Greg Porter knows that baseball is a never-ending roller coaster. Just when you think you’re reaching the top, you find yourself at the bottom.
Just two years ago, Porter was coming off of an excellent season in Triple-A and figuring he was one break away from a big league job. A year ago, he was unable to land a job in affiliated baseball.
He admits that he thought about giving up on baseball. But in the end, he decided that he didn’t want his career to end on a down note. So he signed on with the Wichita Wingnuts to give baseball one more chance.
Whatever happens now, he’s put last year’s troubles behind him. Porter hit .372/.453/.617 and led the American Association in average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs as he helped Wichita to the best record in the league. On the strength of that season, Porter is our 2009 Independent League Player of the Year.
It’s been an interesting trip from Texas A&M to Wichita. Porter was a 45th-round pick of the Angels in 2001, but he was only a part-time baseball player until 2004 as he also played tight end for the Aggies. He signed a pro football contract with Houston and went to minicamp with the team, but decided to focus on baseball full-time after talking to Texans general manager Charley Casserly.
His baseball career picked up after the decision as he finally could focus on hitting. He spent a couple of years in Double-A and made it to Triple-A for the first time in 2007, hitting .345/.403/.510 in 200 at-bats with Salt Lake.
Porter headed into minor league free agency with the expectation that he would land a solid Triple-A job with the potential for a midseason callup. The Yankees were one of the first teams to call, and while Porter knew he wouldn’t be making the team out of spring training, the offer of a spot in big league camp was a healthy inducement to sign.
A strong spring training with the Yankees’ big league club (he hit .318 with four extra-base hits in 22 at-bats) just added to the expectations.
And then Opening Day arrived and Porter was stuck on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre bench. It was something he would grow accustomed to when he played in only five of the team’s first 11 games. With sporadic playing time, Porter’s swing got out of whack and his stats suffered. He was eventually released midway through the season and found himself as an out-of-work free agent after a poor stint with Triple-A Columbus late in the season.
He thought about giving up, but his agent Steve Canter convinced him to give independent baseball a chance with the promise that Porter would get the regular at-bats his swing needed. It didn’t hurt that Canter also worked as the agent for Wichita manager Kevin Hooper.
“If you look back at the stats, when I play every day I find a rhythm,” Porter said. “A big guy like me, I have to do too many things in my swing right to play in spot duty.”
Porter hopes that one day he’ll get to the point where his swing doesn’t need daily maintenance, but he admits that he’s not there yet. But given a chance to play every day, Porter quickly became the cornerstone of Hooper’s lineup. After hitting .246 with one home run in May, he hit .481 with six home runs in June. His batting average never dipped below .365 again.
“He was getting two hits every single night it seemed,” Hooper said. “He can flat out hit. He hits the ball the other way with some authority. He just handles the bat. There’s no streakiness to him. He hovered around .380 forever. To hit .372 with guys nibbling around you is hard to do.”
Part of Porter’s success can be attributed to a healthy respect for the league’s pitching. When he signed, he talked to Wingnuts teammate and former big leaguer Dustin Mohr, who warned him against thinking he could just show up and dominate.
“That would be a one-way ticket home,” Porter said.
Instead, Porter treated the year as one long learning experience. Understandably, Porter didn’t see many good pitches to hit. But as he sees it, that ended up making him a better hitter.
“I realized I’m not going to get anything to hit on the plate, so I’m going to have to figure out how to take a pitcher’s pitch and hit it with power,” he said. “I found myself being more aggressive and reading the ball earlier.”
The result was Porter became just as comfortable lining an outside pitch the other way as he was yanking an inside fastball for a home run. He could now recognize a breaking ball or a changeup much quicker than before.
“Everyone can hit the ball, that’s why you’re drafted. What separates hitters is understanding pitchers,” Porter said.
Porter’s learning wasn’t confined to the batter’s box. He admits he almost gave up on baseball when no affiliated team called last winter, but he’s glad he decided to give the game another try.
“I was talking to my dad after the season and he told me he was most proud that I didn’t pout and hang my head going from Triple-A to independent ball. What makes me most proud isn’t the numbers, it’s that,” he said.