The shortened Draft in 2020 created some unique circumstances for players like Justin Dirden.
The Astros' No. 12 prospect was in the midst of a breakout senior season at Southeast Missouri State before the shutdown, batting .414 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 17 games. He was in a precarious Draft position as a college senior but, in a traditional year, certainly could have been selected -- perhaps even in the first 10 rounds. But he did not hear his name called in that year's five-round Draft and eventually signed with Houston as a free agent.
Dirden, 25, has played his way to the Minors’ highest level in his first two professional seasons. He debuted last year with Single-A Fayetteville and earned a promotion to High-A Asheville in August. Dirden finished the season batting .274/.397/.537 with 39 extra-base hits, including 15 homers, and 58 RBIs.
The O’Fallon, Missouri, native began this year with Double-A Corpus Christi and had one of the best offensive seasons in the Texas League, hitting .324 with a 1.027 OPS, 20 homers, 32 doubles and 73 RBIs before earning a promotion to Sugar Land on Aug. 9.
Dirden enters the final week of the regular season ranked second in the Minors in doubles (40), third in extra-base hits (69) and sixth in total bases (266).
In the latest prospect Q&A, the 6-foot-3 outfielder talks about developing a plan at the plate through data-driven information. He also talks about his experiences as an undrafted free agent and the state of mind required to put one's body on the line to make a play in the field.
MiLB.com: This was a good season for you from start to finish. What's been consistent for you? And what, in your opinion, has been one of the biggest factors in your success?
Justin Dirden: Man, other than working on different mechanical things, it's just been, especially getting up to these higher levels, really developing an approach and a plan based on what the pitcher is doing and buying into that. And other than that, just staying more on time to the fastball, and that unlocks more of the opposite field for me.
MiLB.com: How do you sort of formulate a plan? Who helps you do that?
Dirden: I sit with my hitting coach, based on different levels. Double-A was Aaron Westlake, and then up here [in Sugar Land] is [Rafael] Pena. But yeah, we sit down and we got a little bit of data on the opposing pitcher based off how he pitches in different counts, and then how he pitches with runners in scoring position, and what kind of pitches he mainly likes to attack lefties with -- different zones or whatever it may be. But you also have to know how you are as a hitter a little bit. Although a pitcher might be trying to pitch a majority of the lefties away or something, you might hit that ball well, so he might try to come into you. So, it's a bit of a balancing act.
MiLB.com: How have you developed your power? What's the challenge of translating raw power into game power?
Dirden: Trying to work on keeping my swing really connected as much as possible. In college, I could get away with being a little bit more handsy. But coming up here, just being able to attach that bat to my body and using my body a little bit more has really helped me find more of the consistency and the power. I try not to think so much of hitting the ball out rather than just line drives to the middle the cage. That's been working for me lately, not thinking so much getting under it, more on top of it actually. That's been allowing me to hit more balls flush.
MiLB.com: You've been promoted twice in each of the past two seasons. What is the toughest adjustment when you go up a level?
Dirden: Yeah, I would say the pitchers up here, they just know how to use their stuff to their advantage. In Double-A we talked about this a lot with different hitters as we kind of [talk] in the clubhouse and stuff, but I would say, just going from Double-A to Triple-A, the stuff is still there but they can hit their spot a little bit more. They can utilize that for the hitters' weaknesses.
MiLB.com: How did it feel to get promoted?
Dirden: It was surreal. Just knowing how I got picked up as a free agent. Making the rounds as quick as I am, it's kind of fun, it's kind of cool. Showing that just because you're a free agent doesn't mean you can't get the job done just like a second- or third-rounder. But the call was pretty smooth. There wasn't too much crazy going on. We were going on the road. And it's pretty standard call-up, you know, you get excited, you make a speech and know that it was cool. It was a good fit.
MiLB.com: What did you say in your speech?
Dirden: It was nothing crazy. I was just like, 'Hey, you know, if I can do this, y'all can do this. I'm not really anybody special. And if you guys keep it going at this level, and at this rate, you know, I'll see you guys up at that level as well.'
MiLB.com: You've made some pretty impressive catches this season. What do you think goes into that besides raw athleticism? Is there a little bit of craziness that goes with making these catches and putting your body on the line?
Dirden: One-hundred percent. I like the way you put that. When you're running full sprint, backwards with a wall approaching you, or if you're running full sprint towards another outfielder, gravel rather than dirt as a track, you kind of have to eliminate that from your mind or accept it in a certain way. And knowing you're putting your body on the line can be can be a little bit of insanity.
MiLB.com: You were in a different spot than the average undrafted free agent. What was the experience like? Did you have a long list of teams to chose from?
Dirden: Yeah, it was only the Astros. There was only really one team. I mean, there's a few teams talking to me, I guess, between a few other orgs and the Astros. But the Astros are the only one that extended the hand and gave me an offer. It was pretty underwhelming, but I'm really thankful for that opportunity.
MiLB.com: Now that you've been in the organization, do you notice something the Astros do that has led to all this recent success?
Dirden: Before I went in, I heard a lot about the Astros and how analytical and data driven they were. And now I've been in here and -- obviously I can't speak for the other organizations -- but I like how the Astros will give you a plan based off data rather than what they may think, whether it's anecdotal or whatever. Say, if you missed off-speed a majority of the time, they'll give you a plan to work on that and you know other things of that nature. It's actual data driven, so you know what you need to work on. I like that a lot.
MiLB.com: Before joining the organization, how much experience did you have with that additional information?
Dirden: The only thing we had was my last year, actually the pandemic year, we got a HitTrax setup in our batting cages. And that was the first time I was really exposed to exit velocity and launch angles. I didn't even know what a TrackMan was until I got into this organization. So the technology I had at my disposal was pretty limited until I got up here.
MiLB.com: It's interesting you had some tech in that final season because you're numbers in that span were incredible.
Dirden: It was good. We didn't use it a whole lot or as much, obviously, as the Astros. But having it at my disposal, it helped, definitely.
MiLB.com: Was there anything from the start of the year to now that you came into the season wanting to improve in a specific manner?
Dirden: Yeah, 100 percent. [My] strikeout rate, obviously, it's something that I would love to try and minimize as much as possible. And, like I mentioned before, they give us [information] and it's hard to just go into and work on reducing your strike rate, that's pretty vague. So, they give you a plan and say, 'OK, maybe you're not making the hardest contact on fastballs and that you should be putting those balls in play, or maybe on the slider or whatever it is.' And those end results will help you reduce your strikeout rate. So, I think putting that plan together, working on the timing of the fastball, putting more of those in play, which in turn helped with my off-speed, putting in play and making more contact with that, kind of helped this year to reduce the strikeout rate. So, now that I have that plan, going forward, knowing that kind of works for me, hopefully I can keep that going and maybe improve that and reduce the strikeout rate even further. That'd be really good.
Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.