West Virginia’s season ended in May — but two months later, the baseball is still looking like a beach ball for catcher Paul McIntosh.
McIntosh, who led WVU in homers in 2021, is one of five Mountaineer ballplayers getting a shot at minor league baseball in the inaugural season of the MLB Draft League, a showcase league constructed to give exposure for college baseball players to professional scouts. The heavy-hitter currently competes for the West Virginia Black Bears — which means he gets to keep on playing his home games at Monongalia County Ballpark.
“Any time you don’t really have to leave to go and play summer ball and stuff like that, it’s just a great experience being able to play there and play in front of some familiar faces that know you and have already seen you play,” McIntosh said.
In fact, WVU baseball has its finger prints all over this season of the first-place Black Bears. McIntosh joined the club with three teammates from WVU — outfielder Austin Davis and pitchers Madison Jeffrey and Zach Ottinger — while Mountaineer legend Jedd Gyorko mans the dugout as the team’s skipper.
Players are getting a real taste of the minor league baseball life — hitting with wood bats, competing day-in and day-out and traveling by bus — while still largely playing college baseball. Each team’s roster is made up of players from all over the country from junior college to Division I, but the game largely feels the same.
“I don’t think [the game] is really much any different,” Jeffrey said. “You’re still playing against amazing competition every day, so it’s all just competitive.”
Life around the game surely is different. Players are getting unique advice from guys like Gyorko, who spent eight seasons in the National League after a successful career in Morgantown. Gyorko’s players say that he has emphasized the necessity of playing the game in a professional way, a must if a player wants to climb the rungs of pro ball (and some much-needed learning for Jeffrey, who was drafted by the Dodgers on Tuesday).
Players are getting a much more tailored instruction to help their individual games as well. Specifically, Jeffrey credits pitching coach Jake Hale with making minor changes to his mechanics that could make a big difference, including adding more action with his wrist.
“I tend to stay behind the ball a little too long, so just getting through the ball has been a small adjustment that’s been a major difference for me,” Jeffrey said.
The players also have the advantage of new-age baseball technology that has been installed around Monongalia County Ballpark, which is being used to measure every aspect of the sport, similar to MLB’s StatCast. This can be used to analyze the intricacies of the game, including how much pitches are spinning and breaking, where exactly those pitches are going relative to the strike zone, and how fast the ball comes off the bat.
Jeffrey is more of an old school guy, prioritizing simply getting the batter out at the plate. McIntosh, a power hitter, has a bit more use (and fun) with the tech.
He has had quite the sample size to analyze, as well. In 58 at-bats, McIntosh has racked up a .328 batting average and a .954 OPS, adding a home run and seven extra-base hits. He wasn’t too shy to say his top exit velocity (or, speed of the ball off the bat) of the season has been 113 miles per hour — putting him on par with MLB All Stars Trey Mancini, Freddie Freeman and Xander Bogaerts.
McIntosh’s major focus heading into his 2021 college season was to cut out his strikeouts. He made that happen — in 2021, he struck out in 14.7 percent of his at-bats, a marked improvement from his 28.3 percent strikeout rate in 2019. He’s attributed this to getting a little more picky at the plate.
With the Black Bears, McIntosh can see this improvement happen in near-real time. Batters are regularly shown charts which detail every pitch they see in at-bats, where they ended up in the strike zone, and how they reacted to them.
“My chase rate is low, and I was looking at the strikes taken and the balls taken on my chart, and I’m taking balls like half-a-ball off the plate that are getting called for balls,” McIntosh said. “That chart is really helpful and it looks pretty good to me.”
While the cool technology is a perk that the Black Bears provide, there are plenty of different things that players had to trade in from their college lifestyles. For example, now players have to (obviously) get ready for the game in the Black Bears’ locker room, rather than the WVU one (although, Jeffrey does get away with using the Mountaineers’ workout facilities, an advantage not afforded to many of his Black Bear teammates).
WVU players also have to trade in their Big 12 travel schedule, which has them flying all over Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Now, they head to places like State College, Pennsylvania; Mahoning Valley, Ohio and Frederick, Maryland. Oh, and they get all these places on a bus fit for the minor leagues.
“You’re just getting prepared for minor league baseball, so you’re going to have to bus a lot,” McIntosh said. “It comes with the territory.”
Having three college teammates on the Black Bears has been a welcome sight for the Mountaineers so far this season. For McIntosh specifically, having those familiar faces made it easier to transition into the roster.
For the first time, though, these same Mountaineers have to face one teammate — Tyler Doanes of the Frederick Keys. The infielder has gotten significant time for the Keys, with a .231 batting average and a .679 OPS to go along with plenty of banter shared with his WVU comrades.
“I’ve gotten base hits when he’s been in the dugout and I’ve talked to him from first base, which has been hilarious,” McIntosh said. “I got into a rundown when he was at third base. As I was running to third base and tried to turn back to second, I slid, my feet came from under me and he tagged me out. He was talking to me the entire time.”
In a broad sense, these ballplayers are making a unique step not afforded to players in years past. It may look like the first season of just another collegiate summer baseball league on the surface, however the MLB Draft League is built to give these young players extra exposure, while also exposing big league clubs to these prospects.
For the recently-drafted Jeffrey, the experience has been excellent.
“I think it’s a very great experience, and it makes it even cooler because it took them, I think, just four months to get it ready,” he said. “We got to talk with Kerrick Jackson, the president of the league, a couple weeks ago, and he said there are still going to be changes made and everything, but the experience is great getting to meet all these new guys and getting more exposure for the draft.”