Austin Meadows Adjusts to New Role in Majors

PITTSBURGH — Austin Meadows made his Major League pinch-hitting debut on Friday night. He got to face St. Louis Cardinals phenom Jordan Hicks with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Hicks, if you haven’t heard, has a 105 MPH two-seam fastball. Welcome to the majors.

Meadows grounded out, as did five other Pirates in Hicks’ 1.2 innings in the Cardinals’ 4-1, series-evening victory.

Pinch-hitting might need to be a role that Meadows gets more familiar with.

Coming into the ballpark on Saturday afternoon, everyone knew, including Meadows, that the Pirates had to open a roster spot in order for Starling Marte to make his return to the 25-man roster from a 10-day stint on the disabled list.

But even Meadows didn’t know what was going to happen next. When Jose Osuna came out of the manager’s office and started packing his things, Meadows put two and two together: he was staying in the majors.

While Marte was on the disabled list, Meadows did just about everything possible to force the Pirates’ hand. In seven games, he hit .448/.448/.897 for a 1.345 OPS, and while it’s unrealistic to think that hot start, with his OPS up 600 points from his Triple-A numbers, will continue, Meadows at least proved that he’s not out of place in the majors. With three experienced outfielders entrenched ahead of him though, that also means that playing time for Meadows isn’t going to be what he’s used to.

The Pirates are confident that they’re not going to waste the time of their top hitting prospect, and that they’ll be able to find more than enough at-bats to go around with Meadows slotting in as the team’s fourth outfielder.

“We’ve got a plan,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “As we’ve talked about previously we need to monitor (Corey) Dickerson’s on-field innings, Marte is bouncing back, who we’re going to be smart with and (Gregory) Polanco, so I think between the four of them, with a true fourth outfielder, we’ll be able to have the opportunity to get everybody playing time and everybody ample rest.”

As the fourth outfielder, Meadows will be playing in all three outfield positions, but that’s not exactly new. He’s played all three in the minors in case the first opportunity came at a different place, and though there will be an adjustment to PNC Park’s unusual dimensions, it’s not something that anyone involved anticipates being an issue.

Offensively, though, Meadows is going to have to make some adjustments. He won’t be starting every day and for the first time in his career, he’s going to be regularly called on to pinch-hit. Meadows said he didn’t approach Saturday any differently than most days at the ballpark. When he did get the opportunity to hit, he wanted to be aggressive.

“It was a good pitch, it just had a little bit of sink, so I got my barrel on top of it and dug it into the ground, but I just wanted to be aggressive and whatever happens up there, happens,” Meadows said. “It’s the same mindset I have every day at the plate. Nothing much changes.”

Pinch-hitting is hard. It’s especially hard for a young player making his first jump to the majors. Last season, Osuna was put into that role and hit .120/.154/.200 as a pinch hitter while hitting .248/.289/.450 as a starter. Osuna seems to have figured it out to some degree in his second season in the majors, but not everyone does. Max Moroff’s splits are similar, with a career .375 OPS as a pinch-hitter. It’s not going to be easy for Meadows to have success in that role.

“Those lessons, sometimes, are learned up here,” Hurdle said. “Whether it gets learned or not, those opportunities are going to present themselves.”

Maybe the Pirates are hoping Meadows’ ridiculously hot start will carry over into a pinch-hit role. Maybe they’ll settle in on a true rotation, with every outfielder taking one game off out of every four, so pinch-hitting won’t become as big of a deal. Maybe Polanco won’t pull out of his two-week slump and Meadows will get more playing time there. There are many paths forward, and at this moment, the Pirates haven’t committed to any of them. But whatever happens next, Meadows is happy to be healthy and contributing.

“Whether it’s a pinch-hit at-bat like (Saturday) or just going out there and playing, putting good at-bats in, for me it’s just going out there and getting to play whenever I get the opportunity.”