Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | January 16, 2010

Random Thought: Michael Jordan and Baseball

The other day I was reading a discussion about Rick Ankiel and the comment was made by someone that they had alot of respect for Ankiel based on his determination to get back to the big leagues as an Outfielder after his career went South as a pitcher.   That comment got me to thinking about Michael Jordan.   You know him: The best basketball player ever?    Yeah, that Michael Jordan.    Most of us can remember his abrupt retirement from the game of basketball in the middle of his dominance over the league in response to the death of his Father.

While Jordan was on basketball hiatus, he briefly took up the idea of starting a Major League Baseball career.   As the Bulls and the Chicago White Sox had the same Owner (Jerry Reinsdorf), Jordan signed with the White Sox and would play for their AA team, the Birmingham Barons in the 1994 season.   That season was essentially a total disaster and Jordan would not play another professional season of baseball again.

But how much of a disaster was it really?   In 1994 Michael Jordan was 31 years old.   Jordan did not play college baseball and had not played any minor league baseball to that point.   So essentially in playing for the Barons in ’94, you had this 31 year-old man who had not played baseball since he was 17 or 18 years old and dropped straight down in the middle of AA to play.

To underline the absurdity of the notion and to underscore just how high the talent level is at AA baseball, please understand that most teams do not place their top draft picks in AA to start their careers.   It is extremely rare and only for the most elite of talents that it happens.  Normally even the most elite of prospects will start their careers at hi-A and others will start at lo-A.    For example, just to use a draft where the results are mostly in, let us take the 2004 draft:

Pick 

Name 

Starting Level 

Yrs. To AA 

Yrs. To MLB 

Matt Bush (HS) 

Rookie 

n/a – 4 yrs. 

n/a – 4 yrs. 

Justin Verlander (Col) 

A+ 

½ 

Philip Humber (Col) 

A+ 

½ 

1 ½ 

Jeff Niemann (Col) 

A+ 

½ 

3 ½ 

Mark Rogers (HS) 

Rookie 

n/a – 6 yrs. 

n/a – 6 yrs. 

Jeremy Sowers (Col) 

A+ 

½ 

1 ½ 

Homer Bailey (HS) 

Rookie 

2 ½ 

3 ½ 

Wade Townsend (Col)* 

SS-A** 

3 ½ 

n/a – 5 yrs. 

Chris Nelson (HS) 

Rookie 

4 ½ 

n/a – 6 yrs. 

10 

Thomas Diamond (Col) 

SS-A 

1 ½ 

n/a – 6 yrs. 

* – Townsend was drafted by the Orioles but did not sign.  He re-entered the draft in 2005 and was again taken 8th, this time by Tampa Bay.
** – SS-A is short-season A-ball, which is a class that is below lo-A and above rookie.

While there are some issues in the MLB draft with “signability” guys — Guys who want contracts that teams at the top of the draft are not willing to pay for — It is pretty much true that the top 10 of the draft generally represents players who are recognized as being ten of the top roughly twenty-five players available.   Two particularly notable cases of players who dropped out of the top 10 of this draft due to signability concerns were Jered Weaver, who went to Anaheim at #12, and Stephen Drew, who went to Arizona at #15.   Neither player would begin his career at AA, although both players would reach AA in their first pro season.

In fact, looking at the chart, none of the top 10 players would start their career in AA.   All would have to prove themselves at lower levels before earning the promotion.   Only four of them — Verlander, Humber, Niemann, and Sowers — Would reach AA in their first pro season.   Two of them   — Bush, who is already retired and has made headlines with his personal problems, and Rogers — Would never make it to AA, to date.  Chris Nelson didn’t get there until midway through the 2008 season.   All four of the high school guys started at Rookie level, and the college guys either started at Short Season A or at hi-A.   It is notable that the guys who started at Short Season A also began pitching in the same year that they were drafted.   Players like Verlander, who did not sign until after the 2004 season had ended, were sent straight to hi-A.   The Short Season A ball year doesn’t begin until shortly after the draft.

And so we return to Jordan.   As he didn’t play college baseball, he could be best described as “a High School guy”.   Furthermore, unlike the other high school guys, who were legitimate High School stars who’d been actively playing for years, Jordan was a 31 year old who hadn’t played in 13 years.   While other high school guys were getting their feet wet in rookie ball, and even the more advanced and developed college guys were being asked to cut their teeth at hi-A, Jordan was asked to hit the ground running at AA!     And it is no wonder then, that he didn’t succeed.

Yet, I’ve always found his performance to be amazing.  Jordan got 497 plate appearances in his only year of pro ball, and he put up this line: 202/289/266.    That is not good.   That is not good at all.   For a general idea of how bad it is, it is comparable to the Major League lines put up by Oliver Perez, Chris Young, Brett Myers, and Max Scherzer at the plate last year.   Ouch.

Let’s dig a little deeper though.  Jordan got 88 hits, 51 walks, 17 doubles, 3 home runs, 1 triple, and stole 30 bases (in 48 attempts).  In 119 games in the outfield he had 230 fielding chances and only made 11 errors, while getting 6 outfield assists.   To me, for a player who hadn’t played above high school *ever* and hadn’t played any baseball in nearly a decade and a half, having that many successful events over the course of roughly 725 game events is an amazing feat of athleticism.    Some of the pitchers who were in the Southern League in the same division as Jordan’s Birmingham Barons at that time included Tanyon Sturtze (272 GP in 12 MLB seasons), LaTroy Hawkins (753 GP in 15 MLB seasons), Brad Radke (All-Star with 377 starts in 12 MLB seasons), and Scott Sullivan (558 GP in 10 MLB seasons).   I don’t have access to game logs so I don’t know how often he faced these guys, but those are four pitchers who had more than just a “cup of coffee” in the major leagues.

Yet against this high caliber of competition, Jordan managed to get 88 hits and 51 walks.   Most amazingly, he got 3 home runs and 30 stolen bases!   While his success rate of 62.5% left alot to be desired by Major League prospect standards, I think by the standards of a player who was 31 years old and had not played in 13 years, it is amazing.   His 30 steals tied for fifth in the entire Southern League that season.   Every single player ahead of him on the list had a higher OBP, meaning they had more opportunities to steal bases as well  (although all but one, league leader Kerwin Moore, also had less caught stealings).

I remember back when Jordan was playing baseball, the media seemed to almost take glee in his “failure”, and potshots at his “inability” to play were everywhere.    And it is definitely clear that Jordan did not belong in AA at that time.    Yet, he was still “bad” in a capable manner.   He may have been one of the worst hitters in the league, but he still managed to get a hit slightly more than 1 in every 5 times he didn’t walk or get a sacrifice fly, and he still managed to reach base close to 3 in every 10 times he came up.   Even though he had a batting average of .202 and very little power, he still managed to draw 51 walks even though pitchers knew they faced very little risk in challenging him at the plate.   This is no small feat, and one can only wonder what Jordan may have been capable of if he had entered the draft straight out of high school or college instead of waiting until age 31 to play.

I take myself as a comparable example.  I’m almost 29 years old, two years younger than Jordan was in 1994.  Like Jordan, I have not played baseball since I was 17.   If you were to give me a wood bat, and drop me straight down into AA and tell me “Have at it, sport”, I can guarantee that hitting against the caliber of guys like Kyle Drabek, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Alderson (all pitchers in the Eastern League in 2009) that I would not be able to muster a .202 average, or 51 walks, and especially not 3 home runs.    Michael Jordan did just that, and I think he deserves alot of respect for being able to at least be capably bad, as opposed to totally inept, in his time in the Minor Leagues.   It was truly an amazing feat.

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Responses

  1. Thanks Bill! I appreciate the support. I too wonder if another athlete would do something like that in the future. Jordan was possessed at least in part due to personal tragedy of a rather unique sort. I suspect it would take a similar “perfect storm” for something like that to happen again.

    I do know that most major league teams will draft elite athletes from other sports “just in case”. These selections usually don’t make headlines, but they happen. When Michael Vick left Virginia Tech for the NFL for instance, the Rockies took him in the 30th round of the MLB draft. Dan Marino and John Elway were both drafted in 1979 by the Royals, and Elway was drafted again by the Yankees in 1981. Danny Ainge played parts of three seasons for the Blue Jays, and the Jays also once tendered a contract to Wayne Gretzky.

  2. It’s so ironic that I stumbled upon this post about M. Jordan. For some reason, I was just thinking about his tryout in Double-A, and how unlikely it seems that another superstar athlete would try that today. I agree with you that even his relative “failure” was still pretty impressive. But you did a nice job encapsulating the details of that entire episode, and putting it in its proper perspective. I’ll be putting your blog on my blog roll, and following along in the future. Bill Miller (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com.)


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