On a Friday evening in April, following a barbecue, I sat down to watch a matchup between the Tigers and Rangers in a state of inebriation. I found myself enamored of a hulking rookie who was making his debut as Detroit's designated hitter. The 6' 4" lefty had an imposing presence at the plate, somewhat reminiscent of the once-great Pronk (a.k.a. Travis Hafner). Not possessing the energy at the particular moment to look deeper into the prospects of young Brennan Boesch, who began his career by going 2-for-4, I unceremoniously added him to a number of my deeper fantasy squads in an act of drunken romanticism. As far as the results of lowered inhibitions go, this was relatively harmless, but I will admit, two days later, when I got around to soberly browsing through Boesch's minor-league stats, I experienced a fleeting but nonetheless tangible flutter of regret in the pit of my stomach.
In at least two leagues I had spent a valuable transaction to procure Boesch, who hadn't posted a OBP above .320 since his first season in low-A Oneonta. He had developing power, as his hulking body suggested, having hit 28 HR at AA in '09, but we have seen many, many players with Boesch's apparent lack of plate discipline struggle mightily upon reaching the majors. I guessed, given playing time, that Boesch might be capable of 20-30 HR, but I also imagined, a la Chris Davis, he would be lucky to hit his weight (conservatively listed at 235 lbs.) and could be headed back to AAA in a matter of weeks.
To my considerable amazement (as with everybody else) Boesch is currently the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year in the American League. He's hitting .337 with 10 HR, 36 RBI, and an astounding 1001 OPS. That final number is enough to rank fifth in the American League among hitters with at least 175 plate appearances, trailing boppers like Miggy Cabrera, Justin Morneau, and Kevin Youkilis. Even if a sharp decline is imminent, Boesch has already paid tremendous dividends for all who have owned him through the last couple of months, as only once has he gone as many as four contests without a multi-hit game. His presence as protection for Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez has much to do with the Tigers hanging around in the AL Central, only a game and a half back of the Twins.
However, before you go judging this as an endorsement of instinctual scouting, I warn that such occasions are exceedingly rare. A similar state of impaired judgment once convinced me of the imminent greatness of Kyle Lohse. Almost certainly, Brennan Boesch cannot sustain his current pace of production, but the more serious question is whether he can continue to be a relatively cheap and functional run-producer, akin to Ryan Ludwick or Josh Willingham. To answer this question, I call your attention to a pair of 2009 Rookie of the Year candidates who also came out of nowhere
Chris Coghlan began 2009 playing second base for the Marlins AAA affiliate in New Orleans. He was a late first-round draft pick in '06, but at 24, he was becoming "old" for a prospect, and Baseball Prospectus, for one, projected him as a "utility infielder." Much like Boesch, he began the season by setting fire to the Pacific Coast League, hitting .344 in his first 25 games with speed (9/10 SB) and power (.552 SLG). Necessity prompted the Marlins to promote him in early May, turning him into an outfielder, and he went bonkers in the second-half, hitting at a .372 clip and becoming a favorite of the Baseball Tonight staff. In retrospect, this performance was apparently unsustainable. He had a .406 BABIP after the All-Star Break and slugged more than 100 points higher than he had in the minors.
Like many fantasy pundits, I shied away from Coghlan this spring, and as a result didn't have to to deal with five weeks in which Coghlan's OPS (422) was less than half of what it was in '09 (850) and he appeared dangerously close to demotion. Since the middle of May, however, Coghlan has again caught fire (935 OPS).
Coghlan and Boesch are not similar hitters. Coghlan has always been a top-of-the-order type, with good discipline, decent speed, and a high average, but very modest power. Boesch was quite the opposite, until recently he was a pure swing-from-the-heels masher. Their similarity lies in the fact that they both show evidence of being from that rare species of "late-bloomers." Most prospects show a pattern of growth over the course of their professional careers. It may be two steps forward followed by one step back, but given three or four seasons, you can see obviously incremental improvements in areas like power, discipline, and defense. Coghlan and Boesch, on the other hand, stayed in a holding pattern until their mid-twenties, than made massive improvements over the course of a single calendar year. Because of the inherently small sample size created by this phenomenon, it's difficult to tell whether or not they can sustain such production, but both are still young enough (25) that it seems feasible. It will be important to watch how Boesch responds to his first slump.
Which brings us to Casey McGehee. McGehee differs from Coghlan and Boesch in that he is older and never showed any signs of being a capable everyday player during his tenure in the minors. The Brewers brought McGehee to the majors at the beginning of '09 as a utility infielder. They never envisioned, at that point, that the rookie would be capable of hitting in the middle of their loaded lineup. And at this particular moment, that judgment seems founded. McGehee has hit just .177 with a 536 OPS in his last twenty games. However, during the time when Coghlan was struggling, McGehee was tearing through the NL, racking up 41 RBI in his first 45 games. His major-league production has been superior to his minor-league production in every single category, by in a long shot in most cases. At no point did he bat .300 in the minors, yet hit well above .300 in his first 160+ major-league games.
When the league "adjusts," developing a book on the unexpectedly productive rookie, it is usually curtains (see Francouer, Jeff). For players who are dependent on power, this is even more the case, as an already all-or-nothing approach swings further to the "nothing" side. Since his recall, Boesch has shown a surprising willingness to use all fields and hit situationally. When he encounters his first slump, however, he may trend backwards into a Rob Deer disposition.