Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Resurgent Rookies

Yesterday, the winners of the Rookie of the Year Award for both the American League and National League were announced. The top vote-getters, as expected and as picked by myself a month ago, were Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.

As I noted when I picked my postseason award winners, the AL honor belonged to Longoria and it was "no contest." Yet, it's interesting to glance over the other players who received votes from the Writers' Association. White Sox second baseman Alexei Ramirez finished second behind Longoria (who received all 28 first-place votes), and Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury came in third. A look at the other players who received votes yields a couple familiar names:
Mike Aviles, Royals, 9; Armando Galarraga, Tigers, 9; Joey Devine, A's, 3; Denard Span, Twins, 3; Nick Blackburn, Twins, 1; Joba Chamberlain, Yankees, 1; Brad Ziegler, A's, 1.
That the Twins had a couple players receive votes for the ROTY award is not particularly exciting or surprising, but that those players ended up being Span and Blackburn has to be viewed with some measure of intrigue given the paths that both young men have followed.

Blackburn was 26 years old all season long, which is not terribly young for a first-year major-leaguer. He never followed the profile of a top prospect; the Twins drafted him out a small college in the 29th round of the 2001 draft and he debuted in rookie ball as a 20-year-old. He had intermittent success as he worked his way up through the low levels of the minors, but he never displayed much dominance and wasn't what you would call a fast riser. After fanning 7.04 batters per nine innings as a 22-year-old in Low-A ball, Blackburn never posted a K/9 rate higher than 5.51 and was relatively hittable everywhere he went. By spring of 2007, he was a 25-year-old preparing to start his third season at the Double-A level after posting mediocre numbers there the prior year. Simply put, Blackburn was the type of guy who prospect buffs pass off as a nobody.

That's when Blackburn turned his career around. He went 3-1 with a 3.08 ERA over his first eight appearances with New Britain, and was then bumped up to Rochester, where he surprised almost everyone by going on a spectacular run. Soon after joining the Red Wings, Blackburn entered a streak where he pitched over 40 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, a span that encompassed the entire month of June. He ended up going 7-3 with a 2.11 ERA in 17 starts with Rochester, earning a September call-up to the big leagues and, in the offseason, a spot on top of Baseball America's list of the Twins' top prospects. Now, a very solid first full season at the major-league level has earned Blackburn a Rookie of the Year vote and a definite spot in this organization's future plans.

Span has followed a very different but equally unconventional path. When the Twins selected Span with their first-round pick in 2003, many viewed him as perhaps the ultimate replacement to another former toolsy high-school draft pick who was currently roaming center field in the Metrodome. This created a lot of pressure for the speedy teenager, and he increased expectations by posting a .339/.410/.403 line over the first half of the 2005 season as a 21-year-old in High-A Ft. Myers and then finishing the year by posting some respectable numbers in Double-A. Span seemed to be brimming with potential, and with his athleticism, it seemed that all he needed to do was keep improving and he'd be ready to roam the Twins' outfield in no time.

Unfortunately, the improvements didn't come. In 2006, Span repeated Double-A and posted a .285/.340/.349 line that was nearly identical to the .285/.355/.345 line he'd posted there during the second half of the previous year. Despite a lack of true success, Span was moved up to Triple-A in 2007, where he posted a pedestrian .267/.323/.355 line. With four-and-a-half years of pro ball under his belt, Span had seemingly settled into a niche as a nice defensive outfielder with some speed who could hit for a decent average but wouldn't ever get on base or hit with enough power to justify a regular spot in a major league outfield.

Yet, just like Blackburn, Span seemed to have a light-bulb snap in his fifth full season as a pro. He went on a tear in Rochester, producing like he never had before since being drafted. It wasn't the high batting average (.340) or the speed (15 stolen bases in 40 games) that came as such a shock. It was the newfound plate discipline (36/26 K/BB, .434 OBP) and power (3 HR in 40 games after totaling 7 HR in 509 prior minor-league games) that created real cause for excitement. After a short April stint with the Twins, Span was recalled in June and he proved that his success in Rochester was no fluke, actually improving on his patience and power (60/50 K/BB and 6 HR in 93 games). Like Blackburn, Span has gone from afterthought to big-league fixture in just a short two-year frame.

Those (like me) who tend to follow and obsess over prospects will always focus on a few key aspects of a player's performance: with pitchers, the ability to miss bats and limit walks; with hitters, the ability to take walks, make contact and hit for power. The two young players featured in this article both consistently displayed massive weaknesses in some of these areas -- Blackburn with his inability to post impressive strikeout rates and Span with his lacking on-base skills and totally absent power stroke.

And despite all their doubters, both players turned a corner and became crucial members of this year's surprising near-playoff team. Blackburn more than held his own against major-league hitters and delivered a tremendous outing in the biggest game of the season. Span was a spark plug at the top of the order, providing the Twins with their first true leadoff hitter since... Chuck Knoblauch, maybe?

Now, this is not meant to be a total abandonment of those prospect-analysis tenets. It remains true that pitchers who can't strike minor-league hitters out and don't reach the big-leagues until they're 26 aren't usually bound for success. It also remains true that speedy, diminutive outfielders who show almost no power or patience over their first full years generally won't suddenly develop both those skills at the age of 24. But Blackburn and Span should serve as loud reminders that players can adjust and improve, even if it takes longer than results-hungry prospect hounds would like.

8 comments:

MVB said...

Nice post. These guys were huge for the Twins' success this year. Maybe we'll have more "dead prospects" turn it around and contribute next year.

ca said...

A more difficult question is whether players who "turn it around" can sustain that level of production going forward. Span had a great season, but he only started playing well when he was sent back to Rochester after a disappointing April stint in the majors. After a couple years of sustained so-so performance in the minors, he's played great essentially for two months at AAA and three months in the majors.

Who knows, maybe he refocused and applied himself after being sent down in April. Maybe the lasik surgery really made a huge difference. And maybe 5 months is enough time to say that he's "got it." I just wish that, given the remarkable change in such a short time period, there was some tangible reason for the resurgence to point to as the "turn-around point"--something he's doing now that he wasn't doing before. The alternative is conceding that player evaluation occasionally involves more witchcraft than I'd like.

Don't get me wrong, I really like Span, think it's awesome that he came back and earned the leadoff spot, and hope he can keep doing what he's doing. I guess I'm just steeling myself against the possibility that we might have seen him at an absolute peak this year that may not be sustained.

Nick N. said...

Who knows, maybe he refocused and applied himself after being sent down in April. Maybe the lasik surgery really made a huge difference. And maybe 5 months is enough time to say that he's "got it." I just wish that, given the remarkable change in such a short time period, there was some tangible reason for the resurgence to point to as the "turn-around point"--something he's doing now that he wasn't doing before. The alternative is conceding that player evaluation occasionally involves more witchcraft than I'd like.

In fairness, the turnaround basically started in the second half of the 2007 season. He finished very strong in Rochester, then carried that success forward throughout the 2008 campaign. So really, it's more like 7-8 months of sustained success. From a totally observational standpoint, I have a hard time believing this success is going to just disappear. His plate approach is solid and his home runs/doubles are well struck line drives. He doesn't have the appearance of a guy who's getting lucky or having flukish success.

Anonymous said...

It might be added that "the bulb is turned on" with some help from the physical side. Blackburn credits the return of his knee to health. Span credits the eye surgery operation that helps him see the ball better (hence new-found plate discipline.

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