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Touching All the Bases

Xander Bogaerts, Cal Ripken Jr., and the Modern Value of Hoarding Ancient Information

lynnfredhandbook815.JPGTwo weeks ago, I received a much-anticipated package on my doorstep. No, not the mail-order bride -- that package was larger and awaited with much less eagerness. This one arrived courtesy of Larry Granillo, the esteemed baseball writer, home-run-trot tracker, and Ferris Bueller ballgame detective. Seems he was in the process of doing what you do before moving to a new place -- culling all of the stuff that you don't want to bother hauling with you to that new place.

Larry mentioned on Twitter that he was getting rid of a ton of baseball books and magazines, and anyone who would pay shipping could have them. I was so eager to take some of the stuff that I disregarded household protocol and didn't even run it by my wife. It was one less box to carry for him, but a baseball jackpot for me: Included in the haul were maybe 12-15 Street and Smith's and Sporting News baseball yearbooks and annuals from the '70s and '80s.

Do I need them? Well, someone in my house might shake her head vigorously in the negative. Admittedly, I have become a bit of a completionist in building my library of annuals. That includes the newer stuff -- Baseball Prospectuses and the Baseball America Prospect Handbooks, the Bill James Handbooks, etc. But I can't resist the stuff I remember having as a kid -- those Zander Hollander Complete Handbooks of Baseball, and single-sport yearly magazines that engulf you with old memories the moment you open a yellowed page. (Look at this ad, with the 1973 Topps complete set for $12.95? Dammit, 10-year-old Chad, why didn't you see the future? And what's with the bowl cut and tinted prescription glasses? That's not gonna cut it in junior high, kid.)

The publications do have value beyond the nostalgic and sentimental, at least when you do what I do for a living. They provide interesting and amusing background info on players of that era that can come in handy when you require full-career perspective for someone who still has prominence. Consider these notes from the thorough team-by-team prospect write-ups in the 1982 Street & Smith's baseball yearbook:

"What is it about Wade Boggs? All he does is slap out all of those base hits, yet he continues to wear a Triple A label. ... Surely he ought to find a niche with some club, even as a pinch-hitter, although he isn't laden with home-run power." ... "Veteran Ed Jurak was another batting champ, although playing 87 games at Bristol, where he hit .340." ... Last year, Tim Raines, the 1980 minor league player of the year, went on to become one of the NL's top rookies in 1981. Will history repeat itself in 1982 with Terry Francona, who moved from .350 in Double A to blister American Association pitching (.352)?"

I wish I had these for my 50 Best Red Sox Prospects of the Draft Era project that ran a few months ago.

ripkencalfinn814.JPGI had Xander Bogaerts rated in the top 10 in that project, with the likes of Nomar, Pudge, and Dewey, legends we know by heart, highlight, and a single endearing name. At the beginning of June, when he had an .859 OPS and looked like a potential All-Star, Bogaerts looked on his way to belonging in such elite company someday.

It's been ugly and somewhat alarming since: In the 55 games since June 3, when his OPS peaked at the aforementioned height, Bogaerts has a .167/.198/.258 slash line, with four homers, 15 RBIs, seven walks, and 56 strikeouts in 223 plate appearances.

It's not Jackie Bradley Jr.-bad. But it's bad. And while Bogaerts and the Red Sox both believe he will fulfill every expectation, the prolonged nature of the slump has tested the faith of some Red Sox fans. There are even suggestions he could be included in a blockbuster trade, which to me sounds absurd -- just not quite as absurd as those suggestions were in May.

It's situations like this when those old publications can serve a modern purpose -- in this case, reminding us that players who grew into the finest of their era, who became enshrined, bronze-plated legends, sometimes struggled fiercely, too.

This, from that same '82 Street and Smith's, gives us a reminder of the standing of a certain 21-year-old superprospect shortstop/third baseman entering that season:

The Orioles briefly toyed with the idea of giving the [shortstop] job to Cal Ripken Jr., but felt the pressure of playing such a key position at the major-league level would be too much. Inasmuch as the heralded rookie hit a miserly .128 in a brief trial there last year, they were probably right. But Ripken, who tore up minor-league pitching, is considered the future of the franchise, and a spot had to be found for him.

Sound like anyone you know? I'm not saying Bogaerts will become Ripken. So much is still to be proven, so many questions (especially pertaining to hitting a slider with a piece of wood) remain before we know just what he will be as a ballplayer. But it is absolutely worth noting that his prospect lineage is very similar to future legend who also struggled fiercely in his early days in the major leagues. Forty-eight games and 127 plate appearances into his career, Ripken had two home runs and a .156/.183/.262 slash line.

It. Takes. Time.

He figured it out OK, just as Robin Yount (.679 OPS at age 23, his sixth full season) and Alan Trammell (.669 OPS at 23, his fourth full season) and Barry Larkin (.673 OPS at 23, his second full season) did, as well.

I believe the core of the lesson here is obvious: When 38-year-old Xander Bogaerts breaks Ripken's consecutive games streak sometime around August 2030, we'll chalk it up as one more thing they had in common. And should further context be required then, hopefully I'll still be around to dig up the just the right periodical to confirm it all. Provided, I suppose, that I'm not buried under it all in the interim.

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