See also: Minor League Player Of The Year Podcast
Coming into this season, Wil Myers had never struck out more than 100 times in a season. As he’ll quickly point out, he had never hit 15 home runs in a season, either.
Myers, and the Royals, see him as a middle-of-the-order hitter, not a table-setter. Middle-of-the-order hitters don’t settle for line-drive singles and doubles. So Myers decided to do something about that.
“If I’m in the middle of the order, they won’t want me to hit 10 home runs in a year,” Myers said. “You have to know where you’re hitting in the order. (Hitting for power) was a conscious effort for me.”
Like a chef tweaking a recipe, Myers decided to alter his approach this year. He stood more upright at the plate, which enabled him to get more backspin on the ball, and he started to take more aggressive swings later in at-bats.
The change has led to Myers striking out at a higher rate than he had before, but with a significant payoff: launching balls over fences night after night.
|Very few 21-year-olds have hit home runs at high levels like Wil Myers did this season. Here’s a look at the 10 minor leaguers of the past 50 years to hit 35 or more home runs above Class A before turning 22.|
|Arlo Engel||AA||El Paso||1963||41|
|Wil Myers||AA-AAA||NW Arkansas
|Mike Moustakas||AA-AAA||NW Arkansas
|Jose Cardenal||AA||El Paso||1963||36|
|Dick Dietz||AA||El Paso||1963||35|
|Source: Baseball America Almanac, Sporting News Baseball Guide|
Myers finished second in the minors in home runs behind only the Phillies’ Darin Ruf. His 37 home runs were 23 more than his previous high for a season, and despite the strikeouts, he did it while continuing to hit for average. He hit .313/.387/.600 between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. Game-changing power as a 21-year-old rounded Myers’ game out perfectly, and it also made him Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.
Myers was the second-youngest regular in the Pacific Coast League, trailing only the recently promoted Nick Franklin. Still, he ranked among the league’s top 10 in slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging and home runs. He didn’t join the league until May 17, after hitting 13 home runs in just over a month with Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
To boost his power, Myers made sacrifices. His 137 strikeouts this season are a career high. His strikeout rate has hovered around 21 percent of his at-bats in the past two seasons. This year, it jumped to 24 percent. But he and the Royals are quite willing to make that trade. And as the season’s grind reached August, he’s shown that Wil Myers, middle-of-the-order slugger, still grasps the value of knowing the strike zone—though he has seen fewer pitches to hit.
“At the beginning of the year, I’d get a fastball or at least a hanging breaking ball early in the count to get a good swing on,” Myers said. “Now, they aren’t throwing anything really over the plate.”
With fewer pitches to drive, Myers hit just two home runs in the first 25 games of August. But he had also cut his strikeout rate back to his traditional 21 percent.
“Recently I found I was chasing pitches away but the balls were tailing too far away,” he said. “Now I have to take my walks. It’s been another adjustment. It’s been a good learning experience.”
A Whole New Season
Learning has come much easier for Myers this year. At the same time last year, he was finishing up a miserable 2011 season that saw him slug less than .400 in his first trip through the Texas League.
The season got off to an awful start when Myers slipped and fell at his apartment complex, cutting his left knee on bricks. He missed time because of the fall, then missed significantly more after a slide reopened the wound and it became infected. When he came back, he says he felt healthy, but he spent months getting comfortable at the plate. Scouts who saw him last summer worried about his power, his low-energy approach and what appeared to be a tendency to hang his head.
The Royals were concerned enough with his struggles that they gave Myers the option: Head to the Arizona Fall League to try to pull out of the slump, or head home, clear your head and get a fresh start in 2012.
The front office was happy to hear Myers say he wanted to play in the AFL. He went there and turned in an outstanding month, hitting .360/.481/.674.
“We feel like that year will help him down the road. He learned he will hit bumps into the road,” Royals assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. “The quicker he’s receptive to adjustments, the faster he’ll get out of (slumps). Now he knows he can deal with adversity and pull himself out of it.”
MINOR LEAGUE POYs
|1981||Mike Marshall, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1982||Ron Kittle, of,Edmonton (White Sox)|
|1983||Dwight Gooden, rhp, Lynchburg (Mets)|
|1984||Mike Bielecki,rhp, Hawaii (Pirates)|
|1985||Jose Canseco, of, Huntsville/ Tacoma (Athletics)|
|1986||Gregg Jefferies,ss, Columbia/Lynchburg/Jackson(Mets)|
|1987||Gregg Jefferies, ss, Jackson/Tidewater (Mets)|
|1988||Tom Gordon, rhp,Appleton/Memphis/Omaha(Royals)|
|1989||Sandy Alomar, c, Las Vegas (Padres)|
|1990||Frank Thomas, 1b,Birmingham (White Sox)|
|1991||Derek Bell, of, Syracuse (Blue Jays)|
|1992||Tim Salmon, of,Edmonton (Angels)|
|1993||Manny Ramirez, of, Canton/Charlotte (Indians)|
|1994||Derek Jeter, ss,Tampa/Albany/Columbus (Yankees)|
|1995||Andruw Jones, of, Macon (Braves)|
|1996||Andruw Jones, of,Durham/Greenville/Richmond(Braves)|
|1997||Paul Konerko, 1b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)|
|1998||Eric Chavez, 3b,Huntsville/Edmonton (Athletics)|
|1999||Rick Ankiel, lhp, Arkansas/Memphis (Cardinals)|
|2000||Jon Rauch, rhp,Winston-Salem/Birmingham (White Sox)|
|2001||Josh Beckett, rhp, Brevard County/Portland (Marlins)|
|2002||Rocco Baldelli,of, Bakersfield/Orlando/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2003||Joe Mauer, c, Fort Myers/New Britain (Twins)|
|2004||Jeff Francis, lhp,Tulsa/Colorado Springs (Rockies)|
|2005||Delmon Young, of, Montgomery/Durham (Devil Rays)|
|2006||Alex Gordon, 3b,Wichita (Royals)|
|2007||Jay Bruce, of, Sarasota/Chattanooga/Louisville (Reds)|
|2008||Matt Wieters, c,Frederick/Bowie (Orioles)|
|2009||Jason Heyward, of, Myrtle Beach/Mississippi (Braves)|
|2010||Jeremy Hellickson, rhp, Durham (Rays)|
|2011||Mike Trout, of, Arkansas (Angels)|
Scouts for other teams aren’t all so certain. An AL scout who saw him struggle in the Texas League last year pointed out that no one will know how Myers responds to struggles in the big leagues until he goes through them. Last year’s struggles will either be the lesson that helps Myers pull out of his next slump, or a warning sign that when things get tough, he may buckle.
“We’ll see the next time he fails,” the scout said. “Is this the real guy or was that the real guy (last year) or is it something in between? . . . He’s feeling confident right now. He’s showing the skill he didn’t have in Double-A. He’s showing that big power. I wasn’t seeing that in batting practice last year. He wasn’t taking aggressive swings.”
The scout is right about the aggressive swings, and it’s something the Royals noticed. Last year, Myers would show a front-foot heavy, contact-oriented swing in early work and in some of his batting practice swings before switching to a more balanced approach in games. This year, he’s using the same swing in both BP and games.
“He was sometimes lifting his back foot off the ground,” Picollo said. “In games that wasn’t his swing. We told him, ‘When you look at your tee swings and your game swings, they are different.’ As you move up the ladder, that will leak into games because it’s muscle memory.”
Maybe it wasn’t a massive change, but Myers has found that using the same swing at all times this year has paid off handsomely, as has his swing-for-power approach. But it has not yet led to a promotion to the big leagues. And it may not until 2013.
The Royals want to see Myers cut down on his strikeouts, especially with runners in scoring position. They want to continue to work on his position versatility. A catcher two years ago, he has played right and center field in 2011-2012, and has gotten plenty of work at third base this season. Most importantly, they are facing a 40-man roster crunch this offseason. If they keep Myers in the minors, they will have one more spot on the 40-man to use for someone else who would otherwise become available in the Rule 5 draft.
Kansas City did the same thing when Mike Moustakas hit 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010.
“We went through very similar thing with Moustakas and we didn’t call him up,” Picollo said. “I don’t think that impacted him long-term. It’s worked out fine for (Moustakas). There was a level of frustation at the time (when he didn’t get called up), but that’s in the past now.”
Whether he spends the rest of the year in Omaha or not, Myers looks to be ready to hit in the middle of the Royals order before long. And when he does, he won’t be looking to just hit singles.