BRADENTON, Fl. – It’s not uncommon to see minor league players learning new positions at the start of Spring Training. The Pirates like to move people around for a few reasons, with the main ones being positional versatility and playing time management. Yesterday, I noticed Wyatt Mathisen was taking grounders at first. However, this wasn’t your normal position change.
Mathisen was part of a big position change two years ago. He was originally a catcher in the system, but moved to third base after the catching scene got crowded with Reese McGuire and Jin-De Jhang. He’s remained at third base the last two seasons, and hasn’t played another position until I saw him at first base. But don’t expect a position change just yet. The Pirates never actually told him to go to first base. He just went over one day last week when there was only one first baseman in camp, in order to give that guy a break.
“They didn’t say anything. I just sort of ran over there last Wednesday,” Mathisen said. “Last week there was only one guy, so I was like ‘go give him a little break, get some work in for myself.’ So I’m just trying to give them more options if they need it at first base.”
The move is largely unofficial. Mathisen doesn’t even have a first base glove. Instead, he’s been breaking in Chase Simpson’s new glove, and will probably take his old one when the new one is broken in. Mathisen hasn’t even received any instruction, which means his pivots and throws to second base have been self-taught.
“I didn’t really have the right mechanics,” Mathisen said. “I’m just getting the footwork down. No one has told me how to do it. I’m just trying to naturally do it myself now.”
It makes sense that the Pirates haven’t told Mathisen to move to first. He’s a third baseman in a system that lacks a lot of good third base talent. There is no one blocking him at third base, and he’d have some competition at first, with Edwin Espinal playing the position in Bradenton last year. But the initiative is nice to see, especially since Mathisen is getting the work at first base during what normally would have been his down time.
This type of work ethic has also been apparent in Mathisen’s attempts to learn the third base position the last two years. It wasn’t a totally foreign move for him, as he played shortstop a lot in high school before moving behind the plate in pro ball. But third base has offered some challenges, especially with first step quickness, which has been the biggest issue so far. Mathisen said that he’s getting more comfortable at the position after his second full season.
“I’m starting to get the reads down faster,” Mathisen said. “That’s the real key to me. I’ve got the ability to do it. I’ve just got to keep getting the reps of seeing balls, and get the right reads. Over the last year it’s gotten better… The balls right at me are fine, it’s just getting where I need to react, the first step quickness, and I worked on that a lot this off-season.”
The move to third also helped Mathisen’s health. He was getting worn down behind the plate, and that impacted his performance in 2013 in West Virginia. That included a drop in his performance on the offensive side. The numbers haven’t been great in the last two years, but have improved. He showed the most improvements in the second half of the 2015 season in Bradenton.
“I feel like I finished the second half very well offensively,” Mathisen said. “A lot more doubles, a lot more home runs. So I felt a lot better at the end of the season.”
There weren’t any mechanical changes to shorten his swing, like the Pirates did with his teammates Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire. Mathisen already had a short swing and good plate patience. The key here was getting him more aggressive. It might have worked out. Before the All-Star break, he had a .641 OPS. After the break he had a .725 OPS, fueled by a strong finish with an .886 OPS in August. He hit three of his four homers in August, and six of his 14 doubles.
“We sort of kept everything the same, because my swing wasn’t really the problem. I was getting beat a little bit,” Mathisen said. “So I just changed my approach, get the ball out a little bit more, and be a little more aggressive with my swing and try to put balls in right field, or hit balls in left-center. Not really caring where it ended up, just trying to hit the ball hard, try to make hard contact every single time.”
There’s no word yet on where Mathisen will start the 2016 season. A move to Altoona would make sense, as the Pirates have Jordan Luplow moving up from West Virginia to Bradenton, and no one will be blocking Mathisen at third in Altoona. But the Pirates would have to be sure that Mathisen’s late season success was actually legit, and showed he’s ready to jump to the next level. His performance in Spring Training could impact where he ends up.
If he doesn’t move up, or struggles after his move, that move to first base might become more of an official option for him, especially if Jordan Luplow is pushing from Bradenton during the second half. But Mathisen has a lot more value to the Pirates at third base, so expect them to do everything they can to make things work for him at that position.