In Their Footsteps: The third baseman

In his eight seasons with Texas, Buddy Bell hit .293/.351/.431, with 15 home runs, 84 RBI, and four stolen bases for every 162 games played.  On the surface, the third baseman’s numbers don’t jump off the page.  They’re slightly short of Ramon Vazquez’s 2008 productivity.

But a full appreciation of what Bell gave this franchise requires a look beneath the surface.  At the moment, third base may be the leanest position in the Rangers’ minor league system, but among the organization’s crop is a player who, like Bell, calls for a deeper look to understand what he might become.

When Bell arrived in Texas following the 1978 season, the franchise had had only two players in its seven years who went to as many as two All-Star Games, catcher Jim Sundberg and shortstop Toby Harrah, the player the Rangers traded to get Bell.  Bell had been to one All-Star Game himself, when at age 21 he went as a second-year big leaguer and tripled in a pinch-hitting appearance.  He didn’t return to the Mid-Summer Classic in his remaining five seasons with Cleveland, but things changed when he got to Texas.

Bell wasn’t an All-Star in 1979, but starting in 1980, he was selected four times in five years.  He did win a Gold Glove in 1979, and would win one in each of the following five seasons as well.  (Oddly enough, Bell not only won a Gold Glove every full season he played with Texas – he never won one in any of his other 12 big league seasons.)  A steady offensive player, Bell was a spectacular defender, with good hands, a strong arm, and a flair for the dramatic play.

With a personality as unassuming as his numbers, Bell was a fan favorite in Texas but might have had the quietest 2,500-hit career of any player to reach that threshold, having never played on a playoff team and, in fact, playing most of his 18 seasons for bad teams in relatively small markets.  His stature in the game was unassailable, though, as evidenced by his receipt in 1988 of the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, given annually to the player who best exemplifies Gehrig’s character and integrity both on and off the field. 

The way I remember Bell, one of my favorite players as a kid, I would have sworn his numbers were a lot more impressive.  Yet he had only one season with 20 home runs, one season with 100 RBI, two seasons with a .300 average, and one season with 200 hits.  The numbers didn’t tell nearly the whole story.

The Rangers have a third baseman on the farm right now who, in his fourth pro season, is still in Class A and has an unimposing career line of .251/.357/.403.  But a look beneath the surface hints that Johnny Whittleman could still emerge as the organization’s best bet to eventually settle in as an everyday third baseman in the Major Leagues. 

The Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005 out of Kingwood High School near Houston, Whittleman is a premier athlete with tremendous makeup and baseball instincts whose picturesque left-handed swing has yet to produce with the kind of consistency that he’ll need in order to get to the big leagues.  But there are two things that Whittleman does very well – lay off bad pitches and rack up doubles – that promise better things ahead.

In 2007, despite a rough second half (he hit .343 over the season’s first two months but just .214 the rest of the way), Whittleman had the eighth-highest walk total in the minor leagues, drawing a base on balls once for every 5.1 Clinton and Bakersfield at-bats.  Midwest League managers ranked his strike zone judgment as the best in the league.  In 2008, he has walked once every 5.4 Bakersfield at-bats, and he is one walk short of the California League lead.  It’s surely been frustrating for Whittleman that he hasn’t hit for a better average and more power so far as a pro, but if so he hasn’t let it affect his patience at the plate.  He understands the strike zone and sees a ton of pitches, which bodes well for his development as a producer at the plate. 

It’s been said that minor league doubles often turn into big league home runs, and Whittleman has hit for doubles with increasing frequency every year since being drafted.  In 2006, his first full pro season, he doubled once every 22.2 at-bats.  In 2007, he doubled once every 12.9 at-bats.  This year, he has doubled once every 12 at-bats and has the third-highest total in the California League.  

Whittleman has hit only six home runs thus far in 2008, going deep only half as often as he did last year, but there’s no doubt that the power is there.  He homered 17 times in 2007 and added a bomb in last summer’s Futures Game off of blue-chip prospect Deolis Guerra, ranked by scouts as the number two pitching prospect in the game and since shipped by the Mets to the Twins as a key to the Johan Santana trade.  

In each of Whittleman’s four seasons in the Rangers system, he has seen his numbers drop off late in the year.  Finding a way to sustain his offense will be critical to his chances to play at the highest level.  Given Whittleman’s work ethic, the odds are good that he’ll get it figured out.

Prospects aren’t granted major league careers because of their character and their leadership, but those things certainly help them get to the big leagues, and stay there.  Buddy Bell’s place in Rangers history was as much about how he played the game as it was about the numbers he put up in his eight seasons with the franchise.  

Johnny Whittleman’s numbers need to improve, without question, but there are statistical indications that he might break out before long.  And his intangibles are the type that, like Bell, he could develop into a player who gives his team and the people who fill the stands far more than runs batted in and the arm strength to routinely start a 5-4-3.

 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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