AKRON Finding the hottest bat in the lineup in recent weeks for the Akron RubberDucks hasn’t been difficult.
Since returning from the disabled list on May 9, catcher Francisco Mejia has been red hot at the plate, raising his average to a team-best .346 and showing that he is making good on his ambitions to be a well-rounded catcher who earns playing time with both his bat and his glove.
“I want do do both, but I want to be a good defensive player. Catchers need good defense and relationships with the pitchers … catchers control the game and everyone looks at me, my body language and how I play, so when I hit, it’s just hitting, but when it’s catching, it’s different,” Mejia said.
Hitting at Canal Park isn’t the easiest endeavor for many batters, as its spacious confines make hitting for power more difficult and place a premium on batters who can lace line drives into the gaps and run well.
Mejia, a 21-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, has displayed a consistent bat during his five seasons with the Cleveland Indians organization. He’s a career .298 hitter in the minors and perhaps in the best twist for a batter playing in Akron for the first time, he’s not a home run hitter. With 33 long balls in his five seasons in the minors, he has some pop, but has shown the most proficiency getting doubles and triples and hitting line drives. He has enjoyed a power surge of late, with a pair of two-home run games in the past week, lifting his total to a team-high seven long balls through early June.
Not every batter likes the Canal Park experience, but Mejia doesn’t mind.
“It can be hard, but I feel great … it’s a good stadium for hitting, it’s not like we can hit a lot of home runs, but we can hit a lot of line drives here,” he said. “I was feeling good coming in at the start of the season), just getting in early to the stadium and using the routine I had last year, working with bench coach (Omir) Santos.”
Another aspect of playing in Akron is dealing with cold weather conditions, especially during the first month of the season. April often brings winter temperatures and occasionally even snow to the ballpark and for a player who grew up in the town of Baní, the capital of Peravia Province, Dominican Republic, where the average temperature is 86 degrees, a winter mix of rain and snow and 37-degree temperatures for a game or practice is a marked change to endure.
The good news for Mejia is that he played the previous three seasons at Class-A Lynchburg, Lake County and Mahoning Valley, all of which are no strangers to chilly weather.
“I’ve been here in this weather for three years, so my first year it was not so good because I hadn’t played in the cold, but after last year, you have to understand that’s how you play baseball, be more serious. For me, it’s coming early to the stadium and getting warmed up and in the game, making yourself focus,” Mejia said. “It’s hard to throw, but we have to throw the ball no mater if it’s cold, hot or rainy, we have to make good throws.”
Hailing from the Dominican Republic also means having plenty of great players to look up to, including Hall of Famers and current Major League Baseball stars. According to Mejia, he’s had chances to play alongside some of those players back in the Dominican and talk to them about what it takes to make it to the majors.
Their words have had an impact, as have those of his coaches, who have worked with him to develop his game both at the plate and behind it, as well as his attitude and demeanor on the field.
Mejia admitted that in the past, he hasn’t had the best on-field demeanor and as the catcher, that sort of negative energy can have a ripple effect across the rest of the field.
“My body language is very important for me because I was putting my head down,” he said. “I want to try to be the best player on the field. I want to work with the starting pitchers, relievers … the whole pitching staff. I want to learn about calling the game.”
Developing as an all-around player a surefire way for a catcher to prove his value to the organization, as the lifespan of most players who make a living behind the plate isn’t long. Former catchers such as current Indians first baseman and designated hitter Carlos Santana and longtime Minnesota Twins star Joe Mauer began their careers catching, but were eventually shifted to first base and DH to prolong their playing days by reducing the pounding they take from standing and squatting dozens of times a game, taking numerous foul balls off various parts of their bodies and colliding with runners at home plate.
Mejia’s aim is to make a name for himself as a catcher and earn his way to the majors playing his chosen position, but wielding a hot bat as he has for the past month would certainly help his case.
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