In December of 2016 the Cincinnati Reds selected catcher Luis Torrens in the Rule 5 draft. They immediately traded him to the San Diego Padres for a player to be named later. The next day that player was announced and Josh VanMeter joined the Cincinnati Reds organization. He was assigned to Double-A Pensacola for that 2017 season.
The then 22-year-old hit .255/.326/.352 for the Blue Wahoos. As a left-handed hitter in a ballpark that punishes any baseball hit to right field, his power didn’t show up. But it wasn’t showing up on the road, either, where he slugged just .323 with one home run. He did hit 29 doubles during the season, but overall there wasn’t much power to see.
The Reds sent VanMeter back to Double-A Pensacola to begin the 2018 season. Things went quite a bit better in his return. A month into the year he was hitting .284/.420/.421 and that earned him a promotion to Triple-A. Overall things slowed down with the Bats in Louisville the rest of the season. His average was just .253, and his on-base percentage dropped to .309. But he started showing power that he hadn’t really shown before outside of the extremely hitter friendly California League. In 98 games in Triple-A he slugged .464 with 25 doubles, 6 triples, and 11 home runs. That gave him an isolated power number of .211.
This season things have gone from a big step forward in power to an enormous step forward nearly across the board. Last night Josh VanMeter took things to another level, hitting three home runs against Toledo. That gave him 11 on the season – easily the top mark in the International League. Adam Duvall, yes – the same one, is second in the league with 8.
The question of “where did this power come from” is a good one. Josh VanMeter slugged .357 in his career prior to the 2018 season. Then he slugged .454. And after last night he’s slugging an absurd .783 to in April of 2019.
The first thing that jumps to mind is that the baseball being used in Triple-A is making everyone a power hitter this season. And that isn’t exactly incorrect. Both the International League and Pacific Coast League are using the Major League Baseball this season for the first time. The baseball is different from the Minor League baseballs. Baseball America touched on in earlier this month, but basically it’s this: The baseball is flying out at record shattering rates. If the pace in April holds up there will be more than 1200 more home runs than were hit in Triple-A last season.
Does that apply to Josh VanMeter? Yeah, it probably does. Slightly. He’s hit 11 home runs this season. Just how much is the new baseball adding compared to last season? That’s tough to say, honestly. There’s not an exact “the new baseball is adding x number of feet to batted balls” formula. But we can look at his 11 home runs he’s hit this season, too.
There are maybe two home runs out of his eleven that could even remotely be considered “wall scrapers”. One of them went 400+ feet to dead center. The other one was last night in Toledo. He hasn’t been hitting “cheap” home runs this season.
“There is a difference (in the baseball). I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a difference. I think it makes the game more true. When you get a ball you should be rewarded for it. The ball I hit last night, I hit it really well and to me it would be a crap shoot if it was caught on the track (the ball went 415 feet to center for a home run). They’re using them at the top, why not use them in Triple-A? It evens out on both sides. I think it’s good for pitchers who are going up and down because I don’t think they should have to switch baseballs going up and down. I think it’s been a good change, but I do think there’s a difference on the offensive side.”
The baseball has changed. But so has Josh VanMeter. Looking at his batted ball profile over the years he went from a hitter who used to hit plenty of ground balls to a hitter who has hit a ton of fly balls. And that change has come since his arrival in Triple-A. Before reaching Triple-A his ground ball rate was 43%. Since reaching Triple-A it’s dropped to 34.7%, and this season it’s even lower – 31.5%.
“I really made a conscious effort to really get the ball in the air. There’s kind of that philosophy in baseball and in the hitting world, and for me it was just giving myself the best chance to be successful. I’m not a speed guy, so hitting the ball on the ground isn’t going to work for me. In the second half last year I made a couple of mechanical adjustments to get the ball in the air and maximize my swing. I’ve continued to work on it through the offseason and in the spring and it’s been working really well for me,” VanMeter said on Friday afternoon in Louisville before hitting two home runs that day.
Working out well it has been. Going back to August of 2018, he’s played in 56 games for Louisville. In that span he’s hit .346/.421/.702 across 236 plate appearances. He’s done so with 19 doubles, 3 triples, 16 home runs, 26 walks, and just 40 strikeouts.
“He’s always had great plate discipline. He doesn’t swing at many bad pitches. Bull’s (hitting coach Leon “Bull” Durham”) being more aggressive early in the count,” Bats manager Jody Davis said of VanMeter. “A lot of times early in the count he would take balls he could hit hard and now he’s being aggressive and he’s having fun, he’s relaxed and he’s in one of those things where it’s working out and it’s fun to watch.”
The 24-year-old didn’t enter the year on any of the top prospect lists for the Cincinnati Reds. He wasn’t on my Top 25 list. He wasn’t on the Baseball America Top 30 list (nor was he listed on their depth chart). Josh VanMeter wasn’t listed in the Fangraphs Top 31 list. He’s flown under the radar a bit. Part of that has to be due to what happened prior to 2018. And while there were steps forward in 2018, he started and finished strong, but struggled in the middle of that season.
But when we look at what he’s done since the start of August, which is almost half of an entire season with 236 plate appearances, he’s doing something very different. He’s become a different hitter. A very different hitter. The scouting report for Josh VanMeter has changed.
He’s not on the Cincinnati Reds 40-man roster. And with a 4-man bench thanks to an oversized bullpen, it’s tough to fit someone on the bench. But for Josh VanMeter, he very well could be just the type of guy who could force his way to Cincinnati in a super-utility role in the short term and push for a starting job, potentially, in the long term.
This season in Louisville he’s played first base, second base, and third base. Last year between Pensacola and Louisville he played those positions, as well as shortstop, left field, and right field. He’s not going to be a Major League shortstop – but in a pinch he can cover you there. And he’s not going to cover you in center field. But everywhere else on the field outside of catcher, he’s capable of filling in.
When asked about where he was both most comfortable defensively, VanMeter said, “I’d probably say second base just because that’s where I’ve gotten the most reps in professional baseball. If you can play in the middle of the diamond on the infield, you can play just about anywhere. For me, it’s just taking reps everywhere and giving myself the chance to be in the lineup every day by playing multiple positions. So it’s really been a good asset to my career to be able to do that,”
That was followed up by asking about where he was perhaps the least comfortable on the field, or maybe where he felt he needed to get more reps in. “Definitely in the outfield. Going from the dirt to the grass is a lot harder than people think, especially the corners. The corners are tough. I haven’t played out there much this year, but just continue to get work in and try to nail those down. My goal is to get to the big leagues. Whether that’s playing left field, first base, second base, third base, right field – whatever it is, I want to be able to do it. But left field is definitely the hardest spot for me.”
For the time being, Josh VanMeter is going to be playing with the Louisville Bats. But if he continues to tear the cover off of the ball like he has over the last 236 plate appearances dating back to 2018 it’s going to be impossible to justify keeping him in the minors. And with his position flexibility he can fit in just about anywhere, too.