go, as a left-handed hitter, you’re going to hit it about as good as you can to get it out of here.
My track record has never been really a home run hitter so it’s something I’m working on and this park (Nat Bailey Stadium) will help me with that because I’ll learn how to if I’m going to hit it in the air, I got to square it up to get it out versus just if you’re in Everett, you’re mishitting balls flying over the fence. It might be giving you confidence but it’s giving you a false sense of security.”
Climbing the Mountain
It was a slow start for Morris as he hit just .213 over his first 13 games in June with the C’s but he experienced a 40-point increase in July. Now he’s focusing on finishing the season up strong.
“It’s been a struggle for me for the most part hitting in this league so far. What I’m happy about is my ability to just keep working forward through it and grinding and trying to figure things out. As the games keep progressing, I’m trying to continue to get better and then we’ll see where I’m at at the end of the year.”
The improved play and his walk-up song—Alabama’s “Mountain Music”—have made Morris a fan favourite at Nat Bailey Stadium in 2019. He will turn 21 on September 13.
Thanks a million to Tanner Morris for taking the time to talk in this chapter of C’s Chat. Another of many thank yous to C’s Media Relations Assistant Jordy Cunningham for setting up the conversation.