There was a dark lining in the silver cloud of awesomeness that was last night's opener, and that was the palpably nervous performance by forever-touted fee-nom Brandon "Squint" Wood. Had quite a few faithful here wondering if he'd last long in the lineup (made it to Game Two, at least). I figured that looking for comps on a guy who A) hasn't been given much of any kind of shot, and B) has largely stunk up the joint, would be a pointless exercise that at most would produce a tiny bit of fun. But I was wrong!
To recap what we're doing here, read Part I (with explanation o' method), then Parts II, III, and IV. Onward.
topper: .207/.259/.232, 50 OPS+ Wally Gerber
middle: .186/.207/.326, 41 OPS+ Kelly Gruber
ourboy: .192/.222/.213, 39 OPS+ Brandon Wood
bottom: .202/.228/.256, 28 OPS+ Moe Berg
Top-125 Rankings in Bill James' 2001 Historical Abstract? So help me, the answer to this question is yes -- Kelly Gruber 103, for 3rd base (my search parameters required 50% at either SS or 3B).
Any other interesting people on this list? God, are there. You ever hear of Mario Mendoza? Named a line (and then a band) after the guy. Jose Hernandez? He would have broken the all-time single-season strikeout record in 2002 had his manager not been such a nancy-boy and benched him the final four games. How about Moe Berg? The catcher (who weirdly came up as an infielder), was, even more weirdly, a spy.
It's a shocker, considering that we're looking for matches on a 39 OPS+ in meager ABs through age 24, that there are any useful players here at all, but there are actually quite a few. Hernandez had a 15-year career, hit 168 home runs, and made an All-Star team. Wally Gerber played 15 years and earned MVP votes in three different seasons. Dal Maxvill played for 14 years, and was a marvelous defensive shortsop (though one of the most brutal hitters in Major League history). Moe Berg was good enough to last 15 years.
I've made the point before that as little a chance Brandon Wood has been given so far, it's still more than many of the great players on the current two-time defending NL champion. Greatness or even goodness does not depend on establishing yourself at the big-league level by age 24, and as we talked about in the Kendry Morales entry, great teams tend to be stingy about breaking in young talent. Still, I expected much worse than what this list offered up.
In your heart, you know this comp is right: Kelly Gruber, far and away.
Gruber was born in Houston, Wood in Austin. Both were drafted in the first round as big, right-hand hitting shortstops. Gruber was moved to 3B at 21; Wood got his first significant hot corner action at 22. Gruber was still nimble enough to play some 2B and SS in the bigs at ages 24-25. Gruber, too, struck out a bit too much in the minors, and didn't walk much; also, his power wasn't off-the-charts like Wood's has been. Both could steal a bag. Gruber got three extended cups of coffee from ages 22-23-24 while his team was averaging 91 wins a year and receiving good production at his position from non-power hitters (Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg). Ditto for Wood, only with the team averaging 97 wins. And on this comp list of 24 players, Gruber and Wood rank 1-2 in slugging percentage, 1-2 in home runs, and 23-24 in walks. They stick out in a sea of Mario Mendozas.
So the million-dollar question is, how did Gruber do once the shackles were taken off in his age-25 year? Answer: Not so good -- just .235/.283/.399 (77 OPS+), with 12 homers in 341 ABs, striking out 70 times and walking just 17. He got the bulk of the starts through July 21 of that year, during which he hit .263/.302/.405, but the Blue Jays were in a dogfight with the Tigers, and Manager Jimy Williams lost patience, giving the better-hitting doubles-and-average guy Mulliniks his job back for the stretch run. Limited to just 16 starts from there on out, Gruber tanked, batting .174 the rest of the way. The Jays lost the division on the final weekend of the season. Don't think about it too hard!
But! From 26-29, Gruber was a fine player, hitting 85 home runs, making two All-Star teams, winning a Gold Glove, and finishing 4th in MVP voting. Look at Gruber's comps through age 28 and the best matches are probably Mike Lowell and Doug DeCinces. In fact, those comps are a bit too good, since Gruber was soon addled with chronic and degenerative pain in a place that doesn't get better: his neck. He was out of baseball by 32.
I expect Brandon Wood to be better than Kelly Gruber. He's bigger, a better athlete, had more impressive minor league stats, and doesn't have a chronic disease that we're aware of. As good as Gruber was, he only hit more than 20 homers once; I'd be shocked if Wood doesn't reach that total every season he gets 450 ABs.
Other interesting facts about this group? Two members of the 1975-76 California Angels: Orlando Ramirez, and the star-crossed Mike Miley. I used to think that Miley was just another crappy '70s player thrown into a uniform out of desperation before his tragic demise, but lately I've come to a different conclusion. But that will have to wait for another day.