Dizzy About Mike Trout? Recall the Cautionary Tale of Ed Kirkpatrick

Mike Trout isn't the first Angel to have fans salivating over the unlimited potential of a teenager. Once upon a time there was a dashing and fiercely competitive prep athlete from Glendora named Ed Kirkpatrick, who the Angels also signed at age 17, for the then-significant sum of $20,000, whereupon he immediately began tearing shit up at two levels:

EK, 1962
D 45 190 168 35 64 10 7 9 62 2/- 16 17 .381 .442 .685
C 19 53 48 8 17 3 0 3 7 1/0 5 4 .354 .415 .604
MT, 2009
Rk 39 187 164 29 59 7 7 1 25 13/2 18 28 .360 .418 .506
A 5 20 15 1 4 0 0 0 0 0/0 4 6 .267 .421 .267

Kirkpatrick, the 2nd-youngest hitter in the Midwest League to receive significant at bats in 1962, led his league in batting average (by 40 points), OPS (116), and slugging (122), before graduating to the California League to scorch the older guys there, too.

Trout, the 8th-youngest hitter in the Arizona League to receive significant at bats in 2009, finished 2nd in his league batting average (by 6 points), and top 10 in OBP and OPS, before graduating to a cup of coffee in the Midwest League.

In their age-18 years, both young men split the season at two minor league levels, though Kirkpatrick had moved up one level over the offseason. They continued to rake:

EK, 1963
AA 47 179 165 16 50 6 4 6 30 0/0 14 27 .303 .358 .497
AAA 49 166 142 28 50 5 2 8 31 3/1 24 20 .352 .446 .585
MT, 2010
A 81 368 312 76 113 19 7 6 39 45/9 46 52 .362 .454 .526
A+ 50 232 196 30 60 9 2 4 19 11/6 27 33 .306 .388 .434

Kirkpatrick, the youngest player in the South Atlantic League, finished 4th in slugging percentage, just behind a cat two years older named Willie Horton. In the Pacific Coast League, where he was again the youngest player, Kirkpatrick had league-leading numbers in OBP and OPS. Stop on that fact for a second -- the youngest player in the league closest to the Majors in 1964 was also its best hitter on a per-AB basis. No wonder the floundering Angels brought him up on Sept. 9 that year and stuck him in the lineup to run out the season, whereupon he hit a more-than-respectable .282/.364/.462.

Trout? As the 4th-youngest player in the Midwest League, he dominated, leading the circuit in batting and OBP, finishing 2nd in OPS and 4th in stolen bases. In the California League in the second half, he was the youngest player to get more than 6 at-bats, and after a slow start at least cracked the top 25 in OBP. After the season ended, he ripped it up in the playoffs, then ripped it up some more in the Pan-Am games. Where does that leave us?

Some people are suggesting that Trout be put in the big-league lineup at the beginning of his age-19 season. But given that he has yet to taste AA ball, and only finished 44th in OPS in his high-A league at age 18, I presume that the same people would have been more than ready to give Ed Kirkpatrick a staring job on the Angels in 1964, considering that in his 345 plate appearances between AA and AAA at age 18 Kirkpatrick hit a raging .326/.400/.537.

Well, that's exactly what the Angels did. How did it work? On balance, terribly.

"Spanky," as he was known, started 50 of the team's first 75 games in a platoon arrangement with Jimmy Piersall, putting up what at first blush seem like crappy numbers: .258/.330/.379. But keep in mind that A) this was the '60s Dead Ball era, where the American League as a whole hit just .247/.315/.382, and B) the Angels played half their games in the dungeon of offensive horrors known as Dodger Stadium. Ed Kirkpatrick on the year would hit .278/.331/.443 away from Chavez Ravine, which is a very good line for anyone in 1964; borderline breathtaking for a 19-year-old.

But the Angels back then were not run by the type of people who take distorting ballpark effects into account. And more pursuant to the Kirkpatrick story, they were beginning to develop a self-defeating habit of calling up prospects too young, yo-yoing them up and down between the big-league lineup and AAA, then trading them away just as they began the productive phases of their careers. After starting off the '60s with a hot streak in developing such young talent as Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Ken McBride, Buck Rodgers, Fred Newman, Bob Lee, Bo Belinsky, and Bobby Knoop, the Angels under Bill Rigney in the mid-1960s started jerking around their prospects, putting too much pressure on them to succeed too young, then giving up hope prematurely. A partial list of useful ballplayers who were in Angel uniform in the '60s by age 21 but on to greener pastures by no later than 26 would include Jose Cardenal, Paul Schaal, Jay Johnstone, Jim Spencer, Tom Egan, Aurelio Rodriguez, and, of course, Ed Kirkpatrick.

The Angels before the 1964 season traded away star outfielder Leon Wagner in part to make room for Kirkpatrick, who had caught in the minors but was a good enough athlete to play CF. With a starting outfield of Kirkpatrick (19) in LF, an ailing Albie Pearson (29) in CF, and Lee Thomas (28) in RF, the team stumbled badly out of the gate, going 16-29 the first two months and settling into last place. Rigney and General Manager Fred Haney grew impatient, trading Thomas for 26-year-old corner outfielder Lou Clinton, giving up on getting any healthy work out of Pearson (who would come down from his 14th-place MVP finish in '63 to a miserable .223/.316/.272 in '64), and then, on June 14, making a genuinely inspired decision: Giving the first ever career outfield start to a 25-year-old pitcher they had acquired in late April, Wonderful Willie Smith. Starting in Kirkpatrick's LF, Smith promptly homered. Two days later he batted cleanup and scored three runs, and the lineup spot was his. For the second half of June, Smith hit an unreal .333/.373/.583, and in the process something even more shocking happened: The last-place Angels doubled their previous franchise record by winning 11 consecutive games. As the L.A. Times put it at the time, "If the amazing Angels can keep on winning with their mixed-up line-up they might wind up as lovable as the incomparable Mets. New York embraced the Mets because they're so hopelessly incompetent."

It was all fun and games, until you think about what happened to the highly regarded, famously hard-working 19-year-old prospect who had racked up an OPS+ of 106 through the end of June: They dropped him like a heroin habit on methadone day. Kirkpatrick started just 3 games in July, and then was sent back down to the minors at the end of the month. There, likely depressed, he hit just .217/.312/.384 in 45 games -- the first time in his professional career he had ever failed to hit. Though Willie Smith went on to have a great (and, it turned out, career-best) season of .301/.317/.465, Kirkpatrick's real replacement in the lineup was the forgettable Lou Clinton. Who proceeded to rack up an OPS+ of, you guessed it, 106.

In 1965 Wonderful Willie Smith was firmly rooted in LF, newly acquired 21-year-old Jose Cardenal was starting in CF, Clinton and Albie Pearson shared RF, and Kirkpatrick spent the year at AAA Seattle, where he played very well. Spanky, who was still the 8th-youngest player in the Pacific Coast League, hit .291/.367/.486, finishing 20th in the league in OPS, and even stealing 18 bags in 23 attempts. But if the Angels had any organized plan for Kirkpatrick, they are not obvious in retrospect. He played 82 games in the outfield, 43 at 3B (where the Angels had 22-year-old rookie Paul Schaal on the big club), and 19 at 1B (held down in L.A. by a platoon of 37-year-old Joe Adcock and a then-promising, now-forgotten 23-year-old slugger named Costen Shockley). When Shockley failed to hit and then shockingly retired rather than accept an assignment to the minors (a story I plan to tell at length some day), the team opted not to promote Kirkpatrick, instead scrambling to trade for the misleadingly named 36-year-old Vic Power. Lou Clinton, the man who had deposed Spanky the year before, played lousy and was finally placed on waivers in early September, after which Kirkpatrick came up to start 19 of the Angels' last 21 games in RF, hitting .260/.289/.459, good for an OPS+ of 111 (remember, 100 is league average for all hitters; 111 is halfway between what J.D. Drew and Mike Napoli hit this year).

You'd think that Kirkpatrick would now be at the front of the line for a lineup job in 1966, his age-21 year. And you'd be wrong! Amazingly, even though Wonderful Willie Smith and Albie Pearson had both fallen by the wayside, leaving the two corner outfield slots wide open, the Angels made Kirkpatrick compete for the RF job in spring training for a player who had just spent the previous year hitting .240 at AA and .163 in limited time as Kirpatrick's teammate in Seattle. Sure, Jack Warner was an impressive athlete with prodigious power -- he had led the Northwest League in home runs in 1962 -- but the guy's batting average above A-ball heading into 1966 was .211, compared to Kirkpatrick's .292 in three times as many ABs. And Kirkpatrick was 14 months younger. With bonus baby Rick Reichardt winning LF amid a boatload of Mickey Mantle hype, Warner tore it up in spring, and Spanky started 1966 rotting on the Angel bench.

Warner started off the season as a rookie sensation, putting up a .406/.457/.813 line in the team's first 10 games. But after hitting .150 in his next 12, the capricious Rigney benched him, and began starting Kirkpatrick in RF against righties. Warner was demoted in July, hit .161 the rest of the year in Seattle, .199 the next year in AAA, and was out of baseball by age 26, having never again tasted the Majors. Reichardt, on the other hand, scorched the American League for the first half, and was on pace to finish in the top 10 in batting average, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS+ (he ended up leading the league in HBP outright), when he had to have his kidney removed in late July, ending his season.

So Kirpatrick was in like Flynn, right? Nope! From May 1 to August 29, when he started 75 games, Kirkpatrick hit just .200/.304/.343. Now, even though his OBP was around team and league average (.304 and .306, respectively), and his SLG was a few clicks short (.354 and .369), .200 was still .200, particularly for a man like Bill Rigney. So what did the Angels do when Reichardt went down? They called up 20-year-old Jay Johnstone, and had him start every single one of the team's last 61 games, in which he hit .264/.297/.378. And in the last month of the season, with the Angels hovering around a respectable .500 but never within 15 games of first place, the team gave 14 starts -- compared to Kirkpatrick's 6 -- to a 36-year-old named Bubba who had last played big-league ball in 1963.

OK, so now what? The Angels in 1966 had been just the 3rd team in Major League history to have at least 400 of their outfield starts come from players 23 years old or younger. Since the first two teams were the 1910-11 Red Sox, who went on to win four World Championships that decade, and since the Angels' up-the-middle core of Rodgers, Chance, Fregosi, and Knoop were just hitting prime age, and the rotation in '66 featured five starters younger than 26, there was legitimate reason for optimism, especially if the team could manage its youth movement. Tragically, as the above events foreshadowed, it could not.

The first thing the team did before the 1967 season was trade ace (and clubhouse troublemaker) Dean Chance for slugging 29-year-old first baseman Don Mincher, 29-year-old outfielder Jimmie Hall, who had hit 98 HRs the previous 4 seasons, and a disposable reliever named Pete Cimino. In '67 Mincher was outta sight, the rotation was out of an ace, Hall was out of his depth against lefties but otherwise solid ... and Ed Kirkpatrick was out of a job. He played just 3 games on the big club all year, going 0 for 8, and hit an anemic .217/.329/.356 in AAA. The Angels went 84-77, building on the promise of the previous year, but the club, idiotically, mistook a league-wide decline in offense (from 3.89 runs per game to 3.70) for a disappointing performance by their young hitters. In fact, the team moved up from 6th to 5th in runs scored between '66-67, no small feat in a pitcher's park, but after having spent most of the season in their first honest-to-God pennant race, the club began looking to identify the stragglers and scapegoats who were holding them back.

Reichardt, despite a solid sophomore season, was treated like a head-case, a trend that would continue during his woefully underappreciated all-star caliber season in 1968's Year of the Pitcher. Jay Johnstone, who stumbled to a .209/.226/.274 line that year, was yo-yoed up and down between AAA until 1969. Jose Cardenal, unbelievably, was traded before his age-24 year for a 34-year-old OF/1Bman named Chuck Hinton, who proceeded to hit .195 before being released (Cardenal would go on to rack up more 1500 more hits, and draw MVP votes in two seasons). Jackie Warner was shipped out for 27-year-old OF Roger Repoz. Just two years after fielding one of the fastest and most exciting young outfields in the Majors, the Angels were anchored in CF in 1968 by 31-year-old Vic Davalillo. Unsurprisingly, the team had its worst season in franchise history, going 67-95. What had once been baseball's best expansion team, with an exciting second-generation youth movement bubbling just behind the Fregosi/Chance generation, was now a crime scene.

And Kirkpatrick? At age 23, in his 7th (!) Major League season, for an 8th-place ballclub, with a player at his original position (catcher) stinking up the joint, Kirkpatrick atrophied on the bench, starting just 5 games by the 4th of July. His last hurrah as an Angel came that August, when he started 21 games in a 25-game stretch and hit .225/.330/.263. By September, with the team 25 games out and sinking fast, Rigney decided it was more important to see if 21-year-old Jarvis Tatum could hit. He couldn't, but by then it didn't matter: That was the end of Ed Kirkpatrick's Angel career. He had played RF, LF, C and 1B, jumped up and down from AAA like a pogo stick, played well enough to stay in the lineup at age 21 but earning a demotion anyway, and then just kind of floundered. Final Angel stats: .215/.306/.331 in 1,000 plate appearances over 7 years, and negative 1.2 Wins Above Replacement. The Angels traded him to Kansas City in the offseason for a 46-year-old knuckleballer.

So did Kirkpatrick completely wash out, then? No. The Kansas City Royals, on the verge of becoming the best-run expansion team in the pre-free agency era, tried something that the Angels apparently never thought of -- sticking Kirkpatrick in the lineup, and letting him stay there. Over the next five years, from the productive ages of 24-28, he averaged 123 games a year as a sort of super-utility man, hitting a respectable .248/.334/.390 in a depressed offensive environment, good enough for an OPS+ of 104. Not the world's greatest shakes, but he put up 9.3 WAR during his KC stint, had two seasons with an OPS+ higher than 120, and made enough impact that the Royals Retrospective blog named him the #39 Royal of all time. He never could hit lefties, going .200/.277/.290 for his career, but he managed a respectable 16-year career in which nearly all of his value came right after the Angels grew weary of jerking him around.

Would he have been a better player with a more structured breaking-in process? I can't but help think so. He could always control the strike zone, and he had played a lot of high-quality baseball at AAA before age 21. Had the franchise marched him a bit slower through the organization -- keeping him long enough at both AA and AAA to prove his dominance there, and then executing a plan for him at the big-league level -- I think me might have emerged as a fully formed prospect by no later than 22 or 23, perhaps taken the catching baton from Buck Rodgers, and stuck around for a while.

To bring it all back home, what are the applicable lessons for Mike Trout? I have identied three:

1) Rejoice! By my rough calculation, Trout had one of the 5 best seasons ever by an Angel 18-year-old, and the other 4 dudes had significant big league careers: Kirkpatrick, Jay Johnstone, Brian Harper, and Tom Brunansky.

2) Slow down! As good as Mike Trout was at age 18, Ed Kirkpatrick was a whole lot better at the same time, and putting him in the lineup at age 19 ended in tears. Let's let Trout dominate AA for a few months before we schedule the coronation.

3) Thank your lucky stars! As much as you might have to complain about the Scioscia/Stoneman/Reagins player development system over the past decade, nothing compares to the self-inflicted clusterfudge unleashed by Bill Rigney and Fred Haney in the mid-1960s.

The end.

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