Free Mike Hessman

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.

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Comments

  1. rbj said...

    I saw Hessman play all those years in Toledo (he owns the Mud Hens all time [through various incarnations] record for home runs).  He’s an excellent fielder and has great pop in his bat, but he’s an all or nothing kind of guy.  It’s either a home run or a strike out.  Still, he did help the Hens to back to back IL championships.  Which is more than any other team in Ohio has done, excepting OSU football.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    “if 23 percent of your fly balls are of the infield variety and 28 percent of your plate appearances end in a strikeout”

    You had me until here. In half his plate appearances he’s a free out. What can we expect from him at the ML level if he’s doing that in AAA?

    I would agree that if a team is starting Nick Punto or Omar Vizquel he might be worth a look.

  3. Ben said...

    Brad, you wrote that “in half his plate appearances he’s a free out.”  But the phrase was “if 23 percent of your fly balls”, not of all your plate appearances.  It’s still probably well above 35% and may come NEAR 45, but won’t sniff 50.

  4. WadeInDetroit said...

    The tragic irony is that Hessman was stalled behind Brandon Inge for years in Toledo (and Brandon rarely takes any days off).  So Mike goes elsewhere in 2010 to look for a shot at the majors and Inge promptly gets his hand broken and lands on the DL in Detroit.  Third base is now open and Mike isn’t around to grab it.

  5. Brandon Robetoy said...

    Saw Hessman play a bit when he was with the Tigers. Always wished he would have gotten more of a look. He played a little at 3B for the Tigs but he played better than I imagined. His tall gangly frame gives the impression that he would not be all that agile at the hot corner but I remember a couple of web gem cailiber plays in his short time.  I always hoped he would make the team in Detroit but Leyland didn’t seem to care for him that much.

  6. WadeInDetroit said...

    I heard that the Mud Hens are giving him an award or some type of recognition the next time his current team makes a swing through Toledo.  Maybe they could swap players right on the spot and pick him up to fill in for Brandon.  A fan can dream…

  7. Joshua Casper said...

    Good Call. Hessman has indeed gotten a call-up from the Mets, replacing Rod Barajas on the roster. In his first start, Hessman missed a grand-slam by feet in his first AB, banging one off the “Great Wall of Flushing for a 2RBI double. A screaming line drive, I cannot recall a ball hit that hard on a line which hit the deep LF wall. Hessman is an asset of the bench for the Metsies insomuch as he is one of the few right-handed hitter for whom the dimension may not be too much of a hindrance.

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