In a move that surprised nobody familiar with the Yankees’ bleak outfield situation, the Bronx Bombers decided to bring the recently-cut Boesch to Spring Training with them. The only surprising part of the news was that Boesch received a major-league deal rather than a simple minor-league deal like the one they gave to former Indians outfielder Ben Francisco the other day (they transferred Michael Pineda to the 60-day DL to make room on the 40-man roster for Boesch). Aside from handedness and more time as a starter, the two players had similarly disappointing performances in 2012 at the plate and in the field. Nonetheless, Boesch is the one who is now on the 40-man roster, so there has to be something the Yanks see in him, right? Maybe? Bueller?
Due to his size and power potential, Boesch was a well-regarded college prospect at UC-Berkeley, even though scouts considered his defense “mediocre” and his bat “stiff,” according to a John Sickels rookie profile of him from 2010. The Detroit Tigers selected him in the third round of the 2006 MLB Draft, and after beginning at Short Season A Oneonta (formerly a Yankees affiliate), he moved up one level per season through the minors. He struggled for a couple years, but broke out with a 28-homer ’09 with Double-A Erie despite a startlingly-low walk-rate of 5.8%. The next season, Boesch was promoted to the majors following a scorching 15-game start at Triple-A Toledo, and he has not returned to the minors since then (although he does one option remaining).
Boesch continued his hot streak and made his first impression on the Yankees in a four-game series at Comerica Park wherein Boesch went 7-for-13 and thrashed Yankee pitching. The Yanks were not the only victims to Boesch’s hitting barrage though. In fact, many Tiger fans were baffled that he did not make the All-Star team after he ended the first half at a terrific .342/.397/.593 clip. This triple slash was undoubtedly aided by a .384 BABIP, a true blessing for a guy who has never had great speed. Not too many pitchers got the opportunity to face him twice in that first half, either; now that they knew a little more about Boesch, they could more effectively pitch against. Regression struck Boesch like a rake to the face, and he struggled in the second half to an ugly .163/.237/.222 finish. The BABIP that helped him so generously in the first half turned on him completely–only .201 from mid-July onward.
Overall though, it was still a decent rookie season at .256/.320/.416 at a pitcher-friendly park, which yielded a 96 wRC+, and finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Boesch also struck out almost 100 times in 512 plate appearances while swinging at 41% of pitches out of the zone. The season was not without unusual statistics–the lefty-swinging Boesch had completely reverse splits. He hit .337/.403/.548 with a 17.7% LD% against southpaws, but only .233/.295/.378 with a 14.5% LD% against righthanded pitching. Bizarre.
With a job in the Tigers’ outfield in hand, Boesch seemed to take a big step forward in 2011. He balanced out that odd reverse split to a .302/.356/.396 against lefties and a .276/.336/.478 against righties. Boesch began to hit the cutters and changeups that gave him problems in 2010, and he only faced difficulties with the splitter and the regular four-seam fastball. (Again, weird. This guy is bizarre.) Boesch’s defense remained shoddy, but a slightly-lower strikeout rate and better batting numbers (117 wRC+) more than made up for it. The season was going smoothly, but a right thumb sprain suffered in early August caused a decline in performance and a few games missed. Taking a glance at his helicopter swing, it is not all that surprising that a sprain emerged. By the end of the month, the injury became more severe, and his season suddenly came to an end as a result of necessary surgery to repair his thumb UCL.
There was optimism in Spring Training of last year at our SBN Tigers site “Bless You Boys” about Boesch’s return from injury, and he reported that his thumb was fully healed. It’s certainly hard to say whether or not his swing truly healed though–Boesch was lost at the plate all year long. He did not get off to a hot start like he had the previous two years, his defense was horrendous (-18.2 UZR/150. -8 DRS), he struck out more than ever (20.7% of all appearances), and when he did made contact, he hit it straight into the ground nearly half the time.
The progress Boesch made on cutters and changeups disappeared to negative values. Even worse, PITCH f/x reported only two pitches that Boesch hit for clearly positive value, two-seam fastballs and knuckle-curves. The splits were about equal in crappy performance (71 wRC+ vs. lefties, 79 wRC+ vs. righties), and he became a whipping boy for Tigers fans. Boesch was not benched until the very end of the season, when the Tigers left him off the playoff roster throughout October on their run to the AL pennant. The season was about as much of a complete dumpster fire of failure as possible for Boesch.
Entering Spring Training this year, the Tigers held a competition for a spot in the outfield. Boesch missed 17 days on the shelf with a strained oblique, and after only three hits in 16 at bats, the Tigers cut him on March 13th. So given Boesch’s dismal 2012, why would the Yankees give him a guaranteed major-league contract? The fact that Boesch is a lefty power hitter certainly helps his case. Yankee Stadium is the best place in baseball for those types of hitters according to both FanGraphs Park Factors and Duh Magazine. Check out Boesch’s spray chart from last year–it looks like there are a few that might have gone off or over the Yankee Stadium’s right field wall.
Hitting coach Kevin Long is certainly someone that can help Boesch if he needs to alter his swing at all (which he probably does). It is understandable how a thumb injury can totally mess up a swing; during his rehab, Boesch might have picked up some bad habits to compensate for the recovery. As William pointed out in a post on “The Captain’s Blog,” Boesch’s 2011 success is also much more recent than any of the other veterans trying to get a minor league spot, and he has a history of going on hot streaks. The Yankees presumably will only need this third outfielder to be starting until mid-May, when Curtis Granderson is expected to return. If they play him and he gets on a roll, then they look like geniuses. Of course if they play him and he looks like he did last year (not an outlandish thought), then they will be derided. Such is life.
It sure seems to me that the Yankees could probably have saved some money and gone with Ronnier Mustelier if they wanted a strong chance at good offense or Melky Mesa if they wanted a strong chance at good defense, but the Yankees chose Door #3 (I suppose Matt Diaz is another door). Boesch is much more of a Mustelier offense-driven player, but it remains to be seen if, even after the thumb injury, he can ever be the hot hitter he was for several months in 2011. He has not hit age 30 yet, so he still has some time to turn his career around. Yankee Stadium and Kevin Long have both performed such generous resurrections in the past; can they do it again? Given his guaranteed contract, it looks like Boesch will have that chance.