Sunday Notes: Meadows, Sox Surprise, Mackanin Gems, Twins, D-Backs, more

Austin Meadows is Pittsburgh’s top prospect, and one of the most-promising young hitters in the game. The 21-year-old outfielder has a sweet left-handed stroke, and — according to our own Eric Longenhagen — “projects to hit for in-game power without sacrificing much contact.”

He won’t be doing so with a Josh Donaldson approach.

“A downward angle on the ball to generate backspin has always been my philosophy,” Meadows told me prior to a recent game. “That’s what I learned, and it’s what I’ve stuck with. It’s got me to where I am today.”

It’s hard to argue with the results. The Pirates drafted Meadows ninth-overall in 2013 out of a Loganville, Georgia high school, and he has an .848 OPS since signing. And while he doesn’t have a Donaldson-like strive-for-loft mindset, he certainly understands the mechanics of hitting.

“I’ve always been short to the ball, and able to keep my hands long through the zone,” said Meadows. “Different hitters have different bat paths, and different launch angles, and it’s whatever works. For me it’s about getting in a strong position, down on the ball.

“I try to use the gaps to my advantage, and if the ball takes off, it takes off. I’m not up there trying to hit home runs. I’m trying to generate backspin, and if the ball goes out, it goes out.”

Meadows has 29 home runs in 1,335 professional plate appearances, although his raw power suggests that number will grow exponentially as he matures. But again, trying to create fly balls isn’t his modus operandi. To him, well-struck singles are perfectly acceptable.

“I want to hit the ball hard, but if I hit a ground ball up the middle, that’s good,” opined Meadows. “Certain guys don’t like hitting ground balls — ‘ground balls are outs’ they’ll say — but I don’t look at it that way. If I hit it on the ground, I have the speed to try to make up for that.”

As for selectivity, the youngster earns his OBP with aggression, not passivity.

“I like to attack the ball early in the count,” Meadows told me. “I try to get on a good fastball and not miss a good pitch. I don’t want the pitcher to get away with something a hitter should drive. I’m going to attack those pitches.”

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Ben Taylor is an opening day roster surprise. The 24-year-old right-hander will begin the season in the Boston bullpen less than two years after being taken in the seventh round of the 2015 draft out of the University of South Alabama. He has just 50 professional games under his belt, and he’s yet to pitch above Double-A.

Making his rapid ascent even more remarkable is the fact that he was a senior sign — not because he declined to ink a contract after his junior campaign, but because he wasn’t wanted.

“I wasn’t drafted,” explained Taylor, who transferred to South Alabama from Chattahoochee Valley Community College. “I was actually draft eligible all four years, and never got drafted until I did. I went back my senior year and had a velo spike, caught some eyes, and here I am.”

Hitters see a lot of mid-90s fastballs when he is on the mound, and they usually have late life. On the recommendation of Red Sox pitching guru Brian Bannister, Taylor has taken to climbing the ladder with his heater.

“A high fastball is something I’ve been using more, and more effectively,” said Taylor. “Banny has a lot to do with that. Apparently, the spin makes it look like it’s rising, so I’m pitching a little more at the top of the zone, and getting hitters swinging and missing.”

He’s done a lot of that. Taylor fanned 98 in 79 innings between Salem and Portland last year, and this spring he punched out 19 in 13 innings. He’s not surprised by all the strikeouts.

“In my mind, I’m better than the hitter,” said Taylor. “When I make my pitches, I expect them to swing and miss.”

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Salvador Perez mentioned Joakim Soria when I asked him about pitchers whose fastballs play up thanks to a high spin rate. He called his then-teammate (our conversation occurred last summer) “sneaky fast.” That didn’t surprise me, as I’ve heard opposing hitters say the same of Soria.

What did surprise me was the Kansas City backstop’s response when I asked who else comes to mind.

“It’s hard for me to name guys,” said Perez “I can with Soria, because I catch him. It’s harder when you don’t catch somebody. It’s a different look than when you’re hitting.”

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Pete Mackanin offered an interesting perspective when I talked hitting with him recently. The Phillies manager isn’t a proponent of an uppercut swing, and one of the reasons he gave is something I’d never considered.

“I know it worked for Ted Williams, but then again, the mound was higher,” said Mackanin. “There was more of a downward angle to that fastball. With a higher mound, an uppercut probably made more sense than it does now.”

The personable skipper also offered an entertaining analogy.

“I always tell hitters, ‘I can teach you how to hold a bat and how to get in a position to hit, but I can’t teach you to hit,” said Mackanin. “You have to learn how to hit.’ It’s like riding a bicycle. I can tell you where to put your feet on the pedals and how to hold the handlebars, but from there you have to learn it on your own. Ice skating. Roller skating. You have to learn it, feel it.”

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Jimmy Rollins was released by the Giants on Friday, and if that means the end of a career, it has been a career worth celebrating. The 38-year-old shortstop has played 17 seasons, all but two with the Phillies, and he played them well. Rollins logged over 2,400 hits, was an all-star three times, and a league MVP once. He also won a World Series ring in Philadelphia, which is a bauble few in franchise history can claim to possess. The four-time Gold Gloves winner boasts one of the highest fielding percentages in history, and is the only shortstop with at least 500 doubles, 200 home runs, and 450 stolen bases.

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Eddy Rodriguez has a unique background in pro ball, and an equally unique analogy for the position he plays.

“I call us the offensive linemen of baseball,” said Rodriguez, a 31-year-old catcher currently on the roster of the Rochester Red Wings, Minnesota’s Triple-A affiliate. “You don’t hear about us until the quarterback goes down. We’re starting to get more notoriety now because of framing statistics, but until a pitcher is struggling… if I asked you who Tom Brady’s (left tackle is), you probably couldn’t say, even though that guy is in charge of protecting arguably the blind side of the best quarterback in the game. That’s who we are.”

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Jackie Bradley Jr. was surprised to hear that Anthony Gose is transitioning from the outfield to the mound. When I mentioned it to him earlier in the week, the first word out of his mouth was, “Really?”

The Boston outfielder was in no way being disparaging of his Detroit contemporary. He simply hadn’t heard the news, and while switches of that ilk aren’t unprecedented, they are uncommon. Gose has a good arm — he was reportedly clocked at 97 MPH in high school — but it’s been awhile since he’s been on a mound.

Bradley, who has a rocket of his own, told me it’s impossible to say what that type of transition would be like until you actually tried it.

“That’s something time would have to figure out on its own,” said Bradley. “But we’re all athletes. We’re willing to do whatever it takes. We’ll experiment if need be, so whatever keeps him hungry and fighting. Hopefully it goes well for him.”

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Four players — Campy Campaneris, Shane Halter, Scott Sheldon, and Cesar Tovar — have played all nine positions in a game. How did they perform in those contests? At the plate, they combined to go 6 for 11 with two walks. On the mound, they allowed one run in two-and-a-third innings. Their teams split the four games.

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When I made my 2017 postseason picks earlier this week, I came close, but couldn’t quite pull the trigger, on the Arizona Diamondbacks. Typing this several hours after the FanGraphs Staff Picks went live, I’m wondering if I’ll regret my decision. The D-Backs need a lot to go right in order to play October baseball, but they have the talent to far exceed their projected 77-85 record. I can easily see those numbers being flip-flopped, and 85-77 puts them on the doorstep of a playoff berth. Carson Cistulli and Joe Distelheim are believers, as both pegged Arizona as an NL wild card team.

Conversely, I’m not as bullish on Seattle as many of my colleagues are. The Mariners garnered a lot of support in our poll, but I see them as closer to the 83-79 squad they are in our projected standings. Could they outperform that and make the postseason? Sure, but I’m not ready to buy the hype just yet.

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Last Sunday, Chris Sale threw five scoreless innings against the Twins in his penultimate start of the spring. Opposition-wise, the outing was atypical. Over the past two seasons, the perennial all-star has faced Minnesota eight times and allowed 37 runs over 45 innings. He was barely exaggerating when he said “I’ve thrown batting practice against them for a couple of years now. They’ve had their way with me.”

He doesn’t have an explanation.

“I’ve gone out there with some pretty good stuff a couple of times,” said Sale. “So I have no idea. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, for no rhyme or reason. I’m not trying to do it, obviously.”

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Two years ago, the Twins opened the season by losing six of their first seven games. Last year was even worse, as they lost their first nine games. Paul Molitor had a good line when asked recently about the slow starts.

“It’s an unpredictable game,” said the Minnesota manager. “But I know our people are aware of what happened last year and how it was the beginning of the end rather early.”

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Ruben Amaro Sr, the father of Red Sox first base coach Ruben Amaro, passed away earlier this week. Amaro Sr. was a big-league shortstop from 1958-1969, primarily with the Phillies, and later worked as a coach, minor league manager, and in a variety of scouting and player development roles. He was 81.

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Derek Norris caught Chris Archer this past Tuesday, which was also his first day in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform. I asked Archer how they addressed pitch calling, given their nascent relationship.

“They sent him a ton of video,” answered Archer. “And (pitching coach John) Hickey is really good at informing — not only the pitchers, but the catchers. Tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, things we should do in certain situations. So really, it was a quick conversation before the game. He kind of felt me out in the bullpen, and he had a long discussion with Hickey. It was pretty nice.”

Archer was asked about a first-inning conversation he had with Norris during the first inning.

“We were just getting on the same page in general,” said Archer. “That’s it. There was nothing more to it than me waiting for him to put down the right fingers.”

———

The NPB season opened on Friday night. with the defending Japan Series champion Nippon Ham Fighters losing to the Seibu Lions by a score of 8-1. Shohei Otani, batting cleanup as Nippon Ham’s designated hitter, went 2 for 4, with a pair of strikeouts.

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Earlier this week, I was part of an impromptu trivia team that included Phil Miller of The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com, and John Bonnes and Ken Reiners of Twins Daily. We were at the Fort Myers Brewing Company, and thanks in large part to Bollinger being a trivia beast, we bested our competition.

Between rounds (yes, that’s a double entendre), Miller told me a great WAR story. Here it is, retold by the scribe himself:

“I was in my third season covering the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and we were in Kansas City for the finish of a three-city road trip. Before the game on June 29 (2009), I had a long and detailed conversation with Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins about Wins Above Replacement. Like a lot of baseball fans back then, we were trying to understand the concept of the relatively new calculation, in particular ‘replacement level.’ It was about as in-depth a discussion of advanced stats as I’ve ever had with ballplayers.

“After the game, Slowey came up to me in the clubhouse with a deadpan look on his face and a piece of paper in his hand. On it were he and Perkins’ ‘calculations’ of their new stat: Wins Above Replacement Writer. They had listed the seven or eight reporters who spent the most time around the team that year, and noted their ‘scores’ next to them. Slowey showed me each score, all in the range of 1-10 or so, and then pointed out mine, which was by far the lowest — minus-12.3 or some such thing. Looking very serious, he told me, ‘Phil, we’re going to have to let you go.’ It was a funny moment, and when I told him I understood, we all got a good laugh out of it.

“But here’s the punchline: The Pioneer Press was going through the same contraction as almost every newspaper at the time, and they decided to lay off a dozen or so employees at the beginning of the new fiscal year, July 1. And since it was a guild newspaper, they were required to conduct the layoffs on a strict seniority basis. Thanks to a hiring freeze, I was at the bottom of the seniority scale. So the morning after my conversation with Slowey, June 30, the executive editor of the paper called me at my hotel in Kansas City and told me that it was my final day at the paper, and that I should fly home immediately.

“I didn’t cover that day’s game, and I didn’t see Slowey again until four years later at Target Field. By then, I had been hired by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and was covering the Twins again, and he was pitching for the Marlins. We laughed over his prescient joke, and I assured him I had raised my WARW to acceptable levels.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Richard Sullivan pitched in the Braves system from 2008-2012, now his artwork is on display at Sun Trust Park. Halsten Willis wrote about it at The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At The New York Times, Tyler Kepner wrote about six baseball men — three players, a coach, a broadcaster, and an umpire — who share an abiding love of the game, even as it changes.

Andy McCullough of The Los Angeles Times is one of the best baseball writers in the country. This story on Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi is an example of why many share that opinion.

At Baseball America, J.J. Cooper wrote about how the San Diego Padres spent more on international amateurs in the past year than they will on their 2017 big league roster.

SABR’s Baseball and the Media Committee has updated their 2017 Flagship/Announcer, Radio Station Affiliates database for the 2017 season.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

The Yankees’ Greg Bird (1.582) had the highest OPS among players with at least 50 plate appearances this spring. Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar (1.420) had the second highest. Both players hit seven home runs.

Manny Ramirez slashed .313/.407/.592 in eight seasons with the Indians. He slashed .312/.411/.588 in eight seasons with the Red Sox.

Walter Johnson threw nine opening-day shutouts for the Washington Senators, including a 15-inning 1-0 win over the Philadelphia A’s in 1926.

Jimmy Key had a record of 7-0 in opening-day starts. Wes Ferrell and Greg Maddux each went 6-0 on opening day.

On this date in 1976, the Oakland A’s traded Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman to the Baltimore Orioles for Don Baylor, Mike Torrez, and Paul Mitchell.

Ichiro Suzuki made his MLB debut on this date in 2001.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Meadows, Sox Surprise, Mackanin Gems, Twins, D-Backs, more by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Dan Greer
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Dan Greer

Wonder if Meadows ends up on the Christian Yelich development track, since he doesn’t have an aversion to groundballs.

Another great weekend read, David. Here comes baseball!