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Meyer, Rodriguez, Eder Each Gain Development Through Uneven Outings

Entering the 2020 draft, righthander Max Meyer was lauded for a combination of athleticism, a mid-90s fastball and a dastardly slider that ranked as the best breaking pitch in the entire class. That mix so allured the Marlins that they drafted him with the No. 3 overall pick, making him the first pitcher off the board.

Two years and change at Minnesota, plus time at Miami’s alternate training site during the 2020 season, showed team brass that he was advanced enough to jump all the way to Double-A for his first official taste of pro ball. So far, he’s been mostly dominant.

In seven starts with Pensacola, Meyer’s only real clunker was a four-inning, five-run outing on May 11, his second start of the season. He’s allowed no more than one run in any of his six other turns, and has whiffed 33 in 34 innings while issuing 13 walks.

Even though the lines might suggest he’s been dominant, that hasn’t always been the case. In his start on June 11, for example, Meyer silenced Chattanooga for five innings. He held the Lookouts to four hits, but walked a career-high four and struck out just two, tied with the five-run outing for the lowest total of his young career.

Against Chattanooga, Meyer was without much command of his signature pitch. With the exception of a few sharp-snappers, the pitch’s shape and break wavered all night long, and hitters were unwilling to chase it out of the zone. 

Even so, Meyer grinded through the outing, inducing just enough weak contact to keep the Lookouts off the board.

“I can take that even when I don't have my best stuff, I still find a way to throw zeroes on the board,” Meyer said. “No, I couldn't rely on my slider too much in the zone so I kind of went to my changeup, and I know that it's a good third pitch now. I'm confident with my three pitches, but all that matters is throwing up zeroes for me and giving the team a good chance to win.”

Entering the season, Meyer’s changeup was a clear third pitch. In time, scouts project it as a potentially above-average offering. When everything is right, his fastball and slider will be his moneymakers. Against Chattanooga, though, the changeup provided a welcome escape hatch.

He deployed the mid-80s offering against lefties with traffic on the bases, and on multiple occasions got rollovers to first base to end the inning with a zero on the board. On a night without his best pitch, Meyer used the opportunity to develop another weapon.

After all, the biggest goal of the minor leagues is the development of future major leaguers, so a night spent learning how to navigate out of an unexpected hole could prove exceptionally beneficial someday when the stakes are much higher.

“When there were runners on and two outs—in multiple innings there's two outs and runners on first and second—I just wanted to get a little rollover piece,” Meyer said, “and I put my changeup in a perfect spot, so I made a couple of big pitches and (first baseman Lazaro) Alonso made good plays on the ball.”

Meyer wasn’t the only member of the Pensacola staff who had to figure out a way to limit damage without his best stuff. The next night, the Blue Wahoos gave the ball to lefthander Jake Eder, who’d allowed just one run all season and was in second place in the minor leagues in earned run average behind only Yankees lefty Ken Waldichuk.

Like Meyer, Eder was a member of the 2020 draft class—selected out of Vanderbilt in the fourth round—who’d impressed enough between draft day and the opening of the 2021 minor league season to jump all the way to Double-A for his official debut as a professional.

Through his first six starts, Eder had been phenomenal. In 29.2 innings, he’d whiffed 50, walked 12 and surrendered just 12 hits. The lone blemish on his ledger came when Mississippi’s CJ Alexander reached him for a solo home run on June 6.

A start later, however, Eder was without his best stuff. His fastball was in the 90-92 range most of the night, instead of the 93-95 mph range he’d shown for most of the season. Neither his breaking ball (a hybrid pitch with slider velocity and curveball shape) nor his changeup were particularly effective in the early portion of his outing, when he gave up a fair amount of loud contact and three runs, but he turned things around and allowed just one run over the final four innings.

By his own admission, Eder is quick to move mentally from one start to the next. Good or bad, he evaluates his performance, identifies what he did well and where he needs to improve, and then begins to focus on how to make the next start even better.

He went six innings against Chattanooga, and by the time the game was over he’d already completed his evaluation process.

“Basically, my intensity. From the start, I didn't open with the energy that I needed to, and that's an adjustment that will be easy to make,” Eder said. “There's a lot of factors on the road—traveling, different things and it just comes down to finding a constant, where from pitch one you've got the intensity dialed in.”

After those rough first two innings, Eder gradually began to find his earlier form. He induced two more strikeouts—both swinging—to put a cap on six innings of four-run (three earned) ball with seven hits, a season-low five strikeouts and a pair of walks. It wasn’t a great outing, but the recovery and adjustment in the later frames helped save his team’s bullpen and helped him go six innings for the first time all season.

As he ascends to the big leagues, being able to succeed without his best stuff will be crucial to Eder’s career. And being able to quickly learn what went wrong in those uneven starts will help him avoid making the same mistakes.

“It’s extremely crucial, but it's all about how you evaluate, in my opinion. If you don't evaluate it objectively pretty quickly soon after the outing, then you're not taking what you learn from it and flushing it and moving on to the next one, which is what you have to do,” Eder said. You can't dwell on a start, high or low. You’ve got to get back to the middle very quickly and just prepare for the next one, so for me it's all about how you evaluate it.”

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In his first start at home after a promotion from High-A Aberdeen to Double-A Bowie, Orioles righthander Grayson Rodriguez also had to use guile to get himself through an outing. Freshly installed as the game’s top pitching prospect, Rodriguez, a 21-year-old Texan whom Baltimore selected out of high school in the first round of the 2018 draft, has quickly gained buzz as one of the most electric arms in the minors.

Entering his turn on June 15, Rodriguez had used a three-pitch mix fronted by an upper-90s fastball with outstanding cut life as well as a potentially plus slider and changeup to cut through the opposition at every turn. In 33.1 innings prior, Rodriguez had struck out 54 hitters and walked just nine while allowing 17 hits.

His swinging-strike rate of 22.2% is the best among qualified pitchers, and he’s one of a select few pitchers whom evaluators believe can be a true ace.

Given his pedigree and the hype surrounding him while moving one step closer to Baltimore, the atmosphere in his first turn in front of his new home crowd was outstanding. Fans brought plastic gas cans to celebrate the hard-throwing Rodriguez, and they cooed whenever his fastball cracked triple-digits on the stadium scoreboard.

He left to a loud ovation, but the start itself was mediocre. Rodriguez got to two strikes, but struggled to put away Akron’s hitters efficiently. He exited after 83 pitches and 4.2 innings of two-run ball with six strikeouts and a walk. He allowed just four hits, but three of them came with loud contact.

Afterward, Rodriguez pointed to the “foul ball wars” he got into with hitters instead of ending at-bats as quickly as he had in previous starts. Despite the unevenness of the outing, he found positives to take from the process, even if the results weren’t exactly as he’d envisioned.

“Being able to hold off runners on base, leaving a few of them out there—there might have been a runner left on third or some (others) out there, but there were a few positives,” Rodriguez said. I threw a backdoor curveball for strike three in a full count. Being able to do that’s huge, and trusting your stuff with it. Ultimately that’s going to give me a lot more confidence to do that more in the future. Really, the only thing we’ve got to work on is the 0-2 counts and trying to put guys away.”

Rodriguez is the top pitching prospect in the game. Meyer is not far behind, and Eder could find himself among the Top 100 by the season’s end. All three are likely to have futures in the big leagues. Once they get there, they likely will not be as dominant as they were in the minor leagues and as amateurs.

Even if their careers are filled with accolades, they will have nights when they go to the mound and find they simply are not operating at the peak of their powers. By experiencing those same tests in the minor leagues, they’ll learn valuable lessons about how to work their way through them in the majors.

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