For the first time, Parker Meadows was early on fastballs.
He planned to be ready for fastballs throughout the 2022 season, no matter the pitcher, the count or the velocity. The strategy helped him recognize fastballs earlier, and in doing so, he started pulling the ball. It was his main goal for the year.
The left-handed hitter sounded confident in February’s minor-league minicamp, displaying a shorter swing and more rhythm at the plate. He used to operate in three motions: Stop, load, then stride. Now, he understands his optimal swing mechanics and knows what his body is supposed to do. Swing adjustments unlocked a healthy approach.
“It was just a confidence thing for me,” Meadows said in early November in Arizona. “I think those minor swing adjustments helped a little bit. Just sticking to my routine throughout the whole year. It’s confidence. Confidence allowed me to roll. I was able to do my thing, and I was going good.”
The Detroit Tigers rewarded Meadows on Nov. 15 by adding the 23-year-old outfielder to the 40-man roster, protecting him (and four other prospects) from the Rule 5 draft in December and opening the door for his MLB debut in 2023.
Meadows, who wasn’t much of a prospect coming into last season, is once again a big piece of the Tigers’ future.
“At the end of the day, last year is in the past,” Meadows said. “For me, it’s all about moving forward and sticking to my routine. I’m excited for next year.”
The Tigers drafted Meadows out of high school with the No. 44 overall pick in 2018. His bloodlines — older brother Austin was a first-round pick in 2013 and made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates early in 2018 — and his $2.5 million signing bonus created an expectation. Parker looked like a baby gazelle but exuded athleticism, elite speed, above-average defense in center field and a mid-90s fastball as his high school team’s closer. The hit tool is the trickiest to predict (and develop) in baseball, but the Tigers evaluated his athletic ability, banked on his upside and brought him into the organization.
Meadows wasn’t an immediate success.
“Not everybody’s like Riley Greene and zooms through the minors,” Meadows said. “That kid is unreal.” The Tigers drafted Greene, a former top prospect who made his MLB debut last season, with the No. 5 overall pick in 2019. “It takes time for some guys to learn their body and learn their swing,” Meadows continued. “I feel like that was the situation for me.”
After the 2021 season, Meadows didn’t look like the prospect the Tigers thought they were getting in the 2018 draft. He wasn’t hitting for contact or power, wasn’t getting on base enough to weaponize his speed and had spent three-plus years missing fastballs. Several coaches, without a unified philosophy, tried to fix his swing, but the mixed messages failed to deliver results.
The Tigers changed leadership in the player development department in September 2021, replacing Dave Littlefield with Ryan Garko. Garko, the new vice president of player development, has received high marks for keeping the department aligned.
“Experiencing goes a long way in this game,” said Meadows, who hit .210 with eight home runs over 97 games in 2021, “and struggling for two years in the minors, I was just fed up with struggling. I wanted to succeed, and I did that.”
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Last offseason, Meadows changed his mechanics. He focused on bat path, bat speed and repeatability with Georgia-based hitting instructor Shane Hopper. Shortening his swing and replacing a natural hitch with a movement that resembles a toe-tap enhanced his athleticism and adjustability in the batter’s box.
Meadows boldly shared in spring training his aspirations of moving up in the farm system.
“It’s not really a toe-tap, but the gather that I was able to put into the game this year has helped me a lot,” Meadows said. “In past years, I would be on time but wouldn’t have rhythm. But now, it all falls in place and feels good.”
In 2022, Meadows hit .270 across 127 games with a .346 on-base percentage, .473 slugging percentage and .819 OPS. He also posted career highs in home runs (20), doubles (25), triples (7) and stolen bases (17 in 19 attempts). A repeat assignment to High-A West Michigan fueled his fire, and after 14 games, he received a promotion to Double-A Erie for the remainder of the season.
For the SeaWolves, Meadows hit .275 with 16 homers in 113 games. After an adjustment period, he batted .301 with four homers in June (23 games), .275 with two homers in July (19 games), .290 with eight homers in August (27 games) and .333 without a homer in September (16 games). His 10.6% walk rate and 18.4% strikeout rate were also career bests.
And Meadows hit balls to all parts of the field.
“I just saw a pure line-drive hitter with some pop that’s going to develop over time, and once he gets going on the bases, he can really run,” said Warren Schaeffer Meadows’ manager with the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League. “The goal for him was to put the ball in play more. Other than that, the sky is the limit for Parker. When he hits the ball in the gap, it’s different. You pretty much know it’s a triple. Not everybody can do that.”
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From 2021 to 2022, Meadows’ fastball wOBAcon — weighted on-base average on contact — jumped .123, meaning his production improved when putting fastballs in play. His contact rate against fastballs increased by about 8 percentage points (to 83.3%), and his chase rate decreased by about 10 percentage points (to 13.3%). Breaking balls and off-speed pitches disrupt Meadows at times, but he finished the minor-league season with a 19.3% chase rate and 75.7% contact rate against all pitches.
Instant video entered the Tigers’ minor league clubhouses in Garko’s first season leading the player development department. Meadows took a liking to the feedback and implemented the technology into his routine. After each game, he inspected his mechanics, approach and results.
He praised his successes and critiqued his shortcomings.
“I’ve never really been a video guy, but this year, I got into it a little bit,” said Meadows, who isn’t as polished against left-handed pitchers. “It’s probably more beating myself up than anything. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but I’m definitely hard on myself. For me, something that helped after a bad game was saying, ‘Screw it.’ I would go home, forget about it and move on. That comes with experience and knowing what you’re capable of.”
In the Arizona Fall League, Meadows played for the Rafters alongside several Tigers farmhands, namely Colt Keith and Gage Workman. He hit .224 with three homers, seven walks and 16 strikeouts in 24 games, carrying a .735 OPS.
Schaeffer, also the Triple-A manager in the Colorado Rockies’ organization, observed an easy personality from his spot in the dugout. Meadows wasn’t overwhelmed by the Fall League, and his Salt River teammates — including top prospects Jordan Walker, Jordan Lawlar, Zac Veen and Masyn Winn — flocked to him for a taste of his professionalism.
On the first day of the Fall League, Meadows launched a solo home run to right-center field off Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Quinn Priester. A month later, he tripled to left-center field against Priester. A few days after that, Meadows drilled a fastball from Boston Red Sox reliever Jacob Webb for a go-ahead home run to deep right field in the top of the ninth.
“The more guys you have like that in the lineup, the better you’re going to be,” Schaeffer said. “A guy doesn’t look like Parker Meadows every day. Guys that are that big with those long legs that can really run like that? You can’t think of guys like that a lot. They’re not out there. When you have one, you can hone his skills and get him to the show. He’s really going to help the Tigers.”
Mental and physical fatigue set in by the end of the Fall League. Meadows played 151 games last season — the most of his career — and his weight dropped from 220 pounds in spring training to 208 pounds by the time he wrapped up the 10-month baseball schedule. The minor-league diet, he joked, wasn’t conducive to maintaining his weight. Adding strength this offseason is a priority.
“It’s sticking to what I’ve been doing, especially last offseason,” Meadows said of his plans before spring training in February. “Just sticking to my routine and trying to get better, day by day.”
Meadows suddenly looks like a valuable prospect again. More specifically, he looks like an eventual big leaguer with the Tigers.
That wasn’t the case last year.
“I feel like I put myself back on the map, maybe saved my career,” Meadows said. “Coming into it, I knew it was a big year for me. I was able to prove some people wrong.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.