The Kings of the Call-up

It took longer than it should have. The Red Sox screwed around for too long with the likes of meme generator Brock Holt and Brandon Snyder. Sure, there were reasons. They didn’t want to rush their top prospect. They wanted to ensure he could play his natural position. They needed to be positive that he was ready for the big leagues.

The wait is over. Xander Bogaerts finally made his major league debut Tuesday night. He went 0-for-3, grounding out twice, striking out once, and leaving five men on base in his first two at-bats. He also made a nifty play to end the fifth, charging a Marco Scutaro bouncer and gunning him out at first by an eyelash. The bigger takeaway was this: One of baseball’s top prospects finally made the Show, and the Red Sox are better for it. Given how Boston’s played over the past couple weeks, it’s not a moment too soon.

Just 20 years old (he turns 21 on October 1), Bogaerts hit .311/.407/.502 in 56 games at Double-A Portland, then .284/.369/.453 at Triple-A Pawtucket. Those are strong numbers on their face for anyone at any position, given neither league (nor home ballpark) dramatically distorts numbers the way, say, playing in Las Vegas does. Still, it’s one thing for a first baseman or corner outfielder to hit for average, show a strong batting eye (63 walks in 515 plate appearances), and have power (15 homers, 23 doubles, and six triples), given the much lower barrier to entry in place to handle those positions defensively. Shortstop is another matter altogether. A player like Jose Iglesias may never amount to much offensively (his numbers this year are due largely to batted-ball luck; he doesn’t walk, and he has no power), but he can still slot in as a team’s starter for the next half-decade, the way he now is in Detroit after Boston traded him away. Bogaerts doesn’t have Iglesias’s defensive skill, but he’s also so talented offensively that he projects as a future All-Star, given what people expect him to do with the bat versus the relatively low offensive standards set by the average shortstop.

Here’s the kicker: Bogaerts was the youngest player in the Eastern League and International League this year, and is now the third-youngest player in the majors behind only Jurickson Profar and Bryce Harper. There are few more reliable markers for future stardom than a player who excels at various levels while being younger than virtually everybody else.

Minor league numbers and age relative to peer group bode well for Bogaerts’s future. Still, it’s tough to know exactly how he’ll produce right away. There are plenty of examples of phenoms raking as soon as they crack the big leagues, but also lots of cases of star prospects stumbling at first; even Mike Trout scuffled in his 40-game audition two years ago before going nuts in 2012. But the Red Sox had a hole that needed filling. Starting shortstop Stephen Drew has smoked right-handed pitchers over the past few weeks, but he’s hitting a miserable .193/.246/.342 against southpaws this year. David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Nava, Jarrod Saltalamacchia … all of them have had their problems against lefties, too. Meanwhile, Bogaerts hit .298/.452/.474 against left-handers at Pawtucket, albeit in a relatively small sample of at-bats.

Still, it’s an open question exactly how much Bogaerts will play. The Sox prefer that he play short, but they can’t justify benching Drew against right-handed starters. Two weeks ago you might’ve argued for Bogaerts at third — despite Boston’s interest in keeping him at short — given how poorly the team’s third basemen had played. But Will Middlebrooks, who started the year as the team’s third baseman, barely hit his weight, then got sent down, and has been on fire since returning from the minors on August 10; he’s gone 14-for-31 with a homer, three doubles, and six walks since. All of that might leave Bogaerts as nothing more than the lesser half of a platoon. Whatever the Red Sox decide, it would behoove them to get the most out of their top prospect. They’ve alternated between shaky starting pitching and sluggish offense, losing eight of their past 12 games, posting a losing record in August, and falling back into a first-place tie with the Rays.

Now for the optimistic take. Even with just 34 games left in the season, Bogaerts has a chance to make a significant impact if he can grab a healthy share of playing time. Baseball history is littered with late-season call-ups who carved up the league from the moment they got the call. To quantify exactly what a player can do in that kind of limited time frame, we enlisted the help of the Baseball-Reference Play Index and one of the keepers of its Twitter account, Ryan Spaeder. We turned up a group of rookies called up either in August or September, or having played no more than 10 games before August and September, who went on to put up big numbers. The top 10 players from the group span 56 years, with a mix of future stars and forgettable players. Here’s how they fared, ranked by Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement for their big call-up season. (In case you’re wondering, Phil Plantier’s huge 1991 call-up year didn’t make it because he played 11 games that season before August, while noted late-season scorchers Manny Machado [2012] and Shane Spencer [1998] both fell just short in the WAR rankings. Also, we only included hitters, since that’s a more logical comparison to Bogaerts)

10. Tony Barron, 1997 Phillies, July 22 call-up, .286/.330/.423, 57 games, 209 plate appearances, 1.8 WAR: You’re looking at the entirety of Barron’s career, save for a single at-bat the year before with the Expos. A few days after making it back to the majors with Philly in ’97, Barron turned 31, extremely old for any rookie. He posted offensive results that were slightly below average by the standards of the high-offense late-’90s. But playing right field, Barron delivered off-the-charts defensive numbers in a short amount of time, accounting for most of his lofty WAR number. Not much more to it, other than a chance to talk about Tony Barron, which doesn’t happen often.

9. Bob Hazle, 1957 Braves, July 29 call-up, .403/.477/.649, 41 games, 155 plate appearances, 1.9 WAR: You know that streak the Dodgers just reeled off, where they won 42 out of 50 games, tied for the best record by any team over a 50-game stretch going back a century? That’s more or less what Hazle pulled off 56 years ago, cranking seven homers, 12 doubles, and 35 singles in just 134 at-bats. When starting center fielder Bill Bruton got hurt, Hazle stepped in and raked, helped greatly by a .420 batting average on balls in play, but also just a once-in-a-lifetime run. Led by the unheralded Hazle (plus Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, and Warren Spahn … I guess), the Braves rolled to the NL pennant, then toppled the Yankees to win the World Series. Hazle couldn’t hit a lick in the Fall Classic, batting just .154/.214/.154, then getting scooped up by the Tigers when Milwaukee gave up on him the following May. All told, Hazle saw just 129 plate appearances in ’58, hit .211, and that was the end of his career. Given that he finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting for a World Series–winning team, plus how little else he accomplished, Hazle ranks as one of the biggest flashes in the pan of all time.

8. Luis Salazar, 1980 Padres, August 15 call-up, .337/.372/.462, 44 games, 183 plate appearances, 1.9 WAR: Salazar was another player who never hit as well as he did in his rookie year, while also benefiting from extraordinary luck on balls in play (.389 BABIP). He became a sporadically decent player, though, cracking a career-high 14 homers in 1983, lasting 13 years in the bigs, and playing in 12 career playoff games with the Padres and Cubs, hitting .333/.333/.593 in the postseason.

7. Jose Lind, 1987 Pirates, August 28 call-up, .322/.358/.434, 35 games, 157 plate appearances, 2.1 WAR: Chico was another player who benefited from gaudy defensive numbers in a fairly small number of games. Still, this wasn’t entirely a quirk of advanced defensive stats. Lind was considered one of the best defensive second basemen in the National League for much of his nine-year career, and was an everyday player on the excellent Buccos teams of the early ’90s that also featured Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, and manager Jim Leyland.

6. Lorenzo Cain, 2010 Brewers, July 16 call-up, .306/.348/.415, 43 games, 158 plate appearances, 2.1 WAR: Once again, big defensive results and a batting line driven largely by balls-in-play luck (.370 BABIP). Three years later, the defensive part of it looks legitimate, though, with both scouts and advanced metrics agreeing that Cain is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. At various points in his career, Cain has shown above-average power, stolen-base totals, and batting-average results, with the one constant being his excellent defense. Though he’s not a prospect anymore in the truest sense at 27, you get the sense that his well-rounded skill set could result in an impressive breakout season sometime very soon.

5. Curtis Granderson, 2005 Tigers, July 22 call-up, .272/.314/.494, 47 games, 174 plate appearances, 2.2 WAR: Only two other players on this list socked more home runs during their late-season surges than Granderson did his rookie year. Defensive Runs Saved credited him with about a win and a half just with his glove, a small-sample-size quirk that at least makes some sense given early-career Granderson was one of the best defensive center fielders in the league, before his range started to nosedive. The high strikeout rates, big power, and middling batting averages, though … all of those remain alive and well.

4. Frank Thomas, 1990 White Sox, August 2 call-up, .330/.454/.529, 60 games, 240 plate appearances, 2.3 WAR: Speaking of players who looked the same as rookies as they would the rest of their career … it’s the Big Hurt! Sure, this was another high-BABIP case (.421). But this was Thomas as we’d come to know him for the life of his illustrious career, walking more than 18 percent of the time (third-best in the American League among hitters with as many times at bat), plus the big power and shiny counting stats we’d see for nearly two decades. Everyone’s drooling over Miguel Cabrera right now, and rightfully so. But the fawning over Miggy, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez as the big-name right-handed sluggers of the past two decades makes us forget what Thomas was for the first eight years of his career: the best hitter in baseball in that time, and during that monstrous peak, one of the best ever.

3. Chris Stynes, 1997 Reds, August 9 call-up, .348/.394/.485, 49 games, 215 plate appearances, 2.4 WAR: A high-contact hitter throughout his career, Stynes made the most of his rookie campaign after two previous cups of coffee, establishing himself as a super-utility player who’d last 10 years in the majors. His 2000 season was nearly a carbon copy of what Stynes managed as a rookie, but his .334/.386/.497 line came over 119 games that year, making it appear like he might have a future as a true everyday player. But that age-27 season proved to be the high-water mark of his career, and Stynes never again managed even a league-average year with the bat.

2. Willie McCovey, 1959 Giants, July 30 call-up, .354/.429/.656, 52 games, 219 plate appearances, 3.1 WAR: Ignore the numbers for a second and consider this: McCovey played just 52 games in his debut season … and was the unanimous choice as NL Rookie of the Year. You couldn’t argue with voters’ taste, at least if you believe that award should be predictive in any way. McCovey became the only Hall of Famer on this list (hopefully Thomas gets in on the first ballot, as he deserves), smashing 521 home runs in his illustrious career, and rarer still, getting a body of water named after him. A great player in his twenties, McCovey became otherworldly in his early thirties, winning the 1969 MVP with a ludicrous .320/.453/.656 performance despite playing at a time that wasn’t friendly to hitters, even if it was better than the sky-high mounds that made the previous season the Year of the Pitcher.

1. Brett Lawrie, 2011 Blue Jays, August 5 call-up, .293/.373/.580, 43 games, 171 plate appearances, 3.6 WAR: Yes, he’s shown decent pop since then, along with a very good glove at third base for a prospect regarded as a defensive mystery who seemed ill-suited to just about every position while coming up in the Brewers system. He’s also only 23 years old, very possibly years away from reaching his peak. Still, after all the injuries and bouts of frustration that have happened over the past two years, you can’t blame some impatient Jays fans for looking at Lawrie’s 2011 stat line, shaking their heads, and asking: What the hell happened to that guy?

Filed Under: Atlanta Braves, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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