At every level of the Orioles’ farm system, Jackson Holliday has created a catalog of moments that make his coaches and teammates turn to each other in wonder at what the 19-year-old top prospect can accomplish.

Many of those are on the field, but some come behind the scenes. Brink Ambler, the hitting coach at Triple-A Norfolk, helped introduce Holliday to how the Orioles like to develop their young hitters at Low-A Delmarva last year and marvels at the extent Holliday embraces the challenges they can set up in the practice cages.

One day this month in Norfolk, Holliday asked for some rising fastball work — one of his preferred drills — off a spin-ball machine that exaggerates ball flight and makes it move more than it would in a game. He wanted to prepare for that night’s opposing starter.

“Hey Jacks, how fast do you want this?” Ambler asked. “How firm do you want this?

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“I want it firm,” Holliday replied.

“You want it 100?”

“I want it 100.”

So, Ambler turned the machine to a velocity setting that, combined with the exaggerated movement, presented far more challenge than Holliday has faced in games this season.

“He just stepped in and started hitting it, and did a really nice job against it — so much so that some of the other guys who were hitting around him came over and also got some off of that as well,” Ambler said. “Just really neat to see that he’s got this drive and this ambition to face these hard challenges in his training, with the confidence and the trust that doing so will prepare him for being able to have success in the games. …

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“That’s one of the things that’s going to stick with him way longer than any drill or anything that he does in his prep work, it’s going to be that mindset of, ‘I know that the way to growth is through challenge, and so, I want to challenge myself and continue to see things that are going to challenge me.’"

Seeking challenges has been part of the reason Holliday, who was named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year Monday, is at Norfolk this month, the fourth level of his first full professional season.

He had a 1.182 OPS in three weeks at Delmarva, a .940 OPS in 259 plate appearances at High-A Aberdeen, a .928 OPS in 164 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie, and ended the regular season with a .796 OPS in three weeks at Norfolk as the Tides enter the International League playoffs this week.

The challenge wasn’t necessarily a conventional one for Holliday at the level, even if it’s common for other younger hitters at the level; Ambler said Coby Mayo dealt with a similar one.

At least this year, hitters have found that they might see better raw stuff — upper-90s fastballs and sharper breaking balls — at Double-A, but then they arrive in Triple-A to find more experienced pitchers and in Ambler’s words, “four starters in a week who are low-90s, who throw five pitches apiece, and are maybe nibbling at the corners and at the edges.

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“So for him, the biggest learning opportunity that this league has presented is just an opportunity to really figure out how to keep his aggressiveness that makes him who he is, and makes him so good, but then also not getting himself out by putting a pitchers’ pitch in play early, which is something they were doing to him when he first arrived,” Ambler said.

Holliday hit into some bad luck in his first Triple-A series against Jacksonville, batting .200 with a .613 OPS while still walking more times (five) than he struck out (three). That improved the next week against Memphis, when he homered for the first time at the level with a .796 OPS. Last week in Buffalo, he had three multihit games with a double, a home run, and a .969 OPS.

“It’s been really great to watch him figure out how to take his shots when he wants to, but also know that might not be the pitch that is the pitch to go on, and really work to see some pitches and gain some count leverages,“ Ambler said. “I thought he did an excellent job of that this week [in Buffalo] where he was drawing walks if guys were going to walk him, and if they were going to come into the zone, he was going to slug. He had some extra-base hits, homers, things like that that have shown up with him just doing what he does, but in a way that is cognizant of what these pitchers are trying to do up here, which is a little bit different.”

It wouldn’t be unreasonable for the pitchers he’s facing to outsmart Holliday. The average age of pitchers in the International League is 27 — eight years older than Holliday.

“There’s some grown men up here,” Ambler said. “We’ll face some relievers who are 30 years old, and you’re 19 and obviously, you’re attacking pitches against guys who maybe debuted when you were in kindergarten or something like that. It’s been a really good challenge for him, but he’s handled it really, really nicely and done so in a way that he is who he is: He’s Jacks, he’s going to be great. We’re not worried about that. But just allowing him to learn these lessons, to continue to attack this training, to have fun, enjoy this opportunity, and continue to play hard, which he always does. It’s been great.”

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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