BALTIMORE -- Wil Myers is both a fearsome, long-limbed cleanup hitter for the Tampa Bay Rays, elite American League team, and a 22-year-old outfielder with two months of major league experience and an easy, youthful grin. Why the latter is so quickly the former is explained, in part by, the 137 OPS+ he carried into Wednesday night's game.
Among rookies with at least 200 plate appearances since 2000, only Yasiel Puig, Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun have bettered Myers by a substantial amount, with Yasmani Grandal and Yoenis Cepedes just ahead of him. Myers, incidentally, is younger than any of them were, at the same point. He ranks just ahead of hitters like Adam Dunn, Josh Hamilton and teammate Evan Longoria for production in a debut season so far.
I showed Myers the list, handing him my iPad at his request, as we sat and talked in the Rays dugout prior to Wednesday night's game against the Orioles.
He chuckled, looking at the list, scrolling down. "Pretty good list to be on," Myers said, smiling but engaged in the stats on the page. "Some good players on there." A Rays employee teased Myers, saying, "Hey, you always knew you'd be on there, didn't you?" Myers laughed, but he didn't deny it.
See, Wil Myers is pretty sure he's going to stay atop lists like these for as long as he plays baseball.
"I want to keep getting better at hitting," Myers said when I asked what he next wanted to improve. Other players already performing at his level might have chosen something smaller, another component of the game, but Myers is a hitter in mindset, first and foremost. "I want to be one of the best hitters who ever played the game. So I'm constantly working on hitting, trying to get better, trying to perfect my swing, trying to learn my swing and not get out of it."
It's the kind of thinking that sounds presumptuous at the start of someone's career, and silly when their production doesn't match the aspirations. But then there are the hitters who truly are great, and know it at 22. There's plenty of reason to think Wil Myers is one of those hitters.
"Well, I think he's really strong, which is number one," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said of Myers when we chatted in the Rays' dugout Wednesday afternoon. "He hits the ball really hard. I think the biggest part is his ability to cover a lot of zones with two strikes, because of how big he is. I think that was one of the things that surprised me the most, his ability to lengthen himself out."
It shouldn't surprise anyone that the assertion of the Rays' hitting coach is backed up by the numbers, given the organizations' reputation for utilizing stats. Of Myers' nine home runs, four have come on the first pitch, but four have come with two strikes.
So his success is more than just a young hitter the pitchers haven't figured out yet. He's managing to hit the ball in all kinds of situations. He isn't walking much, but he isn't expanding his strike zone, either, with a swing percentage at balls out of the zone well within the midrange of the league.
It is easy to see why pitchers can't find a place to pitch Myers, watching his afternoon routine. He begins by hitting off of a tee in nine separate spots, once in each of nine boxes located within the strike zone. Then comes underhand flips, when Myers works on particular things, and then live batting practice, when he works on other things.
"And BP's a big part of my game," Myers said, which is at odds with how many other hitters view the routine. "It's about as live as you can get. You get a good visual of what you're hitting."
Both Myers and Shelton were quick to protect their trade secrets as to what particular things, exactly, he's working on, but Shelton's program -- designed this spring and implemented first at Triple A Durham by Bulls' hitting coach Dave Myers (no relation), then by Shelton himself since Wil's June call-up -- is focused on the nine regions within the strike zone for a reason.
"I think the easiest thing for any hitter is just making sure they're staying within their hitting zones," Shelton said. "Especially young power hitters -- they want to hit the ball hard, they want to hit the ball out of the ballpark. And they can do that, it's just a matter of, they have to swing at the right pitch to do that."
Shelton's program, then, sounds like the right match for Myers, who isn't identifying a particular type of pitch, or area of the strike zone, when he's at the plate.
"Here's how I'd put it: I'm an aggressively patient hitter," Myers said. "If I get my pitch, I'm gonna swing at it. I'm not going to take a pitch just to see it. If I see a pitch I like, I'm gonna swing at it. I'm not a guy who can narrow one zone and just swing [only] at that. That's just one of those things that I think has made me successful. I have pretty good hand-eye coordination, so I'm able to hit those pitchers' pitches."
Still, Shelton insists games themselves are required for Myers to complete his hitting education.
"No, you have to learn it on the job," Shelton said, emphatically. "There's no other place to learn it. You can't learn it in the cage, you can't learn it in BP, you have to learn it in a [game] situation … and it's obvious to me that the reason we're in the middle of a pennant race is what he's done since he's been up here."
He's produced well enough, in fact, to earn regular duty in the middle of a Tampa Bay lineup hardly lacking for power alternatives. As the Rays approach September with a playoff berth in sight, manager Joe Maddon hasn't hesitated to put Myers in a position to help determine the fate of his 2013 season, regardless of his experience.
"We kind of went through it when Evan [Longoria] came up, several years ago," Maddon said at his pregame presser on Tuesday in the Rays' dugout. "My best answer to that is the individual himself. Do you think he can cope with all that? Back a couple of years ago, I thought Evan was able to cope with those thoughts and had handled that moment. I think Wil's the same in a lot of different ways. They're not the same guy, actually, but the way that they think, the way that they, as young people, believe that they should be major league players and that they can do this, permits us to do that with Wil."
That was echoed by teammate Sam Fuld, who on Tuesday said of Myers: "I think Wil's a different breed. He wanted to be that three-hole, four-hole hitter right off the bat. He's special. For others, it might help to know you're not expected to carry that offense right away."
That attitude, supported by his play, has more than just Myers ready to count on an elite career, starting now. Longoria -- so frequently cited when discussing Myers' success, and whose advice Myers often seeks-- says he put it jokingly to Myers: "Sooner or later, we're gonna have to become friends. Because I know I'm gonna be here for a while, and I'm sure that you're gonna be here for quite a while, too."