The hype train officially pulled out of the station on the second pitch of the bottom of the eighth inning in Baltimore last night. On a 1-0 pitch, Orioles’ Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard sent a 92 mph offering from Trevor May of the Minnesota Twins deep into the night sky. Rickard’s blast landed in the home team’s bullpen, and he trotted around the bases with his first major-league home run.
The love affair that has been building between Orioles fans and their team’s current Rule 5 pick came to a head, and the 24-year-old, playing in his third career game, took a curtain call. As the Orioles come off their first three victories of the season, it is prescient to reflect on the rookie’s 5-for-11 start and think about what is coming next.
Rickard became the most talked about Oriole in spring training after batting .397/.472/.571 with five stolen bases. Depending on their stance in the “glass half full” or “glass half empty” debate, Birdland residents were ready to hand Rickard the leadoff and left-field duties or label him merely a product of overblown spring training numbers achieved against below-average pitching. In reality, Rickard’s spring falls somewhere in between the two, but his offensive output in the first series of the year have kept his name in the spotlight.
Any reasonable person can quickly assess Rickard’s performance against the Twins and come to the conclusion that he will not continue batting .455 for the remainder of the year. While a cooling off period is definitely coming for Rickard, it is also unreasonable to assume that he will begin hitting nothing but dribblers back to the pitcher and popups to short left field. This is, after all, a player who batted .332/.422/.477 in 94 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. He followed up this quality season, his first fully healthy year since 2013, with six home runs in 50 games in the Dominican Winter League.
Rickard is no slouch with the bat, and only the Rays’ glut of talented outfield prospects kept him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft. The top pick in the draft was Tyler Goeddel, another Tampa Bay outfielder. Rickard is not a typical corner outfield masher capable of hitting 20-30 home runs, but he has a good eye, good bat control, and an ability to put the ball in play.
Who does that remind you of?
How about another Rule 5 pick, Shane Victorino, who was actually selected twice in the draft?
Before fully establishing himself as a star with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, Victorino slashed .300/.352/.508 in the minor leagues in 2004 and 2005. In his rookie year, the Flyin’ Hawaiian was a major part of a team trending in the direction of World Series contention. Victorino had a quietly solid rookie year at the age of 25, slashing .287/.346/.414 with eight triples, six home runs, and four steals. During his tenure with the Phillies, Victorino would make two All-Star teams, lead the league in triples twice, garner MVP votes, and generally serve as a jolt of energy during the peak years of contention.
Comparing a rookie who has played three games to a 12-year veteran who has won a World Series, made two All-Star teams, and won two Gold Gloves obviously has me out on a limb, but bear with me. Rickard and Victorino have very similar skillsets. They are both high-frequency contact makers with very low career strikeout rates. Neither has blinding speed, but has good instincts and an ability to pick his spots wisely. It took Victorino some time to develop his power stroke in the minors as well. Both were mid-round picks. Both players employ a similar swing at the plate, standing rather upright and diving into the ball. Victorino was always able to use the whole field during his peak years with the Phillies, something Rickard has also shown an ability to do in his brief sample size. The key to success for a hitter like Victorino or Rickard is not trying to do too much with a pitch. With a calm approach at the plate, Rickard seems to understand this well.
Three games worth of regular-season action is hardly enough time to have a full grasp of what Joey Rickard will be in his major-league career, but that does not mean we should not imagine what he might be. Rickard is a more mature hitter than the last Rule 5 pick to stick with the Orioles, Ryan Flaherty. As Victorino did with the Phillies, Rickard walks into a lineup that will help protect him and ensure that he will receive plenty of pitches to hit. He will be brought along slowly, only moved into the top of the order when fully ready.
There is a negative perception that comes with being a Rule 5 pick. These players are often viewed as little more than extra depth on the bench, and are seldom heard from after their year of indentured servitude on the 25-man roster. Who would have tabbed Shane Victorino for an All-Star career after the San Diego Padres returned him following Rule 5 attempt number one? Very few. He was seen as a nice depth piece for the Phillies, and slotted near the bottom half of their top 30 prospects. This is the same way Rickard was viewed after the Orioles picked him.
There are diamonds in the rough unearthed in the Rule 5 draft from time to time, and so far Joey Rickard has the look of a player who can bring more value to the Orioles than late-inning defense.