Yesterday, the Twins traded a known commodity in center fielder Denard Span for the potential of right-hander Alex Meyer, a 6-foot-9, hard-throwing and former first round pick with talents that have impressed prospect pundits. While the Nationals get immediately better, the Twins will have to wait to see if Meyer’s talent pans out. Here’s what we know about Meyer: He can throw in the upper 90s (ooh!) coupled with a devastating breaking pitch (ahh!) and is really super tall (whoa!). Do those three things make him destined for baseball immortality? Not necessarily, after all, two of those three things could have been said about former Twin Jim Hoey. So what makes Meyer so promising to the Twins? Off the bat, well, he misses bats - something that has been sorely lacking among the system’s talent. In first professional season, Meyer struck out 26.6% of all batters faced. Comparatively, the starter to throw over 100 innings with the closest strikeout rate within the Twins organization was Liam Hendriks with a 19.9% strikeout rate. When opponents do make contact, they have mainly put the ball in play on the ground. With a ground ball rate over 50% split between two levels, Meyer has proven that his pitches are difficult to square up. Although grounder rates typically decline some as a pitcher advances up the ladder, Meyer’s current rate is impressive and a good starting point. Because of his Futures Game outing, albeit a brief, six-pitch endeavor, we have a glance at what sort of action he has on his pitches thanks to the magic of pitch f/x cameras. The first thing that sticks out is his release point. Naturally, with a big frame at 6-foot-9, you would expect that he would have an equally impressive release point. Unlike fellow vertically imposing hurlers like Jon Rauch (6-foot-11), Meyer does not have a release point that extends above his height limit. Rauch’s fastball release point has averaged 7.1 feet above the ground (remember, pitch f/x captures the “release point” a foot and change after a pitcher lets go of the ball). By comparison, the pitch f/x camera’s that night in Kauffman Stadium said that Meyer’s fastball was being released at 6.6 feet on average - slightly below his overall height. This means Meyer is coming from a three-quarter slot rather than over-the-top arm action. In this screen grab captures from Mike Newman’s scouting video, you can see where Meyer’s release point is:
During his Futures Game outing, BrooksBaseball.net says that Meyer’s no-seam fastball, a pitch he threw four of the six times, averaged 99 miles an hour with glove-side run. Obviously when you are throwing cheddar at 95+ as a starter, the movement is not exactly the focal point that the hitter is grumbling about as he walks back to the dugout. Still, it is noteworthy that Meyer has some very good run on his fastball nonetheless. If you don’t have movement, you end up like Jim Hoey’s fastball which major league opponents can catch up to, In describing this no-seam pitch, Meyer told MiLB.com’s Andrew Pentis that in college he had thrown a straight four-seam fastball but discovered that he actually threw his “no-seam” fastball -- a two-seam grip in which he positions his fingers closer together off of the seams -- harder than his four-seamer with the added bonus of movement. Combined with his three-quarters release point, this pitch will demonstrate plenty of run. So, if a hitter actually is able to catch up to this 99er, it is also running either into (if right-handed) or away from (if left-handed) and making it that much more difficult to square up. This is part of the reason why he has been able to generate ground balls in over 50% of balls put into play. This particular clip of his fastball, captured during a bullpen session while in the South Atlantic League by the aforementioned Newman, shows how his fastball runs down and into right-handers:
What you also see is his ability to dial it up to another level:
Meyer’s fastball does not end up at the catcher’s target (down in the zone) but rather finishes up in the zone. To me, this is reminiscent of some of Justin Verlander’s fastballs. Watching Verlander the years, you see his catcher call for something lower and then have the right-hander simply overpower you with a high fastball. What makes him more than just a one-trick pony is his devastating knuckle curve he mixes in. While some outlets will frequently refer to this pitch as a “slider” - mostly because it is thrown with a hard velocity and has a sharp, downward break - Meyer actually grips this pitch with a fingernail dug into the horseshoe-shaped part of the ball. As he describes to Pentis:
"I stick the fingernail of my pointer finger right in the middle of the seam when I wrap my middle finger to the inside of the seam. My thumb is tucked down underneath. When I throw it, I pull down with my middle finger and flick out my pointer finger." Here is Meyer’s knuckle curve grip during the Futures Game. Note the positioning of his index finger:
This downward action created by the grip has caused plenty of swing-and-misses and was rated by Baseball America as the best slider in the Nationals’ organization. While it is absolute filth at times, some of his unstable mechanics, an issue with taller pitchers, caused some problems this pitch. During his outing this summer, Newman noted that:
Meyer mixed in an upper-80′s slider with tight, late break. At its best, his arm action was identical to that of his fastball and it profiled as at least an above-average pitch. However, Meyer’s inconsistent mechanics caused him to intermittently drop his elbow or collapse his back leg leading to at least a handful of “hangers” up in the zone.
In addition to his knuckle curve, Meyer is developing a change-up which he admits does not have the overall feel for but is working hard on perfecting that pitch. At the very least, the change in velocity -- from the upper 90s to the upper 80s -- gives the opponents something to think about. However, if Meyer is going to progress to the point of being a front-of-the-rotation starter, he will need to have that all-important third pitch. Otherwise his two-pitch fastball-knuckle curve combination has reliever written all over it. It’s long been said that there is no such thing as a pitching prospect. Some flame out, some get hurt and some never adapt. In Meyer’s case, injury is not out of the question, but his skill set is very strong. The Twins organization’s coaches and instructors -- likely those in New Britain -- will be tasked with refining his mechanics and instilling some consistency in them as well as finalizing his change-up in order to maximize his potential as a starter.
At TwinsDaily.com you can read Seth Stoh's piece reflecting back on the Twins career of Denard Span.
In non-Span related news, Nick Nelson examines the Winter Meetings, which begin on Sunday.