Josh Donaldson, Late Bloomers, and First-Time All-Stars

What made the 2015 All-Star Game much more intriguing than past years was the constant number of surprises. Despite the controversy surrounding Pete Rose and his being accepted (maybe) back into baseball, it was a real, cool treat to watch Rose and other Hall of Fame Redlegs take the mound pregame. I’m sure many would agree that the appearances of Ken Griffey, both Junior and Senior, at Great American Ballpark reminded all baseball fans of some of their own special heroes, and, needless to say, who could not be overwhelmed to see Willie Mays live on screen. I mean, how often do you see a legend?

What stood out so vividly was the abundance of All-Stars who continue to embody the storybook road to the Major Leagues, and for thirty-two of them, their first All-Star Game. It used to be that no matter what, the star players the fans idolized and most certainly wanted to watch dive for catches and hit long balls were invited to participate in this legendary mid-season event. But these fans were treated to an even greater feast this year.  The All-Star Game featured not just usual suspects who had shown their respective talent in previous All-Star events or maybe the occasional National Broadcast, but plenty of newcomers as well.

Tuesday night, first-time stars were there for all to see. Josh Donaldson rocked the spotlight for two straight days. Brian Dozier hit a late-inning homer for the American League. A.J. Pollock didn’t show us anything especially entertaining, but Pollock, a notable late-bloomer, is easily one of the best center-fielders in the game. Jacob deGrom — why don’t I just strike out the side and then shrug my shoulders? Dallas Keuchel, the American League’s starting pitcher, was borderline off-the-baseball-radar before really turning himself around.

In other words, these guys may have been first-time selectees, but they also represent a new elite class of players in the big leagues, along with Lorenzo Cain, another first-timer. There’s a new phenomenon in baseball worth noting, you see. A few years back, as recently as 2011, big league expectations of potential stardom were viewed differently.

For example, a lot of what went into scouting prospects and ranking them on prospect lists was age. If you weren’t of prospect age (23 and younger, with 24 just on the cusp) you were likely to be given much less consideration by scouts, evaluators, and player development personnel alike. Some scouts persuaded me of this view. A former Oakland Athletics scout said, “25-, 26-, and 27-year-old hitters display high averages and more power because they’ve played at that level typically for more than a couple of seasons and have a better ability to take advantage of other players at the level because of experience and age.” He then went onto explain that the three specific ages he listed were different than players in their early 30s or thereabouts, and that it’s because of preconceived notions about 25-27 players with hot numbers — they might be held back because of lousy defense, or no everyday spot in a big league lineup, or just bad overall grades by scouts. Unquestionably, as players age, you generally get a better idea of their abilities and potential. Those in their mid-to-late 20s are less raw, have probably already filled out physically, and are probably in their prime and slowly approaching their peak.

It thus appears that players in the 25-27 age group today are given greater opportunities to vie for playing jobs and win them than in the past, and some of these players really are the new stars, the new elite talents of the game. Some execs have likened the newfound success rate of the 25-27ers to the development and calling up of Matt Carpenter, who at 26 was given a chance to play every day in St. Louis after a .301/.418/.469 career slash line at the Triple-A level. For Carpenter, 2011 was his final full-season at Triple-A — his age-25 season. Some scouts have referred to Carpenter’s success in the same way one might consider Clint Robinson or Ian Gac: old for the level, hitting off easy competition, and playing in the Pacific Coast League, a good league for the hitters.

Donaldson, like Carpenter, spent three years at Triple-A, and 2012 was his first Major League season with more than 24 plate appearances. Donaldson was turning 27 that winter, and wasn’t expected to do much more than supplant Brandon Inge and Jemile Weeks. In an interview with Donaldson a few weeks ago, he told me that being given the chance to play every day is all that it takes for some players to prove themselves and become mainstays on the roster, and maybe even all-stars. I mean, you can’t be an All-Star without being an everyday player first.

According to Donaldson: “I’d say nowadays most prospects get called up around 24-25, but for stars, development can still take a while. I came up as a catcher, I matured physically a little bit later and it took me a while to adjust, but obviously the opportunity has to be there. Being diverse in my athleticism seemed to help me get that chance; I hope there’s more I can show.”

Donaldson also pointed to the Rays’ Joey Butler as another example like himself, a good athlete who’s been given the opportunity to hold down an everyday role in contrast to, say, Ryan Brett, or somebody much younger and with considerable potential. Shockingly, Donaldson, Carpenter, Dozier, Butler, Pollock, DeGrom, Keuchel, Kyle Seager, Kevin Pillar, and Yangervis Solarte were all omitted from prospect rankings, and were never rated among the top 100 prospects in the game. Triple-A could be filled with players like that, but under the earlier scouting regimen we might never know who they are unless they are first given a chance.

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