RC's top 10 first half performances: #7
If two years ago you had told High Desert's Mike Stodolka that he'd represent the California League in the 2006 Carolina/California League All-Star Game Home Run Derby, he would have probably looked at you as though you were crazy. Of course, that's precisely what happened, and Stodolka's participation in the All-Star festivities last week in Salem, VA, capped what was perhaps the most surprising first half among any player in the Royals' minor league system.
Stodolka, as you'll remember, was drafted by the Royals with the fourth overall selection in the first round of the 2000 draft. As a standout left-handed pitcher for Centennial High School in California, Stodolka's future appeared to be on the mound, and that's where he spent the first six years of his professional career. To call his pitching career a disappointment would be an understatement – Baseball America put in more bluntly in 2004 when they labeled Stodolka as the biggest bust of any player taken fourth overall in the history of the draft. He stumbled through his first two years in full-season ball (both with Burlington in the Midwest League) before suffering an injury in 2003 that required Tommy John surgery. He came back and regained most of his velocity, but after Stodolka put up a 4-11 record with a 5.92 ERA last season for Wichita, the Royals decided to try something drastic.
The club had Stodolka take some swings in the instructional league last fall, and they put a first baseman's mitt on his hand. Stodolka was an excellent hitter in high school, and if he hadn't also been such a standout pitcher, some scouts believe his bat alone would have warranted selection in the first three rounds of the 2000 draft. Still, five years had elapsed since he last swung a bat in anger, so expectations couldn't have been too high. However, Stodolka showed the Royals enough in instructs that they decided to have him scrap pitching altogether, and they told him he would report to spring training this year as a first baseman. Stodolka worked on getting his stroke back during the winter, and he was assigned to Class-A High Desert out of spring training.
It was a move that pitchers in the California League would live to regret, as the 24-year-old Stodolka torched his way through April with a line of .339/.419/.613 with 14 extra-base hits in 62 at bats, and he followed that up with a .284/.418/.523 May. He cooled off quite a bit in June, when he hit just .217 with one home run, but he still maintained an OBP of nearly .390. Nevertheless, after an 0-for-5 on July 1, Stodolka's batting average dropped to a season-low .274.
In the last four games (July 3-6), however, Stodolka has been on a complete tear, going 10-for-17 (.588) with two home runs, a double, and nine RBIs. He's raised his season line back up to .296/.413/.513 with 10 home runs in 240 at bats, and he ranks among the top five in the California League in both OBP (5th) and walks (50-3rd). All 10 of his home runs have come off of right-handed pitchers this year, but Stodolka's batting average vs. lefties is actually significantly higher, as he hit .339/.411/.435 against southpaws in the season's first half.
RC got our first look at Stodolka-the-batter at the all-star game in Salem last week, and we liked what we saw. We watched him take batting practice in the tunnel under the stadium, and then we saw him compete in the home-run derby (where he, like three other participants, got skunked, and the contest ended with co-champions when neither finalist could hit another home run). He's got an upright stance and a line-drive swing, and he generates most of his power through his arms and hips. We don't think his power will play very well at higher levels, but he's capable of spraying line drives all over the ballpark, and his plate discipline is outstanding, particularly when you consider his five-year hiatus from the batter's box.
As for his future, it's anyone's guess. Though he's 24, the Royals aren't going to rush him through the system, so it's likely that Stodolka will remain in High Desert for the remainder of the summer as he continues getting comfortable with his new routine. Regardless of what happens, the rebirth of Stodolka-the-prospect is a great story, and after watching him for just one afternoon, it's clear to RC that Stodolka truly enjoys coming to the ballpark every day. His first half exceeded everyone's expectations, and if he keeps it up, perhaps Stodolka will one day make Baseball America find another #4 overall draft pick to berate.
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