Baseball is a balancing act. Wil Myers now understands that.
For many hitters, the minor leagues are about learning how to make adjustments, fixing holes in their swings and learning how to recognize pitches. Much of that has come easily to the preternaturally talented Myers. Figuring out how to be confident without being too cocky took a little longer.
It’s not that Myers is arrogant. But twice during his still young baseball career, he found he needed the humbling of a rough season to get him focused on what he needed to do.
The first time came when Myers wasn’t even old enough to drive. He earned a starting job for his high school team—Wesleyan Christian High in High Point, N.C.—as a freshman and responded with a pair of excellent seasons. After committing to South Carolina before his junior season began, Myers figured he had it made.
“I thought I was big-time. I thought I was better than I was. I thought I didn’t have to do too much,” he said. “I was too arrogant. I struck out a lot more my junior year. I was in my own head the whole year. I hit like .330-something.”
Now .330 for a big leaguer is great, but .330 for a supposed high school star is not much above the Mendoza line. Humbled, Myers regrouped, worked harder in the offseason and regained his star status as a senior before the Royals selected him in the third round of the 2009 draft and bought him out of his college commitment with a $2 million bonus.
The memory of his rough patch stuck with him, but it seemed like a distant memory as he hit .426/.488/.735 for Rookie-level Idaho Falls in an 18-game stint to start his pro career. A year later, he forced a promotion from low Class A Burlington to high Class A Wilmington by July 1. Myers responded by hitting .346/.453/.512 while playing in one of the toughest hitter’s parks in the minors. After the 2010 season, he ranked No. 10 on the Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list.
He had made it. Or so he thought.
“I didn’t too much in the offseason. I had a good year in 2010 so I thought I’d be able to do the same in 2011 without working hard. Obviously that didn’t work,” Myers said.
Baseball once again taught Myers about humility. The game that can’t be mastered reminded him of that in 2011. He hit .254/.353/.393 for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, showing little power and significant stretches where he looked lost at the plate and indifferent on defense in the outfield.
By now, you and Myers both know the story. Baseball became a year-round job instead of a sport with an offseason. After spending a hard winter at work, Myers has bounced back once again to reclaim his status as one of the game’s best prospects. His 24 home runs by mid-June tied for the minor league lead, and he once again forced a midseason promotion by hitting .343/.414/.731 for Northwest Arkansas this spring. And once again a promotion to a higher level hasn’t slowed him down: He was hitting .331/.402/.703 for Triple-A Omaha in 118 at-bats.
“I don’t think there is any question that what he went through last year made him a better player,” Royals assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. “His work ethic this year has been as good as it could ever be. He’s first guy to the ballpark now. That wasn’t true two years ago.”
Before they had ever said hello to Myers, the Royals had already said their goodbyes. The North Carolina high school catcher/third baseman/pitcher had been on the team’s radar all year, but he jumped up their draft board after a three-home run game with several Royals officials in attendance. When he put on a show in a workout at Kauffman Stadium, depositing several balls into the fountains beyond the center-field wall, he became one of the team’s top options for its first-round pick.
In the end the Royals decided that if Missouri righthander Aaron Crow was gone when they picked, they would take Myers. Crow was available at No. 12, so the Royals turned in the pick and figured that they’d seen the last of Myers. Kansas City didn’t have a second-round pick, so there would be 78 selections before the Royals picked again.
But as the rest of the first round rolled on, Myers’ name wasn’t announced. Through the supplemental first round, Myers continued to go unmentioned. By the second round, the Royals realized that they might get a second shot at their second choice.
“When we made a decision (for Crow) we thought he’s going to be gone. When he got through the sandwich rounds and started to get into the second round, you start formulating, ‘How can we do this?’ ” Picollo said.
Myers was dropping because he was asking for significant bonus money. When the Royals picked him, they knew it would cost more than the roughly $390,000 slot for a third-round pick. It would be fair to say they didn’t care. After all, Kansas City would have been happy to take Myers with the 12th pick in the draft. Even though he ended up lasting until the 91st pick, the Royals met his $2 million asking price.
They haven’t regretted spending the money.
Could Have Been A Gamecock
If Myers had continued to fall in the draft, he would have been a Gamecock. It’s hard to imagine Myers in the middle of a South Carolina lineup that won the 2010 and 2011 College World Series without him. Myers likely would have pitched as well as caught and played third base for the Gamecocks. He went 10-0 as a high school junior thanks to an 87-90 mph fastball and decent secondary stuff.
The Royals didn’t need to take advantage of that kind of versatility, but they have made sure he keeps plenty of gloves in his locker. When the Royals drafted him, they weren’t exactly sure where he would play.
“Everyone could put up a case,” Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg said. “He can catch. He can play third base. He can play in the outfield.”
He has ended up playing all of those positions for the Royals, though when Myers’ pro career began, they decided to go with the catcher’s mitt. He definitely had the arm for it—he could fire off 1.85-1.9 second pop times from home plate to second base despite sometimes sloppy footwork. Any time better than two seconds is considered above major league average.
But Myers wasn’t great about blocking balls and he had plenty to learn about calling pitches. He hadn’t caught for long, so that was to be expected. And after all, he had years to perfect catching while climbing the minor league ladder.
There was only one problem: Myers’ bat wouldn’t wait for his glove to catch up. Instead of spending his first full pro season at low Class A Burlington, his 10 home runs and .908 OPS in the first half of the season convinced the Royals it was time to promote him to high Class A Wilmington. It was there that Myers and the Royals realized his future may not involve a catcher’s mask.
The Royals already had Salvador Perez catching for Wilmington. While Myers was the team’s best prospect who was catching, Perez was the organizaton’s best catching prospect. Myers’ plus bat would make up for any hiccups in his catching. Perez’s excellent glovework would make up for any issues with his hitting.
The two traded catching and DH duties with one catching for two days and then the other catching the next two games. and Perez worked with Myers to help him on blocking balls in the dirt and improve his defense. Seeing Myers hit line drive after line drive seemed to inspire Perez as well. Perez was hitting .250/.288/.365 when Myers arrived. He hit .328/.351/.452 over the rest of the season.
But Myers couldn’t help but notice that Perez did things behind the plate naturally that he simply couldn’t do. And the pitchers noticed as well.
“He told me, ‘Pitchers don’t like to throw to me. I’m not enjoying it,’ ” Myers’ high school coach Scott Davis said. “Perez was the much better catcher. Pitchers didn’t like throwing to Wil. He was such an offensive power. So that offseason he told them ‘I’m having some knee issues. I’d rather not do this anymore.’ “
“I wasn’t the greatest catcher in the world, I’ll admit,” Myers said. “I wasn’t great at calling the game. All the pitchers wanted to throw to Salvador. I didn’t blame them.”
That offseason, Myers became an outfielder.
He Can Play Anywhere
Myers spent his difficult 2011 season focusing on playing right field. But after his strong spring training this season, the Royals felt comfortable opening him up to more opportunities. First he was given a chance to play center field in Northwest Arkansas. Later, he got work at third base as well during pregame drills. He did get into two games at third for Northwest Arkansas, and recently he’s played third for Omaha as well.
“His bat is going to be major league ready soon, and we don’t know where the opportunities will be,” Picollo said. “With his versatility and athleticism, he has that innate ability where wherever he plays, it doesn’t seem to take away from his bat. As much as there is a big learning curve at catcher, it didn’t take away from his bat. He was doing early work at third base this year, and it didn’t detract from his bat.”
That may prove to be one of Myers’ biggest strengths. Moustakas and Hosmer have been franchise players for the Royals since they were drafted, but both players’ positions were quickly set—Hosmer is a first baseman, and Moustakas is a third baseman and neither has a whole lot of other options defensively. When Salvador Perez developed into the Royals’ long-term answer at catcher, yet another position was filled with a player who isn’t moving. Myers’ versatility has meant that he can simply move to almost whatever position needs to be filled.
And as a righthanded hitter, Myers will balance out a Royals lineup that leans to the left with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon.
“This may be grandiose,” Royals farm director Scott Sharp said, “but I think Wil can be the best player on the field at whatever position you put him at. He’s that good of an athlete and he accepts challenges.”
It’s a challenge Myers seems ready to tackle, both mentally and physically. He seems to have figured out how to stay balanced on that razor’s edge of controlled confidence. There was the time this spring where he was talking to Royals all-time great George Brett in the dugout. Brett asked him what he was thinking about for his next at bat. Myers told him he would work the pitcher to a two-strike count, then line a single up the middle.
Myers grabbed his bat, headed to the plate and did exactly what he had predicted.
When the season rolled around, Myers struck out 23 times in his first 15 games. It was pretty uncharacteristic for Myers, who has generally walked almost as often as he struck out.
Sharp asked him about it one day in the dugout, but Myers told him not to worry, he was just trying to see a lot of pitches to build a mental catalog of what everyone he was facing threw. Since then he had 20 home runs in the next 41 games.
With his mental approach once again in balance, Myers’ arrival in Kansas City can’t be far away. Once he arrives, Kansas City’s offense of the future will largely be its lineup of the present, with the Hosmer-Moustakas-Myers trinity at its core.
|HOW THEY COMPARE|
|Taking a look at the career minor league statistics of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Wil Myers, it’s clear that the youngest of the trio has performed the best in the minors.|
For years, Myers has been part of the Royals’ trinity of prospects. Hosmer, Moustakas and Myers have been the future of the Royals since the summer after Myers first donned Royals’ blue.
Hosmer was the advanced hitter. He’d use the whole field, hit for average, get on base and hit the occasional home run. Moustakas was the slugger. He might not hit for Hosmer’s high average, but he’d make up for it by hitting 30+ home runs.
And coming up a year or two behind them was Myers. Who right now appears to be a combination of the best of the other two.
“He’s a combination of Moustakas and Hosmer,” Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg said. “Hosmer could end up being an Adrian Gonzalez-type guy. Moustakas gets more jacks, with a little less OBP. Myers may be able to do both things.”
As a minor leaguer, Myers has posted a better on-base percentage than Hosmer and a better slugging percentage than Moustakas. Hosmer reached the big leagues as a 21-year-old, Moustakas at 22. Myers won’t be 22 until December. By then, he will almost assuredly be a big leaguer, and he’ll be one who knows how to balance his mental approach.
“It’s a weird thing. It’s a fine line,” Myers said. “That’s why baseball is the best game there is. You have to balance the two out.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that Myers has played third base at Omaha as well.