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Evan Meek’s Maturation

Since the Minnesota Twins signed him for $180,000 as a product of the now defunct draft-and-follow system back in 2002, Evan Meek has both tantalized and frustrated his employers. But now, with his fourth organization, Meek may soon inherit a prominent role in the ‘pen.

A stocky 6-0, 220 pound right-hander known for touching the mid-90’s with his fastball, Meek was nevertheless released by the Twins in 2005 after he walked 36 batters in 18 innings in the Low-A Midwest League. The San Diego Padres picked up the Bellevue (Wash.) Community College product, stuck him in the starting rotation and watched him whiff (8.7 K/9) and walk (4.8 BB/9) the yard in the High-A California League in 2006. In August of ’06, Tampa Bay acquired Meek as the PTBNL in a deal for Russell Branyan. Shifted to relief in 2007, he punched out 9.3 batters per nine frames in the Double-A Southern League, but walked 4.6 per nine as well.

Tampa didn’t place Meek on the 40-man roster after the season, leaving him subject to the Rule V Draft. The Pittsburgh Pirates, impressed with Meek’s work in the Arizona Fall League, snagged him with the second overall pick in the Rule V proceedings.

For the first month of the 2008 season, Meek flailed to the tune of seven K’s, 12 walks and three wild pitches in 13 innings for Pittsburgh. He was behind in the count before you could say “Marmol”–Meek’s first pitch strike percentage was 44.3, compared to the 58 percent major league average.

Still, the Pirates were intrigued enough to work out a trade with the Rays so that Meek could be sent down to the minors. In 57.1 combined frames between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, he punched out eight hitters per nine innings and induced a ground ball 60 percent of the time. Most importantly, Meek issued just 2.7 walks per nine innings.

Last season, Meek began the year back at Indy but got the big league call in late April. When he took the mound, the outcome of the game was already largely determined–Meek’s Leverage Index was 0.63, lowest among regular Pirates relievers. Showcasing 93 MPH heat, a hard 90 MPH cutter and low-80’s breaking stuff, Meek had 8.04 K/9 in 47 IP, burning worms at a 52.1% rate. But alas, control remained elusive. He walked 5.55 per nine frames, posting a 4.18 expected FIP (xFIP). A left oblique strain shut Meek down in mid-August.

In 2010, the 27-year-old has been a revelation. Sure, he has been lucky to post a 0.69 ERA in 26 innings pitched–he’s eventually going to surrender a home run, and he isn’t likely to strand 85.2 percent of base runners all season. But Meek has legitimately been one of the best ‘pen arms in the majors. With his fastball up a tick in velocity, he has 9.35 K/9, 2.42 BB/9 and a 52.2 GB%, owning a 2.83 xFIP that ranks within shouting distance of San Francisco’s Brian Wilson (2.77 xFIP) and Kansas City’s Joakim Soria (2.71 xFIP). That’s not to suggest that he’s suddenly on the same plane as the Giants’ mohawked stopper or the Mexicutioner, but Meek is pitching marvelously.

While he’s doing a slightly better job of locating this season, raising his percentage of pitches within the strike zone from 51.9 percent in ’09 to 53.1 percent in 2010, the big difference is that Meek is getting batters to chase his stuff off the plate for the first time. As a Rule V selection, Meek garnered outside swings just 13.2 percent of the time. Last year, his O-Swing was still below average, at 22.1 percent. But in 2010, he’s getting hitters to hack at 28.2 percent of his out-of-zone offerings.

As Meek continues to mow down hitters, he’s earning the trust of Pirates manager John Russell. In April, Meek’s Leverage Index was a custodian-level 0.66. But in May, his 1.66 LI trails only closer Octavio Dotel. He’s also being deployed often for multi-inning stints, with seven of his 19 appearances lasting a full two frames. It took a while, but Pittsburgh’s patience with Meek is paying dividends.