Baseball

Motter makes an unlikely career out of versatility

Durham’s Taylor Motter hits the ball in front of Syracuse Chiefs’ catcher Pedro Severino on July 4. Motter has played all nine positions this season.
Durham’s Taylor Motter hits the ball in front of Syracuse Chiefs’ catcher Pedro Severino on July 4. Motter has played all nine positions this season. newsobserver.com

Taylor Motter trotted up the steps from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park locker room mere hours before Wednesday’s first pitch, his long, blond hair bouncing on his shoulders with each step.

Motter’s outlandish personality and ungroomed appearance don’t fit into the stereotype of a typical baseball player. He doesn’t even fit into one position. In 86 games for the Triple-A Bulls and MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays this season, Motter has played eight different field positions and has hit at all nine spots in the batting order.

That versatility has made him one of organization’s most valuable and unusual assets and pushed the once-longshot prospect into MLB conversation. But lounging in the dugout before Durham’s eventual 5-2 win over Toledo, the outspoken 26-year-old looked entirely unperturbed by the pressure as he repeatedly pushed his long locks back behind his ears and cracked dry jokes about his contract situation.

“You know what?” he said. “I want this article when I go to arbitration. If I get there.”

‘He can do pretty much anything’

With Coastal Carolina in 2011, Motter — then playing exclusively shortstop as a junior from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — batted .288 and recorded a .950 fielding percentage as the Chanticleers failed to advance beyond the NCAA Regionals.

He sported a buzz cut. He was drafted 540th overall in the 2011 MLB draft. He reported to the Princeton Rays of the rookie-level Appalachian League. He was a normal, everyday baseball player.

That wouldn’t last long.

“Even though the Rays drafted me, it was like, ‘You guys picked me 17th round…’,” he said, trailing off. “It was like, ‘Listen, you guys made a mistake on passing up on me 17 times, and I’m going to show you why.’ 

The key proved to be branching out from shortstop. He was first asked to switch to third base, then to try playing in the outfield.

Throughout a five-year-and-counting journey through the minor leagues — one that saw him travel from team to team throughout the southeast, grow out his hair to his neck and beyond and pick up new positions at each stop along the way — Motter grew into a utility player deployable at every single spot on the field.

“Him going to outfield, it actually makes it a lot easier for us to work with, because he already has good footwork. Plus he runs really well, so he can do a lot of things,” said Bulls assistant coach Ozzie Timmons. “If you need him to play third, he can play third. If you need him to play center, he can play center.”

The 6-foot-1, 195-pound jack-of-all-trades attributes his versatility for keeping his career alive to this point — he’s frequently self-deprecating in his humor; he later described himself as “dispensable” — and for making the day-to-day grind of baseball more entertaining.

He’s been slotted into every position except catcher at least once at some point this summer. During an 11-game road trip earlier this season, Motter played shortstop three times, third base twice, second base twice, left field twice and right field once.

He said he still most enjoys playing shortstop, which he manned Wednesday against the Mud Hens, but he struggled to name his least favorite position.

“I would say maybe left field, maybe, but that’s just because it’s a far run from our dugout,” he finally declared, grinning.

Top of the ladder

On May 15, Motter received his first career MLB call-up.

Over the course of the next month and a half, he played 33 games for the Rays and sat on the bench for 10. He played shortstop nine times, left field seven times, second base six times and so forth.

“Being in the majors was everything I’d imagined,” he said. “The travel was great, the people were great, the stadiums were even better, the food was great ... everything was absolutely amazing and I understand why people play this game so long to get back up there.”

The Rays struggled throughout that time period and, for the most part, so did Motter. The team won just two of the final 16 games during which he was on the roster, and his .188 batting average proved far less impressive than his .974 fielding percentage.

Back at Motter’s alma mater, however, magic was brewing. When Coastal Carolina completed one of the most memorable runs in modern college athletics by winning the 2016 College World Series title on June 30, Motter was the only active Chanticleer in the majors.

A video of him launching his hat into the air and ripping off his Rays shirt to reveal a Chanticleers jersey underneath after the final strikeout — interrupting pre-game warm-ups in Tampa Bay — was posted on the Rays’ Twitter account and quickly went viral.

“It was something you dream of, something you dream of being a part of, but knowing that you’re still a part of it after you leave is ... still an unbelievable feeling,” Motter said about the moment. “I had a few little bets throughout the clubhouse, nothing too big ... but I gave some people a hard time.”

The next day, Motter experienced a new first: pitching in the big-leagues. With the Rays trailing 10-2 with two outs in the ninth inning, Motter was tossed onto the mound — his eighth position played this season — and gave up one hit before getting the third out.

His final stat line: 0.1 innings pitched, 0.00 ERA.

“Some of the guys wanted me to gas it up, so my biggest fear was don’t hit anyone,” he said. “I tried to change some arm angles to be a little bit deceptive.”

But hours later, the strangest moment in an altogether strange season for Motter turned into the most disappointing moment: after the game, Motter was sent back to Durham.

Seeking a rhythm

Motter said he saw the demotion coming and he knew he hadn’t made the most of his MLB opportunity.

He’ll likely get another chance to make an impression in September, once the minor league season ends and MLB roster limits expand, but he’s hoping to find a more consistent rhythm in the meantime.

In 2015, Motter batted just .157 through his first two weeks with the Bulls but eventually rallied to record a .292 batting average with 72 RBIs, 43 doubles and 26 stolen bases, all leading the team.

This season, another slow start has yet to show as much improvement — he’s batting only .205 in Triple-A as of Friday — but he said he’s not too concerned.

“When I started off last season, I was (struggling) and then I picked it up, but at the time I picked it up this year I was in the big leagues,” he said. “Since I got back, I’ve just stopped putting pressure on myself and I’m just trying to hit the ball again, and it’s been showing. I’ve been hitting balls hard, even though some are getting caught.”

Timmons has encouraged Motter to start his swing earlier, giving him more time to react to pitches. He’s also moved Motter around the batting lineup often so that he’ll be more comfortable batting near the bottom of the order when he returns to the Rays.

Timmons’ adjustments — and the regularity of playing almost every night for Durham — seem to be making a difference. After hitting .161 with 7 RBIs and two doubles in 22 April games, Motter hit .233 with 12 RBIs and six doubles in his first 19 July games.

Both coach and player know, though, that it won’t be batting that will eventually secure him a return trip to Tampa Bay.

Asked Wednesday about his ability to adapt on the fly to so many different positions, Motter’s eyes glazed over and his passion for his unconventional, versatile and undeniably unique role became palpable through his otherwise lighthearted demeanor.

“The mindset is that I’m going to be the best player at that position that day,” he said. “If fans can show up one day and say, ‘Wow, he’s the best shortstop I’ve ever seen,’ and I’m playing right field the next day and they say, ‘Wow, he’s one of the better right fielders I’ve ever seen too,’ then that makes me happy.”

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