Mike Hessman is 32 years old. In the last 15 years, he has played more than 1,600 games in the minor leagues, and 77 in the majors. He’s played regularly for the Triple-A affiliate of three different franchises, and he worked his way through the Braves system so long ago that some of the teams he played for don’t exist anymore.
If you like traditional stats, you probably don’t care much for Hessman. His career batting average in the minors is .232, and he’s had a shocking six seasons below .220. Then again, you can’t complain about his 329 minor league home runs, which contribute to a very respectable .460 slugging percentage.
Of course, minor league career stats don’t mean much. It doesn’t make sense to mix in Triple-A numbers with rookie-ball results. As a gauge of Hessman’s talent, we care most about his numbers one step away from the bigs, which were compiled between age 24 and 32:
Year Age Tm Aff PA BA OBP SLG 2002 24 Richmond ATL 532 0.262 0.321 0.486 2003 25 Richmond ATL 395 0.248 0.296 0.440 2004 26 Richmond ATL 304 0.287 0.365 0.562 2005 27 Toledo DET 547 0.214 0.313 0.436 2006 28 Toledo DET 394 0.165 0.269 0.406 2007 29 Toledo DET 498 0.254 0.356 0.540 2008 30 Toledo DET 473 0.271 0.374 0.602 2009 31 Toledo DET 548 0.217 0.324 0.442 2010 32 Buffalo NYM 249 0.287 0.369 0.616
We’re looking at a unique player. He profiles like Russell Branyan only, if anything, more extreme. The patience and power is exemplary, but you surely won’t be surprised to learn that he strikes out nearly 30 percent of the time.
Gotta be like Mike
A quick glance at those numbers, and I’d understand if you assumed Hessman was a 1B/DH, the sort of guy where “first baseman” should always come with scare quotes. But that’s not the case.
Hessman has played almost all of his pro career at the hot corner. And if TotalZone is to be believed, he’s been damn good.
Year Team Chances Runs 2005 Toledo 201 +1 2006 Toledo 260 +11 2007 Toledo 307 +26 2008 Toledo 242 0 2009 Toledo 293 +13 2010 Buffalo 122 +4 TOTAL 1425 +55
As with any defensive metric reporting on 120-game samples, there’s plenty of volatility here. Surely he wasn’t worth 26 runs above average in 2007. But by the same token, five and a half years of above-average numbers can’t be written off.
In fact, pro-rating Hessman’s TotalZone numbers for the years that results are available, he averaged about 14 runs above the typical Triple-A third baseman. That doesn’t mean he’d be +14 per 150 games in the majors—a realistic translation is probably about +9—but even if we irrationally slash those numbers by half, a well-established +7 indicates a very good defender.
Stereotyped and buried
If you can accept the claim that Hessman is a solid fielder—possibly even an elite one—the picture changes considerably.
If we translate Hessman’s stats back to 2005, he comes out with a major-league-equivalent OPS of about .700, and that includes his dreadful 2006 season. A probably more accurate assessment is rendered by various projection systems, some of which put him above .760.
An OPS of .760 is a convenient number, it turns out. Last year, the major league average at third base was .757. (With, admittedly, a higher OBP and a lower SLG than Hessman would bring to the table.) Even if you are pessimistic and think he’s closer to a .700-level player, you may be interested to know that nine teams got less than a .700 OPS from third base last year. Those clubs include the Twins, Phillies and Cardinals.
Find this man a home
At the moment, Hessman just back from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for more than a month. Now he’s healthy, he’s probably stuck manning third for Buffalo until the end of the season. It shouldn’t be that way.
If he is to get a chance this season, he’ll have to find a new home. As much as I may complain, I’m not about to argue that the Mets should move their third baseman to make room! But this year, like last, there are plenty of teams that could use a power bat with good defense at third base.
Ten major league clubs have gotten a .710 OPS or worse out of third base. Three are contenders and would become more credible ones with Hessman on board.
The White Sox have settled on Omar Vizquel as a stopgap. Vizquel’s defense may be great, but that’s all he’s offering, and as we’ve seen, Hessman can hack it in the field as well. Even if Mark Teahen returns, he may not be a better option than the Mets minor leaguer.
The Twins need even more help at third base. Enough pixels have been spilled complaining about Ron Gardenhire‘s commitment to Nick Punto, so I’ll just add that despite Punto’s quality defense, he’s currently slugging .307. If the Twins are willing to give up a player to be named later, they could instantly add at least 100 points to that.
Putting on the worst show in the majors this year at third are the Angels. It would be an exaggeration to say that they must upgrade the position if they want to chase down the Rangers, but it certainly looks like the easiest way to boost their production. Kevin Frandsen has hit well enough to bring the cumulative third base OPS up (yes—up!) to .555, but he’s not an acclaimed defender, nor does he have the potential to make a serious difference at the plate.
But even in the era of WAR and wOBA, a man with a .220 batting average is a tough sell. And I understand why scouts aren’t raving about him—if 23 percent of your fly balls are of the infield variety and 28 percent of your plate appearances end in a strikeout, it’s easy to look really bad on any given day.
Can’t we look past all that? Hessman is probably past his prime, and in two or three more years, he won’t have the skills to contribute even if a team does give him a chance. Right now, he’s an untapped asset. Someone needs to make the call.