Peoria, Arizona —— With every pre-at-bat shimmy out here in the Arizona Fall League, the legend of Eric Filia grows.
With every dance outside the batter’s box, and every ball he barrels up once inside it, the Seattle Mariners outfielder continues to build upon the stellar season he enjoyed at High-A Modesto this summer — except here, and now, this is real.
This isn’t the hitter-friendly California League where Filia can feast on organizational depth. This is the power-pitcher-filled AFL, where it seems like everybody coming in out of the ‘pen sits mid-90s with a hammer — and here comes Eric Filia hitting an absurd .565 through his first seven games with the Peoria Javelinas, almost like this is easy. Like this is what he expected of himself. Like he’s planned all along to steal the show from Ronald Acuna, and Michael Chavis, and Kyle Lewis, and Josh Naylor and Austin Riley and the dozens of other prospects far younger and more projectable that should be the storyline in Peoria ten days into the AFL season.
Filia and his shimmy were Modesto’s best-kept secret for a while this summer, but here, now, the coming-out party is happening. Scouts new to the Mariners outfielder who initially scoffed at the shimmy have found themselves reversing course in the space of just a few at-bats to become newfound acolytes worshipping at the Eric Filia Church of the Barrel.
And they aren’t alone.
The topic of pre-at-bat rituals came up in a Thursday night conversation with Milwaukee Brewers prospect Lucas Erceg over in Scottsdale. Of course, Filia and his shimmy weren’t far behind.
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen him,” Erceg said. “I actually didn’t notice it at first, our hitting coach pointed [the shimmy] out to me. It’s wild.”
“You know he hit like .330 this summer with more walks than strikeouts,” I responded.
Erceg’s eyebrows shot straight up.
“Damn,” he said, shaking his head. “You hit like that and you can do whatever you want.”
If you’re pessimistic about Eric Filia, you already know what to say every time he barrels up the ball.
He’s already 25. He’s the third-oldest guy on the Javelinas. He did well in the Cal League, but he was two years older than the average pitcher. Didn’t he lose two full seasons at UCLA, including one on an academic suspension? What’s this about him working at the Playboy Mansion for a while? Is there a makeup issue?
If you’re optimistic about Eric Filia, you know how to feel about him already, too.
He walked twenty more times than he struck out over the course of a full season. He finished second in the Cal League in hitting. He’s a .337 career minor league hitter. Did you see his average in the Arizona Fall League?!
It’s been fascinating to watch this debate happen the last few months, on Twitter and in real life, because evaluating Eric Filia is becoming some weird kind of Rorschach test: what you see in the outfielder says more about you than it does about him.
“Baseball is still baseball,” Filia told Baseball Census on Thursday afternoon when asked exactly that: how he sees this debate of his age and past up against the success he’s had on the field. “None of that stuff really matters. I’ve got to hit the ball, and pitchers have to throw it 60 feet, six inches. As long as I take good swings, make good contact, and help my team win, that’s a ‘W’ for me.”
Filia isn’t the kind of guy to get caught up in the Twitter debate about his future, nor does he care much about what observers may think about the shimmy. He has newborn twins at home, and the hectic life that comes with it; the Javelinas have already picked up on Filia’s age and station in life, too. After the outfielder (turned first baseman) made a nice pick on a short-hop at first on Thursday afternoon, a “Hey, Grandpa” call came out from the first base dugout, drawing an ear-to-ear grin out of Filia as he shot back at the offending (younger) teammate.
“Baseball is fun, and that’s all I’m trying to do,” Filia said after the game. “I had a good year, and this is a great opportunity for me. I’m still honored that the Seattle Mariners chose me to represent them, and I’m trying to capitalize on it, but this is supposed to be fun.”
As you debate whether or not Eric Filia is a prospect, do one thing: watch him hit.
I mean, really watch him hit.
Forget his birth date, and get away from the spreadsheets. Even ignore the damn shimmy — but only for a second. Really watch how Eric Filia takes an approach and you’ll start to see it. If you’re not near Peoria this fall, start here on the Seattle Mariners prospect:
There are a million little moments that make a hitter, and ninety-nine percent of them don’t show up in the box score. Watch how Eric Filia tracks the ball and dictates at-bats; how well he understands the strike zone, and reads borderline pitches; how consistently he gets his front foot down and his bat to load position, even with that funky-looking stance. Or take this one: Eric Filia is right now being pitched hard on the inner half more than ever before in his career — and he’s been forced to make uncomfortable adjustments beyond what you’d think a guy hitting nearly .600 would be doing
“They started throwing me more inside at the end of the regular season, and that’s been the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make,” Filia said. “I have a tendency to try to do too much with the ball, so the biggest thing is really seeing the fastball inside, and using my hands without getting too big. But as long as I get down on time to hit the fastball, I know I can adjust to any other pitch.”
I still don’t know how I should feel about Eric Filia.
Some days, I believe he’s a bona fide future big leaguer — a sleeper prospect destined to get 500+ plate appearances a year for the Seattle Mariners with the ability to hit for average and, what thehell, fight for a batting title. Some days, I figure the safe money says he’ll fall into a platoon/utility role — a viable bat off the bench who can’t quite earn the starting gig after arriving late to the prime of his career.
And other days, I wonder whether Eric Filia will wash out in the upper minors entirely — betrayed by a lack of power for his position and ultimately doomed by better pitchers with more velocity and tighter command. And then he goes and hits .565 for a week against the best pitching prospects baseball has to offer, doubling down on this preternatural ability to barrel the ball every single damn time he comes to the plate.
So maybe his college coach put it best.
Nearly two full years ago — months before the Seattle Mariners drafted him and just a few months after UCLA baseball coach John Savage decided to reinstate Filia from academic suspension, the coach said something important that was buried as an afterthought at the end of a larger feature in the Daily Bruin.
“This dude can hit,” Savage told the student paper at the time about Filia. “This isn’t ‘Oh, he’s got a good swing.’ No, this dude can hit. I think he’s one of the best hitters in college baseball and people are going to find out this year.”