NOTE: This is a report from MetsToday’s official sabermetrician and minor league correspondent Matt Himelfarb. Enjoy.
Wilmer Flores has come a long way since Summer 2008 in Kingsport.
Two years ago, Flores, just 16 years old, was assigned to the Kingsport Mets of the Rookie level Appalachian League. At that age, any semblance of production- any semblance of playing time, for that matter- warrants some attention. Yet, Flores took the league by storm, hitting .310/.351/.490 in 265 plate-appearances before a late-season promotion to Brooklyn.
Of course, there were some growing pains along the way.
A little over a month into the season, the Princeton Rays came into town for a three-game set. Tim Beckham, the number one overall pick that June, was there as well, setting the stage for quite a spectacle. For three nights, Hunter Wright Stadium, capacity 2,500, would boast the two best prospects in the league.
“All of a sudden you got probably the best two players in the league”, than Kingsport manager and current Sand Gnats skipper Pedro Lopez says, “and everybody wants to know who’s the best? Who’s the better shortstop in the league? And I saw this kid is really nice, really polite. Its unbelievable.”
Than came his first interview with a reporter from New York, with Lopez acting as translator. Most of it went something like this:
Reporter: How are you doing here? What’s the adjustment been like?
Flores: Soy bueno (I’m good).
Reporter: How is your family?
Flores: Son buenos (they are good). Afterward, Lopez summoned Flores to his office. Laughing, he says,
“when we were done I was like, alright Flores, this is how you do it. You can’t just say I’m good. I’m telling you, you gotta work on that. I’m telling you, you have to get better at it.”
Following his impressive debut in 2008, the Mets optioned to aggressively promote Flores, along with third baseman Jefry Marte, who, at 17 dominated Kingsport (.324/.393/.528) that summer, to Savannah in the South Atlantic League for 2009. While he undoubtedly struggled, Flores more than held his own in 528 plate-appearances, hitting .264/.303/.331, routinely showing the ability to consistently square up on the ball and make contact.
Marte’s début was less encouraging. In 526 plate-appearances, he hit just .233/.278/.338, with 25 walks vs. 117 strikeouts. This year, he is making tremendous strides with his plate discipline, already drawing 17 walks and striking out just 28 times in 167 plate appearances, but his overall line remains mostly the same (.207/.305/.317).
Thus, many experts have questioned the Mets aggressive handling of the duo. Yet, Lopez does not seem all that concerned, and concurred with the promotions.
“The guys, there going to play where they belong”, he says. “I thought Flores and Marte were where they were supposed to be last year. They took their lumps last year, but hopefully this year will be a big year for both of them.”
Flores’s second go-round in the Sally League contrasts sharply with his first year. After a scorching start to the year that put Flores, who could be a senior in high school, as the clear front-runner for MVP of the league- a title usually reserved for players four-five years older- he has cooled a bit in May, but his overall numbers are hardly shabby: .312/.378/.480.
Flores has also managed to increase his power dramatically, while not sacrificing plate discipline. His strikeout rate remains low (just 29 times in 225 plate appearances), but he is walking at nearly twice the rate (18 walks- 8% of his plate appearances). He is being more aggressive, hitting mistakes more often, while simultaneously laying off the breaking balls and changeups that plagued him in the past.
He still looks bad- at times very bad- on off-speed stuff. Scouts in attendance, however, rave about his exceptional bat speed.
Most of all, they wonder how good he will be when he finally fills out. Listed at 6’3″ 180, you could mistake him for a projectable pitcher. The Mets have emphasized working on his core strength; he still lacks much definition in his chest and midsection, and could conceivably add 25-30 lbs. of muscle over the next few years.
Flores himself attributes his improved performance to simply being more experienced.
“Last year i was kind of kind scared because I was 17, I was younger”, he says. “But this year I’ve been hitting very well. I know the pitchers. its’ kind of easier.”
Sand Gnats hitting coach Ryan Ellis, though, has stressed particular mechanical changes.
“He is a lot more patient. He is a year older and a year more experienced. I think thats helped him out a lot. He has really narrowed down the strike zone. His approach has been great up until this point. Into his swing he is using his hands a little bit more than really getting into with his whole body. He is trusting his hands and his swinging at good pitches and he’s aggressive.”
Despite his batting prowess, Flores says his main focus right now is actually defense. Whether he can stick at short will determine much of his value going forward. Many experts assume he will have to move to a corner infield or outfield position, but some scouts are not ready to commit on that question, and believe he might just have the athleticism to play short adequately.
Equally important in his development, though, is his maturation as a person. His grasp of the English language is nearly perfect — something unheard of for Hispanic kids his age. While he does not have much to say with reporters, he is far more relaxed around the clubhouse, cracking jokes and talking to seemingly everyone.
“The key for me”, Lopez says, “is just making sure that i create a good environment for these guys to work everyday and play baseball. Its a game- there supposed to enjoy it. i think the more pressure the staff kind of puts on players the tougher it gets it doesn’t do any good for me or the coaches to put any more pressure. the biggest thing is making sure i keep my guys loose and go out and play bb and whatever happens happens but w/ the understanding that we play fundamentally. sound the outcome more times than not will be in our favor.”
“He [Flores] has taken up a leadership role. It’s impressive. 18 years old. He’s a lot of fun to be around.”
About the Author
Matt is a high school student in New Jersey and avid Mets fan. He occasionally updates his blog at: matthimelfarb.wordpress.com