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  • Jerry Sullivan

Horwitz Finding His Way Back to His True Self

This was supposed to be the year. After all, Spencer Horwitz had been one of the top hitters in minor-league baseball in 2023. He batted .337 with a .450 on-base percentage for the Bisons, the highest OB in Triple-A in 40 years.

Horwitz had also been solid in 15 games with Toronto in ‘23. Surely, there was a place for him in the big leagues as a backup first baseman and designated hitter for the Blue Jays. He wanted it. As it turned out, he wanted it too much.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself in spring,” Horwitz said Tuesday. “A lot of people could see that and said ‘That’s not the Spencer we’re used to seeing’.” It didn’t help that the Jays signed Daniel Vogelbach, a veteran power hitter with a knack for drawing walks, or that they later signed 40-year-old Joey Votto, who was hobbled by an ankle injury.

Horwitz tried to elevate the ball in preseason, knowing the Jays wanted to see more home runs. He got away from what made him the most efficient hitter in the minors. It’s rare for athletes to concede pressure. He admits that he felt it.

“It’s a lie if you say you don’t,” he said. “Everyone wants to play well; no one wants to go out and do bad. That being the first real chance I had to make the team, I definitely put a little more pressure on myself, and I saw the downside.” He went 5-for-40 in the spring. Established MLB players can survive it. Not a marginal big-leaguer. Late in March, the Jays sent Horwitz back to Buffalo. A lot of players would wallow. He took it in stride, like a pitch an inch inside.

“I gave myself a day,” Horwitz said. “Yeah, a day. You can have a day to be all pouty if you want. But it really didn’t even last that whole full day. It was ‘Back to work’. Nothing in my career has come easy. Being a day three pick and having to play my way through each level.

“It’s just part of the game. Failure is inevitable. It’s how you handle it.” There are a lot worse things in this world than being sent down to the minors. Horwitz, a Timonium, Maryland (outside Baltimore) native and a Jewish-American, has learned a lot over the last year or so about the genuine pain and suffering people are forced to endure.

In early 2023, Horwitz played for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic. He hit a game-tying home run in Israel’s opening upset over Nicaragua in the WBC. Before that game, he said they weren’t simply baseball players, but representatives of a nation that “has been through a lot, but turned a corner.” The experience inspired Horwitz to explore his Jewish heritage. His family had been devout, but he hadn’t been especially religious. He and his brother, Ben, decided to visit the Holy Land last fall for a “Birthright,” a 10-day trip for 18-26 year-olds to connect with their Jewish identity, heritage and culture.

Spencer, 26, and Ben were scheduled to land in Tel Aviv for their Birthright in mid-October. But the visit was called off after Hamas militants attacked and slaughtered residents in small Israeli towns and kibbutzim on Oct. 7.

Six months later, Israel continues to wage war in Gaza, killing and displacing thousands of innocent Palestinians and sparking a backlash against Israel here in the United States and around the globe.

“I feel like I’ve tried more to educate and try to be that voice for Jewish people, who are going through stuff that we can’t even fathom over here,” Horwitz said.

Horwitz said he felt a responsibility to be a voice for the Jewish people, who are experiencing a surge in anti-semitic rhetoric. It’s an extraordinarily difficult issue, balancing a love for Israel with the suffering of the Palestinians.

“I’m in no position to scrutinize anyone for what their beliefs are,” he said. “But I know a little bit now, being in touch with guys who are over there and guys I played with on the team. Yeah, I feel I can speak to it a little more now.

“Any sort of hate, whether it be anti-semitism or racism or whatever, it’s not good. And when it personally affects you or your family, it hits home a little more. I try to be as open to ideas as I can, but I believe in human rights first.”

So Horwitz will have to wait for his first visit to Israel (the WBC activities were outside the country.) For now, his focus is on a return to the majors. Judging by his performance, he hasn’t had any trouble readjusting to the minors.

Through nine games with the Bisons, Horwitz, a lefty hitter, has actually exceeded his dazzling numbers of a year ago. He homered in his first game and entered Thursday’s action batting .424 with a .568 on-base percentage and an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.144.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Buffalo manager Casey Candaele, “He’s a really good hitter. He has a great idea of what he’s doing up there. He puts together a quality at-bat all the time.”

Candaele said Horwitz benefits from the Automatic Ball-Strike technology in use for half of the team’s games. Specialized cameras track pitches and the call is relayed to the umpire. A hitter with a discerning eye isn’t as likely to be hurt by a bad call. And no one has a more disciplined batting eye than Horwitz.

Picture courtesy of Buffalo Bisons Baseball

Over his last four games, Horwitz reached base 16 times. In one game, he had two hits and four walks. Wednesday’s game was typical: He had two walks, a single to right and a single down the left-field line. He bounced out to second in his other at-bat (he got out in front of a changeup) in a 12-11 Bisons victory.

“I just go out there and try to battle,” said Horwitz, who played college ball at Radford. “I think it kind of goes into competitiveness and training hard, and not making the training be just typical stuff — doing different variations in batting practice, machine, mixed BP and making it a challenge for yourself.”

Entering Thursday, the Bisons had won four in a row, averaging 9.5 runs a game. It helps having a guy who reached base four times a night. One of Horwitz’s walks preceded a grand slam for Danny Jansen, a veteran catcher passing through on injury rehab before heading back to the Blue Jays.

But it was Horwitz’s glove that made the difference in the ninth inning. The Bisons were clinging to a 12-11 lead with men on first and second and one out. Horwitz ranged to his right and made a nice backhanded, short-hop grab to get a force play at second base for the second out. They held on for the win.

“It’s something I learned last year (with the Jays), how important defense is,” he said. “So it’s definitely changed my view of defense a lot. I’m not saying I didn’t take pride in it before, but now it’s more in the forefront.” Still, it’s his bat — and his batting eye — that made Horwitz one of the top 10 first base prospects in MLB heading into this season. Going back to his college days, he has a batting average of exactly .300, an on-base of .403. There has to be a place in the big leagues for a man with those hitting skills.

As of Thursday, the Blue Jays were struggling as a team offensively and sitting in last place in the American League East. They were 10th in runs scored, 12th in batting average in the AL. He might be helping in Toronto if he had been true to himself in the spring and avoided that uncharacteristic slump.

Picture courtesy of Buffalo Bisons Baseball

“It was untimely, for sure,” he said. “But I think it happened for a reason. I’m here. I’m having a great time with these guys. We have a great group of guys, great staff. I came here and I’m more comfortable in my skin again.

“The Blue Jays, their job is to create the best team possible. Whether that’s me or not, it’s a business. They thought that was the best fit for them right now. I can’t fault them for it. They said just go down and get back to who you are.” It’s hard to argue with the numbers.

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