When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Wyatt Mathisen in the second round of the 2012 draft, they made the decision to move him behind the plate. Mathisen was considered a very athletic player, to the point that he played mostly shortstop in high school. He did catch a few games, and the Pirates — who were short on catching prospects at the time — decided they liked what they saw at the position, enough to make him a full-time catcher.
The move behind the plate was short-lived. Mathisen played there during the 2012 season in the GCL. He went to West Virginia in 2013, but only managed 32 games, due to a labrum tear. In that same year, the Pirates drafted Reese McGuire in the first round, and saw Jin-De Jhang put up an impressive season in Jamestown. Mathisen’s injury would have put him back in West Virginia in 2014, with McGuire getting most of the playing time at catcher. So the Pirates went with another position change, this time moving Mathisen to third base.
“It was hard,” Mathisen said of the move. “Day by day I was trying to get better. It wasn’t as hard as it could have been, since I played infield in high school, so that helped out a lot. But it was just getting back to the natural instinct of first movement on balls at third base. I didn’t play a lot of third, I played more short [in high school]. So just the reaction times, getting used to the speed of the game back at third was tough. I thought it went well, and it’s just getting better every day.”
The Pirates are thin at the third base position in their minor league system. Mathisen is the only third base prospect who made our top 50 prospects this year, and in 2014 there were zero third basemen in the top 50 prospects. There have been third basemen who have ranked in the top 50 in previous years, although all of them had the upside of utility players. Mathisen is the first third base prospect the Pirates have had who has the upside of a starter since Pedro Alvarez was in the system in 2010. All of this means that, unlike catcher, there won’t be anyone pushing him off third base any time soon.
As far as his development at the position, Mathisen said third base was easier than catching, not just because infield was more familiar to him, but also because of the speed of the game at third, and the impact the new position had on his bat.
“I thought it impacted [the bat] a lot,” Mathisen said. “Obviously by the numbers it impacted it a lot. Being able to relax, and not having to think about defense 24/7 — when you’re catching, as soon as you get out at the plate, you’ve got to start thinking about the next inning and what the pitcher needs to do. At third, you still sit there and review what you did at-bat, and review what you did wrong. And once you go out to defense, then you can switch to defense, instead of having to do it instantly when you get off the field.”
Mathisen struggled in West Virginia in 2013, with a .185/.256/.210 line. That was after he showed a lot of promise in the GCL, batting .295/.388/.374. This time around, while playing third base, he hit for a .280/.344/.360 line. The biggest trend so far is that he has displayed the ability to hit for average and get on base, but his power has been down. He has been working out in Bradenton most of the off-season, focusing on adding more power going forward.
A big question about Mathisen was how his shoulder would hold up at the new position. He had a labrum injury the year before, which required a lot of rehab. The move to third base actually helped him stay healthy this year, as it reduced the wear and tear on his body.
“After 20 games at catcher, I thought I had gone through a whole season,” Mathisen said. “At third base, even at the end of the season, it felt a lot better than it did 30 games in at catcher. It wasn’t as much wear and tear on my shoulder, which was awesome. I didn’t have to throw the ball back to the pitcher every time, or do multiple throwing programs. It was just one, and get ready for the game, and that was about it.”
The reports on his defense were positive in the first season at the new position, with encouraging signs that he could stick at third. Mathisen has been focusing on his first-step quickness this off-season, which was one of the big issues for him last year. The biggest benefit going forward will probably be more playing time.
“It’s hard to simulate game speed with [a fungo bat], but you do the best you can,” Mathisen said about getting more familiar at third base. “When you’re in the game, it’s a lot different, so just getting game balls is what really helps.”
The Pirates will likely send Mathisen to Bradenton this year. He’s going to need to improve his power and continue learning the third base position. If Josh Harrison, who is under control through the 2017 season, shows that he can be a starting third baseman, then there will be no need to rush Mathisen. That would make it unlikely that he would move beyond Bradenton this season, even if there isn’t anyone really blocking his path in the upper levels.