In the midst of a fine debut week for Pirates outfield prospect Austin Meadows, it’s worthwhile to remember Gregory Polanco had a similarly impressive start to his Major League Baseball career four years ago.
Over the first 16 games as a Pirate, from June 10-26, 2014, Polanco went 23 for 68 for a .338/.416/.441 batting line. As Tim Williams reminded earlier this week, Polanco hasn’t stunk this year, but a combination of high prospect status at the time of his promotion and a scintillating first few weeks in the majors did the man no favors when it comes to generating lofty expectations.
There are some differences between the halcyon days for Polanco and Meadows at the highest level. First among those is the sample size: Meadows has come to the plate just 21 times after Wednesday’s 12-inning win in Cincinnati, so we’re talking about a tiny body of work in baseball terms.
Secondly, while Polanco was promoted at the height of his national prospect hype cycle — ranked No. 10 by Baseball America in its pre-2014 top 100 and No. 14 by MLB.com that same spring — Meadows dropped quite a bit from last year’s status, when he was sixth per MLB.com and BA, and 10th according to Baseball Prospectus.
When the 23-year-old Meadows stepped onto the PNC Park field Friday, he was considered anywhere from the 34th- to the 45th-best prospect in the sport, mostly due to injuries but also a lack of power at the Triple-A level.
“It’s the last thing I expected, to be here this early (in the season),” Meadows said hours before manning center field in the bigs for the first time.
Maybe that slight step-back in hype helped Meadows look like he fits right away, although the man himself had some strong words about his confidence level.
“I’ve always had that confidence,” Meadows said. “I’ve always known that I’m destined to be here. That’s been my main goal. With injuries, it obviously hasn’t been the fast track. It’s made me a stronger person and who I am today.”
Those words have been backed up by the results so far, and I’m not just talking about his .381 average and 1.095 OPS.
The beauty of following modern baseball is that we don’t have to guess as much as we used to about whether a player is ‘getting lucky’ on balls in play. Entering Wednesday’s 2-for-6 effort, Meadows had put 14 balls in play, seven of which were struck with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater.
Per Statcast’s expected metrics, Meadows ‘should’ have had a .337 batting average and a .703 slugging percentage based upon the early batted-ball data. That’s not far behind the .400 average and .800 slugging he sported heading into Wednesday, so Meadows has come upon his early results honestly.
Throw in a couple of deep drives that died in the wind during his Friday night debut and Meadows might actually be unfortunate to not have a better batting line.
“I just see it as an opportunity to come up here and compete with these guys I know from spring training,” Meadows said. “Just having that same mindset coming in. If I put pressure on myself … that’s when it’s going to go downhill quick.”
We could see a little bit of that big-league adrenaline get the better of Meadows on Wednesday night, albeit it didn’t happen at the plate. In the bottom of the eighth, José Peraza singled to center to drive in the tying run, with Meadows overthrowing home plate for his first big-league error. It didn’t cost the Pirates, however, since Felipe Vásquez stranded the go-ahead run at third.
“He’s not as good as (Starling) Marte,” Neal Huntington said Sunday of Meadows’ defending. “But he understands how to get to the ball, get under the ball and throw it accurately.”
Yes, Meadows made a bit of a liar of out Huntington on Wednesday, but Meadows also doubled to start the decisive 12th inning, so there was even some redemption for the rookie’s first real foul-up under the bright lights. (And then, he ran into an out at third base on Jordy Mercer’s tapper to the mound. Call it a mixed bag.)
Meadows will probably be back in Triple-A once Marte’s strained oblique heals up, but he’s re-established some of the hope that his name first started to inspire five years ago, when the Pirates drafted him eighth overall out of Grayson (Ga.) High School.
“For me, I’ve always handled expectations pretty well,” he said before his debut. “Playing up (for my age) and going out there and leading by example. Just kinda grinding and having fun.”
As Meadows has demonstrated since, he’s likely not going to make anyone forget Andrew McCutchen. Still, there have been enough positives in Meadows’ first week with the Pirates to keep cynicism from creeping in about his unrushed ascent through the minors.
His outfield neighbor Polanco could give some advice on keeping a level head, though.
“(Meadows) is still learning himself and what kind of hitter he’s going to be,” Huntington said. “The raw power is there, but it hasn’t shown up in the games. But he’s still learning how to be an impact player in all facets of the game. As long as we have the opportunity up here, why not give it to him.”