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August 23, 2000

Prospectus Q&A: Billy McMillon

A BP Favorite Gets His Chance

by Jeff Bower

If Bill James were to assemble a Ken Phelps All-Star Team in the Year 2000, there is a good chance that Billy McMillon would be named as captain of the squad. Despite having the ability to help most major-league teams, McMillon has languished in Triple-A for the better part of the last five seasons.

On August 1, the Detroit Tigers recalled McMillon from Toledo after they released Luis Polonia. At the time of his recall, McMillon was leading the International League with a .345 batting average and a .446 on-base percentage. We caught up with him prior to a recent game against the Seattle Mariners.

Baseball Prospectus: It's nice to see you up with the Tigers and playing well in limited action. Has Phil Garner given you any indication as to how he plans to use you for the remainder of the season?

Billy McMillon: I think my role for the remainder of the season, barring injury to someone else, is going to be pretty much like it's been before: playing against right-handers and not playing against left-handers. That means DHing, and when he feels that Juan Gonzalez or Bobby Higginson needs a day off on defense then I may play in the field. But only if there's a right-hander pitching.

It's kind of a tough balancing act because Rich Becker and Wendell Magee have been doing well and he has to try to give everybody sufficient playing time.

BP: How would you best describe your approach at the plate? What do you try to do to be successful as a hitter?

McMillon: I know it's going to sound simple, but I try to hit the ball with the fat part of the bat and concentrate on hitting the ball up the middle of the field. I feel that if the ball is over the plate and I have that approach, then I'll be able to hit the ball to all fields. That's one of the things you need to do to be a successful hitter: use all parts of the field. That's what I try to do.

BP: Throughout your career, you've drawn your fair share of walks. Have you ever encountered pressure from coaches to be more aggressive?

McMillon: I think that one of the things that has helped me is that with the help of coaches and teammates I've developed a hitting philosophy. That philosophy calls for getting on base, be it by a base hit or a walk, and trying to do basic fundamental-type things like moving a runner over when he's on second base. I haven't had reason to deviate much from that.

I think with the amount of success that I've had that it's kind of hard for someone to say, "Do it this way". They recognize the fact that I have an idea what I'm doing up there and they let me do it.

BP: The Tigers are the third team you've been with. How does the Tigers organization compare with that of the Marlins and Phillies?

McMillon: When I was with the Marlins, I didn't appreciate what I had there. They were really disciplined and structured, almost to the point where players didn't like it. I think that had a lot to do with us not being able to see the results of doing things the right way early in our career; the dividends would be cashed in later. They stressed punctuality and doing the little things. In Philadelphia, they got away from that a little bit.

So far, what I've noticed here in Detroit is that they have that fine line that I've wanted all along. There is some structure as far as stressing discipline and the like, but also a lot of freedom to experiment and do what you need to do. I actually think that this is the best kind of fit, not only for me, but for anybody.

I'm not the type of person that's going to cause trouble. So, when I was with the Marlins, if they said, "Do X, Y and Z", I had no problem doing it. In my mind, I might have said, "Why are we doing this?", but I did it. When I was in Philadelphia, I often wondered, "Why aren't we told to do X, Y and Z?". Here, I've found the balance that I wanted. For example, they want you to move runners over and be on time. But, to a degree, it's your decision. In that regard, it's been a really good relationship.

BP: Some players have talked about not getting much useful instruction in the Phillies' system. Do you feel the same way?

McMillon: I guess the best way for me to answer that is to say that I drew on my past and what I was told by previous coaches, especially hitting coaches. I studied my tapes and films, which were teaching aids for me. Hitting is what is going to get me to and keep me in the big leagues and, in that regard, I didn't benefit a lot from the instruction I got over there. I had a pretty solid base and that got me through that time. With the aid of video I was able to make the minor adjustments that I needed to make throughout the season.

BP: You were in the Phillies' organization for about two-and-a-half seasons and posted some pretty good numbers, especially last year. Do you feel that you had a fair opportunity to show what you could do as a ballplayer?

McMillon: No, I don't think that I did. It was very promising when I got traded over there in 1997. They gave up a legend in Philadelphia (Darren Daulton) to get me. I think that I did well enough to deserve a better chance. I was with the Phillies for almost two months in '97 and hit .292. I certainly thought that was enough to warrant, if not a shot at the everyday left field job, at least a backup job. But that was right before the Phillies got Bobby Abreu and Doug Glanville, so I got squeezed out.

Sometimes what a player does is not enough. Often, people think you can do better just by going outside of the organization, which is what Philadelphia did by getting Abreu and Glanville. I'm not knocking that decision because both of those guys are solid baseball players, but I think I could have contributed. I think they squandered my talent down in Triple-A.

Even last year, when I had such a solid year--good batting average, driving in runs, scoring runs--I didn't even get a September callup. It's frustrating. I wasn't even on their 40-man roster. To me, it seems like you can't argue with a solid season.

BP: You mentioned that you were squeezed out in Philadelphia. If you go back a little further, the Marlins brought in Moises Alou just when you were arriving from Triple-A Charlotte. So, in both those situations you were kind of the odd man out.

With that history, it's curious to me that you signed with the Tigers as a minor-league free agent in January after they made a big splash by trading for Juan Gonzalez in November. What prompted you to make that decision?

McMillon: I knew the starting three outfield positions were basically set, with Higginson, Gonzalez and Juan Encarnacion, but I thought the fourth and fifth outfield spots were pretty much wide open. I knew that they had Luis Polonia, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to be a reserve outfielder here. It was a better situation than any of the other offers I had at the time. I felt that if I reported in shape and had a good spring I would have a very good chance of making the team.

BP: Some of the members of this year's coaching staff at Toledo called you one of the most professional, hard-working players that they had ever been around and were extremely impressed with your approach towards the game. How have you kept your positive attitude despite not getting many breaks the last few years?

McMillon: That's a question of character. My parents did a really good job of instilling a strong work ethic, a never-give-up, never-quit attitude and the strength to persevere.

I wouldn't play this game if I didn't think that I could contribute at this level. Sometimes getting back to the majors is a tough road. The last time I was in the big leagues was '97. That's almost three years I've been in the minor leagues. It's humbling. And Toledo is a tough place to play. I really had to motivate myself to go there and do extra work or whatever I needed to do. Sometimes it's just not fair.

BP: Let's end on a lighter note. Earlier in the year when you had an 18-game hitting streak, I understand you pulled a Howard Hughes and quit clipping your fingernails. Good thing it didn't go 35 games.

McMillon: (laughing) That's one of the things that I never want to do: get into a situation where I'm superstitious, because so much of this game is out of your control. That's just something I noticed one day and thought, "Hey, I haven't cut my fingernails and I've been hitting. Don't cut your fingernails". But when the streak was snapped, I don't think I even got to the shower before I clipped them.

Jeff Bower can be reached at jbower@baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  The Streak

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