At 6-foot-9, Alex Meyer is the second-tallest player in Minnesota Twins history, so maybe it makes sense that he has identified the problem that ruined his 2015 season as … height.
Not enough height.
It’s not the elevation of his Twins cap that’s the problem, though. Ever since jetting his way up the minor leagues, arriving at Class AAA Rochester after only two professional seasons, Meyer has fought to keep his release point consistent — a battle that he frequently lost last year.
“My arm slot kept dropping down last year, noticeably. Heck, sometimes, I was almost [pitching] sidearmed,” the former University of Kentucky standout said. “That’s never been who I was. And when my arm dropped, it affected my breaking ball to where it was really just spinning. It didn’t have any depth, it didn’t have any action. It just sort of hung there.”
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Combined with a tendency to allow his follow-through to twist his body too much to the left, Meyer frequently loses the strike zone; the righthander’s career walk rate of 4.0 per nine innings is about twice as high as the Twins want.
I know last year was a step back, but I still have that competitive edge. I still want to go out there and be the best.
Yes, Meyer can still throw a fastball harder than just about anyone in Twins camp. More than half the 65 pitches he has thrown in the big leagues, after all — all of them out of the stretch — were clocked by MLB at 95 mph or higher, and his fastest pitch was 98 mph. That’s the velocity that made him the Twins’ top pitching prospect the moment he was acquired from Washington for Denard Span in November 2012.
But major league hitters can hit 98 mph fastballs, too, so Meyer’s inability to get his breaking ball to break, not to mention reliably throw that heater for strikes, has knocked him from his perch as Twins fans’ favorite wait-till-he-gets-here daydream.
“I know last year was a step back, but I still have that competitive edge. I still want to go out there and be the best,” the 26-year-old righthander said. “If I can get back to where I was in 2014, I know I can help the team.”
Probably so, though much has changed in the past two years — chief among them, his role. As Meyer wrestled with his mechanics in the minors last spring, his ERA rocketed to 7.09 after eight starts, and the Twins decided to make a risky change: They moved him to the bullpen. It’s a significant devaluation for a former first-round pick, but the Twins were desperate to salvage something from the can’t-miss prospect.
It worked for a while, but a disappointing two-game promotion to the Twins in June raised new doubts about whether Meyer could conquer the unsteadiness that has afflicted him. In retrospect, he never should have looked at the on-deck circle.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t even feel my arm,” Meyer said of his big-league debut, an emergency first-inning relief stint at Milwaukee on June 26 after Trevor May recorded only one out on nine batters. Meyer retired the first two hitters he faced, Gerardo Parra and Jonathan Lucroy, on deep fly balls to end the first inning, then made a big mistake as he warmed up for the second.
“I remember looking over and seeing Ryan Braun in the on-deck circle. That’s when it all really hit me,” Meyer said. Braun walked on five pitches, and a star-struck Meyer soon gave up home runs that inning to Aramis Ramirez and Scooter Gennett. “Everyone told me, just stay focused, don’t get caught up in that, but I don’t know how you couldn’t in your debut. I mean, you’re doing something that’s extraordinary. It’s something I’ll always remember, even though it didn’t go the way I wanted. It was still fun.”
He is convinced now that relieving will be fun, too, especially if it keeps him in the majors. Meyer, taller than every Twins player in history except 6-11 reliever Jon Rauch, hasn’t started a game since May 19, and he is all right with it if he never does again. It’s possible, General Manager Terry Ryan says, Meyer could return to starting in the minors if he doesn’t make the Twins — but Meyer is hoping a strong spring makes that decision moot.
“I was surprised that I really enjoyed relieving. I enjoy being able to pitch back-to-back days,” Meyer said. “One thing I always struggled with was when I pitched poorly, I’d have four days to sit in the dugout and chew sunflower seeds and bubble gum. For me, I’m better if I’m involved. In the bullpen, you have to keep yourself immersed in the game because you might be in it soon.”
Meyer also suspects that his mechanical problems were exacerbated by having four days off, and views his strong finish to 2015 — only one earned run and 21 strikeouts in his final 20 innings — as proof. He was disappointed that it didn’t earn him a call-up to the Twins in September, but he focused instead on his November wedding to fellow Greenburg, Ind., native Kyra Domingo.
Now Meyer is in major league camp again, trying to demonstrate that last year’s finish can be this year’s standard.
“People who saw him last year think that this is where he’s best suited,” Twins Manager Paul Molitor said of Meyer’s conversion from starter to reliever. “You’re always looking for ways that guys who maybe can’t handle getting through that lineup a couple times, especially power arms, [can help]. We know the value of hard throwers in the bullpen.”