University of Kentucky junior right-handed pitcher Alex Meyer arrived on campus in 2008 as one of the top freshmen in college baseball.
During his first two seasons pitching for the Cats, his performance fell far short of the lofty expectations that accompanied him to Lexington. But now, with just two weeks remaining in his junior season, Meyer has cashed in on that promise.
“It (my performance) is getting better,” Meyer, 21, said after a complete-game shutout versus No. 1 Vanderbilt Friday. “I’m still never going to be satisfied where I’m at, but it’s definitely gotten better.”
Meyer’s win Friday improved his season record to 5-5 with a 2.98 ERA. The Greensburg, Ind., native leads the Southeastern Conference with 96 strikeouts, and opponents are batting just .220 against him.
“He has pitched dramatically better this year,” said UK head coach Gary Henderson. “It’s a combination of maturity; it’s a combination of strength; it’s a combination of confidence, experience, the ability to repeat his delivery, command of a second and third pitch.”
The Red Sox selected Meyer in the 20th round of the 2008 draft out of high school, and he turned down a $2 million contract offer from the team.
Baseball America, a prospect-focused magazine, ranked Meyer the No. 25 high school prospect in the country before the 2008 draft and the No. 2 freshman prospect in college that fall.
Despite the lofty expectations, Meyer struggled during his first two seasons at UK.
As a freshman, Meyer was 1-4 with a 5.73 ERA. As a sophomore, he was 5-3 with a 7.06 ERA.
“It’s just really hard when kids come in with that much notoriety,” Henderson said. “Sometimes the expectation level is a little inflated.”
During his first two seasons Meyer posted just one scoreless appearance in 25 games, a six-inning start versus NAIA Georgetown College during his freshman season.
At UK’s 2011 preseason Media Day, Meyer spoke of the need to be more consistent.
“My first two years that (consistency) is what I struggled with a little bit,” he said. “(I’m) just trying to get stronger during the offseason and get my body put together. If I can just be consistent, I feel like it will be a big year for me.”
Meyer has accomplished that goal this season, posting a quality start — which requires at least six innings without surrendering more than three runs — in nine of 12 games.
The old, inconsistent Meyer appeared to resurface in an April 8 start versus Auburn, when he surrendered six runs in six innings, but since that game, Meyer has reached a new level.
In the four starts since his no-decision versus Auburn, Meyer is 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA in 32 and one-third innings. He struck out 32 batters while walking 10 in that span.
“I’ve been extremely pleased,” Henderson said. “Obviously the last four games have been different than the first eight.”
On Friday, Meyer capped off his breakout season with a complete-game shutout of Vanderbilt, which was ranked No. 1 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association top-25 poll. UK was unranked.
The SEC named Meyer its pitcher of the week, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named him its co-national pitcher of the week following the performance.
Meyer’s pitching opponent in the game was friend and fellow first-round draft prospect Sonny Gray.
“I’ve known Sonny for about three or four years,” Meyer, who roomed with Gray during a tournament in high school, said. “He is one of the best competitors I’ve ever played with or against. It brought out a little more because I was facing him.”
Meyer surrendered just five hits in the game while striking out five batters and walking one. UK scored two runs against Gray, giving Meyer all the support he needed.
“We knew going into it, these were the two best pitchers in the country going at it,” said UK junior third baseman Thomas McCarthy, who slugged a solo home run in the game. “We had a lot of confidence in (Meyer), and he didn’t disappoint.”
Meyer consistently showed the ability to strike batters out during his first two seasons — he struck out 80 in 59 and two-third innings as a freshman and 63 in 51 innings as a sophomore — but the ability to pitch to contact helped Meyer Friday.
“For me to get through this game, I needed to have a low pitch count,” Meyer said. “I was trying more so to throw strikes and have them put it in play and see what happens.”
“Dropping the strikeouts down from 12 to five got him through the game,” Henderson said.
While Meyer’s junior statistics are impressive, they could be even more so if not for poor run support and bullpen performances in several of his starts.
The UK bullpen surrendered 17 runs in just 16 and one-third innings during his 12 starts and allowed all six of the runners it inherited from Meyer to score. He has not surrendered more than four runs in any of his five losses this season and has pitched at least six and two-third innings in each of those losses.
“He has pitched much better this year than his won-loss record — there is no doubt about that,” Henderson said. “There have been several games when he’s pitched extremely well that we haven’t scored or scored enough.”
Meyer’s performance this season has likely ensured he will be selected in the first round during June’s Major League Baseball draft.
“For all the improvements he didn’t make during the first couple of years at Kentucky, he has turned the corner this year,” said Jim Callis, executive editor of Baseball America.
Sports Illustrated recently ranked him the No. 20 prospect in the draft, and Baseball America ranked him the No. 28 prospect in its midseason rankings update.
“He is probably going to go somewhere in the middle of the first round,” Callis said, noting at least one team with a top 10 pick had expressed interest in Meyer but that was probably too high for him to be selected.
While no team will base its evaluation of Meyer on just a handful of games, the late-season improvements could help his draft status, said MLB.com draft and prospect reporter Jonathan Mayo.
“Every team has dozens of reports on the guy,” Mayo said. “It will be up to the area guys and the cross-checkers to make sure they weigh things evenly.”
One game, like the Vanderbilt performance, shouldn’t change scouts minds about Meyer, but it is still likely to help their decision, Callis said..
“That was a must-see game for [scouts],” Callis said. “And Alex Meyer went out and out-performed Sonny Gray. It probably means more than it should, because that game was a scout’s dream.”
Meyer introduced a change-up to his pitching repertoire this season. His command of that third pitch in his arsenal could help determine if he is a starter or reliever at the next level.
“It’s that third pitch that is going to decide whether he is a frontline starter or closer,” Mayo said. “If the change-up doesn’t come, you can’t be a starter at the major league level.”
The changeup has improved as the season went along, Meyer said.
“(The changeup) is really helping me out quite a lot lately, being able to throw it when people are sitting dead-red on a fastball,” he said. “It’s changed things for me a little bit. It’s really been beneficial for me.”
Teams know Meyer is far from a finished product, but they are intrigued by his promise, Callis and Mayo said.
“With a guy like Meyer, whoever takes him knows there is going to be some work that needs to be done with his delivery and that third pitch,” Mayo said. “The team that thinks that is going to come is likely to take him early.”
Meyer’s draft status is further complicated because baseball super-agent Scott Boras, whose clients have at times slipped in the draft due to contract demands, will advise him.
“If they try to make the claim he is one of the top couple of arms in the country, that is going to be a difficult sign,” Mayo said. “If they are a little more realistic, it may not be tremendously difficult.”
Regardless of where Meyer is selected, Henderson says the success he has experienced this season will serve him well at the next level.
“His confidence level is now at an all-time high for his life. He’s proven to himself he can pitch at a different level,” he said. “As he moves on to professional baseball, he is going to have a reservoir of success in his pocket to draw on that will serve him well.”
By Jon Hale