Papi Hitting on Thirty-Eight
David Freier | On 22, Jul 2015
The number 38 seems to associate itself with High-A Lynchburg Hillcats left fielder Mike Papi. He and his best friend always had this number, as an inside thing, since his sophomore year of high school. He continued to wear it during his college playing days at the University of Virginia, and he was the 38th overall pick in the supplemental first round in 2014. He has kept the number 38 as he has played professionally, first for Rookie level Mahoning Valley, then the Low-A Lake County Captains and now the Hillcats.
Drafted by the Angels organization out of high school, he chose to attend the University of Virginia where he constructed a strong baseball resume. He captured the Atlantic Coast Conference batting title as a sophomore with a .381 average, and tied for the ACC lead in homeruns with 11 in his junior year, prior to being drafted.
With Lynchburg being in close proximity to Charlottesville, the home of the Virginia Cavaliers, he has garnered a great deal of support while playing in the Hillcats uniform.
“The support is unreal.” he says. “You always hear people yelling in the stands, go Wahoo’s and it’s good to have that support and that backing here.”
In his junior year (2014) the Cavaliers were ranked No. 1 in college baseball for most of the season advancing to the final game of the College World Series in Omaha where they lost to the Commodores of Vanderbilt. The team repeated their performance this year ending with a rematch with the heavily favored Vandy team, but this year the Cavaliers pulled out the victory.
“It was just as sweet as winning it myself.” said Papi about his alma mater’s victorious season. “All the former players who went through there set the groundwork for that team to make it all the way and win it. It means just as much to us as it does to them.”
Since being drafted, his past two summers have been spent adjusting to life as a professional baseball player. Until recently he has had limited success following up on his strong collegiate performance. An oh for seven left his batting average at .175 with only nine doubles out of 27 base hits to end the month of May. Since that low point it has been a different season for Papi.
For the month of June he hit .328 with a slash line of .464/.478/.942, the polar opposite of his season to that point. He has continued the offensive barrage and has since been moved up to fifth in the batting order by Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski.
He is still working on making the transition from college ball to the professional ranks.
“There’s definitely a transition period.” says Papi. “Getting myself in a better hitting position, making the transition from the metal bat to the wood bat, and the pitching is better.”
His season began to turn around as the Carolina League All-Star break approached. Going into a four game home-and-home series with the Salem Red Sox, the hits began to fall, culminating with a career high four hit performance in Salem on June 11th.
Talking about the changes to his hitting approach Papi said, “Early on I wasn’t capitalizing on mistakes. I was being too passive, too late on my front side and getting beat.”
In the four weeks since that June 11th game Papi has raised his average from .190 to .245, with two homeruns and has nearly tripled his RBI total from 9 to 25.
The first of his two homeruns came on a Sunday afternoon game in Salem where he got to face Red Sox reliever German Taveras.
“He threw me a fastball and I took advantage of the mistake. It was over the meat of the plate.”
It was also a two run drive that tied the game which the Hillcats would go on to win later in the same inning on a grand slam homerun by Bradley Zimmer.
“At UVA I always liked to hit in those clutch situations, and to tie the game up was nice. I had a similar situation two days earlier where I drove one to the wall that I thought was going out. Probably one of the best balls I’ve hit all year, but it got hung up.”
Papi’s second homerun came just a few days later in Wilmington.
“[Eric] Skoglund is a great pitcher, a mix and match pitcher. I got myself in a good fastball count and got a pitch that was over the meat of the plate that I could drive.”
The resurgence in Papi’s bat stems from his work on changing his mindset as a hitter. Named by Baseball America as the having the best plate discipline in the Indians system, he is currently second in the Carolina League in walks with 59, trailing only Myrtle Beach’s Mark Zagunis who has 61. This is not that unusual for Papi as he led the nation in walks his junior year, with 61, which tied the UVA record.
On top of this he holds the longest hitting streak in the Carolina League for 2015 with a 16 game run.
“Hopefully the streak continues,” he said at the 12 game mark, “and if not it’s a very superficial thing.”
Superficial or not he has worked with Hillcats hitting coach Bobby Magallanes to become more aggressive in his mindset.
“His biggest thing is staying aggressive. It’s an aggressive mindset and intent.” said Magallanes. “He’s got good zone recognition, he does draw a lot of walks, but we are trying to make him be more aggressive, to where he is going to attack the ball every pitch.”
Though his hitting streak ended on July 15th he will continue the approach that has turned his season around.
“Take it one at-bat at a time.” he says. “Just try to have a quality at-bat. Hit the ball hard and be consistent. You can make outs hitting the ball hard. Recently the balls have been falling [for hits] and it’s a good feeling.”
He will continue to wear number 38 and bring his calm demeanor to ballpark every day. As he adapts to the professional game his patience and work ethic will help him build on his past success and develop the opportunities for greater success in the future.
Photo: Lianna Holub/DTTWLN photographer