“Just a throw up the line with the runner trying to beat it out. We hit weird and my arm broke my fall. I was new to first base then, and it’s something that I’m aware of now.”
That is Washington Nationals’ infield prospect Matt Skole on a play that took place in the second game of the 2013 season. After hitting 27 home runs and driving in 104 runs, earning the 2012 Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year award, and vaulting into the top-five of the organizational talent ratings, Skole was making the crucial jump from Single-A to Double-A.
The result of the play — a torn ulnar collateral ligament and flexor tendon in Skole’s left, non-throwing elbow. Now, just two games into his first season at Double-A, Skole faced months of rehab instead of months adjusting to facing more advanced pitching and learning a new position. The torn ligament required Tommy John surgery, and although the injury occurred in Skole’s non-throwing arm, the rehab was arduous, and the impacts to his game and swing not insignificant.
“It’s a long rehab process. Having Tommy John and a flexor tear, I couldn’t do anything for eight to 12 weeks. A lot of sitting around icing and other recovery stuff. It was a long summer, for sure, but I took it with a grain of salt, and tried to work on some other parts of my game.”
The injury robbed Skole of his crucial first season of Double-A baseball, often seen as the season that makes or breaks a prospect’s chances of making it to the Major Leagues. Drafted out of Georgia Tech in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, Skole had benefited from his three years of experience at the college level when facing many pitchers who turned professional out of high school in Single-A ball.
Revisiting that jump after nearly an entire year away from live action proved difficult for Skole. He batted just .241 for the 2014 season in Harrisburg. Perhaps more glaring, his slugging percentage dropped from .559 in 2012 to just .399.
“I didn’t realize at first how difficult it would be to come back after missing a full year. I came back to Harrisburg and went through some struggles the whole year. My power was gone, and I still wasn’t fully healthy, but I worked on some things I never had to work on before and learned how to deal with a little bit of adversity.”
Any discussion regarding Tommy John surgery typically begins and ends with throwing. It is far from the forefront of thought that position players, however rare, do require the procedure from time to time. While Skole’s injury was of the non-throwing sort, the effects of the surgery to his strength and swing were great.
“At first, it affects you a lot. My injury was to my top hand. When I came back, my top hand was slow, and it took a while to get it back to where it was before. It was difficult, just a different feeling, and I hadn’t swung a bat for several months. Everything was a little off, and I developed bad habits.”
The 2014 struggles aside, Skole returned to Harrisburg again for the 2015 season, finally healthy after nearly two full years. Coming off a Spring Training with the big club in which he batted .409 in 22 at-bats, Skole looked ready to take the Eastern League by storm.
Despite coming off a strong Spring Training at the Major League level, the first two months of the 2015 season could be described kindly as a bit of a grind for Skole. Through the first 43 games of the season, Skole batted just .190 with 48 strikeouts. On a positive note, he did hit seven home runs in the process, showing that his power was returning.
“I started off slow, and the power was there, but I had to learn how to become a hitter, especially at this level. From this level on, you really have to learn how to hit because the pitchers only get better. Coming off Spring Training, I got away from my approach a little bit and got a little big-headed. I made the adjustments I needed to, and right now I’m rolling.”
After riding below the Mendoza Line for the entirety of April and May, Skole’s bat has exploded in June and July. He has batted .289 over his past 37 games with 31 runs driven in. Through 80 games this season, Skole has 12 home runs to his name, along with 53 RBIs, totals that very nearly match his full season output in 2014. His slugging percentage has risen each month, and continues to inch towards its 2012 levels. At the core of this return to form, is a greater return to form, as Skole works to get back to the roots that made him a successful hitter in the first place.
“I just relaxed and tried to take some pressure off myself. In the box, I’ve worked with hitting coach Mark Harris to stay inside the ball and watched a ton of film of myself before I got hurt and how I used to swing. I had gotten so locked into trying to change something that didn’t need to be changed. First two games I went back to my old approach, I had some success, and I decided to stay with it. Now, I’m just working every day to make that better.”
Throughout the struggles of the 2014 and early 2015 seasons, one thing that never abandoned Skole was his ability to be disciplined at the plate. At every stop in his minor league journey, he has been able to consistently draw a walk. Skole walked 99 times in 2012, 78 times in 2014, and has already drawn 41 walks in 80 games this year.
“I’ve always had a pretty good eye. Every time I go up there, I’m looking for one pitch, in one spot. Sometimes, though, if a guy makes three good pitches on the corner you just have to tip your hat. It can be hard to stay with that approach when you go a whole game and only get one or two good pitches to hit, and if you foul them off or miss them, you’re in battle mode. A lot of times when we struggle, we’re not swinging at strikes.”
As he continues to work towards the consistency that made him a top-five prospect in the Nationals’ system. Skole continues to keep his eye on the big leagues. “I know I can play there,” he said. “Right now though, it’s all about continuing to be consistent.”
While the Nationals continue to search for a permanent answer at first base, the awakening of Skole’s bat should give them something to consider come September. When fully healthy and locked in at the plate, he is a player capable of providing power off the bench. Skole has also made great strides on the defensive end, with fielding percentages of .988 and .968 at first and third base, respectively. For reference, he had a .919 fielding percentage in 107 games at third base in 2012.
Make no mistake, it is Skole’s bat that will keep him in the Major Leagues with the Nationals. With continued work on his swing over the final months of the Double-A season, Skole there is a good chance he will get the call to The Show come September. The Nationals have stood by Skole as he continues through the recovery process of an injury that set his development back significantly. Now, nearly a full season and a half removed from surgery, Matt Skole is back on track. It’s taken some time, and every step of the process has not been easy, but Skole has emerged a more mature, focused player whose future still appears bright.