Jim Riggleman told me this week on our MASN video blog that September can be deceptive when evaluating young players. If the Nationals aren’t playing a contending team, like the just-completed Houston series, young hitters will face pitchers that are either young and inexperienced themselves, or older guys trying to hang on to a job for next season.
Playing the Phillies and Braves is a different story, as the Nats faced Roy Oswalt last weekend and will battle Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe this weekend. These veterans know how to take advantage of young hitters’ weaknesses and make them “get themselves out” in late-season at-bats.
But, Jim said, September can tell you more than a couple of weeks of spring training games.
In my experience over the years, I’ve witnessed some Septembers that told the story of how successful a young player may be, but some others that were a bit deceptive and didn’t turn out so great down the line.
Now, I wasn’t alive for this one, but in September 1941, 20-year-old Stan Musial made it to the big leagues out of Donora, Pennsylvania and settled in immediately. Musial hit .426 with 1 home run and 7 RBI, going 20-47 with 4 doubles and 1 stolen base. It was a great start to a Hall of Fame career that would see “Stan The Man” hit .331 over 22 seasons with 475 homers and a then National League record 3,630 hits.
I was with the Cardinals in 1998 when J.D. Drew made it to the big club in September, and he was more dominant than Musial. Drew hit .417 with 5 home runs and 13 RBIs, going 15-36 with 4 doubles and a triple. He and I appeared at a banquet the following spring, and when I introduced him, he glared at me as I compared his numbers with the great Musial.
Injuries derailed his path to greatness and 12 years later, his career average is .281 with 235 homers and 769 RBI for several different teams. The Florida State alum is good, but not great, at least not as great as we thought he would be.
Fast-forward to 2005, and here came UVA product Ryan Zimmerman to the Nationals in September, less than four months out of college! He was good but didn’t hit for home run power, though he did have 10 doubles among his 23 hits in 58 at-bats for a whopping .397 average and 6 RBI.
The rest, as we say, is history, as Ryan has gotten better every year and has a great chance to hit .300 for the first time in 2010, while his defense puts him in a special category whether he hits for high average or not.
Last September, it was Ian Desmond’s turn, arriving from Syracuse and hitting .280 with 4 home runs and 12 RBI on 23 hits in 82 at-bats with 7 doubles, 2 triples and a stolen base. Offensively, he’s having a great first full year, hitting 10 HRs with 62 RBI while dealing with the pressure of being a young shortstop.
He looks like he’s destined for an outstanding career, and his leadership qualities remind many of a young Derek Jeter-type personality. The difference between Desmond, Zimmerman and Drew is that Ian was signed out of Sarasota High School and spent six years in the minor leagues.
And now this month, here’s another exciting young player in Danny Espinosa, just two years out of Long Beach State. He is not hitting for high average, but his “pop” is amazing so far - 6 homers and 15 RBI in his first 20 major league games spanning 73 ABs. His extra-base hit power is impressive with 4 doubles and 1 triple, and his defense is nothing short of amazing for an infielder in his first Major League month.
He has already made two or three plays at second base and shortstop that are among the best, if not the best, I’ve seen in my five years here. His future looks bright, and how about that infield with Espinosa playing alongside Desmond and Zimmerman?
September can be tricky, but these young Nats look solid for a long time to come.