Scottsdale, Ariz. -- Undoubtedly the best part of minor league spring training is the anonymity of it all. Yeah, if you know where to look, you'll find Brendan Rodgers, Ryan McMahon, and Forrest Wall, but really, it's just 160 young guys trying to get ready for baseball seasons in which they're going to make a couple hundred dollars a month. Everybody's equal. Everybody's nobody. In a way, it's refreshing.
When you're back on those backfields, sometimes you run across guys you never thought to connect with—and it becomes a story. Rockies fans, meet Matt Meier.
Well, first meet Alec Kenilvort.
I shot film of Kenilvort, a right-handed reliever, pitching in an intrasquad scrimmage last week. As he was walking out of the dugout after his postgame stretching and arm strengthening work, I caught up with him for an interview. We had a nice chat—I'll have more on Kenilvort, including a scouting video, soon on this site—but back to Meier.
At the end of my talk with Kenilvort, I asked him if there were one or two of his teammates that he felt had really improved this spring compared to last summer, or that he had been impressed with early in camp this month.
"Oh, yeah," Kenilvort said nodding immediately in response. "Matt Meier comes to mind. He's a guy I played with in Boise last year. For him, it’s the mental side. He’s a great athlete, he’s always had that. But for him going out there [last summer], he was thrown to the wolves a little bit, and his preparation for that has improved a lot."
Kenilvort, though young himself, does have a little bit of perspective on this particular area. Whereas Meier was part of the 2015 draft class (30th round, out of Lindenwood University in Missouri), Alec was taken a year before, in the 15th round of the 2014 draft, and has two professional seasons under his belt.
"There are a couple first year guys that get out there and kind of get the jitters. I’ve been there," Kenilvort admitted when talking about Meier. "No matter how prepared you are, you know it’s a step up from the competition that you’ve been facing. But I pick out guys like him that have better work ethics with it. I gravitate to those guys a little bit more."
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Meier's stats in Boise last summer sort of prove Kenilvort's thesis; not even 20 innings pitched across 17 games netted Meier no record with a 5.49 ERA, and even though he allowed just 8.2 hits per nine innings in the Northwest League, he did walk 11 hitters (5.0 BB/9) against just 13 strikeouts (5.9 BB/9).
So what changed this spring? A day after Kenilvort tipped me off about him, I caught up with Meier himself to figure out what could be so different for the young pitcher.
"I've just been taking what I got from the coaches and applying that in the offseason," Meier said about what he changed this winter. "Really, I'm trying not to think about it as much when I’m on the mound, instead focusing it on outside stuff like towel drill and dry run and stuff like that."
While Meier's work ethic is apparently strong, he also simplified his approach this winter, cutting down his list of improvements to manageable, specific areas he had been left with from Boise's coaching staff. He also shed some light on what is expected of minor leaguers at the low levels during the winter.
"It’s personalized to us, to go through the end of the year, about what we did good, and what we need to work on," Meier said of the offseason plan of attack he was given by the Rockies' organization. "Whether it’s weights, or the mental game, or anything else, they give us each a very specific idea of what they want us to come back prepared for in spring training."
Perhaps not surprising for a young pitcher with high walk numbers fresh off his first professional season, Meier's sheet centered on one area.
"Mostly mechanics," he admitted. "But I actually addressed the mental game a lot, too. Just having a routine, how to best be prepared coming out here."
While the winter is a time to regroup and restart, spring training is more of a time to ramp up and rapidly improve on something. For a pitcher like Meier, spring training can mean the difference between an immediate assignment to Low-A Asheville, and a trip to extended spring training, destined for another short-season league by June. But there are things he can do to push the needle in his favor.
"It's all fastball location, and using it to set up my off speed pitches," Meier said of his primary to-do list in camp this month. "If I can locate the fastball, that will be my most effective pitch. And if you get a good changeup, you want it down in the zone, especially pitching at Coors Field. You don’t want to get the ball up there."
"I made a mistake in live batting practice last week," he admitted. "I threw a changeup up, and the result was a home run, so it’s one of those things that we definitely put a pretty high emphasis on."
It may seem premature that a pitcher with less than 20 career innings would already be thinking about Coors Field, but so goes the importance in the organization on teaching pitchers early what they can and can't do on the mound. (For what it's worth, Parker French—who played at rookie level Grand Junction last summer—also told me he thinks about how to best learn lessons now to be equipped for Coors Field later in his career, too.)
Meier, who throws a slider in addition to his fastball and changeup combo, also revealed the Rockies' focus on developing changeups across their minor league levels.
"In our throwing program, coming in at 70 feet, it’s all changeups from there on at that point," Meier said, admitting it's an ongoing process working on the pitch. "There’s a really big emphasis on changeups, especially in that throwing program."
Matt Meier works on arm strengthening exercises. Image via Thomas Wilson.
Another major emphasis in the Rockies' throwing program, like that of all professional organizations, is the arm strengthening component. After our interview, Meier jogged over with his throwing group to do the arm strengthening exercises shown directly above. But as the righty has been clocked in the low- to mid-90s in college, the adjustment to pro baseball hasn't yet fazed him from an arm management standpoint.
"Playing four years of college, I was used to playing the fall season, the school season, and the summer season, so getting the four months off between Boise and spring training helped my arm," Meier admitted of the relatively slower winter. "It definitely helped me focus both mentally and physically to prepare my body. That’s the biggest thing I took away from it."
Takeaways and lessons learned, then, turn into refined future hopes and goals. For Meier—he admits he wants an assignment to Low-A Asheville, but knows he can't control that—the goals are refreshingly wise and simple for the upcoming season.
"I'm trying not to take it for granted, and just to take it for what it’s worth," he said about what he hopes to get out of baseball this summer. "I’m out here, I’m playing baseball, I graduated from college and in a way, this is a bonus. I’m so happy to be out here. If I’m in Asheville, if I’m in extended spring training, as long as I’m on the team, I’m happy."
All the game-specific lessons aside, it sounds like a year of pro ball has already taught Meier the most important lesson of them all.