High Class A Wilmington hitting coach Larry Sutton holds the Blue Rocks franchise home run record. He hit 26 in 1994 when he was named MVP of the Carolina League.
This year Sutton is tutoring a trio of prospects who have struggled in their first taste of high Class A: first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez, who were first- and second-round picks in 2017, and power-hitting Dominican outfielder Seuly Matias, who signed in 2015.
Pratto (.572) and Melendez (.611) had compiled two of the seven lowest OPS marks in the league among qualified batters.
Matias hit just .148 with four home runs in 57 games before going on the injured list in June with a hand injury.
“He’s learning how to hit, learning his strike zone and his hot zone,” Sutton said of Matias, who launched 31 homers last season at low Class A Lexington. “He’s a tough kid who tried playing with a hairline fracture in his hand until it finally got to a point where he said something about it.”
Melendez (39 percent) and Pratto (34 percent) had two of the three highest strikeout rates in the league. Matias had fanned 44 percent of the time.
One mitigating factor: All three players are 20 years old and part of the youngest team in the Carolina League.
“When I was 20, I was a junior at the University of Illinois and didn’t know anything about hitting,” Sutton said.
Plus, the trio played its home games at Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium, one of the most extreme pitcher’s parks in the minors.
Sutton acknowledges the trio’s numbers “are not where they need to be,” but believes all three have the ability to develop into everyday big leaguers.
“MJ is learning how to be a line-drive hitter, going from an all-or-nothing mentality,” Sutton said. “He is learning how to hit the ball hard consistently.
“Pratto can hit 30 to 40 doubles and 15 to 20 home runs in the majors. He’s very capable of that. He is learning more about himself, his identity, his resolve. They are learning to slow the game down. They are learning on the job.”
— Righthander Jonathan Bowlan, a second-round pick out of Memphis last year, threw a nine-inning no-hitter for Wilmington against Carolina on July 15. Only one Mudcat reached base on an error, while he struck out nine. He threw 63 strikes in 98 pitches. Brian Sanches threw the last no-hitter for Wilmington on May 2, 2000.
— Outfielder Bubba Starling finally reached the big leagues in July after being drafted seventh overall in 2011 out of high school in Gardner, Kan. He held the franchise’s draft bonus record of $7.5 million until Bobby Witt Jr. broke it this year. The 26-year-old Starling had been set back in recent years by four oblique injuries.