The Oklahoma City Redhawks have just finished a 78-65 season, and to celebrate the most successful year in recent memory for Houston's minor league clubs, we at The Crawfish Boxes are taking a look at some of the characters involved. Before any of our other illustrious writers could leap forward, I volunteered to explore maybe the most interesting man in the Astros' system at present, OKC First Baseman Mike Hessman.
In only 488 Plate Appearances, Hessman cranked out 35 Home Runs, 78 RBI, and scored 73 Runs. Epic is a word that comes to mind. It is not normal to see that much power displayed in AAA, even in the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League. Indeed, Hessman led the PCL in Home Runs in 2012, six ahead of the second place finisher. He managed that while playing home games in a park that plays relatively neutral compared to some of the launch pads like Las Vegas, Reno, Tacoma, and even the Astros' old home in Round Rock. In other words, Hessman truly showed herculean power in AAA, and deserves to have recognition heaped on.
"So who is this fellow?" ask drooly Astros fans, dreaming of a full-time DH who can truly mash. In one sentence, Hessman is older than I am, and I have been out of college for almost a decade. Wikipedia calls him "a real-life Crash Davis" (despite the fact that there already is a real-life Crash Davis) because of his longevity in the minors without getting more than a casual glance in the major leagues.
Before I dive into some reasons why Davis, I mean Hessman, is still in AAA at age 34.25, he deserves to have a bit more glory piled on for his contributions to the Redhawks in 2012.
Age and prospect status aside, Hessman is a major reason why Oklahoma City finished just out of the PCL playoffs (they were darn close), and by that I mean they would be much further away without him. StatCorner gives Hessman a 16.3 paV (replacement value), a stat that I can only assume is similar to VORP (Value over Replacement Player), which measures how much better in terms of Runs created a player is over your garden-variety average performer. Don't quote me on that though. Regardless, a higher number is better, and Hessman's 16.3 is second on the club only to Jimmy Paredes.
With his 24th team in 17 seasons, Hessman appears to still be performing at his absolute peak, and should be applauded.
Hessman's performance, coupled with his approximately 25 HR/season minor league average begs a couple questions.
1. Why is he still in the minors at age 34?
The truth is, Hessman is still in the minor leagues for a couple reasons. He struggles defensively, a fact on which both traditional fielding percentage and advanced stats agree. StatsCorner grades him with a positional Value (posV) of -9.6, which is more than double the second-worst fielder on the team (Fernando Martinez). His career 1B fielding percentage is .993 in about 250 games, which average to below-average for the position, but his 3B Field % (where he played over 1,300 games) is .950, which is terrible. So Hessman appears to be a born DH.
At a glance at his low batting averages, one might think Hessman fits the mold of a Three True Outcome hitter. The problem is that while his strikeout rate over the past three years (26%) and walk rate (8%) are not bad, they aren't typical of that type of player. TTO hitters can be counted on to either Hit a Home Run, Strike Out, or Walk. Think Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, and Jack Cust for recent examples. Hessman just does not walk enough to fit the mold. It's a shame too, because Hessman's slugging percentage over his past few seasons is much higher than those three guys' in their final years in the minors.
The true reason for his struggles seem to be tied to his ability to make contact. Obviously, when he does make contact, the ball travels a long way, and his HR/Contact rate in 2012 was a hilarious 11.10%. So more than 1 in 10 balls that he makes contact with (including fouls) became a fan souvenir in fair territory. 48% of his runs scored were at the end of his own home run trots, and 45% of his RBI's were from knocking himself in. I used to get stats like that playing EA Sports MVP 2005 on my PC back in the day.
Unfortunately, Hessman swings at over 50% of the pitches he sees, and makes contact with only 71.6% of them. For comparison, Dunn also has a contact rate around 70%, but is much more selective, swinging at only 40% of the pitches he sees. For 600 Plate Apperances, at 4 pitches per, Hessman would swing at 240 more pitches than Dunn, and whiff on 120 of them. That makes a difference.
What hurts Hessman (and helps Dunn) is that while Hessman only makes contact with 18% of the pitches he swings at outside of the zone (and he swings on 14% of those pitches), Dunn has a 50% contact rate on those same pitches outside the zone. That relative selectivity plus ability to go after pitches outside the zone really is the difference between Hessman and a perennial Home Run league leader in the majors. And it's a darn shame that Hessman has not been able to make that hand-eye coordination leap, or else I suspect he could have been in the majors for at least a decade and maybe won some HR titles.
2. Is he a realistic option to DH for the 2013 Astros?
Quick answer: Sure, why not?
Realistically, Hessman would probably hit .200-.220 in a full season of the majors, with an OBP around .300 (maybe), but with 30+ Home Runs. That would not cut the mustard on a contending team, but the 2013 Astros clearly won't fit that description.
Hessman's performance in AAA, plus his obvious commitment to baseball as evidenced by his longevity where most others would have hung it up to sell insurance by age 28, much less 34, makes me want to see him get an extended stay as a DH on an Astros team that has nothing to lose. At 35, Hessman will definitely be on the wrong side of the aging curve, but who cares? It's been a long time since the Astros have seen that kind of power, and it might be fun.
More importantly though, Hessman would be DH for a presumably major league minimum salary. The production could be comparable to Andruw Jones in 2012 (hitting .202 with the Yankees, but with 13 HR in 246 Plate Appearances), but at a fraction of the cost. For a club with large debt, declining attendance, and a commitment to building from within instead of through expensive acquisitions, there is no reason why Hessman should not start the season at DH. The reality is, the 2013 Astros have absolutely no reason to pay more than bare minimum for a DH, and given the bare minimum they could do much worse than a man who has displayed such dedication to his sport and has become a fan favorite in only one season on an Astros farm team.
I say, give the guy his shot under the lights. It would be fun, it would be rewarding a determined man, and it would not hurt the club in the slightest.