As he struggled to find success in the Southeastern Conference, Nationals righthander Alex Meyer pondered his decision to attend Kentucky rather than accept the $2 million bonus the Red Sox offered him out of high school.
"Obviously, there were always times when I wondered whether it was the right move or not," Meyer said. "But I think I made the right move."
Meyer touched 95 mph at Greensburg (Ind.) High in 2008 to attract attention from major league clubs, though most considered him unsignable. Boston took a 20th-round flier on Meyer, but he spurned their lucrative offer so that he could headline the best recruiting class in Wildcats history.
As things played out, however, patience was paramount in Kentucky's handling of their prized recruit. Meyer struggled his first two seasons with a 6.34 ERA, SEC-leading total of 40 wild pitches-plus-hit batters, 6.6 walks per nine innings and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just 1.8-to-1 in 22 starts.
"Alex was taller and longer than his strength would allow him to control," Kentucky coach Gary Henderson said. "He couldn't consistently repeat his delivery. He was a gangly kid (and) you knew he was going to take time to grow into his body."
As a freshman, Meyer stood a spindly 6-foot-7 and 192 pounds. He grew an inch each year and headed into his draft year at 6-foot-9.
A transformative summer entering his junior year validated Meyer's decision to head to school. A bout of shoulder soreness prevented him from throwing, which allowed him to work out and fill out his frame to 220 pounds.
With better dexterity and strength, Meyer's velocity improved as a junior. He touched 98 mph, and even more important, he smoothed out his mechanics.
"I was commanding everything. My fastball and breaking ball felt really good," Meyer said. "That fall I realized I was going to have a good year."
He emerged as a top SEC starter with a 2.94 ERA and 110 strikeouts, good for third in the league, while his walk rate fell to 4.1 per nine innings, while his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved to 2.4-to-1.
Staying Tall Through Delivery
Meyer's turnaround at Kentucky made him the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Nationals, and earned him the same $2 million bonus he turned down three years earlier.
"He wasn't good as a sophomore, and his command was below-average," Nationals scouting director Kris Kline said, "but his junior year Alex developed coordination. When he began to show consistency, we felt he turned the corner. With his stuff, he has a chance to be a frontline starter."
Further developmental strides this season have moved the 22-year-old closer to fulfilling his potential. Meyer began his professional career with low Class A Hagerstown before advancing to high Class A Potomac in the second half.
With his long limbs, Meyer is learning how to incorporate his height as a pitching edge.
"One day I got hit around and (Hagerstown) pitching coach Franklin Bravo showed me video and said, 'You're pitching like you're 5-9. You need to use your height as an advantage,' " Meyer said. "We worked on staying tall on my backside and not collapsing, and ever since then I've gotten a lot better downhill plane. That was a key turning point for this year."
Staying tall through his delivery helps Meyer consistently repeat his three-quarters arm slot, which used to drop to low three-quarters when his front side opened early. The fix has helped him keep his shoulder closed upon landing.
With a 94-95 mph fastball featuring good downhill plane and a slider with sharp, late movement, Meyer has the weapons to succeed.
"He has a chance to have a true putaway slider," a pro scout for an American League organization said. "It's plus now but could be a 70 (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale). When he gets good extension, it has sharp 11-to-5 tilt. It's improved, but he needs to develop better consistency."
Improved consistency of his slider was a focal point in Hagerstown.
"He would get around his slider," Bravo said, "but he really improved getting on top of his breaking ball his last five outings."
In 18 starts for Hagerstown, Meyer averaged 10.7 strikeouts and 3.4 walks per nine innings to go with a 3.10 ERA.
As successful as he was with just his fastball and slider in the South Atlantic League, a promotion to the Carolina League pushed Meyer to change his repertoire.
New Weapons For A New Level
Meyer began throwing a high-80s changeup and a two-seam fastball during his junior year at Kentucky, but he didn't emphasize either offering until he joined Potomac in July.
"His fastball and breaking ball are so good that he could overpower many hitters," Potomac pitching coach Chris Michalak said. "But the most important thing is his changeup's development."
With Hagerstown, Meyer averaged about five changeups a start, a number that increased dramatically with Potomac.
"I threw my changeup probably 20-25 times last start, and I couldn't tell you I'd thrown it that many times my whole life," Meyer said. "But having a third pitch is one of the biggest things for me and I'm happy with how my changeup has progressed."
The scout said Meyer's changeup is presently a fringe-average pitch but shows the potential to be above-average.
Meyer's two-seam fastball usage has increased even more dramatically. Most pitchers have a velocity disparity between their four- and two-seam fastballs, but Meyer throws the pitch in the mid-90s, just like his four-seamer.
"That is pretty much all I throw now," he said. "I don't throw my four-seamer often. I didn't work inside much in college, but I've started to command it to both sides of the plate and generate lots of groundballs."
Across two levels, Meyer had walked 3.1 batters per nine, a reduction of more than 50 percent.
"I really like him, and he keeps getting better," the scout said. "His developing three-pitch mix gives him a strong chance to start, but he could also be an elite reliever. I could see that kid walking onto the bump with a one-run lead in the ninth, blowing gas with a power slider and saying, 'Good night, this game is over.' "
Meyer showcased his power arsenal in a late-inning Futures appearance at the sold-out Future Game this year in Kansas City.
"Being on a major league mound in front of that many people was one of my best experiences ever," Meyer said. "Everybody was amped up and wanted to show their best stuff."
He did, touching 99 with a vicious 87 mph slider to record a strikeout in his two-thirds of an inning.
With continued development, it won't be long until Meyer stands tall on a big league mound again.