Trenton, NJ- When you’re one of the top prospects in the Yankees organization, things are expected of you.
Those expectations haven’t always been met by Mason Williams, as was the case in 2013. The pitching-friendly Florida State League may have been a struggle, where Williams went .261/.327/.350 in 100 games. Despite a lack of statistical success this season with Double-A Trenton, he’s looks better in person and is proving more of his capabilities.
At 6-1, 185 pounds, he looks built to endure. His raw power is evident with each at-bat. There’s a long way to go, and there’s no rush.
"He’s a young man. At this level, it takes adjustment," said Trenton Thunder manager Tony Franklin. "I think Mason stepped back a little. He’s got some very good talent it’s a matter of consistency: consistent swings, consistent recognition of pitches. He plays great defense."
In a recent game, Williams showcased a bit of his raw power and developing plate-discipline. He chased balls down in the zone, but on a fastball at the letters, he went after it for a hard-hit single. He flashed some impatience during another at-bat , softly grounding out. He also drew a walk, something he’s improved upon (he now has 38 for the season). With good quick hands, nice hip rotation, good speed, and a strong outfield arm, his potential is vast. It’s a matter of not trying for power, one of his tendencies, and letting that natural power and ability for contact take over.
Through 98 games this season he is hitting .212/.281/.277 with 84 hits, 13 of them doubles, with 27 RBI. Lately he’s been more consistent with contact, with six hits in his last five games. On the other hand, he has struggled in July, hitting just .187 in 25 games, after hitting .253 in June. He's drawn 38 walks against 52 strikeouts in 397 at-bats while contributing 20 stolen bases.
Williams knows exactly what Franklin spoke of, and understands the importance of good old repetition in order to achieve results more frequently.
"I’m just trying to stay consistent," Williams said. "I’m trying to do the right things as many times, the right way."
A 2010 fourth round pick for the Yankees out of West Orange High School (Florida), Williams is in that class of players without the benefit of collegiate experience. High school picks are considered a risk, but there’s upside to molding a player that early. Williams came out of the gate setting a franchise record in hits (94) with Short-A Staten Island of the New York Penn League. He also hit .349 with 31 RBI and 20 walks in 68 games. He split time in 2012, playing in South Atlantic and Florida State Leagues, going a combined .298/.346/.474 with 107 hits and 35 RBI.
This year has been as much about the bat developing, as his mental approach. Williams was quick to point out the key area he feels he’s grown the most.
"Definitely the mental side. I feel like I’ve grown. I’ve learned mentally how to fail. It’s a combination of losing games, which is tough, and not playing how you want to. I’m big on learning a lot through failure," he said.
Teams run into that maturity wall with their prospects, and the Yankees ran into theirs when Jesus Montero was the top prospect in the system. There were behavior issues with Montero and his focus was questioned. Montero was traded, lightening the stable of Yankees catchers, and the questions about his focus have continued in Seattle.
The amount of attention paid to the Yankees can be daunting. For a highly-ranked prospect like Williams (Baseball America ranked him 3rd heading into the 2014 season) the lack of experience with how to handle that pressure, as well as the New York sports media, could prove overwhelming.
"I don’t pay attention to it. I can take care of myself and get better at this game. I have to perform," Williams said.
Getting his first big league invite this past spring training was a huge opportunity to showcase his talents, but also to soak up some knowledge.
"I was more excited than anything to be around those guys and pick some brains. Those are guys that have had success for many years. I was confident. I felt like I belonged."
There’s no certainty about where Williams will be in 2015, but the arrows point to a repeat of the level. According to Franklin, that’s likely the best thing for him.
"I would suspect, Mason will probably be back here next year. I think that would be the appropriate thing to do. I hope at the end of this year he’s learned something he can apply next season, and hits the ground running," Franklin said.
Williams echoes Franklin’s belief that whatever difficulties he’s had, he’s on his way to more success.
"I’m learning what kind of player I am."
NOTE from Jessica: Minor League Ball ranked Williams 12th in the Yankees system entering 2014 and John Sickels mentioned his "terrible" hitting in 2013 and was concerned about reports on his makeup. Williams has shown improvement this year in both his approach at the plate and how he conducts himself. Franklin pointed out that Williams can sometimes focus on the wrong things as a hitter. As mentioned, he tries to hit for power and seems to want to go for the home runs, something Franklin said he’s talked to Williams about.
Franklin has been instrumental in the careers of several Yankees players, particularly Dellin Betances, and his gentle but firm approach is respected. If Williams can, indeed, ‘learn through failure’ he has the ability to make impact at the plate and on the bases. Personal ranking? Higher than 12, closer to Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. Austin’s health is still questionable, and it’s still too early to get a clear picture of what Judge will do with more advanced pitching.