TRENTON, NJ – As the Eastern League season winds to a close, many teams begin to move players up in the final few weeks to give them a taste of the action before starting at that level the following season. Such appears to be the case for New York Yankees mega-prospect Mason Williams, who joined the Trenton Thunder earlier in August as a replacement for fellow center fielder and star prospect Slade Heathcott.
Williams has logged 53 at-bats in Trenton, and the small sample size has given fans, writers, and talent evaluators alike a glimpse into one of baseball’s most talented prospects, a seemingly shy 22-year-old who grew up a half-hour outside of Orlando, Florida. During his 100 games in the Florida State League in 2013, Williams showcased some of his tools, proving to be an athlete blessed with outstanding speed who quickly established himself as one of the best defensive outfielders in the league.
At the plate, Williams produced a .261/.327/.350 batting line as the Tampa Yankees’ leadoff hitter. Now in Trenton, Williams is expected to serve as a catalyst at the top of Tony Franklin’s lineup, while handling an intense playoff race and trying to adjust to the added daily grind of the “upper minors.”
“Right now, I'm here really trying to get used to the Double-A life, just trying to get my feet wet,” Williams told me during a one-on-one interview. “Definitely just trying to pick up on the little things that have a different (feel) than High-A. I think it's definitely going to give me an advantage for next year and hopefully I'll have a little more confidence.”
Franklin knows that the adjustment to Double-A can be difficult for even the most talented of prospects, a profile which Mason Williams certainly fits. However, he also acknowledged that he thinks Williams will handle that adjustment with relative ease.
“It’s new to them,” Franklin said of Williams and newly-added catcher Gary Sanchez. “How well you adjust or how quickly you can adjust, figure out what these pitchers are trying to do to them, it’s going to make all the difference in the world.”
For Williams, adjusting to Double-A pitching also means exhibiting more patience in his at-bats. Through 53 at-bats with the Thunder, he has yet to work a walk. Franklin expressed his desire to see Williams demonstrate the ability to see more pitches.
“I asked Mason about four games ago, 'How many times have you walked since you've been here?' And the reason I asked him that is because the first pitch he saw that he could put a bat on, he swung at it,” Franklin noted. “But that's what most youngsters do. The first fastball they see, they want to hit and we're always trying to get him to just slow down and think with a little clarity…When you slow down, you see what pitch is coming and you take a pitch, then you get ball one, and you might ball two, then you're in a good hitter's count and you might get a good fastball to hit and that's all I need him to do.”
Williams agreed with Franklin’s assessment on seeing pitches. He acknowledged that seeing more pitches would be a key to his success as he adjusts to the advanced pitching he has started seeing in Trenton.
“Definitely seeing more pitches here,” Williams said when asked what the biggest change in his approach to hitting in Double-A versus High-A. “You're most likely really only going to get one pitch to hit, and you have to hit it, not foul it off or miss it. But I'm definitely now concentrating on trying to see more pitches and being more selective.”
While there is no doubt that Williams has all the physical tools to succeed in the upper levels and eventually the major leagues, it was Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra who famously stated that “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” For Williams, mastering the mental aspect of Double-A will play a large factor in his long-term success, and this is one part of the game that he states has improved each year in his young career.
“I would probably say I'm a little smarter baseball player than last year,” Williams told me. “I just really want to get smarter, whether it’s on the bases, defensively, hitting…If I can get a little smarter as a baseball player overall, I should be okay.”
The mental aspect of baseball is something that Trenton’s other big-time outfield prospects Ramon Flores, Tyler Austin, and Slade Heathcott have all started to figure out this season. While he will likely receive comparisons to the trio during the remainder of the season, Williams indicated he does not feel any additional pressures to succeed as a result.
“No, not really,” Williams said. “Whatever I do out there in the game, I still have to play my game, my style of play. Obviously everyone knows those other guys can play outstanding and they're all great players. I'm just trying to take it day-by-day and play my style of ball.”