Cardinals’ Plummer sets out with something to prove in 2017

Feature Photo: Nick Plummer, CF, Cardinals
(Photo by Ryan Davis)

Editor’s Note:  Today we’re excited to bring Ryan Davis on board to the 2080 staff. Ryan is a freelance baseball writer and analyst. In the past, he’s written for Baseball Prospectus, FanRag Sports, Cubs Den, the Chicago Tribune, and Ryan is also a  co-host on the BPWrigleycast podcast. The majority of his prospect coverage and video work will be based near his home in Springfield, Illinois in the Class A Midwest League.  You can also follow Ryan on Twitter at @RyanQDavis. – Mark Shreve

It’s been a tough last 12 months for St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Nick Plummer, but he’s finally in a place where he can start to show the organization what he’s all about.

The Cardinals selected Plummer, a left-handed hitter that’s listed at 5-foot-10 and weighing 200 pounds, with their first-round pick (#23 overall) and inked him to a $2.124 million signing bonus in the 2015 MLB Draft. At the time, Plummer was an 18-year-old coming out of Brother Rice High School (Bloomfield Hills, MI). Without tremendous power or blazing speed, the hope was that his muscular build would lend to strong gap power to go along with his excellent on-base skills as he rose through the minor leagues.

Playing in the Rookie Gulf Coast League after the draft, Plummer slashed .227/.379/.344 in 228 plate appearances with just one home run and 13 other extra-base hits. His bat was devoid of much pop, but he did post an eye-popping 17% walk rate for the year, and an almost unheard of 150-plus point delta between his average and on-base percentage.

The young man got his chance to go to spring training with the Cardinals in 2016, being called up from minor-league camp and going one-for-four in three games, and even getting a start for the big league club in center field. That experience left an impression on him, seeing the cohesiveness of the organization’s player development process from the stars in St. Louis at the top, all the down the line to the unproven draft picks, like himself, at the bottom.

In that game, Plummer had some memorable moments, including an RBI groundout and a nice diving catch in center field. He wasn’t the only one that was impressed by the experience in spring training. Many in camp were intrigued by the then-19-year-old kid, and not just for his obvious physical tools. That included Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

“They were impressed not just with the ability, but he had a bit of humility to him,” said Matheny. “He was excited about learning and taking in what they (veterans and coaches) were saying.”

“My first spring training we still had Matt (Holliday) (LF, Yankees),” said Plummer. “So I came down early for spring and kinda went under his wing. Him and (Matt) Carpenter (1B, Cardinals) helped me out a little bit. Just kinda being with those guys, especially when I got pulled up and got a start in right, those guys were really warming and they treated me like I was with them for years.”

Nick Plummer, CF, Cardinals

“One of the reasons we gave him this shot is how he’s handled himself. We’ve had some first-rounders walk in here and you never hear us talk about (their) humility.”

Despite a nice spring in 2016 and his willingness to listen and learn from those who play at the highest level, Plummer was dealt a bad break. He injured his right wrist and was placed on the disabled list on June 23, eventually ending up missing the entire season after needing surgery.

Having completed spring training healthy in 2017, Plummer was assigned to the Class A Peoria Chiefs in the Midwest League for his first full season of professional baseball. He’s still working on what’s most important: Getting on the field, staying healthy, and playing baseball.

But according to Chiefs manager Chris Swauger, that’s going to come with time.

“With him, (what) it all comes down to (is that) he needs at-bats,” said Swauger. “He’s missed out on almost a year and a half of live at-bats. I would say, the more I see is a guy that hasn’t played in a year.”

The wrist, itself, seems to be fully healed. But that type of surgery knows there are always adjustments to be made on the road to recovery, and it can sometimes play havoc on hitters’ attempts to find their groove again.

“It’s still getting there. It has its days, you know?” said Plummer. “One of the things I was concerned about was going from warm weather to cold weather. Those first couple of days, it was a little bit stiff. But now it feels really good, I’ve kinda got it acclimated and it feels good.”

Seeing Plummer play in the Chiefs’ home opener against the Burlington Bees (the Angels’ Midwest League affiliate), it was immediately obvious that he has missed some time. He was consistently late on fastballs in his at-bats, and was fooled so badly on one changeup that it looked like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where a character screws himself into the ground. But missing that amount of time will do that to a player’s rhythm at the plate, especially with it being so early in the season. (Video by Ryan Davis).

The major thing to like about Plummer’s game is his eye for the strike zone, and that stood out in a big way. He consistently laid off borderline pitches, a few of which appeared to be just a bit outside the zone, but that were called as strikes anyway. His discipline, and the ability to recognize pitches, shows an advanced approach that should allow him to continue seeing a big delta between his bating average and on-base percentage as his season progresses. (He’s been limited to just 15 at-bats this early in the season, and on April 14 was placed in the 7-day DL with an oblique strain.)

“The eye at the plate is something I’ve had, pretty much since I started playing,” he said. “I’m definitely trying to develop it now as I go up levels, and trying to not only take balls but pitches that (pitchers) miss, trying to hit them.”

Swauger has noticed the plate discipline in a short period of time, as well.

“He doesn’t go out of the zone, and also that’s something you can’t teach,” said Swauger. “That’s somewhat of a natural skill. I do think you can enhance it and get better at it, but just in general being able to recognize pitches out of the hand and being able to recognize balls and strikes early, that’s hard to train.”

In three plate appearances, Plummer had a hard single and two strikeouts—one swinging, one looking. But he saw at least six pitches each time that he struck out, and working deep into counts and waiting for his pitch to hit is something Plummer deeply values in his game. Strikeouts just don’t concern him much because he sees the merit of a long at-bat, regardless of the result.

“Really I don’t think about it,” he said. “Because I think that’s why you get three strikes, you know? You get three strikes so that you can get the first two and then you battle with two strikes. My approach has always been wait for a good pitch until you get down two strikes and then you just battle.”

“A lot of the times you’ll get knocks, and even if you don’t get a knock if you get a nine- or-10-pitch at-bat, that’s a win if the team can see those nine or 10 pitches.”

That approach, while impressive for a prospect that still has fewer than 300 plate appearances as a professional, shows something beyond what even Plummer realizes. He’s helping make his teammates better by letting them see more pitches. When Matheny talks about humility, this is the kind of thing he’s seeing. A team-first player. A player that knows his skills and how best to use them. Maturity in the face of adversity.

As far as actually being humble, sure, Plummer can do that, too. He’s as polite and understated as they come in the minor leagues, offering a firm handshake and minding his P’s and Q’s. But there’s nothing wrong with a little confidence, especially for a guy that missed an entire season of development to start his professional career. When asked about what he needs to work on to get to the next level, Plummer only offers a smile and a shrug.

“I’m feeling pretty confident about this year.”

Speaking to one National League scout on the topic of Plummer’s defense, it seems as though center field is the right spot for him defensively.

“Generally speaking, Plummer is a solid runner – maybe a tick-above-average speed – with a decent nose for the ball in the outfield. I’d say there is a good chance he sticks in center field long term, which is where the Cardinals have played him, and probably where the bat best fits. He’s a heady player, overall, with a solid feel for the game.”

He may not post a high batting average, and the strikeouts will pile up, but it’s hard not to feel confident for Plummer, as well. He will be 21 years old in July. Losing a year of action put him behind in his development, so expect that the Cardinals will be aggressive with a promotion as soon as he appears ready. Assuming Plummer can avoid any more injuries, his advanced approach and high on-base percentage should help him move out of Peoria and to High A Palm Beach down in the Florida State League in short order.

But before any of that can happen, he needs to stay healthy, get his at-bats, and show the Cardinals what he can do. A full season of health and productivity should go a long way towards giving the club some confidence that he was worthy of the high pick.