Following the 2018 amateur draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed a large group of non-drafted free agents to help fill out their lower level rosters. To stand out among that group, you need to do something special. Kyle Mottice was one of four middle infielders signed after the draft and he led the Gulf Coast League with a .472 on base percentage. That’s the highest OBP in the GCL since one-time Pirate Justin Morneau led the league with a .478 mark 18 years earlier. For Mottice, that was how he made his mark.
One of the common themes for the players we have featured here recently is a second sport in high school. Some players even participated in three sports during their prep days. For Mottice, the second sport for much of his high school career was baseball. He played a lot of basketball at Jackson High School in Ohio. That included summer basketball camps, which cut into time most kids spend playing baseball. That’s especially true of the better baseball players and Mottice was one of them at an early age.
Despite spending more time as a point guard, Mottice was known to baseball scouts as early as his sophomore year. Prep Baseball Report, which is one of the best sources for potential high school draft picks, was following him back in 2012, the late summer after his second year at Jackson HS. Back then he was playing middle infield, splitting time between second base and shortstop.
Prep Baseball Report called him an athletic infielder, with some life on his throws, average defense and a contact oriented swing, hitting line drives and using the entire field. One year later, their scouting report notes that he added to his arm strength and showed some improvements on defense. He was a known player for three seasons in high school, but it was the end of his senior year that really helped get him to the next step, on his way to pro ball.
“I was getting looked at by a couple other D1 schools before our team made it to the state championship my senior year,” Mottice said. “That’s where Cincinnati first saw me play and they then had me visit a couple days later, and I committed soon after.”
Mottice was on his way to college, staying in Ohio about four hours from his home. The basketball career was put on the back burner, as he now concentrated on baseball. He thought about attending a smaller college to play both sports, but he knew baseball was not only his first love, it gave him a better chance to make it at the highest level. That decision at the end of high school to stick to baseball seems like a great choice now.
Cincinnati is a major college program in baseball, so it’s a great place to get exposure for scouts, but it’s not always easy to jump right into a big school as a young player and do well from day one. Freshmen in college don’t always see that much time, even if they are one of the team’s top recruits. However, Mottice caught a break before he even committed to college. Cincinnati not only offered him immediate playing time, but he knew right away that he was a long way from high school baseball.
” I came into a pretty good spot at Cincy where we graduated a lot of guys so we were a younger team,” Mottice said. “I had the opportunity to be a starter from day one, which was eye opening when we opened up at Mississippi State.”
He had the second base job on Opening Day and ended up starting 47 games. In 176 at-bats, he hit .233/.283/.284, with five extra-base hits and seven stolen bases. It was a solid freshman season that gave a great glimpse of his potential.
Many college hitters have trouble their first year, including a higher strikeout rate and occasionally some trouble on defense that gets better with age. Mottice was solid in two areas from day one through his first taste of pro ball. He always had low strikeout rates at Cincinnati and his consistency on defense was outstanding. In four seasons of playing middle infield full-time, he committed a total of 16 errors. Mottice called his personal success on defense a complete team effort.
“That’s something I and our team have always hung our hat on, being one of the best defensive teams in the country. We took pride in taking care of the ball.”
Mottice settled in nicely during his sophomore year at Cincinnati, showing improvements across the board. He hit .278/.329/.351 in 55 games, with 13 stolen bases. That’s the kind of progress you want to see from a player at a major college as they head into their all-important junior year when the potential to be drafted becomes a real possibility. Things didn’t go so well for Mottice, and part of that was the pressure of knowing just how big the 2017 season was for his future.
“I think I bought into all of the hype of having to have a good junior year and coaches were telling me I had a good chance at getting drafted especially after having a good summer,” Mottice said. “I think I just put way too much pressure on myself and wasn’t able to perform to my ability. At the end of the day though, I’m where I want to be so it all worked out and I’m a better player because of those struggles.”
Mottice slumped badly in 2017, hitting .191/.284/.265 in 44 games. The defense was fine and he still put the ball in play often, but nothing was falling in for him. Those type of results obviously did a number on his chances of being drafted.
One of the things we talked about during the interview for this article was the ability to not only put bad days behind you right away, but to make sure you learn something from those days as well. Some of the best players in college don’t really face an extended slump until 2-3 years into their pro career, so they don’t get that life lesson until a later age. Those struggles he talked about helped him out following his junior year, as he changed his mindset, put in extra work and learned to keep the off days at the plate from piling up.
“I wasn’t very good at that my junior year, so I had to change my ways and figure out a way to not let a bad day become a bad week and so on.”
He did just that as a senior, though the turnaround started immediately after his junior season ended. Mottice played in the New England Collegiate League following his solid sophomore season. He put up a .319/.414/.353 slash line in 36 games with the Valley Blue Sox. After his rough junior season, he returned to the same league and put up nearly identical stats again in 36 games, with a .320/.403/.384 slash line. He showed slightly more power in year two and doubled his steals in the league, from 11 to 22.
Mottice credits the Valley Blue Sox hitting coach Peter Fatse from helping him get back on track during the summer of 2017 and his new hitting coach at Cincinnati, plus his new mindset at the plate, for his big senior season.
“Things just fell into place my senior year and things just started to click for me,” Mottice said. “Especially at the plate, which I credit to our new hitting coach Kyle Sprague and the help of another hitting guy Peter Fatse, who I worked with a lot during summer ball with the Valley Blue Sox. After putting in the hard work, I was able to just relax and have fun playing baseball again.”
You can call that junior season a life lesson, and one that Mottice will always carry with him on the field. The game of baseball doesn’t come easy and the bad can spiral out of control if you let it. For Mottice, it came at the worst time, but that may stick with him more now than if he had a solid season and was drafted in 2017.
As a senior, Mottice was on his game from day one. He finished with a .335/.433/.443 slash line in 56 games, while picking up 20 stolen bases in 23 attempts. Add in the stellar defense and it seemed like there was a good chance he could be drafted. As a college senior, he had a shot at going in the 8-10 rounds to a team looking to maximize their bonus pool, by giving a low bonus to a player with no negotiating leverage, so they could have extra money to sign over-slot picks. Those players always work out those deals ahead of time with teams, but no calls came on day two of the draft. Mottice said he was in contact with 5-6 teams throughout his senior year, but the only call he received during the draft was from the Minnesota Twins, who were thinking about selecting him on day three.
The disappointment of not being selected didn’t last long for Mottice, who joined the Pittsburgh Pirates just 13 days after the draft. At the time of his signing, it made sense that the Pirates knew him well. Their 24th round pick in 2018 was left-handed pitcher Cam Alldred, who spent the last three seasons with Mottice at Cincinnati. It turned out that Mottice had another connection that helped get him into pro ball. Scout Adam Bourassa, who watched Alldred often in 2018, was the hitting coach at Cincinnati during Mottice’s freshman season. So when the Pirates needed extra infielders after the draft, Bourassa contacted Mottice with the offer to play.
Mottice didn’t let the sting of not being drafted last long. He said that once the draft ended, he went back to working out and continuing to hit with his brother, hoping to get a call. Just three days after signing with the Pirates, Mottice was batting second and playing second base in the GCL. He picked up his first hit, first walk, first RBI, run scored and stolen base. It was a sign of things to come.
In 35 games for the GCL Pirates in 2018, Mottice hit .283/.472/.330, with a 24:12 BB/SO ratio and he went 16-for-16 in stolen bases. He made 11 starts at second base, seven at shortstop, one at third base and he played 13 games at first base. Mottice occasionally played third base in college, but he had just one inning of experience at first base before he learned the position on the fly in pro ball. He committed a total of two errors, both at shortstop.
Mottice had four things that really stood out in his first run at pro ball. If you’re looking for positives from a non-drafted free agent in the GCL, they aren’t hard to find. The stolen bases and success rate on the bases is quite impressive. Twice as many walks as strikeouts is rarely seen these days. The versatility on defense and the steady glove will help him in the future. His best asset was his ability to get on base at a very high rate.
The OBP obviously gets the most attention because the last time that happened was nearly 20 years earlier and it came from Justin Morneau, who won an MVP and a batting title during his 14-year career in the majors. Mottice takes his role seriously as a difference maker at the top of the order, and along with his ability to make contact at the plate, that helped lead to the high OBP.
“I’ve always been a lead-off, top of the order guy so I take pride in getting on base and I know that if I do, that is going to help the team out,” Mottice said “I think just realizing that, it helped me to take walks or hit-by-pitches when they were there and I didn’t try to do too much. Especially with a lot of younger arms in the GCL, you have to make them throw strikes to you and if they don’t, you don’t go out of your zone trying to hit their pitches. Also, I knew if I could get on I had a good chance at getting to second and putting myself in scoring position.”
Mottice had one other stat that really stood out in the GCL. When he batted with two outs and runners in scoring position, he had a .593 OBP. That ability to keep the rally going obviously isn’t at a sustainable level, but it’s quite impressive coming from someone who admittedly felt the pressure of being draft-eligible and struggled at the plate just over a year earlier.
Once he got on base, Mottice was making a huge difference. He started showing that high success rate on the bases in his final two years of college, going a combined 29-for-32 in steals during those seasons. He then went perfect in pro ball, taking what he learned as he got older and using it to get the most out of his above average speed.
“When it comes to stealing, I’ve always been a faster guy who could steal bases,” Mottice said. “But I think this year I really learned how to get good jumps and time it up so I’m stealing off of the pitcher and it doesn’t matter who’s behind the plate a lot of the time.”
The defensive versatility will help him as he tries to move up the system. Mottice really moved around a lot in the GCL, just once playing the same position on back-to-back days. He will have the most value as a middle infielder, but being able to fill in at third base and first base will give him a chance to play more often. He’s fast enough to play outfield as well, so we could see a super utility role in his future.
Mottice adapted quickly to first base this past season and learning the position during the middle of the season obviously didn’t affect his ability to contribute on offense. He credited his college experience with helping him make those adjustments for each position.
“I mean it’s always tough learning a new position, but I played all around the field in college, so I’m used to it. I enjoy learning new positions and challenging myself, so it was a great experience playing all around the infield this past year in the GCL.”
Following the regular season, Mottice attended the rookie camp held in September at Pirate City during the Fall Instructional League. Instead of playing exhibition games, the 2018 draft picks and non-drafted signings did off-field activities designed to challenge them physically and mentally, while helping them become better teammates. I’ve talked to numerous players about the experience at rookie camp. They all acknowledged how grueling it was there at times, but they also believed that it helped them out greatly.
“The rookie camp was a great experience for me,” Mottice said. “It taught me a lot of things on the field, but it also taught me a lot about how to be a man off the field and how to push through any mental barriers you may have.”
Mottice is now preparing for the upcoming season, where he will be competing early for a full-season spot. There’s a large group of players who also have that same goal and very few spots are available. For most, they will end up playing in Extended Spring Training, which isn’t exactly a bad spot to be compared to a bench spot in Greensboro. Staying at Pirate City allows extra playing time for guys who would otherwise be playing 1-3 times a week. Having the ability to play multiple positions gives Mottice an advantage if spots open up at higher levels. His off-season goals are geared towards making him an option at more positions.
“My goals for the off-season are to get stronger physically and to be able to hit for some more power,” Mottice said. “Also I want to improve my arm strength to increase my ability to play multiple positions.”
If he can add power to his game, then he will be a complete player, because he does everything else well on the field. Mottice entered college at 6’0″, 175 pounds and left at 6’0″, 183 pounds, so there wasn’t much filling out being done during that time. He’s already added another 5-6 pounds since joining the Pirates, as he attempts to get physically stronger without losing any athleticism.
It appears that the junior season was a fluke for Mottice, which ended up being more of a learning lesson than a hindrance on his way to pro ball. He was hitting well as a sophomore, then carried it over to summer ball. He played even better in the summer league after that 2017 season and then put up great numbers in both college and pro ball in 2018. There’s a lot of success surrounding the down year.
He still has a lot to prove on the pro side, as the GCL isn’t the best challenge for a major college player, but he did more than you could ask for in that situation. He has enough tools and contributes in numerous ways, so you could see him turning all of those positives into success at a higher level if given the chance.
As a non-drafted free agent, Mottice will have to fight hard to move up the system and reach his big league dreams, but he already appears to have the right mindset to attack that goal.