Jonah Tong's Journey to the Draft League and Pro Baseball (2024)

June 7, 2024
Cam Black-Araujo
Western Operations (USA)/Asst. Director (CAN)

Jonah Tong's Journey to the Draft League and Pro Baseball (1)

The MLB Draft League got its fourth season underway this past week and the league has seen plenty of success stories during its first three years. Below is one of those success stories, taking a look at the journey of Jonah Tong who pitched with the Frederick Keys back in 2022 before being drafted and signing with the New York Mets.

For a high school baseball player who grew up with the goal of playing collegiate baseball, the worst fear is walking across the stage at graduation without having already committed to a college program.

On the flip side, the dream for a player looking to play college baseball is being drafted and signed by a Major League Baseball team out of high school.

In an incredibly unique scenario, New York Mets prospect and former MLB Draft League player, Jonah Tong, found himself in both situations.

The 20-year-old right-hander from Markham, Ontario (Canada) had 36 strikeouts to just five walks, along with a 0.00 ERA, through 18.2 innings in Port St. Lucie to start the season. With the dominant April in Single-A, Tong quickly earned a promotion to High-A Brooklyn and allowed no earned runs, two hits, three walks and struck out seven in his debut.

While he boasted some of the best strikeout numbers in the minor leagues through the first month of the season, Tong wasn’t always the center of attention when he took the mound growing up.

In September 2019 (junior), his fastball sat 79-81 T82 at the Toronto Mets Scout Day. In August 2020 (heading into senior year), his fastball sat 82-84 T85 at the Future Games Trials. Tong would graduate from high school the following June in 2021 and still hadn’t found a college program to call home. With the lack of interest at the time, Tong made the decision to pitch one more season at the amateur level.

At this time, his stuff continued to tick upwards as the fastball was now into the upper-80s, while touching 90mph and always had a great secondary offering in his curveball with 12-6 shape.

He was in contact with a couple programs before attending the NorthEast Senior Games in DuBois, Pennsylvania where he sat 88-90mph but didn’t garner a ton of interest from the event as his fellow countryman and teammate in the MLB Draft League, Zak Szabo, stole the show and was the big draw on the Canadian team.

Tong went to the event already having mutual interest with the North Dakota State program and ultimately that’s where he ended up, committing in late August of 2021. Despite checking off one of his biggest goals, Tong was just getting started as the next ten months would change the course of his career and his life.

During this time, the majority of Canada was still under lockdown so Tong had to improvise if he wanted to continue developing into a high-level pitcher that would garner serious looks from professional scouts.

“We were in the middle of the shutdown just before the season started, when ballparks were closed and all that stuff. My dad and I went to Milliken Mills (Markham, Ontario) to pitch and I was just like ‘Let me try something,’” said Tong.

While breaking down his own video, he noticed he wasn’t getting into his back leg much and his dad agreed. Without anyone to pitch to because of lockdowns, the father of the current Brooklyn Cyclones right-hander purchased a set of catcher's gear to catch his son’s bullpens. With a focus on his mechanics and back-leg, the first couple pitches of the bullpen were 85-86. The following four were 90, 91, 90, 91. They found something.

As Tong headed into the fall of 2021, he had a difficult time carrying that into live-game action.

“I couldn’t really pick it up throughout that summer and then as we went on that fall college trip with the Toronto Mets, I played against Mineral Area College. I was just talking to my Dad about it and I told him ‘I’m just trying to figure it out. I have a quick outing down here and it’s just one inning,’” Tong explained. “He told me it was a really good opportunity to try and see what I can do with my mechanics and getting into my back leg.”

“So that’s all I really thought about and I sat 92-94mph and I was like ‘Dang. That’s pretty cool.’”

2021 drew to a close as Tong had already graduated from high school, recently announced his commitment to North Dakota State and his overall stuff on the mound had taken a massive step forward to close out the year.

The right-hander was quietly becoming a potential 2022 MLB Draft prospect but it didn’t truly hit him until pro scouts began attending some of his and his teammates' bullpen in early 2022 as they prepared for the season. Following a bullpen, one of the scouts recommended Tong look at pitching south of the border ahead of the MLB Draft.

That’s exactly what Tong did as the scout got him in contact with the Langley Blaze ahead of their Pro Tour where they would take on MLB prospect teams in Arizona, as well local junior college programs.

After an awkward two years with limited live action, Tong took the mound in March 2022 for the Langley Blaze and recalls getting his feet wet during his first outing of the trip. He walked the first five batters he faced in the first, before the inning was rolled. After finally gaining feel of the ball again, he proceeded to punch out all three batters he faced in the second inning.

“Having gone from not throwing in live, there was a really big adjustment period out there. So finding command was the one thing I was focusing on,” said the Mets prospect.

“When I faced the Cubs, the one thing I did notice… The umpires zone is a lot different than a high school zone. And their approach is just a little more patient. So, I know that if I just compete in-zone, I’m going to have some success. Even if that’s balls in play. I’ve talked about this alot. Strikeouts look pretty, but they’re not always the most effective option.”

So by March 2022, along with his uptick in stuff over the fall/winter, Tong had his first extended experience throwing against professional and collegiate hitters, something that would set him up for success as he looked ahead to a stint with Georgia Premier in April and May, before joining the Frederick Keys in the MLB Draft League.

Tong put together a strong two months with Georgia Premier as his fastball was still sitting 92-94mph, coupled with a quality breaking ball. The Ontario native was gaining significant interest from pro scouts as he joined the Frederick Keys and his TrackMan data caught your attention each time he took the mound in the MLB Draft League.

If you were to look at his box scores and stats during that summer in Frederick, you would quickly see that he struggled at times. While he punched out 14 hitters in 11.2 innings, he also allowed 14 earned runs, 14 hits and 10 walks. He says it was a challenge, but it allowed him to grow as a pitcher.

“The Draft League is a really nice spot to learn who you are. That’s the one way I can describe it. Anything else.. From a high school perspective, it’s learning how your stuff plays.”

“I didn’t have great results by any means, I had like a 14.00 ERA [10.80]. It was brutal. I remember after every outing, I would think ‘This sucks. This is the worst baseball I’ve played.’”

“When you’re on that cycle… You’re always going to have to feel like this at some point. You can’t avoid it. And if I can do it in this space and have these guys around me who I’ve barely ever met, try to pick me up. It gives you a little more encouragement and I tried to take that into pro ball.”

Beyond teaching him how to deal with struggles, how to face mature hitters and pitching in front of crowds… Tong also says the schedule and structure prepared him for his time in the New York Mets system.

“I told myself I’m going to take this with an eyes-open approach. And it really prepares you for both situations. If you look at it from a ‘I’m going to go to college and I’m doing this as a summer ball opportunity,’ you’re not going to find any better facilities and the baseball is pretty good.”

“I feel like that’s the one thing it’s taught me, even in my time right now with the Mets. Our schedules are pretty similar to what we did with the Keys. With the BP, practice, PFPs and stuff like that. It’s a pretty cool experience if you want to get your feet wet and see what life on the other side is like.”

Despite going through his entire high school career uncommitted, never pitching for the Canadian Junior Team (18U National Team) and only drawing significant interest from two collegiate programs… There’s not much more Tong could have done during his reclassed-year to help put himself in position to be drafted.

He started the year on a two-week stint with the Langley Blaze pitching against professional and collegiate hitters. Joined Georgia Premier for two months and closed out his draft-year in the MLB Draft League. Now it was time for the North Dakota State commit to sit and wait.

On day two of the 2022 MLB Draft, around mid-day, the New York Mets selected Jonah Tong with their 7th-round selection, 209th overall. The kid who grew up pitching in a Mets uniform with the Toronto Mets, would get the chance to continue throwing in the uniform as he would go on to sign with the team for $226k.

The pick might have seemed like an under-the-radar choice in the 7th-round as the 19-year-old’s (at the time) Draft League stats were rather lackluster, combined with the fact Tong was a late bloomer and went through his original 2021 draft year with nearly no interest from the pro side.

But we’re now nearly two years past that draft day and for the value, the pick could very well end up being one of the best draft choices by the Mets front office that year as Tong has been on a tear in 2024.

Now 20-years-old, turning 21 in June, Tong started the year in Single-A St. Lucie where he put together the most dominant month of his entire baseball career. In 18.2 innings, Tong boasted a 0.00 ERA to go along with 36 strikeouts, five walks and seven hits.

Since his promotion to High-A Brooklyn, the right-hander has somewhat come back down to earth but is still putting up good numbers at the more competitive level. Through 21.2 innings at High-A, Tong boasts a 3.74 ERA with 27 strikeouts to 13 walks and still hasn’t allowed a home run across either level this year (stats as of June 1).

While the Mets prospect has propelled himself to a new level this year, he had some struggles in his first pro season (2023) with issuing walks, despite punching out hitters at a high-rate.

He says there’s several reasons and people who have helped him become the pitcher we’re all watching today. Tong has worked with the Mets pitching coordinators and staff on everything from mentality, balance, mechanics, an added slider and the development of his changeup.

But there’s another familiar face who’s been through several similar situations and has become a best friend. Mitch Bratt, a Texas Rangers prospect, also grew up pitching for the Toronto Mets before starting his draft year in 2021 with Georgia Premier and closing out his draft year with a strong showing in the Draft League for West Virginia.

Tong confided in Bratt ahead of the Draft League for any advice and the two constantly text back and forth throughout the season, while also working together in the offseason in Toronto.

“A big thing for me was balance because I looked at a lot of my outings and noticed I was falling off here. I don’t really look like I’m in control of my body so if I can make one small change, hopefully it moves up the chain and allows me to have more control over my body.”

“I was talking to Mitch about that a lot. I was able to bounce ideas because he’s a guy who does exactly that. Every time he throws, he looks like he can stick a landing. Talking about that, talking about slider shapes because that was a new pitch for me going into the offseason. He also has a slider very similar to the shape we’re looking for.”

“I could probably tell you exactly what he’s thinking during certain outings,” says Tong. “It’s always special when you have a partner like Mitch where you both work back and forth. If he needs something, I’m always there. And vice versa. So as the offseason developed, we both kind of started to see things we wanted to get done. We both kind of started blending really nicely.”

While the two possess several similarities, aside from the hands they throw with, their high school careers were far from similar before the two turned South ahead of the draft. From a young age, Bratt was tabbed as a high-ceiling arm with pro potential. He committed to Florida State in September of his grade 10 year. He was a mainstay in the Canadian Junior National Team’s rotation for several years.

For Tong, he didn’t have any of that. While he was always an intriguing arm and seemed to consistently get better each time the Prep Baseball Canada staff saw him, it took longer to put it together the way Bratt did. The potential of pro baseball didn’t seem like reality to him until he had already graduated from high school.

It’s a unique story and his mindset throughout high school of focusing on development and getting better, as opposed to focusing on accolades and things out of his control, allowed him to do just that.

He slowly and consistently got better. He never dwelled about not making Team Canada or Canada’s Future Games roster. He says if he did make those teams, ‘great’. But his focus was trying to reach his full potential on the mound.

“Some high school players look at it from a micro-lense, where it’s like ‘I want it now.’ Ok, some people are going to get it now. Mitch is a really good example. He got it now and he’s in a position where everything went really well for him because he put a lot of time and effort into it. He, from an early age, was just that guy. But you take a look at other guys… Tyler Black never played [for the Junior National Team]. Does that mean he’s a bad player? No. He’s one of the best prospects coming up in the minor leagues right now. He became a big leaguer this year.”

“You don’t need to be the next big thing to be successful. Stop focusing on the accolades and wanting everything right now. Everyone has their timeline and you need to understand that.”

“It’s really easy to get in that mindset where you’re like ‘I’m good enough to be there right now and if I get there it means I’m going to be a successful player.’ It does not. It really does not.”

Tong is now part way through his second professional season and despite taking massive steps forward following his freshman year in pro ball, Tong knows he still has a lot of work ahead to hit his goal of becoming a big leaguer.

The former Frederick Key is just one of many success stories out of the MLB Draft League through its first three seasons and has quickly become a well-known name within the organization amongst Mets fanatics.

It’s already impressive what he’s been able to accomplish to-date, but there’s plenty more to come from the Canadian native.

Jonah Tong's Journey to the Draft League and Pro Baseball (2024)
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