There is no doubt that 2016 is an important year in Mike Papi’s career. The former first round pick out of the University of Virginia has been considered an advanced hitter by scouts, and was expected to move quickly up the organizational ladder based upon his extensive college experience.
His 2015 season did not live up to the promise of his college performance. With a full season of 416 at-bats, he had 34 doubles, four home runs, 45 RBI, and walked 81 times while striking out 118 times. His season batting average ended at .236. He dropped from the #5 prospect in the Cleveland organization at the start of 2015 to the #19 prospect when the 2016 season dawned.
In the prospect profile on him back in March, I wrote, “Where Papi needs to make the greatest strides in 2016 are with his bat.”
Now, just over three weeks into the season, Papi is doing just that.
Through 66 at-bats in 2016 he has seven doubles, ten RBI, four home runs, and has walked 18 times to only 16 strikeouts. His doubles are tied for the team lead along with Anthony Santander and Mark Mathias, and his walks lead the team, one ahead of Greg Allen. His walk total currently leads the Carolina League.
His batting eye has always been a strong part of his game for as long as he can remember. When asked about how he developed this important skill he said, “I don’t think there is any one particular way to learn that. There is no drill to practice that, it’s just repetition and your approach at the plate. Making your plan as black and white as possible.”
When he ended his first season as a professional he had suffered a thumb injury. This required surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament which likely had a significant effect on his hitting and general strength during the 2015 season.
No such injury plagued him in the most recent offseason giving him a better opportunity to gain strength and come into the new season ready to work and be fully prepared.
“I was very fortunate to come out of the offseason 100% healthy,” said Papi. “I had thumb UCL surgery two years ago, so I was not able to hit the weight room as hard.”
Taking a look back at his pre-draft performance suggests that this season’s output is more in line with his past performance than what was observed during his 2015 season.
First let’s look at plate discipline. In 526 at bats as a Cavalier, he had 121 base-on-balls to 88 strikeouts. To date has had 626 at-bats as a professional and has 125 base-on-balls to 166 strikeouts. The numbers of base-on-balls relative to his strikeouts serve as a strong indicator of his excellent plate discipline. For comparison, fellow 2014 draftee and Hillcats teammate Bobby Bradley has 81 walks and 221 strikeouts in 644 career at-bats. This puts Papi’s plate discipline as a plus tool and one that will serve him well as he advances.
“I did a lot of work in spring training getting my hands to a good position and just being ready to hit,” said Papi. “Trying to find my professional swing.”
Papi’s second important attribute is his power. In college he had 34 doubles, three triples, and 19 home runs with a .974 career OPS. He also played in two summer wood bat collegiate leagues where he collected an additional seven doubles, one triple, and five home runs in 198 at-bats. His collegiate career suggested he had a solid power stroke with the potential to be a double-digit home run guy at the Major League level. Over the parts of the three minor league seasons he has played he has 45 doubles, two triples and eleven home runs – not quite the power output that was expected based upon his college numbers.
“I definitely feel stronger,” Papi said about being prepared for the 2016 season. “That goes to the kind of work I put into the weight room in the offseason. The doubles that I was hitting off the wall last season, those are starting to sneak out.”
With four home runs already, equaling his 2015 total, he seems to have fully recovered from the thumb surgery that sapped his power.
In the midst of this early season success Papi has achieved a first for him. On April 18th he won Player of the Week (POW) honors in the Carolina League for his performance. This award was the first award for him as a professional, and was also the first POW award for the Carolina League season. In the stretch leading up to this recognition he had a two home run game that supported a Hillcats victory, which at the time placed him at the top of the Carolina League with a slugging percentage of .800.
His hitting confidence extends to his ability to effectively put the ball in play and avoid unnecessary outs. In his career as a Cleveland farmhand he has only hit into six double plays. This adds another dimension to understanding his game. The combination of his plate discipline, his power potential and his general baseball intelligence makes his overall game one to watch as he continues to develop and build experience.
Not only is his preparation paying off for his early individual performance, but it has been part of a strong team effort by the Hillcats to open the Carolina League season.
The High-A Lynchburg team, through 22 games, leads the league in runs scored (128), doubles (49), home runs (20), RBI (114), total bases (320), walks (103), and OPS at .779. The only category where they are eclipsed is in stolen bases, where Salem has 50, putting the Hillcats base stealers in a tie for second with 29.
As Papi said in commenting on the team’s early offensive surge, “Hitting is contagious. Whoever it may be that has the opportunity to get hits, score runs, does. We are a confident bunch of guys having some fun.”
For the time being Papi’s #38 will take a place in the lineup and bring his professional approach to each game. His improved strength and balanced approach have brought him and the team early season success. If this continues he will find himself in position for a promotion to AA where his talents can be further tested and his skills more sharply refined.
Photo: Lee Luther Jr./The News and Advance