Results tagged ‘ Doug Harris ’
The Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft begins next Monday evening, June 4, providing 50 rounds for every club in the game to find fresh talent with which they can stock their farm systems for years to come. The Nationals have had some excellent drafts in recent years (as we detail in this homestand’s Inside Pitch, available at the ballpark beginning Friday!), and their haul from 2011 was especially impressive. Beyond their top four picks – Anthony Rendon, Alex Meyer, Brian Goodwin and Matt Purke – they also snagged talents like outfielder Caleb Ramsey (11th round) and Bryce Harper’s older brother, left-handed pitcher Bryan (30th round). But one of their most intriguing picks was fifth-rounder Matt Skole, a power-hitting third baseman out of Georgia Tech.
Skole belted 47 home runs and posted a slugging percentage above .600 over his three-year collegiate career with the Yellow Jackets. After signing last summer, he hit just five home runs, but rapped 23 doubles in 72 games for Short-Season Auburn. The 22 year-old has been able to carry more balls over the wall this year at Low-A Hagerstown, batting .306/.454/.561 with 11 doubles, 11 home runs, 38 runs scored and 50 RBI in his first 51 games played. Those numbers have him on pace for 30 doubles, 30 home runs, and a mind-blowing 135 RBI as the Minor League schedule passes its one-third mark. There are two numbers, though, that stand above the rest in the eyes of Nationals Director of Player Development Doug Harris.
The first is that gaudy on-base percentage. Harris, who estimates that he has already seen Skole about 10 times this season amongst his travels throughout the Washington farm system, points out the two components of the powerful lefty’s approach that have led to his success.
“When he did get a pitch to hit, he did a good job centering the baseball,” Harris says. “When they didn’t give him a pitch to hit, he did a good job controlling the strike zone and not chasing.”
That patient eye has paid dividends, as Skole has racked up 49 walks, a full dozen more than the next closest total in the South Atlantic League. That has been especially important, as the Suns have suffered the injury bug almost as bad as the one that has afflicted the Major League club. This has left Skole as one of the lone power threats in the lineup at times, and opponents have often pitched around him.
The second area where the left-handed Skole has made significant strides is in his situational hitting. After batting 120 points higher against righties last year (.323 compared to .203 vs. lefties), he is amazingly hitting better against southpaws, a rarity for those who bat from the left side. Skole’s .291 mark vs. righties is still strong, but his .329 against southpaws is especially impressive.
“He has done some things in his approach, staying in his legs, having more balance,” explains Harris. “He is just in a more consistent position to hit. When left-handers have a mindset of backing up contact, where they are willing to use the entire field rather than just look to pull, that puts them in a better position. He has done that.”
At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Skole came into the system as a big-bodied kid who projected as a power bat, but not necessarily a nimble defender. After assigning him to the hot corner, the Nationals were looking for Skole to take strides to improve his body composition to better allow himself to handle the position.
“A lot of big guys have to do a little extra to control their bodies,” explains Harris. “He has really done a nice job with his footwork and how he allows the rest of his body to get into position, both fielding a ball and throwing.”
After a rigorous offseason conditioning program, in which Skole worked with his brother Jacob, an outfielder in the Rangers organization, Harris has seen that transformation pay dividends. Both Skole’s willingness to adapt, and the results he has achieved, have left him in a good position moving forward.
“He’s done a lot of things you look for to consider advancement, in particular, controlling the strike zone,” says Harris. “He has certainly put him in a spot that awards consideration down the road.”
When the Nationals entered camp in Viera this spring, there were few positions on the field that were yet to be decided. In fact, one could argue that the only truly open position was in center field. Sure, there has been discussion over the last rotation and bullpen spots, as there is with most every team every year, but center field seemed to be the one position for which fans and media-types alike couldn’t arrive at a definitive answer. Needless to say, though, it will not remain a question mark in the long term. In fact, with the recent assignment of Bryce Harper to Triple-A Syracuse with the specific task of playing in the middle of the outfield, the center field position might now be the deepest in the Nationals farm system. And whether Harper sticks in center or eventually shifts back to a corner outfield spot may depend less on him and more on another player many are talking about in the Nationals chain: Michael Taylor.
That may seem like an overstatement for a young man who has never played above Low-A and who won’t turn 21 until next Monday. But he has impressed enough both inside the organization and out to be placed fourth in Washington’s system in MLB.com’s most recent prospect rankings.
While Taylor’s career slash line through his first two seasons is just .240/.301/.400, that hides the progress he made in the second half of last year at Low-A Hagerstown, where he batted .291/.351/.498 after the break. At 6’2” and just 190 pounds, he is still quite slender, but has a projectable frame that coaches believe will fill out over the next few years, bringing more power along with it. If Taylor’s offense plays out according to plan, he could possess the full regiment of tools at one of the premiere defensive positions in the game.
Taylor was drafted as a shortstop, but the Nationals saw an athlete with great instincts and a solid arm that they believed could handle the premiere outfield defensive slot. Ironically, it was the defensive move that may have helped unlock Taylor’s offensive potential and allowed him to become the complete player the Nationals envisioned when they drafted him in the sixth round out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Westminster Academy in 2009.
“The move to the outfield freed him up a great deal offensively,” explains Doug Harris, the Nationals director of player development. “He’s a gifted defender, in part because of his athleticism, but he’s very instinctive as well. Physically, the sky is the limit for him.”
It is hard to imagine, though, that anyone saw that he would take to it as well as he has. Tony Tarasco, Washington’s Minor League hitting coordinator, saw him come to life in the instructional league last fall.
“I watched him go gap-to-gap his first day out there,” recalls Tarasco. “Of course his playing at shortstop helped him when he went to the outfield, because he could get rid of the ball quicker than a lot of other players. And he’s got a cannon arm, but he’s precise. He doesn’t miss the relay man often.”
Tarasco, who was has been very impressed with what he’s seen out of Taylor in his short time in the system, thinks that the change may have even occurred slightly earlier than when Harris saw it come about. He cites a change in attitude as a key factor in the young player’s development.
“He spent some time with Bob Boone in the cage,” recounts Tarasco. “Mike has always been a shy, quiet kid. He was so respectful that it made him almost timid. I think he left Boony with a little bit of aggression.”
Taylor himself recognizes that whatever his adjustments were, they required some work both with his physical and psychological approach. He is quiet, as Tarasco describes, and almost impossibly polite, and describes his progress earnestly.
“I think the work that I did on the physical side helped me relax more and I was able to be at ease in the box,” he explains of the work he did to improve his swing.
However, he goes on to describe the mental side of the adjustment as well, and in doing so, reveals that he is well beyond his years in terms of mental make-up. One of the words that you will hear the most around a professional baseball diamond is “consistency.” Those who can achieve it, who can ride out the slumps by simplifying the game to its individual pieces, are the ones that survive and move up.
“I really enjoy just having a routine,” explains Taylor, showing a keen understanding of that consistency. “That just keeps me focused on right here, on the field.”
According to Tarasco, for Taylor that means keeping a detailed black book of every at-bat, notes on every pitcher faced, for the entire season. Last year, that meant nearly 500 plate appearances, each tracked meticulously.
“I’ve seen guys start it,” says Tarasco of the exhaustive process. “But they get to July, then they don’t finish it. He was still doing it at the end of the year.”
It is that drive and approach, coupled with what Tarasco describes as a through-the-roof IQ, that he believes will help Taylor continue to progress in the years to come. For his part, Taylor is asking plenty of questions, trying to soak up as much as possible. He also appears to be listening, and not over-thinking when it comes to the larger picture.
“As long as I get my work in and stay focused on what I’m doing, everything else will kind of run its course and things will happen,” says the young outfielder.
In talking to Tarasco, it is easy to see where Taylor gets his approach to the game.
“Every single day, you wouldn’t know if he was 0-for-5 or 5-for-5, he continues to have that relentless attitude,” says Tarasco. “The willpower to move slowly, to go day-by-day, eventually is going to catapult him and spring him ahead.”
While there won’t be any rush to get Taylor to the big leagues, those in the Washington-area may have the chance to keep an especially close eye on him as he will likely make his 2012 debut at High-A Potomac in April.
What do we really know about Alex Meyer? It’s hard to say, at this early juncture, but this much is for sure – he’s got a build pitching coaches dream of, standing at an eye-popping 6’9”. After two pedestrian years at the University of Kentucky, Meyer really impressed in his junior year, going 7-5 with a 2.94 ERA, a very low mark going up against metal bats in the SEC, one of the premiere baseball conferences in America. He also lowered his walk rate while striking out 9.8 batters per nine innings, and yielded only two home runs in 101.0 innings pitched. Although Meyer still walked 4.1 batters per nine innings in his final collegiate year, a control issue not uncommon with tall hurlers, Nationals director of player development Doug Harris isn’t worried.
“Anytime you have a guy who is that size, they tend to have more difficulty than smaller guys holding their delivery together,” explains Harris. “I think he’s done a great job with that. He’s got very good body control for a big man. It’s something that he’s going to continue to learn as he does get bigger and stronger, being able to repeat more consistently.”
Nationals pitching coordinator Spin Williams echoes Harris’ assessment of the lanky righty, noting that height is not necessarily the determining factor in creating a repeatable delivery.
“I think it’s the athleticism, the body awareness and the feel that you have of what you’re doing out there,” says Williams. “There are guys that are 5’9” that have trouble keeping their mechanics together, keeping their delivery together. You’ve got to keep an eye on it obviously, but he’s seemed to pick up on the things we’ve talked to him about and taken them out into the game.”
While Meyer did not pitch at all professionally last year, he did go to the Nationals instructional league, where Williams got his first look at the young pitcher from Greensburg, Indiana. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a power slider that sits in the mid-80s, Meyer acknowledges that the continued development of his changeup will be crucial to his success as a professional. Just like any first-year pro, the pitch itself is also a work in progress.
“I feel good with where it’s at,” Meyer says of his off-speed pitch. “It still needs a good amount of work, but now that I’m down here with the coaches I feel like it will progress at a quicker rate than it was there.”
The Nationals certainly see the potential in Meyer. Enough so that the club selected him with the 23rd overall pick in last year’s draft, a compensation pick from the Chicago White Sox for the loss of free agent Adam Dunn. That continued a tradition of University of Kentucky stars going in the first round to Washington sports franchises. Most D.C. sports fans know that John Wall, the number one overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, was a prodigy with the Wildcats for a year before entering the league. But Kentucky also boasts Victoria Dunlap, the first-round selection of the Washington Mystics last year.
“There’s a good contingent of Kentucky players in the D.C. area,” acknowledges Meyer, who had a funny story involving Wall after being drafted. “All of the sudden, my friends started telling me ‘John Wall is following you on Twitter,’ which was cool. I knew John, though if he remembers me I’m just the tall baseball player that he met a couple times. But he was a good guy when I met him.”
Meyer’s modesty in acknowledging the moment is not something lost on Williams. The coach is encouraged as much by his young hurler’s attitude and approach as he is by his electric arm.
“I think the biggest thing with Alex is that he’s not that arrogant guy that’s a number one draft choice, who’s got a lot of money and thinks everybody owes him everything,” says Williams. “He knows he’s going to have to work. He’s been wonderful with us. He’s trying to soak in as much information as he can.”
Meyer will look to parlay that information into a successful inaugural season in the Nationals farm system. His biggest focus for the year is not on hitting specific statistical goals or advancing to any particular level of the system. Instead, he is concerned mostly with trying to make the successful transition from the amateur ranks.
“You want to play well, that’s the first thing that sticks out,” he explains. “I’ve got to get used to throwing every five days, adjusting from a seven-day college rotation, which is a pretty big difference. When I came down from the instructional league and I was trying to adjust, it took me a little bit. My arm was a little tired, trying to come back, was a little stiff, but I threw through it. By the end I liked it, I felt stronger.”
There is more to the process of adjusting to the professional ranks than what happens on the field, though. Meyer shows his keen understanding of the changes in lifestyle that await him, supporting Williams’ observations about his maturity and character.
“There’s the whole aspect of really being on your own,” says Meyer. “You’re traveling, you’re going on seven-day, 10-day road trips. When you’re in college, you’re gone three days, then you’re back Monday for class. So it’s going to be a bit of an adjustment period. I just want to mature and figure things out, and obviously I want to pitch well and see what happens from there.”
We know we won’t be the only ones keeping an eye on Meyer as he tackles his first year in the minors. We’ll keep tabs on him and the other prospects featured in Down on the Farm as the season wears on.