By Rob Rains
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Although neither of them realized it at the time, the cancelation of the minor league season in 2020 might have been the best thing that could have happened for Nick Plummer and Delvin Perez.
With no games to play, and no organized team activities to fill their days, the two former first-round draft picks of the Cardinals had to decide what to do with all of the time they suddenly had on their hands.
For Plummer, it was an easy decision. Already invested in re-vamping his swing based on the advice of the organization’s hitting instructors following the 2019 season, he used his time to do just that.
Surrounded by friends who found themselves in the same situation near his Detroit home, Plummer became part of a group that worked out and trained together. Without the pressure that comes from having your work measured by seeing results in a box score, he was able to work toward his goal.
“I could just be out there with my buddies without a stat line if I wanted to try something,” Plummer said. “We had live at-bats every Saturday and I could test it and work on it during the week and then see how it felt. It definitely worked out for the better, but it’s good to be back playing now.”
For Perez, tired of hitting too many weak ground balls, the decision about what to do when last season was canceled was to spend the majority of his time in 2020 in the weight room and training room, adding weight and getting significantly stronger. The change was obvious when he reported to spring training, having gained about 20 pounds.
“When they canceled the season I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ Perez said. “Later I started thinking that this is a perfect time to go to the gym and gain some weight and get ready for the next season. I was focused on gaining weight and getting stronger.”
Both Plummer, the Cardinals’ top draft pick in 2015, and Perez, chosen first in the draft the following year, already have seen the results of all of the time and work they put into getting better last summer.
The Cardinals can see it too, one of the reasons both received the challenging assignment of beginning this season at Double A Springfield.
“Both players worked extremely hard at their conditioning, prepared to come to spring training ready to play,” said Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development. “They made good use of their time while they were away. This was a good opportunity for both players to step in to that level.”
When Perez was last on the field, he was at low Class A Peoria in 2019. Plummer was at high A Palm Beach, but neither had the kind of success that guaranteed them a promotion to what is generally considered the make-or-break level of the minor leagues.
In his first four years in the Cardinals’ farm system, Perez had a combined .252 average in 978 at-bats, almost half of which had come at the short-season levels. He hit .269 in 118 games at Peoria in 2019, his best season since his rookie-level .294 performance in the Gulf Coast League in 2015.
Plummer, who already had missed one full season in 2016 after an injury to his right wrist and hand, had a combined .199 average in more than 1,000 at-bats in his four minor-league seasons. Knowing he will turn 25 this summer, Plummer was happy to make the changes the Cardinals’ staff suggested with his swing.
What they recommended was to change his swing plane, to try to minimize the movement of his head and body, and find a way to limit his swings and misses in the strike zone. They looked at the data of what he did well – pitch recognition and plate discipline – and added that to the goal of hitting the ball harder and cutting down on his strikeouts.
“I just took it and ran with it.” Plummer said. “I think it gives me a better shot at hitting a lot of balls hard. So far in the minors I’ve been able to see and recognize pitches in the zone but most of the time I didn’t feel like my body was in a good position to put a really good swing on the ball.
“We have tried to minimize movement, and I am feeling a lot more confident that when I do fire the bat and make contact on a good swing, I’m going to put a hard barrel on the ball.”
After working all summer on the changes, Plummer spent January and early February working at the Cardinals new hitting lab at their spring training complex in Jupiter. That allowed him to collect even more data that measured how he was progressing and offered more confidence that the changes would produce results when the games began.
“They’ve got all the high-tech stuff like the sensors and movement screening,” Plummer said. “You can make the machine work harder than what you are going to see (in a game) so a slider at 88 doesn’t seem like anything. I’ve really seen a benefit from it.”
Three weeks into the season, Plummer finds himself with a .313 average, two homers and more excitement than ever about his future. Plummer’s average has dropped below .300 for only one day so far this season.
Perez is experiencing the same level of excitement about his future. His two-hit day on Sunday raised his average to .274. It was his third multi-hit game in his last four games.
“So far I feel pretty good at the plate,” Perez said. “I just want to keep going and try to be better every day.”
Even though they have not been on the same team before during their years in the organization, Plummer and Perez have seen each other often in spring training, instructional league workouts and hitting camps. Now that they are teammates, Plummer already has seen the changes in Perez’s game.
“The thing I have seen other than from a physical standpoint is he has really matured,” Plummer said. “He’s always had fun with the game but you can tell his overall approach is about going about his business the right way.”
The status as first-round draft picks earned both Plummer and Perez high prospect rankings as they entered the organization, but the results on the field have not been what they, nor the organization, would have liked. Both got older, moving out of their teens and into their early 20s. The prospect status started to fade, and their place on the Cardinals’ radar was not as clear either.
Then came the pandemic, and the changes that have helped both Plummer and Perez begin to regain a little of their missing luster. Each knows how important this year will be in their careers, how important success at the Double A level is for any player wanting to stay on track, or get back on it, on the road to the major leagues.
Both also know that without the changes that they have made, there had to be doubts about whether either would ever be able to achieve their goal.
“I’ve had a lot of good hitting coaches throughout my career and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, but when they invited me to that hitting camp after the 2019 season they kind of put it to me point blank that, ‘This is what we see a lot of good big leaguers do and good minor league guys coming up who are having success’ and they said, ‘Take it and run with it,’” Plummer said.
He has done that, and both he and Perez also realize from not being able to play last season, how much they enjoy being back on the field. Having the early success each is having only adds to their enjoyment level.
“Having that year off you realize all of the small things, the details of the game that you missed,” Plummer said. “The fan interaction, being in the clubhouse with the guys, road trips, hotels, being able to play the game you love every day. I use that to try to motivate myself. If I was not doing enough before, keep doing more.
“I have had some really good competitive at-bats and I am not giving away at-bats. Going out and playing is just fun, that’s the biggest thing I took away from the year off – just how much fun playing this game really is. … I want to continue to grow and keep learning. I want to use all of the information I have accumulated and experience to try to better myself every day.”
That’s the kind of attitude LaRocque wants to see in all the organization’s minor-league players.
“In reality every year is a new year with new challenges,” LaRocque said. “I’ve said to many a player whatever level you are at is where you want to make sure you have a good year. Everything else will take care of itself.
“Both of them (Plummer and Perez) have been here for a while, but they are still young. If they are competing well, then what you find is that they are right on track really. Sometimes it just takes a little extra time.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Springfield Cardinals