Name: Matt Antonelli
DOB: April 8, 1985
Selected in the first-round in 2006, Antonelli was sent to short-season Eugene for his professional debut. Playing third base, Antonelli hit .286 across 55 games with 13 extra-base hits, 22 RBI and 38 runs scored – adding nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. He also drew 46 walks compared to 31 strikeouts for a .426 on-base percentage. He was moved up to Fort Wayne for five games to end the year, going 2-for-16.
Antonelli moved to second base to begin the 2007 campaign. Starting the year in High-A, Antonelli hit .314 across 82 games with Lake Elsinore. He notched 32 extra-base hits, including 14 homers, while driving in 54 and scoring 89 times – swiping 18 bases in 24 attempts. He also drew 53 walks compared to 58 strikeouts for a .409 on-base percentage.
He was promoted to San Antonio in the second half, hitting .294 with 19 extra-base hits, including seven bombs, across 49 games. He added 34 more runs scored and 24 RBI while stealing 10 bases in 13 attempts. Antonelli also drew 30 walks compared to 36 strikeouts for a .395 on-base percentage.
Moved to Triple-A to begin the 2008 season, Antonelli had two doubles, two triples and two homers over his first eight games and seemed to be on target for another solid year. Things did not go as planned, however, as the right-handed hitter saw his average fall under .200 on April 30 – starting a string of 87 consecutive games where his average was under .200.
Until August, when he hit .290, his average for any month was never above .216. He ended the season with a .215 mark, hitting 30 extra base hits – including seven homers, four of which came in the final month, and 39 RBIs. Antonelli did score 62 runs – thanks in part to his 76 walks, which led to a .335 on-base percentage.
The right-handed hitter batted .155 off left-handed pitching and .229 off righties. He also hit .189 with runners in scoring position and managed to steal just six bags in 10 attempts.
A September call-up to San Diego resulted in a .193 average across 21 games and 57 at-bats. He had just one hit in his first 21 at-bats before setting in and hitting .278 the rest of the way.
Antonelli returned to Portland in 2009. Unfortunately, the right-handed hitter suffered the same fate as the season before. Rehabbing a knee injury during the first month of the season didn't help.
He only had three days where he was hitting above .200 and the first two days of the season accounted for 67 percent of that total. July 17 was the only other day he caressed .200. That was short-lived.
He wound up hitting .196 for the season, playing in just 59 games. Antonelli netted 17 extra-base hits – accounting for 46 percent of his hits total. He drove in 22 and scored 25 runs. The Wake Forest alumnus also netted a 26-to-30 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
"It has been a major disappointment that Matt has had the struggles for (two years)," former vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "I can go on record as saying I don't know if I have ever seen a player with his skill set perform like he did in most of the lower levels struggle for as long as he had at the higher levels.
"Does that mean I have lost faith? No. I still know what he brings to the table – his character, his work ethic. Obviously, he is not on the path I thought he would be on but that happens a lot in this game too. I can't hit for him and no one can. He has to be the guy that figures this thing out."
"I hope that he does because Matt, that kid, works really hard, and it's just a mystery to myself, I'm sure to him, talking to him, something just hasn't quite clicked," former Portland and current San Antonio hitting coach Max Venable said. "And when it did it was like, ‘Oh yes, all right he's coming out of it,' and kind of reverted back to bad habits and not actually not being consistent. For whatever reason it did not come out. I don't know if it was something mentally. Honestly, physically, with his stroke, it just didn't work. It just didn't happen. For what reason? I have no idea. It was just a total mystery."
Pushed and pulled in so many different directions, Antonelli had no idea which way was up. He was given a chance to come out of a funk on his own, given instruction from one coach, gained insight from everyone, went back to a college stance and feel – nothing worked.
"He worked hard, we tried a lot of different things; hands on with everybody and myself, Randy Ready, Tony Muser," Venable said. "I think not this year, but last year, I know that he was just way in over his head with people giving advice. His father has a history with him during his high school and college. So there are a lot of people putting their hands on Antonelli. I don't know what happened there.
The Padres shut him down with three weeks to go in the season to clean up his mechanics in a non-stressful environment. In essence, every other change had been on the fly without time to settle into some sort of routine. The hope was giving him specific time with hitting coordinator Tony Muser would help him out of his prolonged funk.
"We had a good 13-day session down here and I guess you'd say in the business to rebuild a swing," Muser said. "It's not rebuilding a swing, it's rebuilding the approach. Matt had such great success and a very quick success rate and jumped to Double-A. A lot of baseball people say success in Double-A, the jump to the big leagues is pretty quick. There's more kids jumping from Double-A to the big leagues now more than ever. That success was real quick.
"He didn't know how he did it. He just went up there and did it, and all of a sudden a bad year jumped on him and his confidence level dropped. For me, a lot of it is approach. A lot of it is mechanics. But, to me, the damage that was done of not being successful really hurt him.
"The two weeks that we were together were great. He'll be back down and we're going to pick up where we left off. But the mental side of the success, he has got to start getting into a real good competitive mode. He hasn't handled the lack of success. It's been tough on him. It's hard to go up there. "When we talk about short history, his short history is two years of failure now, and he's got to get tougher in his approach. His approach to where he strikes a baseball has got to get to the middle of the field and to right center field with aggressiveness.
"We've tried to approach this mechanical built-in pull, hook, all the things he's tried to do himself. We've left him alone, and we've engaged him with lots of people going to him to try to help him. He's had a lot on his mind. So this new approach with the baseball engaging to center and right center field, staying out of the air to right center, line drive approach, every single at-bat."
He has widened his base to give him more control over his swing and has employed a center to left-center approach. The main focus has been to keep his hands inside of the baseball. By keeping his hands inside the ball, he is able to hit the inside pitch and extend for the outside pitch. The stance change was made to keep him from landing on his front foot too early, giving up on an off-speed pitch.
Antonelli's swing plane is not as level as in the past. He has a slight uppercut to it, which takes his bat out of the hitting zone early. It used to be more level, providing him with maximum time in the hitting zone. A level swing with loft at the end would create more backspin to provide the damage he is capable of igniting.
One thing that will have to improve is his head movement. His head does not stay square to the ball and pulls his body in different directions. It drops down towards the plate, pulling his upper half down and sending him off-balance. That saps his strength and hard contact ability. His biggest problem has been weak contact rather than simply striking out. So, he is getting bat to ball but not with the authority he needs.
Patience is something that has never changed with Antonelli. The Massachusetts native has a keen eye for the strike zone and has fast-twitching muscles that can react late – allowing him to sit back on the breaking ball. When he was leaking forward, he had a much tougher time waiting for his pitch since he had committed early. He isn't afraid to hit with two strikes and can work counts back into his favor by fouling off tough pitches.
In his heyday, Antonelli showed power and hard contact rates that produced a high average. He still has the capacity to bring all of those traits back to the forefront. As a patient hitter, Antonelli was able to strike pitches that were in his favored zone. As he became more and more out of tune with his mechanics, his strike zone expanded.
"I'm hoping that there's some success in there in getting away from homers," Muser said. "Home runs have to get out of his mind right now. They have to happen naturally. Because if there was panic in him, that he cheated to the fastball, he developed a spin, rotational approach to the baseball and basically lost what he had.
"It was naïve-ness to the failure to it. He really had no place to go to get back on track. So there was a ton of work, a ton of talking and I'm hoping that there's some success that happens where he can get some crappy hits to the right side of the field to keep him going, to keep the numbers up, to get his confidence back up, and then just let it take it's course and go from there. Great kid, tremendous kid, but it's hard to work and go out there every day when you haven't had any success and you have no place to go. No place to regroup, you've got no plan to regroup, and that's what we're doing. We're trying to regroup."
"I have all the faith in the world in Matt," Venable said. "A mentally tough kid. I'm sure he's going to come out of whatever the problem is. He definitely has the tools, ability, and the mental toughness to come out of it."
He is an above-average runner that has enough speed to be a stolen base threat. That part of his game has been on hiatus while he has figured out how to reach base at a higher clip. If things click offensively, he can again make noise on the base paths.
Antonelli has made strides defensively, improving in all facets of the keystone. He turns double plays with ease, has shortened up his hand to glove exchange, and has improved his movements to all sides. At one time, insiders were unsure but he has quelled those doubts.
"Defensively, I am real happy where he is at," roving infield defense coordinator Gary Jones said. "He's improved his range and lateral movement to both sides. His footwork around the bag, specifically his pivot on the double play. He's put his hands closer together to release the ball quicker and Randy Ready was very pleased with what he was doing defensively as well."
A heady player that remains committed to winning and his own development, Antonelli is not one to give up easily. His character was one of the reasons he was thought of so fondly and remains a character strength today. His unwavering commitment has those around him cheering for a return to form.
"He is on track from a defensive standpoint but it's just a matter of getting his confidence back offensively," Jones said. "Once he does that, I think he has a chance to be the player we saw a couple of years ago. I like to tell people that sometimes when young kids struggle at different levels that sometimes we put unfair expectations and timelines on them. Their timetable may not be what we think it should be. It may take someone six years, instead of four.
"If you think back at his career since he's been a professional he got to Triple-A level pretty quick. I think his situation with Anto, a situation where you take a kid where he's always had success and he's never struggled. When we signed him, he went from Lake Elsinore to Double-A and he played Double-A half the year, and then he was in the Triple-A next year. So, he basically got to Triple-A within two years after he was signed.
"I just think if the situation where he kind of got in a little bit of a funk. He had never done it and it had never happened to him before. It was tough for him to figure out what he needed to do to get out of it. I still believe in him. I still think he has a chance to be a major league player; there's no doubt in my mind."
"There's a ton of pressure on him," Muser said. "When you're a number one pick and you fail, the whole world starts to sit right on your shoulders. When he lowers the expectations of home runs and RBI, shrinks that expectation, gets back to a line drive thinking hitter; hard ground balls, line drives up the middle and lives in right center field, and can cover the ball away from him, because he got into it too. You get to Triple-A, it's just like (Chad) Huffman. Fastball counts, trip, and it got him. So his approach and history of understanding what guys are trying to do to him and take what they give you and create some success from that, good things can happen. Confidence starts to build. That's where we're trying to get him."
Conclusion: If Antonelli can close the gap on what he used to be, he has the skill set to be a major league player with a high on-base percentage. There were a lot of flaws to his game that need to be ironed out and tackling one at a time seems the best approach. An overhauled swing that breeds consistency will go a long way towards redefining who Antonelli is. Make no mistake – this is a new era for the second baseman. With others closing the gap, determining just who he is again will be paramount. Many remain in his camp and will give him the leeway to adjust. Adjusting is what is necessary. If not, it will be a disappointment of grand proportions.
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