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Amherst's Jonah Heim closing in on big-league breakthrough with Oakland Athletics

The narrative around Jonah Heim's baseball career completely changed last season. The trend continued over the winter in the Dominican Republic and again at spring training with the Oakland Athletics.

After seven years in the minors, it seems like it's no longer a question of whether the former Amherst High star makes the major leagues.

It's simply a question of when.

Heim's dream is on hold for now due to the coronavirus outbreak, which shut down spring training on March 12 with Heim, 24, in the thick of the battle for Oakland's backup catcher job.

The A's rewarded the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound Heim for his breakthrough 2019 season at two levels of the minor leagues by putting him on their 40-man major-league roster over the winter. They encouraged Heim to go to winter ball and he batted .301 for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League. At spring training, Heim batted .320 in 12 games until the shutdown of camp.

"Everybody was sort of in shock. We knew about the NBA and NHL stopping and we figured something was coming for us," Heim said. "It was like out of a movie. It didn't feel real until we were packed up and ready to go.

"It's definitely unfortunate but I understood it's for the greater good of bigger life situations. It's definitely tough. I was doing all that I could do to show them what I had. I felt really good with where I was at mentally and physically. You just understand with the bigger life implications at stake here."

Heim was battling newcomer Austin Allen for the backup slot behind incumbent Sean Murphy. And if he didn't make the team, Heim was going to be the No. 1 man behind the plate at Triple-A Las Vegas. All of those plans, of course, are on hold.

"Last year, speaking to the guys in development, that was a breakout year for him," Oakland manager Bob Melvin told reporters last month at the team's camp in Mesa, Ariz. "Body language, everything that a catcher has to portray, he’s taken significant strides with that. Every pitcher that’s thrown to him really enjoys throwing to him. He looks confident.”

"The experiences and knowledge he has to share with us are one of a kind really," Heim said of Melvin. "A manager who has played at that high a level is always a good tool to have. But then he's a catcher, too. He's been through some stuff in this game and definitely has some good advice and good life experience."

An up-and-down path

Heim has had a firsthand look at the business of baseball the last seven years. He was set to attend Michigan State on a baseball scholarship, but his stock soared as a senior at Amherst, largely because there's a dearth of 6-foot, 4-inch switch-hitting catchers with strong defensive skills coming out of high school. The Baltimore Orioles drafted Heim in the fourth round, he got a slot bonus of more than $300,000 and he turned pro.

Heim was the first baseball player drafted out of Amherst since 1972, when the Detroit Tigers took Duke McGuire, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer who is the longtime radio/TV analyst for the Bisons. McGuire retired from the school in 2018 after more than three decades as an attendance officer and a variety of coaching roles at Amherst.

"These high school teams all knew how good he was, they rarely ran on him and when they did, it was a big mistake," McGuire said. "I remember one game where somebody got a stolen base and their bench jumped up like they just won the World Series. It was unbelievable. Now, I'm sure they stole it on the pitcher. Everybody knew you don't run on him. When you were on first base, you're on first. Not considering it.

"When he got drafted, I don't even think Baltimore worried about his hitting much. It was more of, 'If he hits, he hits. If he doesn't, he doesn't.' But he just threw so well and was a good receiver. That's what made him attractive."

Heim's bat was slow to develop, in part because he spent his ages 18-21 years navigating Class A ball. He was traded twice but not because teams gave up on him. The Orioles, pushing for the playoffs in 2016, dealt him straight up to Tampa Bay for Steve Pearce, who would go on to be the 2018 World Series MVP in Boston. And the Rays sent him to Oakland in the winter of 2017 as the player to be named for standout second baseman Joey Wendle.

"You can't take things personally when you get sent down, get traded," Heim said. "It's something you definitely have to learn it but it makes your life easier. Things happen for reasons and it's not always they don't like you or you're not playing well. Maybe you found out somebody else likes you more. I'm truly happy to be where I'm at right now and I love the Oakland organization."

"Both times straight up for a big-leaguer. That says something," noted Philadelphia Phillies associate scout Justin Santonocito, Heim's personal hitting coach and the the owner of Academy Stars Baseball training facility in Blasdell. "It's all about potential, that ceiling. And his ceiling is pretty high."

[See Jonah Heim's career statistics here]

Heim spent three years in short-season locales before moving to Class A Frederick (Md.) in 2016. He never batted above .250 until he hit .268 in 77 games for Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2017.

The first big jump came in his debut with Oakland in 2018, when he batted .292 for Class A Stockton and was selected for the California League All-Star game. But his first promotion to Double-A was a struggle as he batted just .182 in 39 games at Double-A Midland.

Heim would come home every winter and work with Santonocito, bringing back tips from his various hitting coaches.

"Every offseason, he's been willing to put in a whole bunch of work with me and I love that," Heim said. "He's got an open mind. If I come back from the season with something I've learned from another coach, he's willing to listen. That's what you like. You don't want a guy who wants you do things one way. Justin is not that guy. He really adapts to the player and I'm so grateful to have him in my life."

"I don't believe in a cookie-cutter style of hitting. I"m just not a believer in that," said Santonocito, a former minor-leaguer with the Arizona Diamondbacks. "There is no one style that fits everybody. We always talked about what he learned from other guys, what he liked and what he didn't like so you experiment."

The 2019 breakthrough

At age 24, Heim knew he was ready to move up levels and even as he battled injuries, 2019 turned into a career-making season to this point. Heim batted .282 in 50 games at Midland and erupted in his first Triple-A stint in Las Vegas, batting .358 in 35 games with four homers and 19 RBIs.

He was named an organizational all-star for his combined 85 games with a .310 average, a .477 slugging percentage and .863 OPS. At Vegas, he slugged .557 and had a .968 OPS. All of those numbers were career bests.

Jonah Heim batted .358 last year in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Matt Rinaldi/Las Vegas Aviators)

What changed? All hitters love the thin air of the Pacific Coast League but Heim's numbers were still high. A natural right-handed hitter, Heim started to master an opposite-field approach while batting left-handed. He shortened his swing and, by his own admission, he got out of his own head.

"I've grown up mentally in the game and that's been a huge thing for me," he said. "When I can trust my swing is when I can have success. Before there were too many times I would overthink situations and overthink my swing, get in the cage and you think at the plate. So I simplified everything, got in the box and trusted my ability."

Heim got his first call-up to Triple-A and who was waiting for him? Lo and behold, a Buffalo guy. The manager in Vegas is Buffalo native and Canisius High grad Fran Riordan.

"He's a really hard worker, working for a really long time to hone his swing from both sides," Riordan said. "He's always been a defense-first catcher. But confidence is everything and he got some early last year and it just never stopped. He had better numbers in Triple-A over Double-A. That really put him on the map as a prospect. Everyone knows he's a very advanced catcher and can be a big-leaguer for a lot of years because of it. Just seeing the offensive explosion was something that really opened people's eyes."

[Related: It was Viva Las Vegas in 2019 for Canisius grad Fran Riordan, now awaiting another season]

Heim was a spring training invitee to big-league camp last year but knew it was about getting experience. A call-up to Triple-A and this year's addition to the big-league roster changed the dynamics dramatically.

"Going there this year, it becomes real," Heim said. "Games become more important, work is more important. You're focused on winning that job and it's more fun. We want competition, want to be the best we can be and that competition is fun. You have to try to seize that kind of opportunity when it's given to you."

Riordan said Heim was getting the job done in big-league camp and making the right impression with Melvin.

"Jonah was hitting the ball hard all over the place, having a great spring," Riordan said. "His strike zone discipline was great (just two strikeouts in 25 at-bats), his catching was solid and I know he really made an impression on Bob."

What now? 

Heim left camp and returned to Amherst to wait for MLB's latest directives on a return-to-play scenario. Oakland has given him his best chance at the big leagues and he's quickly built trust in the organization.

"It comes down to player development," Heim said. "Most of their big-league guys are homegrown or were acquired as very young players and brought up through their system. They have a great staff and trust their young stars. It adds confidence for everyone and we feel like we're one of the best teams in baseball right now."

"I really think the A's have gotten more than they thought," Santonocito said. "They may have thought it's a catch-and-throw guy where maybe if the stick kicks in at the plate, he can be a backup in the big leagues for a few years. I think he's got a shot to be an 8- to 10-year guy that you can use as a starter in the league."

Santonocito first met Heim's father while watching an Amherst game and the relationship developed over time. Heim said it's one of his most important ones in the game.

"There's a real sense of pride there for me," Santonocito said. "I go back to picking up Jonah at high school, taking him to my facility when he was a super skinny 6-3 and probably 175/180 maybe. He was so determined. He had internal drive. Not very outspoken but he was driven. And what he's done as far as changing his approach at hitting and becoming more of a student of the game is very impressive. It's all in front of him still."

Even if Heim has to go back to the minors to continue the journey, he's now clearly in the middle of Oakland's plans.

"When you're the starting catcher in Triple-A and you're not 21 years old, you're a foul tip away from being in the big leagues. Not a bad position to be in," McGuire said. "And that's if you're not there anyway already. He might have made it. We had lots of spring left."

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