While not exactly two months (that happens tomorrow) thanks to the odd setup of February, any time you reach a round number in any countdown, it’s a nice milestone along the way. Some of our earliest counting after we master single digits is counting by 10s. More than that, round numbers have always had a mythical place in baseball lore. 3000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 wins, 20 win season, hitting .300, scoring 100 runs, driving in 100, etc, etc, etc.
60 days isn’t on the same level, of course, but it’s still a round number that we can sink our teeth into on the way to zero.
Much the same, the man wearing #60 does out of necessity. It was assigned to him last year, but he’ll be seeking to change it should he break camp with the Brewers this year. He is…
I don’t think I’m off base if I say that on July 3, 2014 very few Brewers fan knew who Matt Clark was. I also don’t think it’s erroneous to state that only a relative handful knew who he was on August 30 of that year. So allow me to fill in some of those blanks for those who still know nothing more of Clark than that he was a September call-up last year.
Matthew Terry Clark is a 28-year-old first baseman. He was drafted into pro ball twice, first out of Riverside Community College by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007, and then out of Louisiana State University by the San Diego Padres in 2008. It was with the Padres that Clark would begin getting paid to play.
In five years as a Padres farmhand, Clark hit 102 home runs, scored 311 times, collected 390 RBIs, slashed .282/.359/.494/.853 and racked up 1012 total bases, though with significant platoon splits each season. Clark reached Triple-A in the Padres system, but was basically blocked with first Adrian Gonzalez and later Yonder Alonso before Alonso proved to not be the answer. After those five seasons, Clark was sold to the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
Clark would play in Japan for just the one season, possibly because he could then return to the states as a full free agent. While it may have been a tough pill to swallow at the time, Clark looks back on his time in Japan fondly. He enjoyed the experience but more importantly credits the NPB style of pitching with helping him reach the big leagues with the Brewers last year. Clark said that his splits against left-handed pitching settled down in 2014 because so many NPB pitchers work off of their off-speed pitches. It forced Clark to learn to read pitches better and afterward he was able to make better adjustments which led to better contact. More on the culmination of all that in a minute.
After all, 2014 didn’t start off perfectly for Clark. Though he was able to sign with the New York Mets on January 31, 2014, Clark was optioned to Double-A after Spring Training and wasn’t given opportunity even at Triple-A let alone at the big league level despite the Mets’ trade of Ike Davis to the Pirates and the early struggles of Lucas Duda who was hitting just .229 as late at June 12th. After that low point for Duda (who ended up rebounding well through the end of July), and still no chance, Clark took matters into his own hands and requested his release from the Mets (which was granted on June 25). It was a gutsy move as there were no guaranteed spots anywhere else in the game. After all, especially in the high minors most teams have long since settled on their positional starters by late June. Clark would later state that he was willing to sit at home the rest of the season rather than continue to play Double-A ball for an organization who didn’t think he had a future.
Well, as the old saying goes, fortune favored the bold. Despite having both Sean Halton and former organizational Minor League Player of the Year Hunter Morris at their Triple-A Nashville affiliate, the Brewers found themselves in need at the position when the latter suffered a fractured forearm. And as coincidence would have it, a former coach with the Padres when Clark was there, Bob Skube, was currently the hitting coach with Nashville. Skube had recommended signing Clark in the previous off-season once he was coming back from Japan, but there wasn’t a fit at the time. This time, it worked out and Clark hit the ground, well, hitting in Nashville. In 53 games, Clark slashed .313/.371/.605/.976 with 16 home runs over just 195 at-bats. His numbers against left-handed pitching were very good (though in limited at-bats).
He was finally, squarely, on the radar of a big league general manager. With the veteran Lyle Overbay slowing down after not offering a ton of offense to begin with in 2014, and veteran slugger Mark Reynolds mired in one of the biggest power outages of his career, Clark finally got his chance. He slugged his way into cult lore with three home runs in his first 17 at-bats, including a three-run blast in the 7th inning of a September 14 tilt against the Reds which the Brewers won 9-2.
Clark’s playing time was a little inconsistent, and he was seeing the best pitchers in the world for the first time and understandably skidded to a .185/.226/.519(!) finish, but that was in just 31 plate appearances, so not a ton can really be gleaned from it.
For 2015, the Brewers look to have Clark entrenched as their starting first baseman at the new Class-AAA affiliate Colorado Springs after trading veteran pitcher Marco Estrada to Toronto for Adam Lind. It wasn’t an indictment on Clark, in my opinion, but proper hedging at a position where the Brewers have had more than their fair share of struggles offensively since their 2011 run to the NLCS with Prince Fielder. And while Clark could make the team as lefty power off the bench late in games (Clark has played a bit of corner outfield in his minor league career, as it speaks to some versatility), Clark is absolutely still in the picture here. Morris was outrighted off the 40-man roster this winter and Halton was protected at Double-A before the Rule 5 Draft in December to give him the opportunity to head to a new ball club. Furthermore, it’s not like Lind has the cleanest medical history either, so some at-bats could find their way into Clark’s ledger that was as well.
I would think that a legitimate chance is all a guy like Matt Clark ever wanted. He got one in 2014 with the Brewers and while he’s decidedly unlikely to break camp as the every day Brewers first baseman, that same chance which Clark capitalized on in 2014 exists for him today and as we head into camp in a couple of weeks.
I think he’ll take it.
Follow Matt Clark on Twitter: @MattClark60