5th Starter Candidate: Alex Meyer
Image courtesy of Mark J. Rebilas, USA TodayThe Background
Alex Meyer was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 20th round of the 2008 MLB Draft. He was offered $2 million but chose to go pitch at the University of Kentucky. Three years later, he received that $2 million bonus anyway. He was drafted by the Nationals with their first round pick, the 23rd overall pick, seven picks before the Twins took Levi Michael.
The Nationals had him start in Low-A where he made 18 starts before moving up to High-A for seven more starts. Following the season, the Twins acquired the right-hander in a deal that sent Denard Span to the Nationals. In 2013, he made 13 starts for New Britain (in which he struck out 84 batters in 70 innings). Unfortunately, he felt some shoulder discomfort and pitched only in rehab the rest of the season. He went to the Arizona Fall League where he made seven starts to get more work.
It was clear that the Twins had one main goal for Alex Meyer in 2014: to keep him healthy through the season, and they were successful. He moved up to Rochester and made 27 starts. He went 7-7 with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. In 130.1 innings, he struck out 153 (10.6 per nine), but he also walked 64 (4.4 per nine). Following the season, Meyer was added to the Twins 40-man roster.
The Twins last had a true #1, ace starting pitcher in 2008 when Johan Santana was still with the team. Yes, Francisco Liriano had an ace-like season in 2010, but he was unable to show any consistency from year to year, much less month to month. When the Twins acquired Meyer, he immediately gave Twins fans a hope for a future ace, whether that was fair or not.
Meyer is blessed with good pitches. He has a fastball that sits between 95 and 98 and has even hit triple-digits a few times. He is known to have a devastating slider. With his height, he is able to release his pitches just a little bit closer to the plate which makes it jump on hitters. He has an improving, though still inconsistent changeup. He credited Rochester teammate Yohan Pino for helping him with that pitch.
We love strikeouts. Missed bats are exciting. We don’t want quick outs. We want strikeouts. One thing that Alex Meyer can do is get strikeouts. In 2012, he struck out 9.7 per nine. In 2013, he struck out 11.0 per nine innings. In 2014, he averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in AAA.
Walks will haunt, right? After walking 3.1 per nine in 2012 and 3.4 per nine in 2013, Meyer walked 4.4 per nine inning at Rochester in 2014. Baseball people often say that for tall pitchers it is more difficult and takes longer to find a consistent release point for their pitches. There are many such examples.
In an interview on 1500ESPN at Twins Fest, Meyer was asked about that theory. He said that he is fully aware of it, but he finds it to just be an excuse for not throwing strikes. That’s a very responsible, accountable response to the theory. Regardless, for Meyer to be an effective starting pitcher in the big leagues, he is going to have to harness and control his terrific stuff. Moving up the baseball ladder means facing hitters who are generally more patient and don’t swing at as many pitches outside the zone. Big league hitters will make him throw strikes.
One concern is that Meyer, because of the number of walks and strikeouts, needs to throw a lot of pitches. He frequently was able to only go five innings or less because he was at 85 to 100 pitches by that point. In 11 of his starts, he failed to get an out in the sixth inning. The Twins have a rule that if a pitcher throws more than 30 pitches in an inning, he will not come out for the next inning. That is a pretty standard rule across baseball. He had a three-start stretch in mid-June where he couldn’t get to the fourth inning because of pitch count. He followed that with a stretch of five straight games in which he went exactly six innings, something he did just one more time over his final eight starts.
That leads to many people wondering if he wouldn’t best be served working out of the bullpen, something he would not be against. However, the goal at this time remains for him to be a starter, and hopefully a frontline starter.
More Hope and Unfair Comps
If he does not win the fifth starter job, it is possible that Meyer could begin his career as a bullpen arm. That is how the Twins eased Johan Santana onto the roster (obviously under different – Rule 5 – circumstances), and he turned out well. Meyer could replace Anthony Swarzak as a long reliever and work three to five innings when necessary. Of course, he could also go to the back-end of the bullpen and be a more dominant set-up man. He pitched an inning in relief for Team USA in the Futures Game at Target Field in 2014.
Many want to compare Meyer to 6-10 Randy Johnson who was just voted into the Hall of Fame last month. He debuted as a 24 year old in 1988 with the Expos. In 1989, he pitched 160.2 innings between Montreal and Seattle and walked 5.4 batters per nine innings while striking out just 7.3 per nine. He then led the league in walks from 1990 through 1992. He finally put it all together in his age-29 season of 1993. He cut his walks in half and became an annual Cy Young candidate, winning five awards and finishing second three more times. It’s fun to compare what Meyer could be to what Randy Johnson was. Is it fair? I don’t know. Comparing a prospect with zero big league innings to a Hall of Famer is fine, as long as fans realize that that result is pretty rare.
In other words, patience is a must for Meyer, the Twins and Twins fans. So many look at the fact that he turned 25 in January and think that he’s now too old to be a prospect. People really need to stop that. The guy has immense talent, but he does still have things to work on. If he is called up by midseason, he’s still up at 25 and can have a strong career for 12 to 15 years. The Twins need to not listen to any of that and do what is in the player’s best short- and long-term interest.
So, if I were to guess the odds that Alex Meyer begins the season as the Twins fifth starter, I would probably put the odds at close to 10%. I think there is a slightly better chance that he starts the season in the Twins bullpen, just due to numbers. If he begins the year in Rochester, this would allow him to work as a starter, getting more innings, working in, and hopefully out of, more situations and continuing to work on his third and fourth pitches.
Either way, I have little doubt that he will be up in the big leagues before June, whether it is due to injury or ineffectiveness in the rotation or in the bullpen.
When Jeremy and I asked Meyer in November what his goals are for 2015, the pensive Meyer responded by saying, “Every year I’ve set goals, and this year I won’t. I want to let them come to me. I don’t want to set any expectations because you never know what can happen. I’m going to go out there, wherever they send me, whether it’s Minnesota, Rochester, or in Cedar Rapids. I just want to go out there and pitch as well as I can, continue to get better as a pitcher, and whenever the big leagues calls, you want to make sure you’re ready. I just want to go out there and throw as well as I can. I just hope I can help the team sometime during the year, whether it’s from Game 1 in April or whenever that time would be.”
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