How many times do we see potential fully realized?
Think about all the people you read about, you see on non-reality TV. How many of them are at their absolute pinnacle with no where else to go? Where are the world-beaters, the ones who can't get any better? We are quick to see the possibility in an idea or a place, but are just as quick to see it fail. On the way up, we can't help but push it every higher. On the way down, we can't help but think about what might have been.
Even the best video games leave potential as an open question. Sure, you can level up on things like Call of Duty, but there's always something more, something to push you higher and further. Before most of us can get there, a new game comes out and we have to start all over again.
Never is that need to push potential to the limits, to constantly evaluate where potential growth is, than in sports. There is an entire cottage industry around prospects and the minor leagues where the whole purpose is divining how much potential an 18-year old has. What could he be down the road? Where is he at now? How's he progressing? I'm guilty of it myself, and I'm not sure just realizing that I do it is enough to stop me from going down that road in the future.
I bring all this up because the third-best right fielder of all-time on my list may not be the first name that jumps to your mind. He may not even be the fifth name that comes to your mind, and I think that has everything to do with his potential and the expectations we heaped onto him early in his career.
My third-best right fielder is Richard Hidalgo. A few of his stats:
- A line of .278/.356/.501 in eight years in Houston
- 134 home runs, 191 doubles and 787 hits as an Astro
- 465 RBIs and 442 runs scored in 813 career games
- OPS+ of 115 and a WAR total of 17.4
One decision, one season and one contract changed the perception about Hidalgo immensely. Without all that, he's still one of the top five right fielders in team history, but not third-best. You could even make a case for him being second all-time. I downgraded him for the same reasons I downgraded him his entire career.
When the Astros decided to protect Hidalgo over Bobby Abreu back in the 1997 expansion draft, they forever linked the two outfielders. There were a lot of good reasons for the Astros to do it, like the fact that Hidalgo could play center field and Abreu was more likely to move off position or that Hidalgo had more power potential. Still, with Abreu turning into a perennial All-Star and on-base machine in Philly, Hidalgo started catching some heat. Every time he crashed into the wall and missed time, people must've glanced at Abreu. All those down seasons when he couldn't quite find his power stroke, those same eyes drifted to Abreu in the midsummer classic again. It's inevitable as it was unavoidable. There was nothing Hidalgo could have done to prevent it, nor does he deserve the criticism that rises from it.
Hidalgo's best season was in 2000. Enron Field opened like gangbusters, as hitters teed off on that pretty railroad track in right field. No one had a better season than Richard Hidalgo. We can argue about defensive value all day, but Hidalgo had a higher WAR than Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou, despite having lesser offensive stats than those two. Hidalgo hit 44 home runs, had an OPS+ of 147, added 42 doubles with 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts, had 118 runs scored and 122 RBIs while hitting .314/.391/.636. He did all that at the age of 25 while playing an above-average center field. It was before his peak. It was supposed to be just scratching his potential as a player. It was, in short, his breakout campaign.
The problem for Hidalgo is consistency. His season in 2000 may have skewed perception of him, but his inconsistency left fans just as perplexed. If you look at his 2001-2003 seasons added together, they approximate his numbers in all but a few seasons. In 2001 and 2003, he put up close to those averages, just like he did in 1998. However, his numbers fell off a cliff in 1999, 2002 and then again in 2004. What caused this? That's an open question. But, for his part, when Hidalgo was on, he was a solid player.
Four years after that breakout, though, when he was still 28 years old, Hidalgo was unceremoniously dumped on the New York Mets for reliever David Weathers in a contract dump.
Following that breakout performance, Hidalgo signed a 5-year, 45 million dollar contract with the Astros. He joined Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio as a new face for the club heading into the future. In paying him a two million dollar signing bonus and escalating salaries leading up to a 15 million dollar option in 2005, the Astros were making a big commitment to a guy who they thought could hit 40 homers in a season. The problem was it took Hidalgo three years to hit another 40 home runs.
Hidalgo moved from center field to right in 2002 and ended up playing close to 400 games in right for the Astros. He showed off his cannon of an arm (one of his original "five tools"), but never hit enough to live up to his contract. He did have a bounce-back season in 2003, hitting .309/.385/.572 in 141 games, with 28 homers, 44 doubles and 88 RBIs. Hidalgo also finished 18th in the MVP voting that season.
That contract, the one that weighed down expectations and put an expiration date on his tenure in Houston, was given out in the craziest contract season in MLB history. That was the year of the Manny Ramirez deal, the original A-Rod deal, the Kevin Brown deal and, lest we forget, the Mike Hampton deal. The entire baseball landscape had lost its mind, so the fact that a promising center fielder signed a reasonably priced deal doesn't seem too bad.
The problem it created for Hidalgo were those false expectations. We expected him to hit like he did in 2000 every year. After all, he was getting paid for it. We expected him to play, not go on the disabled list (Hidalgo never played in 150 games again after 2000). In short, we expected him to be great, and he was only very good. We expected too much out of him.
What we couldn't know at the time was that Hidalgo came up in a whirlwind time. Pitchers had to learn how to pitch in Enron Field. Baseball's financial landscape would slowly drift downward, just as a hitter's era peaked in that season and headed down to the more pitching-dominant state we find ourselves in now. In short, Hidalgo's breakout year happened in the most favorable conditions he'd see.
It's hard to accept someone has hit a ceiling. We'll make excuses for them (oh, he's just recovering from the knee surgery). We'll prod them along (it's just a slump). We'll even throw them under the bus (he just needs a change of scenery), but the hardest thing to admit is that we're wrong about their potential. That boundless growth we see all around us personally doesn't translate well to athletics. Physically, not everyone peaks when they're in the late 20's. Some guys just bloom early and fade early. Some guys don't bloom at all. We can't always predict the future and we can't always see the recent past clearly.
I've spent a lot of time philosophizing about Richard Hidalgo, and maybe he doesn't warrant it. But, we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about Astros players. For me, I needed to step into the wayback machine for a minute to remember that things don't always work out like we plan, but we should still appreciate it for what it is. In Hidalgo's case, it's that he was one of the best right fielders in Houston Astros history. I wouldn't have guessed that before I wrote this article, but I'm sure glad he's here now.