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. He
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.
The 23-year-old was moved up 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.
No one could pinpoint the problem and come up with an easy fix.
"If I was that smart, I would have figured that out a long time ago," Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. "With any other kid, it would have broken his spirit, but Matt actually came out ok. He started off slow and then really began to put too much pressure on himself, and it came back to bit him in the butt. Things just started to go awry, and he became stiff and rigid with his load and timing. The whole process began to be trying to get Humpty Dumpty back together again."
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 approach was consistent," Padres director of minor league operations Mike Wickham said. "He still walked; I think that he pressed mechanically. He pushed a little bit. His balance, his approach – he was in and out of the zone too quickly with the bat. A few different things started to unravel because of the struggles of the year but I think you throw out last season."
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.
"If I could pinpoint that I would have fixed that," Portland hitting coach Max Venable said of Antonelli's struggles against left-handers. "I don't know. I think whatever his numbers were they weren't very good against lefties. I'm not sure if it had to do with just the ball coming from the other side of the mound or what have you, just some lefties being a little softer and really hard for him to stay back, I have no idea, he just didn't perform well against left-handers."
"For Antonelli, I'm sure it's a season, or year, that he'd rather forget about. He really came on strong, the last month or so he did really well, just kind of came back to the old Antonelli if you'll recall from last year to Lake Elsinore and then going to San Antonio. I have no explanation why he struggled against left-handers at all. I wish I could give you an answer. But, it's why lefties, some left-handers struggle against left-handed pitchers I guess. You don't see them that much. I guess they're more apt to have better swings against right-handers. I have no idea. I wish I had the answer for you."
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.
"He started to put it together in the last month, and we brought him up," Fuson said. "He's done some positive things but also had some tough at-bats and knows he has to get some things cleaned up in his swing. In the off-season, his first priority was to get some rest, and then we got him on a program where he is moving in the right direction."
The 17th overall selection struggled with his hitting mechanics all year. He was out on his front foot a lot and wasn't allowing balls to travel deep before committing. Because he has excellent hand-eye coordination, Antonelli was putting the bat to the ball – often resulting in weak ground ball outs.
Because his balance was off-center, Antonelli could not put any mustard into his swing. To compensate, the second baseman would allow his hands to drop and lose his separation – where his body was moving forward before it was time. Because his momentum was shifting forward, he would have to begin the swing early to compensate at half the power – as he essentially cut off his lower half from contributing.
Never knowing failure before, Antonelli began to put undo pressure on himself to perform. That pressure became a burning inferno, as attempts were made to fix the mechanical flaws.
Despite all the troubles, Antonelli never stopped working or battling. He was able to maintain a consistent eye that led to a high walk tally. And he continually tinkered with his swing to find that stroke from 2007.
"I think it was just Matt's concentration," Portland manager Randy Ready said. "I think that his focus was just a little better at the end. And, he had struggled with his mechanics all year, his approach, balance, stride; it's been a handful of things. But I think that just the concentration – I don't think it's where he needs to be or where he wants to be. But it was definitely improved."
While the pressure was a new experience, the Wake Forest alumnus never got down on himself and maintained a healthy attitude. His makeup was one of the reasons the Padres thought so highly of him coming out of college.
Gap power is his game and he profiles as a top of the order hitter that can do a lot of things well. He executes the hit-and-run, sees a lot of pitches and puts the bat to ball.
Antonelli has solid speed and should be able to take 15-20 bases a year based on smarts and athleticism. Because he was not getting on base consistently with the bat, his confidence in the running game was down. He needs to improve his first-step quickness but is very good at reading a pitcher.
The Massachusetts native has improved defensively to a point where he has stabilized the keystone. Early in the year, he was fielding balls behind him – causing his balance to be off and resulting in errant throws. His approach calmed down significantly as the season progressed, and he was fielding balls in front with time to spare. Antonelli still needs work on turning the double play and making a consistent turn after securing the ball.
"You come into camp and it is a new year," Wickham said. "He has to rebound from that and show us he has what we thought he had. He has the athleticism. He has the plate discipline. He has the makeup. I am going to roll the dice with that anytime. I would not count against him. Outstanding makeup – and he has the ability. I am going to say it will work."
Conclusion: Antonelli's game took a hit in 2008 but the patient approach says he can turn it around quickly. If he was wildly flailing at balls outside of the zone, he would have a tougher time regaining his form. Instead, it points to mechanical flaws that can be corrected.
Antonelli never experienced failure. He was whisked quickly through the system. It is in everyone's best interest that it occurred now. He will have a strong idea of how to fix it should these issues creep up again. Seeing him rebound in '09 won't be a surprise.
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