Sunday, June 22, 2008


How do you trap someone who is determined not to get bushwhacked? Well, you start with a fairly obvious trap. Then you devise the second trap, the one they put themselves into when they are smugly avoiding the obvious trap.
That’s the one I fell into. It started with an IM last week: What do you think of Buscher?

And suddenly I had visions of chin-ups with Jake Ryan:

TG: I don’t.
JR: Would you ever go out with her?
TG: Depends on how much you paid me.
JR: She’s not ugly.
TG: There’s nothin’ there, man. It’s not ugly. It’s just … void.

See, I was avoiding the obvious trap. For one-hundred years sportswriters and fans have put their faith in “the guy from the farm team”. And sometimes that worked out, which made them excited about the next guy who was called up. And sometimes it didn’t, which made them suspicious about the next guy who was called up.

And then the stats guys came along and tried to demonstrate that there were better methods for evaluating call-ups then how the guy before him did. Even if you had never seen them play before, these call-ups had been playing baseball for years, and looking at their stat lines could give us a feel for what the player might do in the big leagues.

Ignoring that history was a trap. Desperate for information, we often make snap judgments, like deciding a guy was "for real" based on 34 at-bats. That’s exactly how many at-bats Buscher has so far this season, and he’s hitting .353 with 12 RBI in 10 games. Concluding that he’s going to be successful based on that is falling into the obvious trap.

Because Buscher also has 1524 at-bats in the minors. In those at-bats, he’s hit .287, and had just 32 home runs over 5 seasons. And as a 27-year-old, he has been old for most of those leagues. In fact, he’s depressingly old to be breaking into the majors.

And so even though he’s been on the radar for the last two years, I haven’t paid much attention to him. I thought I knew Buscher. He wasn’t ugly. There’s just nothing there. And last year’s introduction to the majors, in which he hit .244 with very little power seemed to confirm it. I saw a void.

I’m wondering if I didn’t fall into a trap. Maybe I made up my mind a little too early. Or maybe I was looking for the star prospect instead of the reasonably priced fill-in. But whatever it was that bushwhacked me, it appears that Buscher isn’t who I though he was at all. And his minor league stats seem to show that:

In 2006, Buscher was what I thought he was – a failed third round college pick with the San Francisco Giants. He wasn’t hitting for average, in part because he wasn’t particularly good at controlling the strike zone. And he wasn’t hitting for any power at third base, which is almost mandatory there.

That’s when the Twin picked him up in the Rule 5 Minor League Draft. And in 2007, as a 26-year-old in AA and AAA, there were some real changes. He started hitting for a much higher average, and that’s not the only sign that he started learning how to hit. He also started drawing more walks than strikeouts, when he had previously struck out almost twice as much.

And finally (and for the Twins, most importantly), he started hitting for real power. To give that .500 slugging percentage some context, Justin Morneau is slugging .486 this year. And it’s not just because Buscher was hitting for a higher average – his “isolated power” number nearly doubled.

Which is not to suggest that we have another Morneau in the order. Buscher is 27 years old, and the ceiling for a 27-year-old prospect is that of a league average starter. But the good news is that the Twins would kill right now for a league average third baseman. And the other good news is that the Twins have their own history of a late bloomer manning third base for a couple of years. You can still see him on most Twins games. Or, at least after most Twins games.

It's Ron Coomer. He didn’t make his major league debut until he was 28 years old, but played third base for the Twins full-time for four years. He and Buscher aren’t terribly similar in their styles, but he’s a good example of how an older prospect with some power can carve out a useful major league career. Coomer only slugged over .500 in the majors once, and that was the year he was protected against right-handed pitchers. But he murdered southpaws, and ended up with 449 career RBI and an All-Star appearance.

Could we expect the same for Buscher? “Expect” is a little strong, but it’s not out of the question. Buscher’s minor league track record suggests that he won’t hit for this high of an average, but could hit for slightly better power. Best of all, the plate discipline we’re seeing is real. Also, what few stats I can find suggest he doesn’t struggle too much against left-handers, and he may get a chance to show that since Matt Macri was sent down yesterday.

At the very least, it looks like he’s worth giving a looksie. If we're a little lucky, maybe some of the teams in the AL Central will join me in being bushwhacked.
Sorry I've been away for awhile. I don't even have an excuse. Just too much time doing other stuff. We'll see if I can't make it up to you this week. - John


Tricia said...

Love the 16 Candles reference. That's one of my favorite movies ever. I am also really starting to like Brian Buscher, small sample size or not.

John said...

It's worth noting that Buscher's pro career started at a relatively advanced age; he was already 22 when drafted. Not to say Buscher is his equal, but Corey Koskie's first full season was at age 27. Casey Blake didn't get his first real shot until age 29.

I'm excited to see what Buscher can do.

neckrolls said...

I think we sometimes put too much stock in a minor-league track record. A lot of baseball is mental, and it can take some people a while for the light to come on. Nick Blackburn is another one who was middling for awhile, but appeared to figure something out last year. Hopefully, the same sort of thing is also happening for Denard Span, and he'll turn out to be a productive player after all.