July 7, 2010

Evan Meek's Improbable Career

PITTSBURGH, Pa. / July 7, 2010

Evan Meek has surprised many around baseball with his lights out season this year. For a guy who is still young, Evan has taken one of the strangest imaginable paths to stardom.

In 2002, Evan was drafted by the Twins in the 11th round out of Bellevue Community College. At that school which has produced one other MLB player in its history, Evan won zero awards. At the time he threw a 90 mph fastball and had no secondary pitch.

Signed nearly a year later as a draft and follow prospect, Meek went to Minnesota's Elizabethton rookie league team in the summer of '03. He was already old for the league at 20, but went 7-1 with a 2.47 ERA. Little did he know that his next good year would be in 2009.

The Meltdown
Meek was promoted to the single A Midwest League in 2004 and completely fell apart. In three starts he lasted a total of 5.2 innings and walked 15, hit two and threw four wild pitches. Clearly this was a case of Rick Ankiel disease. The Twins placed him on the disabled list, then returned him to Elizabethton in the second half of the season. There he walked 25, hit eight batters and threw 11 wild pitches in 22 innings.

Somewhat unbelievably, Meek remained in the Twins organization for 2005. Returning to full season A ball, in 18 innings he walked 36, hit two batters and threw eight wild pitches. Minnesota released him in June and he didn't catch on with another team for the rest of the year. Evan's career looked over at age 22.

"The lowest point of all this was not being able to get out of the second inning of a game and not being able to figure out what was wrong," Meek said after his release.

A Slow Recovery
After his summer off, Meek went to a Padres tryout camp in Arizona. The Padres signed him for $1 with a $1,500 bonus if he made a minor league team out of the next spring training. He could be forgiven if at that point he forgot that baseball is a big money sport.

Meek made the Padres' advanced A Lake Elsinore team to claim his $1,500. His control was better but he still walked 4.7 per nine innings. He also gave up more than ten hits per nine innings. The Padres traded him to Tampa Bay who moved him to relief. Overall he went 6-7 with a 5.14 ERA - an inauspicious comeback season. But his fastball was now reliably at 95 mph and hitting 97 at times, the same speed he throws today.

Tampa Bay promoted Meek to their AA Montgomery team for 2007. Again old for his league at 24, he had another middling season with a 4.30 ERA and more than a walk every two innings. He had the hard fastball and was striking out a batter an inning, but was still getting hit hard with 9.9 hits per nine innings.

Pittsburgh Bound
Tampa's fatal mistake was sending Evan Meek to their Arizona Fall League team that fall, despite his eligibility for the Rule V draft. For the first time since his 2004-05 implosion, Evan showed his unhittable form with only three hits allowed in nine appearances. The Pirates took him in that year's Rule V.

For the '08 Pirates, Meek appeared to implode again, walking 12 with three wild pitches in nine appearances. Not wanting that juggernaut to be dragged down by a poor relief pitcher, the Pirates offered him back to Tampa who accepted (undoubtedly small) cash considerations rather than taking him back. So the Pirates sent him to the minors. At the time a Pittsburgh sports blog speculated that they would have taken a slice of cheese pizza for the control-challenged pitcher. Not even a one-topping slice!

The Rest Is History
That demotion turned out to be Evan Meek's big break. He's pitched great ever since.

For the rest of 2008 Evan had a 2.51 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in Altoona and Indianapolis. More importantly he walked only 2.7 batters per nine, by far the lowest total of his career.

Last year, Evan had a 1.04 ERA in six appearances at Indy. Promoted to the Pirates, he went 1-1 with a 3.45 ERA in 41 games and became a key back end reliever for John Russell in the second half of the year. And of course this year, Meek has been the league's top set-up man with a microscopic 0.96 ERA. He's walked 11 men in 47 innings - not bad for a guy who walked 76 in 46 innings in 2004-05.

It's one of the better climbs from obscurity to All-Stardom ever, and one that's even more improbable when you consider that he did this before 2009 and therefore without the benefit of being inspired by Miley Cyrus's "The Climb."


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