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You Can Learn A Lot By Watching – May 21, 2011 – Toronto Blue Jays vs. Houston Astros

May 22, 2011

Out in Left Field

Yesterday, in his 21st game back in Las Vegas, in his 85th at bat, Travis Snider finally hit his first home run for the Las Vegas 51s, helping the Jays’ AAA-affiliate to complete a come from behind 8-6 victory of the Royals’ AAA affiliate in Omaha. Although he started his most recent minor league trip hitting like gangbusters, it was quickly apparent that there was no power among all those singles, and even now, with that critical first home run out of the way, Snider has but seven extra base hits, with an isolated slugging percentage (SLG-AVG) of .106. As a comparison point, that is scarcely higher than homerless Aaron Hill in Toronto. In fact, it’s not much better than he had been doing for the Jays before his demotion.

“But Wagman,” you may be thinking. “I thought this post was about the Jays’ game? You covered the minors leagues last week.” And you would be correct on both counts. This post is not about Snider, per se, nor about the road to the show. This post is about Saturday’s game, but also about the sometimes precipitous path taken by young, highly touted left fielders to big league berths.

This idea took root when I noted that the Astros were starting Brian Bogusevic in left field for the game. Not their normal left fielder, as Carlos Lee (started 34 of 46 games for the Astros in LF) is able to play the more appropriate DH role when visiting an AL-ballpark, Bogusevic was making only his second start of the season in the pasture. Bogusevic has one of baseball’s most interesting paths to a major league roster spot on his resume.

While in college, Bogusevic was a top college pitcher for NCAA powerhouse Tulane, in New Orleans. The Astros selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft, hoping the big left-handed pitcher would not be long for a spot in their rotation. As recently as 2008, his stock was already well down, as Baseball America could only rank him as the 19th-best prospect in the very weak Astros’ system. His fastball was coming in between 88-91mph, but without any zest or movement, and minor league hitters were not having any difficulty in teeing off on him. In 2007, a 23-year-old Bogusevic allowed 133 hits in 114 innings in the High A Carolina league. Not only was he too old for the competition, but he wasn’t fooling anyone, an assertion further back up by his recording only 91 strikeouts during that time. He had a six start cameo in AA, to disastrous results. In 2008, the Astros assigned Bogusevic back to AA, even though he did not truly overcome High A, and he predictably bombed, striking out a mere 34 batters in 88.1 innings of work.

And so Brian Bogusevic switched gears and switched positions. Like former college teammate Micah Owings, Bogusevic was also an accomplished hitter in college. As the Astros had no other way of recouping the $1.375 million bonus given to Bogusevic upon signing, in July of 2008, they took him off the mound and moved him to the outfield.  Just over two years later, on September 1, 2010, Bogusevic made his MLB debut.

* * *

Meanwhile, starting in left field for the Blue Jays was Dusty Baker’s favourite player, Corey Patterson. At 31 years old, and with 1,000 MLB hits (Mazal tov!) to his credit, no one can mistake Corey Patterson for a prospect just now making his way up. But in other ways, Patterson’s career has had many of the same failure-to-fly elements as the man he was sharing outfield real estate with in this game.

In 1998, still only 18, Patterson was seen as one of the most exciting, dynamic young amateur baseball players in North America. After the Phillies selected Pat Burrell with 1st overall pick of the 1998 draft, and the Athletics followed suit by selecting pitcher Mark Mulder, the Cubs took the #1 high school player available and made Corey Patterson a member of their family, passing up on future stars including J.D. Drew, Carlos Pena, Brad Lidge, C.C. Sabathia, Matt Thornton, Aaron Rowand and Mark Prior (although Prior did not sign with the Yankees, going to college instead, after which he would eventually join Patterson as a Cub).

At this late date, it is instructive to be reminded that the pick was widely viewed as a great one at the time. The following year, he was rated as the #16 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. After his first season as a pro, Patterson was moved up to #3 in the land, and peaked as the #2 guy in 2001 after hitting 22 home runs as a 20-year-old in AA. The signs may have been there then, as, in skipping past High A, Patterson saw his strikeout rate rise from 16.7% in Low A at age 19, to 22.7% in AA. He was walking a bit more, up from 4.9% in Low A, to 8.9% in AA. Patterson got a cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2000 and more extensive service time in 2001. He was raw, but immensely exciting. His first full MLB season came in 2002 and his walk rate plummeted to 3% while striking out in 24% of his at bats.

In only one full season from his debut until leaving the Cubs organization after the 2005 season was Patterson able to put up a park-adjusted OPS above league average, that being his injury shortened 2003 season. Through that 2005 season, his OPS+ was a mere 81 across 589 games. He was 25 and was striking out in more than a quarter of his at bats, without the power or patience to make the whiffs worthwhile. His on-base percentage was a lowly .293. Before the 2006 season, the Cubs cut bait, sending Patterson to Baltimore for a pair of minor league marginal talents who have not since been heard from.

Patterson played two season for the Orioles, not fully embarrassing himself as a defensive centre-fielder before entering the journey-man phase of his career, spending time with Cincinnati, Washington, Milwaukee and then Baltimore again over the next three seasons, joining Toronto on a minor-league deal this past offseason. Now 31, if he can maintain his current level of play across the season, it would rank as the best offensive performance of his career.

* * *

As hecklers a few rows behind me tore into Bogusevic on Saturday, particularly after his third strikeout, I reminded myself and my brother next to me, that Bogusevic has already proven himself, reinventing a career as a major leaguer after his first attempt went awry. And so, too, did Corey Patterson. Written off as a bust as he had not lived up to his immense amateur potential, he has nonetheless made a nice career for himself, seeing parts of 12 seasons, and earning close to $13 million dollars in salary. He is certainly a flawed player, but undoubtedly also a useful one.

And to Brian Bogusevic, striking out twice against Brandon Morrow, who has already whiffed 43 batters in 32 innings this season, after striking out 178 in 146.1 last year….well, that’s nothing to be ashamed about. He also took a Morrow splitter the other way in his first at bat, singling to left field. In the bottom half of that second inning, Bogusevic ranged way back to make a gem of an over-the-shoulder catch to retire Juan Rivera. He later showed great range coming in, racing to snare a looper off the bat of Rajai Davis in bottom of the 5th, a ball not far behind third base.

Patterson had a lackluster game, going 0-4 one day after picking up his 1,000th career base hit, ending what had been an 11-game hit streak. To his credit, Patterson also made a nice over-the-shoulder catch, while somehow conveying a general lack of grace in doing so, on a ball hit by Astros’ CF Michael Bourn, retiring the Astros’ side in the 6th, paving the way for the start of a Toronto comeback.

This comeback was bookended by two Jose Bautista bombs, both pulled, as is his custom, to deep left field. Not one for high parabolic moon shots, Bautista went deep first off Astros’ starter Brett Myers, taking an 0-1 curveball deep into the bleacher seats for three runs. His second blast was weaker by comparison, as he turned on a 93-MpH fastball from young reliever Jose Valdez, just over the wall and into the Blue Jays’ bullpen. This was only worth one add-on run for the hometown nine.

In between those two blasts, Toronto scored three runs in bottom of the 7th, as Eric Thames earned his first career extra base hit, a long drive to left-centre field that eluded the grasp of Bogusevic and bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double. He soon scored on a Jose Molina ground ball up the middle, proving, much like Jose Bautista, that copious facial hair is no impediment to quick base-running. Molina then came around to score on a long blast by shortstop Yunel Escobar, a two-run home run that ended Brett Myers’ game and gave the Jays their first lead of the game.

While Brandon Morrow struggled early, surrendering six hits and three runs in the first three innings, he allowed only three more hits and one more run through three-plus innings more. His control was fine, but his command was off, leaving too much of the ball over the plate. He pitched better than his overall line, as his ability to bear down and limit the damage after the 3rd inning allowed the Jays time to figure out Myers and a manageable deficit to overcome, which they did, winning by a final score of 7-5, tying the series up at one game a piece.

* * *

As thoughts turn towards the rubber-match of this inter-league set, I would like to take a moment to revisit Travis Snider, re-establishing his swing and poker face in Las Vegas. Like Brian Bogusevic and Corey Patterson, Travis Snider was a highly touted amateur, selected in the first round amid a great deal of excitement. By the age of 20, Snider had already debuted with the Blue Jays. He also spent parts of both 2009 and 2010 in Toronto, teasing with his hitting potential if not quite establishing himself as a middle-of-the-order threat. In little over the combined equivalent of a full season’s worth of plate appearances – not including this season – Snider has been a roughly league average hitter, batting .255 with a .764 OPS, 3% better than the park-adjusted MLB average. He has hit 25 home runs, several of them truly majestic. He has played a clumsy, if passable left field. And he’s still only 23 years old. His failure to truly launch has many wondering if he is a bust. By the same age, Patterson had meandered his way to a 72 OPS+ (28% below average), with a lower batting average, less patience and less power. Brian Bogusevic was still pitching in A-ball at age 23. So, no – while he should not be seen as a sure-fire star, Travis Snider has not yet failed as a prospect. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments, and Snider must show that he can make the changes necessary to turn his potential into performance. And we should also remember that the scale of capability is not binary. As Patterson and Bogusevic both have proven, sometimes prospects can become solid MLB contributors even without being the stars they were once considered to be. Travis Snider may have a long career ahead of him, but never produce more than he already has. That would still be a useful ballplayer, if not a guy that you want your favourite team to be built around. I still hold out hope that he can figure out what he needs to succeed in a big way, but I`ve long since ceased holding my breath.

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