By: Brian Frank
Hayden Juenger has rocketed his way through the Blue Jays’ minor-league system. A 2021 draft pick, he’s already pitched in eighteen Triple-A games. According to MLB Pipeline, he's the Blue Jays’ seventh ranked prospect.
Juenger was raised in Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, where he grew up a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan.
“I loved going to Cardinals games,” he said in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “I went to the ballpark a lot growing up. I just loved watching baseball games in general.”
In fact, his three favorite players growing up are still playing in the major leagues.
“It’s the three that are in St. Louis right now – Wainwright, Pujols, and Molina,” he said. “Growing up my favorite player was Albert – imitating his stance in the backyard. As I got into pitching, I loved watching the way Wainwright went about his business – it’s something special. He’s a guy who has pitched for a long time, so he’s doing something right.”
Juenger was promoted to the Bisons in late July. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
As a youngster, Juenger always knew he wanted to grow up to be a professional baseball player. After graduating from O’Fallon Township High School, he attended Missouri State. After overcoming some early struggles, he found success as the team’s closer.
“The game came easy for me as a kid,” he said. “But then I got to college and it was an eye-opening experience my freshman year. I struggled a little bit. I hit the whole – am I good enough type thing. Then I kind of looked in the mirror and said – hey, you know what, I’m going to do it and just attack it. Just attack each day, give it everything I’ve got, and the pieces will fall where they fall. My freshman year I was in the rotation for a couple starts and then I found my way into the bullpen. My sophomore and junior years I was the closer. It was a great experience.”
“I think you could go both ways, good and bad,” he said when asked what moments in college stand out to him. “My freshman year I didn’t pitch for three and a half, four weeks because I was struggling. That was when I was like – am I even going to pitch anymore? Then things turned. We beat Oklahoma my freshman year. We beat Oklahoma State two years in a row. I closed out both Oklahoma State games. We beat Mizzou. So you have moments like that. But I think what I cherish the most from there is just the guys. Having some of my best friends there who I still talk to today. I love the guys down there.”
He participated in a documentary about his draft experience – from the lead up to Major League Baseball’s June Amateur Draft to watching himself being selected alongside family and friends.
“I was just kind of working out one day and my old pitching coach, he started doing photography and stuff, he said ‘I kind of want to make this documentary on you. What do you think?,’ So we went to lunch and he explained it all and I was like, yeah, that’d be a cool experience to do it, but also to have for many years down the road. I think if you watch it you really get to know me more as a person, my background and my faith and stuff like that. I think it really showed people what I aspire to be each day on and off the field.”
Juenger was selected in the sixth round by the Blue Jays. Even though he went into the draft knowing he would likely be selected, you can still see the relief on his face in the documentary when his name is finally called.
“I kind of had a feeling I was going to get picked from just talking to teams, but I still didn’t know when or what team,” he remembered. “I knew there was a chance I could fall even farther, but I was like, whatever happens, happens. There’s a plan for everything. I wasn’t stressed out, but the day was getting longer and the rounds were going on. When round five came, I heard from a couple teams. Then the Blue Jays picked me. I think once I was picked it was a sigh of relief. You can see it on the video. I was emotional. Just a sigh of relief – like okay, it’s done, now the real work is starting. It was like it was the best day of your life, but now there’s challenges ahead and you’ve just got to attack them each day.”
Juenger is currently the Blue Jays seventh raked prospect. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He played his first professional season at High-A Vancouver, where he posted a 2.70 ERA in eleven relief appearances, striking out thirty-four and walking only four. He started this season at Double-A New Hampshire. He had a 4.02 ERA in twenty games, including seventeen starts, striking out sixty-seven batters in fifty-six innings. He was promoted to Buffalo in late July and had a 3.31 ERA in 18 games with the Herd.
The six-foot tall right-hander throws a fastball, changeup, and slider. While he has confidence in his entire arsenal, he considers his fastball to be his best pitch.
“My fastball for me, when I stay on it has a lot of ride,” he said. “But it doesn’t have just straight ride because I throw from like a three-quarter arm slot, it kind of runs too. So it has this unique ride and run at the same time.”
“I like my fastball up. It’s a good fastball. I use my other stuff to set it up. That way when I do throw it, it appears to be better than it is.”
His changeup is a fairly new pitch – but one that came natural to him. Now he’s working on improving his command with it.
“Actually, when I went to college, I didn’t have a changeup,” he said. “I was pretty much just fastball, slider and didn’t really throw a changeup. Then I went to play in Mankato, Minnesota, in the Northwoods League and my pitching coach there was like – I’ll teach you my changeup. So it’s a modified grip of his – a little different on the horseshoe. It’s basically a four-seam circle changeup and I’ve just kind of created this natural run. Some guys can just pick up a baseball and can spin it. The spinning part on a slider or curveball – that was the hard part for me. The changeup came pretty easy.”
“The hard part for me with the changeup – because it moves a lot – is how do I command it on the plate? It’s a pitch where some days you have it and some days you don’t. But it’s the pitch that I think is the equalizer. If you can put that in there, it sets up everything. For me, if I have my changeup, I feel like it’s going to be a good day.”
He believes his slider is a little more of a work in progress that he’s perfecting.
“My slider – I’ve been messing around with a couple different grips this year,” he said. “One is kind of a sweeper grip, so to speak, but it’s not necessarily a true sweeper. I’m just trying to create more vertical movement on it to look like my fastball – and then let the horizontal play. For me the slider is a pitch that, if I can steal an out with it – great.”
He’s been focused on learning as much as he can at every minor-league level he’s advanced through.
“Starting at Double-A, there were a lot of prospects, a lot of talent, but there was a lot of swing and miss,” he said. “You’d have some guys you can set up and some guys you can’t. But I get here (in Triple-A) and it’s a completely different ballgame. You’ve got thirty-year-olds in the dugout. They’ve been around and they’ve seen a lot of pitches. I don’t feel like you have to pitch them differently, you just have to be more careful. That’s the biggest thing between Triple-A and the big leagues versus Double-A and High-A is the execution rate. If you can execute your pitches, you’ll be fine.”
“But I think for me it’s just continuing to get better every day. Just taking what the coaches are giving me and learning from older guys that I talk to and have been around. Everybody in the bullpen has been great. The whole team has been good to me since I’ve been here. On a team like this, I can learn from the position players too. So just trying to learn from each and every one of them and pick up whatever I can.”
That willingness to learn has helped Juenger on his baseball journey – from watching games at Busch Stadium as a kid to playing three seasons at Missouri State to his ascension through the Blue Jays’ minor-league system. The future looks bright for the rapidly rising twenty-two-year-old hurler.
Juenger delivers on the Sahlen Field mound. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles