Introducing MLB's Newest out-of-Nowhere Success Story

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Introducing MLB's Newest out-of-Nowhere Success Story
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Every season features players who take nontraditional, roundabout paths to unexpected success in the major leagues.

Last year it was the Atlanta Braves’ Evan Gattis. This year, it’s Chris Colabello of the Minnesota Twins.

Through the first month of the season, the 30-year-old Colabello is batting .308/.351/.505 with nine doubles, three home runs and 27 RBI.

Colabello went undrafted out of Massachusetts’ Assumption College and signed a contract in 2005 with the Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am Independent League. Other than a half-season stint with Nashua (another team in the league), Colabello spent the next seven years with Worcester and batted .317/.390/.514 with 166 doubles, 86 home runs and 420 RBI in 583 games.

In 2011, his final season playing in the Can-Am league, Colabello set career highs with a .348 batting average, 1.010 OPS and 20 home runs in 412 plate appearances. The then-27-year-old’s performance earned him Independent League Player of the Year honors by Baseball America, as well as a contract with the Minnesota Twins.

Colabello was assigned directly to Double-A New Britain in 2012, where he feasted on Eastern League pitching for the duration of the season. In addition to batting .284 with a .358 on-base percentage in 561 plate appearances, Colabello led the league with 37 doubles, ranked second in RBI (98), fourth in runs scored (78) and was tied for fourth in home runs (19). He also amassed 40 multi-hit games and 21 multi-RBI games and was the runner-up for the Eastern League MVP award.

However, it wasn’t until the 2013 World Baseball Classic that Colabello made himself known to a more national audience. Serving as the cleanup hitter for upstart Team Italy, he batted .333 with a pair of home runs and seven RBI in five WBC games.

Colabello’s strong showing against international competition ultimately earned him an invitation to major league camp the following spring. But despite posting an .873 OPS with four RBI in 10 games, he was reassigned to Triple-A Rochester to begin the 2013 season.

He didn’t stay there long, though; on May 22, 2013, the Twins purchased the contract of Colabello, 29 at the time, from Rochester after placing Trevor Plouffe on the seven-day disabled list with a concussion.

Unfortunately, Colabello’s long-awaited debut in the major leagues wasn’t pretty, as he collected just one hit and struck out six times in 11 at-bats. On May 29, the Twins optioned Colabello back to Rochester, but he returned the following day when Plouffe was placed back on the disabled list, this time with a calf injury.

Colabello shuffled between Rochester and Minnesota a few more times before joining the Twins for good on July 19. From that point forward, Colabello batted .201 with seven home runs and 17 RBI in 48 games. Overall, the rookie posted a disappointing .631 OPS and 58/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games.

Though he struggled during his time with the Twins, Colabello’s .352/.427/.639 batting line, 24 home runs and 76 RBI in 391 plate appearances at Rochester earned him recognition as the International League MVP and Baseball America’s Triple-A Player of the Year.

With the Twins anticipating a lack of 40-man roster flexibility in 2014, and Colabello without a guaranteed spot on the team’s Opening Day roster, they presented him with an opportunity to play for the LG Lions in the Korean league for a guaranteed $1 million contract.

However, Colabello declined the offer, deciding that he wasn’t ready to give up his major-league aspirations.

"I don't think it was that hard [of a decision]," he said, via Phil Rogers of MLB.com. "My heart never went that way. I've followed my heart my whole life. I use my head too, but I follow my heart. ... It has never steered me wrong."

Well, it now goes without saying that Colabello made the right choice.

The 30-year-old was arguably the Twins’ top hitter this spring, as he locked up a spot on the active roster by batting .349/.462/.512 with five extra-base hits and eight RBI in 23 games.

Colabello continued to rake through the first week of the regular season, collecting a hit in each of the Twins’ first seven games while batting .370/.414/.630 with four doubles, one home run and 11 RBI. His impressive start resulted in AL Player of the Week honors.

Through 23 games this season, Colabello is batting .308/.351/.505 with nine doubles and three home runs. He already broke the team’s two-decade record for RBI in the season’s first month with 27, overtaking Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett's 26 in 1994.

"It's quite an honor," Colabello said, via Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. "You start getting mixed in with names like that and you realize how special this game is and how special this opportunity to be here is. It's certainly something I'll remember for a long time."

More importantly, he’s a major reason the Twins are one game above .500 (12-11) with an offense that ranks best in the AL in on-base percentage (.353), third in runs scored (127) and fifth in OPS (.742).

But can Colabello sustain his terrific opening-month production over the course of a full season? In looking at a few comparable, offensively oriented players from previous years, we see that hot starts never last; however, it doesn’t mean the player will necessarily have a poor season.

Hot Starts: Chris Shelton, Bryan LaHair and Chris Colabello
PA 2B 3B HR RBI BB K .AVG SLG BABIP
Chris Shelton (April/March) 104 6 3 10 20 9 27 .326 .783 .364
Chris Shelton (2006 Season) 412 16 4 16 47 34 107 .273 .466 .343
Bryan LaHair (April/March) 70 8 - 5 14 10 25 .390 .780 .600
Bryan LaHair (2012 Season) 380 17 - 16 40 39 124 .259 .450 .358
Chris Colabello (April/March) 97 9 - 3 27 5 25 .308 .505 .397

FanGraphs

Shelton and LaHair both became small-sample-size legends with their torrid Aprils, but their high strikeout-to-walk ratios and BABIPs made it impossible for either player to sustain that level of production for a full season. If we compare their numbers with Colabello’s, we see the same glaring trends: poor strikeout-to-walk ratio and BABIP-driven batting average.

In terms of each player’s respective career trajectory following that season, LaHair—he actually made the 2012 NL All-Star team—spent the 2013 season playing overseas, and the 30-year-old now plays for the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate. Shelton, on the other hand, has been out of baseball since 2010.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see Colabello’s career going down the same dreaded path given his lack of a defensive home. His natural position is first base, but it’s not as though he’ll ever play there over Joe Mauer. Therefore, the Twins have worked Colabello’s bat into the lineup elsewhere this season, giving him eight games at designated hitter and 12 in right field. The only problem is that Colabello is not an outfielder; in fact, his defense at the position has already cost the Twins six runs, according to FanGraphs.

Dan Cook of CBS Minnesota seems to agree with this assessment, though I'm sure neither of us is rooting to be correct:

There’s no question that he’s limited by the lack of a natural defensive position. His best spot, first base, is currently occupied by $23 million. And his BABIP is a sky-high .397. So even if the Twins are able to stay creative and get him at-bats, his hitting numbers should normalize a bit.

Even if the Twins continue to find him regular at-bats, Colabello’s production is going to even out. That being said, the 30-year-old should still put up similar numbers as some of the other second-tier corner players in the American League, batting in the .250 range with roughly 20 home runs. However, if Colabello cools off dramatically and the Twins need a roster spot, don’t be surprised if he suddenly becomes the odd man out.

Colabello is a great story, but definitely not a late-blooming star.

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