Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | June 19, 2010

On Comparing Boesch to Chris Shelton

When the Tigers elected to call Outfielder Brennan Boesch up from Toledo on April 23rd to take the roster spot of the injured Outfielder/Designated Hitter (now starting second baseman) Carlos Guillen, it appeared at the time to be a case of “calling up the hot hand” with Boesch hitting much better than any of the Tigers Outfield prospects at AAA at the time. Very few could have predicted the breakout that has followed, as Boesch made his Major League debut that very day and went 2-for-4 with a double and has not stopped hitting since then. Boesch’s prodigious power has made him a hit with the fan base, a potential rookie-of-the-year candidate, and the team’s starting Left Fielder. He essentially replaced fellow rookie Scott Sizemore on the roster when Guillen returned, as Guillen was moved to Second Base and Sizemore was moved to Toledo (where he has been doing about as well as Boesch was when Boesch was in Toledo).

One of the main topics of discussion among the sports media, the local sports talk World, and even some fans, is the attempt to answer the question of whether or not Boesch is the next Chris Shelton. Many outside of Detroit may not remember Shelton, but he became part of the city’s sports lore in 2006 when he posted a 326/404/783 triple slash with 10 home runs in the month of April. Even within the full month split, a good portion of that production came in the first two weeks of the season: Through April 17th, 2006 (the two week point of the year), Shelton had 9 home runs in 13 games and a 471/500/1216 triple slash. Shelton’s production played a big role in the team getting off to a good April start, and became legend in no small part because prior to the 2006 season the Tigers hadn’t had a winning season since 1993. However, after that April, Shelton inexplicably declined precipitously and by August found himself back in Toledo as the Tigers acquired Sean Casey in a deadline deal. When rosters expanded in September Shelton returned, but hit .211 in 19 at bats in the month. He would never play another game in Detroit, and in subsequent seasons only played 50 more Major League games in Texas and Seattle, posting a 220/324/325 line and hitting just two home runs.

Given Shelton’s sudden demise and his place in Detroit’s sports lore, much of the talk comparing Boesch to Shelton has been couched in such a fashion as to ask if Boesch’s hot start to 2010 is foreal, or if he’s “just another Shelton”. Many fans have become convinced that Boesch has now performed so well for so long that the Shelton comparison is inadequate, as Boesch has moved past the point of such a comparison. I would agree with the conclusion, but not the premise. The comparison is inadequate, but not because Boesch has moved past Shelton. It is inadequate because he has not yet approached Shelton’s level of accomplishment.

Two paragraphs prior, I spoke of Shelton’s “legendary” 2006 campaign, and in the previous paragraph, I spoke of how the question is being approached. It is my contention that people are not approaching the question correctly. Many of the people — Sports talk types included — That would compare Boesch to Shelton’s 2006 are doing so because the Tigers became “relevant” in 2006, and Shelton’s performance was a big part of that. However, the Tigers did field a team in the years before 2006, and Shelton was a part of two of those teams — The 2004 and 2005 teams. While his hot start to 2006 was both amazing and unpredictable, one could make a strong argument that Shelton was the best hitter on the 2005 Tigers team — A team that had Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White, Carlos Guillen, and Magglio Ordonez on it — And therefore while the extent of his hot streak was eye-popping, it wasn’t really all that surprising to all of us that followed the 2005 team that Shelton would be the team’s best hitter to start 2006. In forgetting his performance in 2005, the comparison by many of Boesch to Shelton is incomplete.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Shelton in the 33rd Round of the 2001 draft as a Catcher. He signed quickly and immediately hit the ground running as a hitter. Playing at short season A ball Williamsport, he posted a 305/415/402 line. In 2002 they promoted him to lo-A Hickory, where Shelton developed power to go with his ability to hit for average and to take walks, posting a 340/425/587 line with 17 home runs. He started 2003 at hi-A Lynchburg and hit so well (359/478/641 with 21 homers in 95 games) that he earned a mid season promotion to AA Altoona where he struggled a bit (279/331/377) in 35 games. He was named the Pirates minor league player of the year that year, and then was inexplicably not protected on their 40-man roster. That Winter, he became part of a highly publicized debacle in the Pirates organization, wherein they lost several players to the Rule V draft in spite of having spots on their 40-man roster available. The Tigers, having come off the worst season in the history of the American League, had the first pick in the draft and selected Shelton from the Pirates with that pick.

Forced to keep Shelton — A player who’d only played 35 games above hi-A in his career — on their major league roster in 2004, he played very sparingly and struggled mightily when he did play. He came to the plate 56 times and posted a 196/321/283 line. His ability to take a walk was on display, but that was about all. In addition, his knock even in the Pirates organization was that he was more of a DH type. He was not a skilled receiver (and he showed this as a Catcher for the Tigers), not athletic enough for the Outfield, and not really tall or limber enough for first base. He got injured at a point in the ‘04 season and was assigned to AAA Toledo on rehab assignment, where he hit .339 with little power. And such was Shelton’s career prior to the 2005 season. He was a player who’d essentially hit at every level with decent to above average power save for a short stint in AA who did not truly have a field position. Having fulfilled the requirements of his Rule V selection, the Tigers were free to return him to the Minors in 2005 and they did so, putting him in Toledo. It was for the Mud Hens in 2005 that Shelton put it all together, posting a 331/417/569 line with 8 home runs in 48 games. The Tigers called him up on May 31st of that year, and he went on for the rest of the season as the best hitter on their team. This is the true story of Chris Shelton, and his history as a hitter in the minors and his strong 2005 in Detroit are why his sudden inability to hit in the majors was always so baffling in my eyes.

And so essentially when comparing Boesch to Shelton, it isn’t really fair to start at 2006, but more fair to start at 2005. The reason I would not go to 2004 is because Shelton was a Rule V pick that was obligated to remain in the Majors that year, and had barely played above hi-A ball at the time. It seems more fair to start the comparison at the time his “development” was finished — As a 25 year old then-first baseman in 2005 — Than in 2004. Boesch is also 25. The two players really aren’t similar in style at all. Shelton’s history was as a better hitter for both average and plate discipline while being an inadequate fielder. Boesch’s career to date has seen him as a decent hitter for average with poor plate discipline and outstanding power who is an average to slightly above average fielder. Shelton is six feet tall, somewhat pudgy and didn’t really have the “look” of an athlete, while Boesch is 6’4 and almost like Paul Bunyan in appearance.

However, when we compare their starts in the league, it is amazing to see that they have been almost equals offensively:

* – Boesch has played in 45 games to reach 182 plate appearances. He has a 341/390/617 line with 9 home runs, 34 RBI, 13 walks, and 21 runs scored for the Tigers this year.

* – From the time of his call-up on May 31, 2005 to July 24, 2005, Chris Shelton played in 48 games to reach 183 plate appearances. Shelton’s line?: 363/399/591 with 9 home runs, 33 RBI, 9 walks, and 32 runs scored.

They have essentially had the same start, with Shelton getting a few more hits where Boesch walked, and Boesch getting a few more extra base hits where Shelton got singles. Over the remainder of the 2005 season, Shelton would hit 249/331/447 with 9 home runs in 248 plate appearances, which preceded his strong start to 2006.

As Tiger fans, the Shelton experience has conditioned us to be very weary of rookies with exceptional starts, and Boesch has certainly become a fan favorite with not only his great play, but his tendency to come up big in big spots (his WPA this season is 1.9, compared to Shelton’s 1.26 as of 7/24/05, showing that he has many, many more hits in big spots) and therefore many are looking for any reason they can to distance Boesch from the Shelton tag. Unfortunately, to date they are running neck and neck and he will have to perform well for quite awhile longer to accomplish even as much as Shelton did, much less to have move beyond what he accomplished.

On the positive side, Boesch appears to be in much better physical condition and he doesn’t really have the “old people skills” as Shelton did. Players with “old people skills” tend to fade in the league much more quickly. In addition, Boesch is a far more valuable player overall due to his ability to play good Outfield defense. Even if Boesch isn’t as good as he has been playing to date (likely), it still stands to strong reason that he will continue playing good enough to justify a roster spot for many years to come, and he may even have taken the next step in his performance to justify being a starting player for many years to come. One of the fun things about baseball is seeing how players like this develop, and we do not yet know where the “water” is for his level, therefore making it a fun exercise to speculate. However, it is too soon to begin comparing him to Chris Shelton. He still has many months to go before he can pass that mile marker.

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Responses

  1. This is an excellent analysis. I really get annoyed that most people forget Shelton’s 2005 season when they discuss his decline as a hitter. If everyone is going to use Shelton as an example of a player who started hot and then failed, they need to get it right.

    Lee


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