Meek morphs into All-Star reliever
On a rainy day last March in Bradenton, Fla., Evan Meek got his first lesson in Baseball 101.
It's a pitching strategy created by former Los Angeles Angels closer Troy Percival. Eight years ago, Percival taught it to a rookie named Brendan Donnelly, who used what he gleaned to launch a seven-year career that includes a World Series ring and an All-Star berth.
Baseball 101 is not a cookie-cutter approach that will morph any pitcher into a stud. But Donnelly figured Meek would be a perfect student for the pitching plan.
"It's a combination of attitude and execution, a general attack plan," Donnelly said. "It doesn't work for everybody, I promise you. But for power-type arms, it's a pretty good plan."
It must be. Donnelly's message helped transform Meek this season from a one-time Rule 5 castoff into an All-Star — he was named to the National League roster for tonight's game in Anaheim, Calif. — and a likely future closer.
When Donnelly signed with the Pirates in January, he already was aware of Meek. Donnelly knew the 27-year-old righty has a cannon arm and a bulldog mentality, but had struggled off and on throughout his career.
This past spring training, Donnelly pulled Meek aside on a morning when the team's usual workouts were washed out by a storm. Over the course of a half-hour in the weight room at McKechnie Field, Donnelly explained Baseball 101.
"It's the first time anyone with his kind of experience has talked to me, player-to-player instead of coach-to-player," Meek said. "And what he said really clicked."
Donnelly enlisted veteran closer Octavio Dotel to assist with Meek's tutelage.
"Me and Donnelly were all over him in March and April," Dotel said, laughing.
Donnelly jealously guards the details Baseball 101 from outsiders and non-teammates. Its focus is an approach to pitching — a certain swagger on the mound, strategies for specific situations and batters — but also includes how to act off the field.
The essence of the message to Meek• Keep it simple.
"Because I throw hard and I've got movement, I don't have to be as fine," Meek said. "There should be a 'bubble' that I'm looking at around the middle of the plate. Work within the bubble, basically."
Meek throws hard — he claims to have ramped his fastball up to 100 mph a time or two — but movement is what makes his pitches so deadly. By simply allowing his stuff to play, Meek stopped nibbling at the edge of the strike zone and became practically unhittable.
"Confidence is really what put him over the hump," manager John Russell said. "He really believes in himself. He believes in his arm."
Meek said it was easy to buy into what Donnelly and Dotel were preaching because it was a plan designed with him — or, at least, his type of pitcher — in mind.
"They gave me good information that was going to help me," Meek said. "It wasn't information for 20 other people. Usually, when someone talks to me about pitching, they talk about pitching overall. One thing that Donnelly did that no one else has done is talk to me about pitching only involving my stuff."
Meek carried a sub-1.00 ERA through the first three-plus months of the season. He owned the seventh inning of tight games, a devastating opening salvo out of the bullpen as a setup man for Dotel.
Since the save became an official stat in 1969, Meek is the Pirates' first All-Star pitcher who isn't a closer or starter. But he does not expect to remain a middle reliever forever.
"There's no doubt in my mind that somewhere, eventually, I'll be closing games," Meek said. "I feel I can be very good at it. Whether it happens here or someplace else down the road, it's something I definitely want the opportunity to do."Additional Information:
Evan Meek's statistics when pitching with two outs and runners in scoring position:
Year, G, SO/BB, BAA, BAbip
2008 , 5, 0.50, .286, .250
2009 , 22, 1.00, .231, .250
2010 , 20, 1.00, .148, .182
Career , 47, 0.86, .200, .217
Note: BAA is batting average against; BAbip is batting average on balls put in play.