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D.J. Peterson and the Long Road Back

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It's time for you to start paying serious attention to Peterson again

Cody Cunningham/Jackson Generals
Cody Cunningham/Jackson Generals

The farm system has been full of good stories this year. From Tyler O'Neill morphing into a terrifying hitting machine to Edwin Diaz slinging baseball-sized frisbees and X-15s, the organization as a whole has been enjoying a dazzling bounce back year. Amongst all of the stories, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find one better than that of D.J. Peterson.

Two years ago, it seemed like a pretty good bet that Peterson would be the Mariners' starting first baseman at some point in 2016. He had tamed the California League with ease, posting a 154 wRC+ in 299 plate appearances just one year after being selected twelfth overall in the 2013 MLB Draft. The performance earned him a promotion to Double-A Jackson, where he went on to slash .261/.335/.473 in 248 plate appearances. The future was bright. Peterson wasn't going to stop hitting. The Mariners, years removed from the possession of a reliable first baseman, were the proud owner of one of the best prospects in all of baseball at the position. All was well.

This stupid game has a way of changing things so quickly.

***

D.J. and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Season

2015 wasn't nice to Peterson. 2015 was windshield and Peterson was bug. 2015 was the cartoony villain in a movie and Peterson was the random extra that the villain so cruelly dispatches of to assert his dominance. 2015 was a Charizard dosed up on rare candies and Peterson was a Rattata on the outskirts of Pallet Town.

He struggled through most of his time in Jackson, hitting .219/.288/.342 with a 78 wRC+ through his first 351 plate appearances. In late July, he managed a very brief stretch where he put together a 118 wRC+ over 47 plate appearances. Rather than letting him build off of this minuscule run of success and attempt to piece together a strong second half, the organization decided he was ready for the next level and moved him up to Triple-A Tacoma. Shockingly, Peterson was not fixed; he looked overmatched in limited action with the Rainiers before a strained achilles knocked him out of action. Peterson's grand finale in 2015 came in the Arizona Fall League, where he slashed a lukewarm .209/.321/.388 with the Peoria Javelinas over 19 games.

It's not often that a player goes from being a Top-100 prospect to tightrope walking the line of non-prospect in just a year, but Peterson had done it. By the time Spring Training 2016 rolled around, he was completely absent from all top-prospect lists. He was still ranked as the 6th-best prospect in the Mariners' system by MLB.com, but that spoke more to the state of the farm than it did to him. If he spent the next few years toiling around in the minor leagues before moving on to the next stage of his life, no one would've been surprised. That kind of season would've broken most men, stripping their soul of whatever it is that made them capable of stepping up to the plate and knowing that no matter what the ball did in that split second it took to get to the plate, he was going to crush it.

For the most part, Peterson seemed very much headed down that road in the beginning of 2016. His Spring Training ended without much of note occurring and he was sent back down to Double-A Jackson for his third go-round with the Generals. Through April, he was hitting just .213/.256/.350. His walk-rate was down. He had a 70 wRC+. The Mariners had a 25-year-old first baseman by the name of Kyle Petty down in High-A Bakersfield who was murdering the ball and was probably worth a look in Jackson. This seemed like the end of Peterson's time as a noteworthy prospect.

***

"Things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end"

It was a pleasant seventy-three degrees on May 20th. The Jackson Generals, sporting a pretty 24-16 record, were set to take on the Chattanooga Lookouts in the second game of a five-game series. D.J. Peterson, a middle of the order bat on Opening Day, was now hitting sixth. In the seventh inning, Peterson stepped up to the plate, worked a full count and proceeded to hit a fly ball to right that dropped in for a single. The Generals went on to lose the contest, 3-2; Peterson finished 1 for 4 with a strikeout. It was a seemingly meaningless game, and yet, it wasn't.

Ultimately, the game would prove to be the first of seventeen consecutive games in which Peterson collected a hit. Most nights it was one hit, but there were a few multi-hit performances mixed in. On May 23rd, he clubbed his first home run in almost a month. Three days later he hit another. Two days later he hit another. Four days later he hit another. Four days after that, he hit two in the same game.

During the streak, Peterson hit .328/.392/.672 with a 205 wRC+. His walk-rate was nearly twice as high as it had been prior to the streak. Most importantly, he was barreling up everything. Even his absurd .372 BABIP during the stretch seemed low, with seemingly every game including a sharp line-out or two.

It was a sudden rise back to respectability that left us all doing two things:

  1. Cheering our faces off at the prospect of having an exciting, well, prospect again.
  2. Wondering what exactly happened and whether D.J. was for real
When I had the chance to interview the Jackson Generals' Brandon Liebhaber this month, I asked him about the positive development and he offered the following:
This recent stretch from D.J. has been fantastic. He just had a 17-game hit streak, the longest in the Southern League this year, snapped but has looked much more comfortable at the plate. The staff has worked with him on standing straight up and not pulling off the ball even though he can mash to left. The tools are still there, and now we're seeing them on a consistent basis. He already has more home runs than last year. He is staying through the middle and has been more selective at the plate, much like Tyler [O'Neill]

For comparison's sake, here is a video of him hitting a homer in 2015:

When you compare this video to the one above it (which is from June 2016) the first thing that sticks out is how much quieter his stance is. The bat-wiggling and foot-tapping have been completely eliminated, his front foot is closed a tiny bit more, and his front shoulder doesn't open nearly as violently on the swing. This was, by all means, a brand new D.J. Peterson, and the idea of him going back to mashing was exciting. Still, it was seventeen games. Dealing and feeling in small sample sizes is dangerous. Peterson needed to prove that this approach could stick.

On June 7th, Peterson's hit streak was snapped. Since then, he has done the following: 68 plate appearances, .339/.382/.516, .177 ISO, and a 158 wRC+. No, he hasn't been able to maintain the absurd numbers he posted during the hit streak, but he's been one of the more dangerous hitters in the Southern League during that time.

***

The Next Great Step

I'll be honest with you: I have no idea what D.J. Peterson's future holds. He looks the part of a future major leaguer again; the swing is cleaned up and his mechanics appear to be back where they were before the slump. Walt Disney once said "All the adversity I've had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me...You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you."

There has to be some value to be had in bouncing back from as difficult of a 2015 season as Peterson had. Should he ever find himself in a massive slump ever again, he'll have the comfort of knowing he's bounced back once before and could again. He went from the highest of highs in baseball career to the lowest of lows and back again, slugging his way back to relevancy with every swing.

I don't know what his future holds, but it's time to start getting excited about D.J. Peterson again, Mariners fans.

goms