DAYTON — Few knew much about 17-year-old Ronald Torreyes when he joined the Dayton Dragons late last September. And he remained somewhat of a mystery at the start of spring training.
“All I knew was that he was from Venezuela,” Dragons manager Delino DeShields said.
“I heard rumors,” hitting coach Alex Pelaez said. “Then, every time I looked up, there he was, running and diving somewhere. He just had that energy.”
By the time the second baseman, now 18, returned here in mid-June this season, it was as if Roy Hobbs himself had arrived, absent some bulk, of course.
To say the 5-foot-7, 140-pound Torreyes has adjusted nicely to this level of professional baseball is like saying the Dragons know a little bit about selling tickets. Voted the team’s July player of the month by fans, he is a favorite at Fifth Third Field, where crowds marvel not only at his defense but his ability to make consistent contact — he had struck out 11 times in 165 at-bats through Thursday — and hit the ball squarely.
Back home, he is compared to Dustin Pedroia, the similar-in-size Boston Red Sox All-Star second baseman — and nobody laughs. In fact, scouts do not think Torreyes’s stature will hinder his rise to the major leagues and, incredibly, nobody with a trained eye seems to put it past him to make a name for himself at the highest level.
“There have been a lot of ‘little big guys’ make it to the big leagues; Chad Fonville was 5-2 (officially 5-6),” DeShields said, referencing a former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate. “That’s the beauty of our game. You don’t have to be the biggest or the fastest.”
‘Nicest kid ever’
In the clubhouse, Torreyes is everybody’s little brother. Wearing headphones at his locker to block out the commotion of a card game, he snacked on a bowl of animal crackers after batting practice one day this week. As teammates wandered by, some ran their fingers through his bushy hair (which makes him look an inch or two taller) as if for luck.
“Player of the month doesn’t do it justice,” Dragons utility man Frank Pfister said. “He can just flat out hit. And he’s the nicest kid ever, a special kid, real down to earth.”
The Reds signed Torreyes as an international free agent in February 2010. It was not a budget-busting move. It didn’t have to be.
“Other teams thought I was too small,” Torreyes, who speaks little English, said through third baseman David Vidal. “They looked at me as a small person and weren’t going to pay me anything. Then Cincinnati gave me a shot.”
A few months later, playing for the Reds’ affiliate in the Venezuelan Summer League, Torreyes jumped onto prospect radars by hitting .390 to win the batting title. He also led that league in slugging percentage (.606), extra-base hits (34), runs (56), triples (10), hits (94) and total bases (146).
Promoted to the Arizona League Reds after the VSL season, Torreyes hit .349, then went 6-for-25 with the Dragons and made a play that is still talked about.
“Little fly ball into short center,” pitcher Josh Smith recalled, smiling. “He makes a sliding, over-the-shoulder catch with his back to the infield, throws it in and gets a double play.”
Fans at the game voted it the play of the year.
All a mind game
When speaking of Torreyes this week, Pfister, nearly seven years his senior, grew emotional.
“I can’t imagine being in a different country, not knowing the language and having to learn it,” Pfister said, pounding the left side of his chest twice for emphasis. “It’s awesome how he makes it work on and off the field.”
Batting No. 2 in the lineup behind speedy Billy Hamilton doesn’t hurt. Torreyes sees plenty of fastballs as pitchers try to rush the ball to the plate and give their catchers a chance to nail Hamilton if he’s stealing. Most hitters feast on fastballs, and Torreyes is no exception. And his swing, like his body, is short and compact, an approach that guards against extended slumps.
Which tends to explain why he was batting .394 with a team-leading .935 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) and why he was at a North Dayton Donatos Pizza restaurant on Friday being honored for his July work.
Torreyes credits his mental approach for what he’s been able to accomplish.
“Playing baseball isn’t difficult,” he said, flashing a smile that revealed the shiny handiwork of an orthodontist in his hometown of Libertado de Barinas. “If you dominate the mind, you’ll dominate everything. I don’t pay (attention) to what people think about me. I just play and let them see what I have.”
Opponents have seen plenty. Too much for their liking at times.
“Teams come in and look at him one way,” Pelaez said. “After he goes 2-for-4, 2-for-4, 2-for-4, they look at him a whole different way.”
Torreyes batted .386 in July with two home runs and 17 runs batted in. Nobody in the Midwest League had more hits or scored more runs. His homers were crushed, leading one scout to hang the nickname “little power plant” on him.
“Power is just about back-spinning the baseball,” DeShields said. “He has a knack for creating backspin. He gets to the ball in good position.”
DeShields knows what opposing pitchers face. He throws batting practice.
“His strike zone is about that big,” DeShields said, holding his hands less than a foot apart. “There isn’t much room for error.”
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2408 or smcclelland@ DaytonDailyNews.com.