In 2014, Alex McKenna and Nick Meyer were juniors in high school, verbally committed to Cal Poly but still two years from playing their first games for the Mustangs. Coach Larry Lee’s program, meanwhile, was in the midst of perhaps its best season ever, climbing as high as No. 2 in the Top 25 and hosting a regional.
The Mustangs haven’t been back to the postseason since, but they see this year’s team, with McKenna and Meyer, now college juniors leading an experienced group of hitters, as a particularly good candidate to do it.
The clearest explanation for Cal Poly’s drought is a combination of pitfalls that hit many college programs. Lee expected to lose two juniors to the 2014 draft; the Mustangs lost four. Cal Poly also saw two high school recruits get drafted and sign, and given the school’s academic standards, Lee couldn’t make up for those losses quickly. After fourth-place finishes in the Big West Conference in 2015 and 2016, the Mustangs went 16-8 and finished second in 2017, but they went just 28-28 overall due to a deep skid in the non-conference schedule that kept an at-large regional bid out of reach.
In those down years, though, McKenna and Meyer have developed into two of the best position prospects on the West Coast.
McKenna was voted a third-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting directors, ranks No. 90 on the top 200 draft prospects list and is the Mustangs’ best hitting prospect since Mark Mathias. McKenna had a solid freshman year, hitting .261/.349/.413, but his production leapt in 2017, when he hit .360/.424./487 with 13 stolen bases and five home runs—all team highs.
“I think (the improvement) comes from repetition and just playing summer ball, seeing more pitches, seeing more pitchers, playing more games,” McKenna said. “It’s just a maturity thing, probably.”
Lee said he expects McKenna’s power to take a step forward soon as he learns how get more backspin on the ball and loft it. He doesn’t have a plus tool on defense, but he’s set to cover center field this spring.
Meyer, meanwhile, is noteworthy primarily for his glove. He’s one of the few catchers that Lee, in his 30-plus years as a coach, has let call pitches, and Meyer takes a strong role in directing the team’s defensive alignments.
“He’s probably as close to a coach as anybody who I’ve ever had,” Lee said.
How high Meyer’s draft stock rises depends on his bat. He’s a contact-oriented hitter who has walked more than he has struck out in his career with the Mustangs, but Meyer’s slash line took a significant dip from his freshman year (.301/.374/.370) to his sophomore campaign (.255/.316/.330). He didn’t get many reps over the summer, because a back injury limited his time with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, but he’s confident in his bat being a solid complement to his defensive game.
“I have no problem saying that my glove is ahead of my bat,” Meyer said, “but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think I can hit or I don’t think I can compete at this level.”
The Mustangs led the Big West in team batting average last year (.275), and McKenna and Meyer are two of eight returning position players who got significant time as starters in 2017. Cal Poly’s overall quality, then, could depend on a pitching staff largely composed of new arms and old ones in different spots.
And while the Mustangs recognize the significance of their postseason drought, Lee will readily point out that they’re still among the top programs in the region, with the third-most wins among all Division I programs in California from 2012 to 2017. In 2018, they’ll try to get back to showing that quality on a national scale.
“We think that this team finally gets us back to where we were,” Lee said. “And, hopefully, we can ride this out into the future.”