For many of us, the game of baseball remains an incredible metaphor for life, but for those who play the game for a living it is life. Take for example David Bote, an 18th round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2012. Bote was having a nondescript minor league career when the Cubbies sent him to the Arizona Fall League last year. Among the many purposes of the Fall League, one is to help decide whether a club wants to place a player on its 40 man roster thereby protecting him from the Rule 5 draft. Bote had a good enough showing that the Cubs not only put him on the 40 man, but quickly called him up to the majors on April 21. Bote went back and forth between Chicago and Iowa as a placeholder first for Kris Bryant and then for Jason Hayward. On his return in July, Bote was putting up better numbers for the Cubs than he had in the minors, making it hard for Joe Maddon to keep him out of the lineup.
Bote’s gain was Ian Happ’s loss. Despite a reasonably good OBP, Happ otherwise struggled offensively. His power outage resulted in deferral of playing time to Bote last week. Which brings us to ESPN’s Sunday night game spotlighting the Cubs against the Nationals, an old-fashioned pitching duel between the newly acquired Cole Hamels and Mad Max Scherzer. With Mad Dog Madsen on in relief in the bottom of the 9th, Joe Maddon had Bote on the pinch-hitting depth chart ahead of Happ. When Madsen plunked Wilson Contreras to load the bases, Happ was sent out to pinch-run for him as the potential game tying run, while Bote stepped in to pinch-hit as the improbable potential walk-off run. And then the improbable happened …
Fifty-eight years ago, as my appetite for baseball was being whet, 26 year-old Ken Walters broke into the major leagues with a red-hot start in April for the Philadelphia Phillies. Batting .335 through mid June with apparent five-tool skills, Walters was so unexpectedly hot that he secured a spot in right field, displacing a younger outfield upstart to by the name of Johnny Callison to a part-time role. Even though he faded a bit in July, it wasn’t until the August that the baseball gods conspired to suck the life out of Walters’ bat.
In a piece published in the November 16, 1960 issue of the St. Louis Sporting News, sportswriter Allen Lewis speculated about Walters’ nosedive. Was it due to physical fatigue? Could it be attributed to mental anguish about family health issues? Walters noted that by season’s end he was getting so many different opinions about how to shake out of his prolonged slump that he was “all fouled up”. Walters couldn’t recapture the magic, and by the end of 1961 his career in Philly was over. Callison on the other hand emerged as an All-Star, taking over right field full time in 1962, beginning a run of four years that were the best consecutive years a Phillies right fielder would ever play in the modern era.
Will the Bote/Happ competition turn out to mirror the Walters/Callison drama? Their respective Arizona Fall League performances predict that Bote has a better shot at succeeding in the major leagues than Happ, but no one to my knowledge has done a good enough sabermetric analysis of the AFL to make such predictions with any confidence. Perhaps something to look into further this Fall while Joe Maddon and the Cubs’ front office continues with their own calculus.