5 Reasons Not to Trust What You See from MLB Prospects in September
Every season, there are a number of September call-ups who offer false hope with a strong performance over the final month of the season. However, the prospects who build upon their early success en route to superstardom in the major leagues is incredibly rare.
Typically, a player’s first exposure in the Show (and occasionally the postseason, as well) may be regarded as the high point in their career.
For example, most of us remember former Yankees’ outfielder Shane Spencer, who seemingly became an overnight sensation thanks to an amazing overall performance in September of 1998.
Having played in 13 games earlier in the year while bouncing back-and-forth between Triple-A, the 26-year-old had a historically-good September. Spencer batted .421/.476/1.105 with eight home runs and 21 RBI in 14 games while playing both corner outfield positions for the Yankees.
His success carried over into the postseason, as well, where he batted .263 and launched two more home runs against the Rangers in the ALDS.
Needless to say, fans had exceptionally high hopes for Spencer headed into the 1999 season. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, he never came close to matching his September production, batting .262/.326/.428 with 59 home runs in 538 regular-season games.
Spencer’s best statistical season came in 2001 with the Yankees when he batted .258/.315/.428 with 14 doubles, 10 home runs, 46 RBI and 58 strikeouts in 80 games, which translated to a 1.9 WAR.
As I mentioned before, Spencer’s 1998 performance is a perfect example of how a September call-up’s production can be horribly misleading. While part of it can surely be attributed to luck, the rest is a matter of subjectivity and perception.
Here are five reasons to be weary of strong performances by September call-ups.
Small Sample Size
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The major problem in setting high standards for prospects in the year following an impressive September debut, is that all projections are based upon an incredibly small sample.
Projecting Spencer’s 162-game output based upon those robust September numbers, the outfielder should have blasted a whopping 92.6 home runs in 1999 and gone down as the greatest player in baseball history. Obviously, that never happened, as Spencer produced double-digit home run totals in only two more seasons.
Successes Are Magnified
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Because of the small sample and the fact that the prospect may play a role in a playoff race, all successes (and struggles, in some cases) are inevitably magnified.
Every sports media outlet in the nation made a huge deal of Spencer’s September run in ’98, sensationalizing him more and more with every home run. Essentially, gasoline was thrown onto an already raging inferno.
A Lack of Knowledge
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Oftentimes, when a prospect has immediate success upon reaching the big leagues, it’s a result of the opposing team’s lack of a scouting report.
Sure, there are ample notes on the player’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses derived from minor league statistics, but there’s no guarantee that it will translate in the majors.
However, it usually doesn’t take long for a prospect to showcase their strengths at the plate, which, in turn, highlights their presumed weaknesses.
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Even the best major league hitters are streaky. Having said that, I’ve always been a firm believer that elite, big league hitters are simply the best at minimizing slumps.
Considering that a September call-up is always slated to play a month’s worth of games (at most), there is always the potential for a hot streak. In general, any production from a call-up is considered somewhat of a hot streak, relatively speaking, considering that the player is yet to experience a slump.
The State of Other Teams
Spencer doing his best Butch Huskey impression.
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Teams promote prospects in September for a variety of reason: to rest their veterans, to hopefully jumpstart an offense, to replace an ineffective player or simply usher in fresh faces as part of a rebuilding process.
Therefore, as was the case with Spencer in ‘98, call-ups are less likely to face the top pitchers in the game as other teams try to offer their youngsters experience. At times, games will feature matchups that also occurred earlier in the season at Triple-A.