Life as a middle infield prospect in the Cleveland Indians farm system has to be a scary place for aspiring professional baseball players.
When the Indians selected junior second baseman Mark Mathias out of California Polytechnic State University in the third round of last year’s draft as their fourth overall selection, the 19-year-old junior had to know that his work was cut out for him with Jason Kipnis on his way to the second All-Star berth of his career.
While one of the better second basemen in the MLB is under contract through the 2019 season, with a team option for 2020, the final three years of Kipnis’ deal are set to pay him eight figures, including more than $13 million in 2018 and $14 million in 2019 before the $16.5 million team option hits. If changes to spending from the front office do not change by then, those substantial sums could lead to some movement by the club with several players locked in on large deals for those years, and Mathias could become an interesting name to know.
Mathias brings with him an offensive-minded game at second base, something difficult to find at the Major League level and certainly among the depth options at the position in the Indians system. He was the first position player selected by the club in June, despite surgery on his right throwing shoulder the previous December to repair a slight tear to the labrum. The injury did not scare away the Indians from Mathias, who missed just a small number of games because of the procedure.
“They got a good one in him,” shared Larry Lee, head coach of Mathias’ Cal Poly squad, in an MLB.com story on June 9th. “He’s got a chance to be pretty special. He does a lot of things very well. If he’d never had the labrum surgery, I think he’d be a much higher draft choice.”
“He’s battled all the way through it,” said Indians’ director of amateur scouting, Brad Grant. “And we really like the upside to the bat and the ability to control the strike zone, and the ability to play multiple positions for us.”
During his junior season, Mathias hit .356, drove in 28 runs, scored 42, and stole nine bases in 47 games. The season before, he earned the Big West Conference Field Player of the Year award after hitting .386 and was a member of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team over the summer, where he injured the shoulder. He played first base, second base, and third base for the club.
“I was pretty surprised on how quickly my arm got back to 100 percent,” said Mathias in the same story. “Now, it’s getting stronger and I feel like my arm is better than it’s ever been now, after the surgery. It’s good. It definitely made me mentally stronger.”
Mathias joined manager Travis Fryman’s Mahoning Valley Scrappers team and entered the lineup at second base in their third game of the season on June 21st. After a tough stretch to start his professional career, which included eight strikeouts in his first five games and just a 3-for-21 line at the plate, the bat perked up with three hits in the final two games of the month. In 23 July games, he hit .320 with his first pro home run, six doubles, a pair of triples, and eleven RBI. The average dipped to .267 in August, but he still drove in a dozen runs and saw his on-base percentage jump from .361 in his strong July to .435, thanks to drawing 22 walks in 116 plate appearances, more than tripling his total of free passes from the prior month.
He closed his first pro season with seven RBI in his last seven games, hitting three doubles, a triple, and another home run. In that final week, he provided a career game on September 2 against the Auburn Doubledays, when he was 4-for-5 at the plate, driving in six runs on the day while coming up just a double short of the cycle.
“It feels great,” he shared following the career game about ending his home run drought that day. “I think I hit three balls off the wall since, but to finally get the ball over the wall is definitely a great relief for me. I see myself as a doubles hitter right now, but as I get bigger and start filling in, I think I’ll start hitting more home runs.”
The right-handed hitter did the bulk of his heavy lifting away from Eastwood Field in Niles, Ohio. He hit .236 with eleven doubles and eleven RBI in 37 games in front of the hometown crowd, while batting .331 with eight doubles, all of his triples and homers for the season, and 21 RBI in 30 games.
With the exception of a handful of starts at designated hitter, Mathias worked exclusively at second base.
“Mark looks to be a very nice player. I look forward to watching him continue to progress and develop,” manager Fryman shared following the Scrappers league-worst 31-44 season. “Defensively, he’s there.”
Mathias, who turned 21 in August, did not show the organization a young, formerly successful college player who was unwilling to change his approach. Just ten games into the season, he took a conversation with organizational hitting coordinator Jim Rickon and implemented the adjustments immediately.
“Our hitting coordinator [was] in town, and he gave a little overview of some of our core things that we teach offensively here,” said Fryman in a June 30, 2015, story in the Tribune Chronicle. “[Mathias] just took that conversation and made some little adjustments on his own in the cage today and was able to carry it out on the field. It wasn’t something we did. It was something he did in response from someone just communicating information to him today. That’s indicative of a young man that listens and has the ability to make adjustments.”
As Mathias continues to fill out, it will be interesting to see if his bat can live up to the college hype and provide him with a well-rounded game, while giving the Indians another needed second base prospect for the years ahead.
Photo: Lianna Holub/MiLB.com