As a 15th round selection by the Atlanta Braves out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, there was some hope that Mike Hessman would develop into a solid corner infield prospect worthy of a shot at the big leagues. Hessman struggled from day one, striking out at unbelievable rates, but also slugging twenty or more home runs in five of his first six full seasons as a pro.
As Hessman continued these trends through six seasons, and into in second and third tries at the Triple-A level for the Braves, the common belief was becoming more and more clear. Mike Hessman was a Triple-A slugger who might carve out a minor league career of some length, simply because he could play solid defense and hit the ball a mile – once in a while. Following the 2004 season, Hessman was granted free agency and was looking for a new opportunity, and possibly a chance to reinvigorate his career. The Tigers gave him that chance, and an opportunity to play every day at Toledo. Despite ripping 28 dingers, Hessman fell on his face that first year with Detroit, striking out 154 times and hitting only .214. Things got worse in 2006, as his average fell to .165, and he struck out 129 times in just 101 games. So what do we make of a 2007 season where Hessman upped his line to .254/.352/.540, while knocking 31 home runs? Was it just one of those years? A year like that in which Brady Anderson ripped 50+ home runs, or was it a sign of a larger change in Hessman's ability?
Enter 2008, and a first month of baseball with Toledo that was absolutely incredible. Eight home runs and a .276/.327/.643 line in his first 25 games, and that wasn't even the half of it. Hessman's incredible run continued in May, as he ripped eight more home runs in the first ten days of the month. Seriously, what do we make of this? Is Mike Hessman really just a Triple-A slugger, or is he becoming something more than that?
Since August 1, 2006, through May 1, 2008, Hessman has hit at a .248/.335/.542 clip; a line substantially ahead of his .227/.304/.443 career line heading into this season. Since hitting Triple-A in 2002, Hessman's strikeout rate has gone in two directions. Through 2006, Hessman's strikeout rate steadily climbed from whiffing in 22% of his at-bats, to 37%. Since that time, Hessman's rate has fallen to 36% in 2007, and 29% through the first month of this season. In another vein, Mike's walk rate has increased from 7% in 2002, to 15% last season.
What does this mean? Does it mean we can expect Hessman to continue destroying the ball for the foreseeable future? It's not as though his batting average on balls in play has been running at some unsustainable rate, sitting at .319 last year and .306 through the first 25 games this year. Aside from his home run rate of late, it's also not as though he's been hitting at rates that are unheard of throughout baseball. He is basically doing what is expected of big time sluggers, knocking extra-base hits, walking some, and striking out with regularity.
While we have all become accustomed to expecting certain things from Mike Hessman – and his latest performances are not what has been expected – should we begin expecting more? There comes a point in time where the streak is not just a streak, but the establishment of a new level of performance by a player in the midst of his baseball prime. Late bloomers are well-documented throughout baseball history, and it is entirely possible that Mike Hessman is just that. When you have someone that has seen such dramatic changes in his performance ability, with the ability to defend at a high level at both infield corners, do you start to consider finding room for him? Do you begin considering that this player – while originally thought of as a nice contingency plan – could be an integral piece to your season?
Mike Hessman is still a Triple-A slugger. Mike Hessman could also be developing into a Major League slugger. We won't truly know what is going on with Hessman until further down the road, with more performance data to analyze. All that said, I find it a bit hard to believe that he is establishing a new level of permanent performance; but rather settling in as a Tripl-A veteran who is able to feast on the unwise offerings of much younger players. But while the Tigers are struggling to score runs at a consistent pace, they may be wise to take advantage of this run and figure out a way to get Hessman on the roster. The worst that could happen is he proves that he is a Triple-A slugger; which we already know. Where's the harm in that?