Thursday, July 11, 2013
Today's scrubs may be tomorrow's All-Stars
By Bill Baer
On Monday night, Carlos Gomez jumped, stuck his glove over Miller Park's center field fence, and pulled back what would have been a go-ahead home run from Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Instead, it was the third out in the ninth inning. Francisco Rodriguez got the save and the Brewers happily celebrated as Gomez jogged towards his teammates from the warning track.
According to FanGraphs, Gomez has been the National League's best player thus far, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement thanks to an .889 OPS, that great defense in center and 21 steals in 24 attempts. At one time, he was the No. 3 prospect in the Mets' system according to Baseball America, but the Mets included him in a package they sent to the Twins to acquire ace lefty Johan Santana.
Playing every day for the Twins in 2008 and '09, Gomez struggled at the plate. In 963 plate appearances, he posted a .645 OPS with a staggering 214 strikeouts and 47 walks, a ratio in excess of 4.5. His defense was great at times, but the Twins couldn't justify keeping his weak bat in the lineup. After the 2009 season, they traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Though he missed some time between 2010-12 with injuries, Gomez still did not live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he ascended through the Mets' system. The Brewers used him as a fourth outfielder behind Nyjer Morgan in 2011, and splitting time with Norichika Aoki to start the 2012 season, primarily platooning him against left-handers. By the end of July, though, Gomez was back playing every day and he finally showed flashes of the player dominating the league presently. Between July 16 and the end of the 2012 regular season, Gomez posted an .812 OPS with 14 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He stole 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts.
In an article for Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal noted how Gomez himself decided to make a change. He discarded years of advice from the plethora of coaches and decided to try to hit home runs, rather than put the ball on the ground. "I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "Thirty-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself ... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never."
Gomez, still just 27 years old, is just the latest in a surprisingly long line of players who are now at the top of the game after having been given up on by their former teams. Jose Bautista went from club to club, never finding the kind of success that parlays into a starting role. He went to the Blue Jays in 2008, changed his swing, and the rest is history. Edwin Encarnacion has a similar story; he hovered around the league average offensively, came to the Blue Jays in 2009, and turned into one of the game's premier power hitters. Domonic Brown was nearly given up on by the Phillies organization just a few years after they refused to include him in a trade for Roy Halladay, and now he sits with the second-most home runs in the National League.
Perhaps the best example is Chris Davis. Davis tore up opposing pitching while in the minors with the Rangers between 2006-08. In 2008, he reached Triple-A at the age of 22, and he hit 23 home runs in 329 trips to the plate while posting a 1.029 OPS. He earned a call up to the majors at the end of June, and hit 17 home runs with an .880 OPS.
He was asked to replicate that in 2009 at the big league level, but he couldn't. Opposing pitchers had a book on him and his approach at the plate wasn't major league quality. While he was able to muscle out 21 home runs, he struck out 150 times and walked only 24 times in 391 plate appearances. The Rangers kept him in Triple-A for most of 2010 and he performed well; in three different stints in the majors that year, however, he looked completely lost.
At the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers needed to add some pieces for a postseason run so they traded Davis to the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara and a small amount of cash. The Rangers lost the World Series in seven games and, they would eventually find out, they also lost an impact bat.
Davis flourished with the Orioles. Last season, he hit 33 home runs with a .827 OPS. This year, were it not for Miguel Cabrera hitting at an historic level, Davis would be baseball's best hitter. He has hit the most home runs in baseball thus far with 33 and he has the highest slugging percentage with a Bondsian .690. He is walking more, striking out less, and making good contact on seemingly everything. And he's only 27 years old.
The moral of the story is not to give up on players with a surfeit of talent but a deficit of results. Patience is often rewarded in baseball. And it is a never-ending cycle. Right now, there are struggling players who have yet to live up to expectations who will eventually be discarded by an impatient, unsatisfied team and picked up by an optimistic team hoping to strike lightning in a bottle.
Mike Moustakas may be one such player. After hitting 20 home runs last year but posting overall below-average offensive numbers, he has been among the five worst-hitting American Leaguers this year, with only six home runs and a .213 average to his name entering Thursday's game against the Yankees. The Royals are 43-45 and just seven games out of the second wild-card spot. Their offseason trade of Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis was a public admission they wanted to compete for the postseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them use Moustakas in a trade to bolster the roster for a late-season run.
Lonnie Chisenhall is another. The 24-year-old has posted tremendous minor league numbers and was ranked as the No. 39 overall prospect by Keith Law before the 2011 season. In 542 PAs in the majors, though, he hasn't shown much. The power and plate discipline he showcased in the minors seems to disappear when he faces major league pitching, but the potential is there nonetheless. Since being recalled on June 18, Chisenhall has posted a .772 OPS. That is certainly a small sample, but also a glimmer of hope as well.
Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley was ranked No. 7 by Law before the 2011 season, but like Chisenhall, has not been able to translate minor league success into major league success. In 1,249 PAs in the big leagues, he has a .650 OPS, including a paltry .533 this year that includes a .209 average. With Triple-A Tacoma -- after getting sent down -- he posted a .947 OPS with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14). He's back with Seattle and now playing outfield.
You can look at Mets first baseman Ike Davis through the same prism. And to the Mets' credit, they have been incredibly patient with him and have been exhausting their options to get him to be an above-average major league contributor. In fact, Davis has a lot in common with Davis, including the tremendous raw power and the high strikeout rate.
As odd as it sounds, some of tomorrow's All-Stars may be found at the bottom of this year's offensive leaderboards. At the same time two years ago, you would never have expected us to be talking about Chris Davis and Gomez as their league's respective most valuable players, but here we are in 2013 doing exactly that. Baseball, it's a funny game that way.
Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. He runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies.