Mets have valuable building block in Nieuwenhuis
Rookie center fielder has impressed along journey to the Major Leagues
I first saw New York Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis play during the 2010 Arizona Fall League.
While Nieuwenhuis wasn't among the high-profile players that season, he displayed a solid bat and good outfield play. I thought he showed the potential to hit Major League pitching. He finished the fall batting .256 in 90 at-bats. While that wasn't overwhelming in the decidedly "hitter-friendly" league, his ability to hit the gaps with an uppercut swing made me take notice.
Nieuwenhuis played collegiate ball at Azusa Pacific University, where he was part of two National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics World Series appearances. He was an impact hitter for the Cougars, setting school career records in runs scored, with 190, and triples, with 12.
Following his time at Azusa Pacific, the New York Mets selected Nieuwenhuis in the third round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
Nieuwenhuis began his professional career at Brooklyn in the New York-Penn League, where he played 74 games and hit a respectable .277. Nieuwenhuis had 15 doubles, five triples and three home runs among 79 hits in 319 plate appearances. He wasn't setting the world on fire, but he showed some real pop with his bat.
Following his first professional season, Nieuwenhuis continued to hit with authority throughout the Mets' Minor League system. He played at every level, finishing the 2010 campaign at Triple-A Buffalo. Last year, Nieuwenhuis was shut down with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. It cost him most of the second half of his season.
In parts of five Minor League seasons, Nieuwenhuis had a composite batting average of .280 and had shown an ability to improve his contact rate and his plate discipline while maintaining his power. The Mets took notice.
At the beginning of this season, when newly acquired center fielder Andres Torres was injured, Nieuwenhuis got the opportunity for playing time in center. He made the most of his chance.
The 24-year-old Nieuwenhuis is a left-handed hitter and right-handed thrower. He plays solid defense with a strong and accurate arm. A corner-outfield spot might ultimately be the best place for his skills. While I think he can run well, I believe he'll be challenged playing center in spacious parks like San Diego and Seattle. I think he has enough power and is best suited to play a corner-outfield spot.
As a rookie in April, Nieuwenhuis made a positive impression with his bat. At the top of the batting order, he showed he was capable of hitting quality pitching for both average and power. His first month with the Mets was outstanding. Nieuwenhuis hit .325 covering 80 at-bats in April. However, in May, he batted .263 in 80 plate appearances. It was a respectable month, but the drop-off from April was obvious.
Entering play on Friday, Nieuwenhuis was hitting .240 over 75 plate appearances in June. The reduced batting average may just indicate Nieuwenhuis could be a streaky hitter. While that's entirely possible, it could be an indication that pitchers are making adjustments to him.
As rookie players often discover, pitchers at the Major League level quickly change and adjust their approach to hitters. Often the most savvy pitchers can adjust their repertoire, pitch location or velocity from one at-bat of a hitter to another. Hitters must take the same approach. In order to sustain success, a batter must adapt his approach in either swing mechanics, foot and body placement or pitch selection/patience to combat the pitcher's adjustments. That is the process currently facing Nieuwenhuis. He must make adjustments to return to his April success.
Mets manager Terry Collins has indicated Nieuwenhuis "isn't seeing the ball." That doesn't mean he needs glasses. It does mean his head is moving off the ball -- a common issue faced by even the most experienced hitters.
One need only watch Albert Pujols at the plate to see outstanding head placement during an at-bat. Pujols' head does not move. He stares at the ball -- at the pitcher's hand and arm from the moment he gets to the on-deck circle until the time his bat has struck the ball and he begins running. It is one of Pujols' greatest mechanical attributes as a hitter.
This is not to suggest that all batters must be as stoic at the plate as Albert Pujols. However, even the slightest movement off the ball can cause negative results.
As a strong 6-foot-3, 215-pound hitter, Nieuwenhuis could easily be trapped in a very common habit of trying to pull every pitch. He doesn't do that. But even though he has the ability to take a pitch to the opposite field, I believe Niewenhuis will hit better against right-handed than left-handed pitching. His statistics show a difference. So far in 63 plate appearances against lefties, he is batting .189. Versus right-handers, Niewenhuis is hitting .302 in 198 plate appearances.
Trying to pull an outside pitch could easily result in him rolling over the ball and hitting a weak grounder. Instead, Nieuwenhuis takes pitches where they are thrown, getting a good look at the pitch and swinging accordingly. That approach keeps a defense playing more straight away as opposed to shifting to the pull side and taking potential hits away with a "stacked" defense. Defensive shifts are becoming very common in baseball, especially against left-handed hitters like Nieuwenhuis.
Overall, Nieuwenhuis has good baseball instincts and has the ability to run the bases well. He will be able to take the extra base due to his quickness and skill. I also believe he will be a threat to steal bases, and he'll have to be accounted for accordingly.
"Captain Kirk" Nieuwenhuis has emerged upon the scene with the Mets. He is likely to be among the young players the club will rely upon as a building block for the future.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.