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Cubs Prospect Perspective: Nelson Maldonado

For a prospect like this, it’s all about the bat.

Nelson Maldonado playing for South Bend in 2019
Clinton Cole

More than once, I was shushed. A game was ongoing, whatever the sport, and I wanted to talk. At least one person wanted to watch “the game” with “the announcers.” I wanted to freelance. Or have different (radio) announcers. And I was shushed. What was interesting to me was bouncing this off of that, and that wasn’t the goal of everyone in the room. Today’s article takes that a bit further. For some of you, this will be pure static. For some, the objection will be “Can you prove this?”. No, I can’t, but it’s my by-line. As I talk about Nelson Maldonado, I’m going to talk a bit about hitter approach and coaching hitting.

You’re hitting third tonight, and the first two hitters are retired on eight pitches. The starting pitcher is a righty, as are you. Right-versus-right, he goes with a fastball 58.9 percent of the time. The change is about 10 percent. The curve is most of the rest of the time, but he messes with a counter-productive slider with hopes of it getting usable. Two earlier pitches were curves, with one being a called strike and one being a dirt ball at 55 feet.

What are you sitting on?

As usual, you have about 10 feet to decide whether to swing or not. You’ve spent a bit of time watching his film, and you think you can tell the difference between his curve and his others. However, his curve isn’t what you want to swing at. As you dig into the batters’ box, are you sitting fastball or change? Since his change fooled you in your try against him three weeks ago, you’re leaning to taking his change to the opposite side. As he looks in for the sign, the change goes to right, or an inside two-seamer goes to left.

Here comes the curve. Yeah, sure. You watch a breaking ball creep over for a strike on the edge. You weren’t swinging on that, anyway. Crap. Down one. A glance down to the third base coach, and he claps encouragement. If he paints the corners all night, you’re in trouble.

Fastball time, inside. Bring it.

His change is juuuuuuuuuuuuuust off the corner. Whew. Breakeven at 1-1, and you haven’t seen a fastball yet. Over half the time, and he hasn’t fed you one, yet. However, he’s been outside/outside. If he tosses 94 away, can you pound it to the right-center gap? Do that, and you’re okay if you get a 97 mile per hour exit velocity lineout. Here it comes, but it’s inside. You lean back, but it probably wouldn’t have hit you. Had it been, 93 off the bicep would have been a ticket to first. You’re up 2-1, which is the goal. Without a swing.

Nelson Maldonado, first baseman

Born August 13, 1996, Chicago, Illinois
Cubs 2019 Draft Pick (21st Round), University of Florida

Maldonado was selected as a bat-first outfielder, and had a draft-year OPS of .983 in the SEC, as a senior. A bit of a “nothing ventured, nothing lost” type. If the bat played, he’d be a threat for as long as he hung around. If the bat didn’t carry him, his glove wasn’t saving him. The Cubs moved him to first base rather quickly. It would be nice if speed and versatility were there; it isn’t and wasn’t. He has played no outfield as a professional.

How’s the bat doing? Over 67 games in Double-A in 2021, his OPS was .839 against a league average of .714. Not too bad for a draft choice from a round that no longer exists. Since he won’t be curtailed by the lockout either way, look for Maldonado as a DH/1B option in either Double-A or Triple-A, depending on how he looks against good pitching in Mesa. Between the Cubs staff, BP, and spring games against opposition.

Back to that 2-1 count. I still think he wants to get me out outside, and his change just missed. I’m ruling out his curve, and treating this like the 0-0 pitch. Change away, or fastball inside. Ruling out the curve. Here it comes, and it’s a straight one away. Not ready for that, On the edge. The home plate umpire says wide. Whew. 3-1. He’s gotta challenge me, probably inside. Ambush the fastball time.

The wind and the pitch. Fastball, inner half. Ready. Bam. Crushed to left-center, with a 97 exit velo. The center fielder takes two steps to left, and makes the routine grab.

Blast. They scout me, also.

The job of the hitting coach is to try to communicate well enough with the hitters so that they all have a proper hitting approach. For them. (Not all hitters are the same.) Not to yell “Swing” or “Take” from the bench. A hitter with a useful approach every at-bat has an edge over the hitter that doesn’t. Which still doesn’t mean they’ll cut the mustard at the MLB with you. Hitting 97 and up in the zone is hard, especially if the heater comes from the same release point as the splitter that you weren’t hitting anyway.