NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Though he still has plenty to prove, A.J. Minter has returned to Spring Training wearing the smile that was rarely seen during last year's frequent frustration.
“I’m looking forward to putting last year behind me,” said Minter, whose 2019 struggles began after he aggravated his left shoulder in a fender bender.
After missing most of Spring Training, Minter debuted a week into the regular season and prepared to take over the closer’s role that Arodys Vizcaíno had to vacate after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery. Minter's claim to the role evaporated as he recorded a 9.35 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a 1.014 OPS over 11 April appearances.
“I probably rushed back a little too early, played catch-up the rest of the year and never caught up,” Minter said. “I’ve never really experienced failure like that. I shot up through the Minor Leagues and got to the Major Leagues and had success early. It was a humbling year. You’ve got to learn from it, move on and become better.”
Minter put together a 6.27 ERA over his next 23 appearances while dealing with two month-long demotions to Triple-A Gwinnett and further distancing himself from the tremendous promise he showed when he struck out 43.3 percent of the 60 batters he faced across 16 appearances in 2017.
After looking at his 2017 success and the decline he began to experience as '19 progressed, Minter recognized the need to essentially make his cutter a slider. He’ll utilize the same grip, but by getting on the side of the ball more, he’ll attempt to create more sweeping lateral movement.
Per Baseball Savant, Minter’s cutter induced a 34 percent whiff rate last year, but it surrendered a .274 batting average. By throwing more of a slider, which will be approximately 3-4 mph slower, the 26-year-old reliever hopes to find a reliable out pitch.
“He threw a bullpen [on Friday] and looked great,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “These guys aren’t finished products. A lot of guys come up, have success early and they don’t really realize how they’ve done it. It takes a while to get these guys to be that polished Major Leaguer.
The Braves’ new Spring Training complex affords the Minor League players a chance to live on property within the newly constructed dorms. The college-like living quarters provided some familiarity to last year’s two first-round Draft picks -- catcher Shea Langeliers (Baylor) and infielder Braden Shewmake (Texas A&M).
After enjoying the cafeteria’s dinner on Friday, Langeliers, Shewmake and a few other Minor Leaguers huddled in front of a couple computers to watch Baylor and Texas A&M play their respective season openers.
“The differences from last year to now feels kind of weird, but it’s awesome at the same time,” Langeliers said. “We’ve taken that next step and it feels good.”
Big man draws attention
As expected, Bryce Ball has made a good early impression on the big league coaches, many of whom hadn't known about him before this week. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound first baseman was taken out of Dallas Baptist University in the 24th round of last summer’s Draft. His raw power has drawn attention as he has spent the past couple days taking batting practice.
Ball hit 17 homers in just 231 Minor League at-bats last year, but there is reason to wonder if he could progress enough defensively to make his way to the Majors, at least with a National League team. He has already created some encouragement while working with infield guru Ron Washington, who is back for his fourth season as Atlanta’s third-base coach.
“The kid has been out there every day doing all of his drills,” Snitker said. “It will help him because we know he’ll have to play a position, at least in our league. You look at a kid like that with a willingness to work and aptitude and things like that, you know he’ll get better.”