Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Back to the future with Phil Plantier

This year I would like to honor the old dudes. So often we all get caught up in the future. Baseball America and Mel Kiper Jr. (in football) have turned minor leaguers and draft picks into house hold names because of the great hope of the unknown. How can we be disappointed in a player if he has never played a game right? In doing this, I think sometimes we tend to forget about some of our former heroes that graced the diamond. The guys who had entertaining careers, but had fatal flaws that ushered them out of town and out of mind. I think sometimes we (and I am a huge culprit of this) are too quick to want to push the old guard out to pasture and let the new prospect shine with his promise. So in order to keep the memories of our elders eternal, I am going to try to write profiles about former Red Sox players from my youth to pay homage to some really good players and maybe paint the picture of how a young X Mark got so crazed over baseball from watching these guys that he actually tattooed one of their numbers on his chest. So let’s hop in the Delorean, crank it up to 88 and head back to 1990 to visit my former favorite player, Phil Plantier

Phil Plantier was drafted as an infielder (he would later move to the outfield) in the 11th round by the Red Sox in 1987 out of Poway (NH) High School. As a 19 year old in his first full season assignment in the Florida State League, he struggled a little bit (.666 OPS) but showed good patience (51 BB in just 399 PA) for a teenager. The next year he took a small step back in league (Carolina League) but made a massive jump in performance. In 528 PA, he hit 27 HR and had a triple slash line of .302/.405/.546, but also started to show the contact issues that  would later doom him with 122 SO. In 1990, at just 21 years old, the Red Sox aggressively promoted him two levels to AAA Pawtucket where his power went from great to prolific, slugging 33 HR in just 507 PA good for an OPS of .906. His average took a little tumble that year and his strike outs increased, but the power and still good patience (62 BB) were enough to earn a call-up to The Show in August. While he didn’t do much in just 14 games that year, Phil Plantier was a Major Leaguer at just 21 years old.

The early 90’s were a transition time for the Red Sox outfield. By this time, Mike Greenwell had ascended to the starting left field position and appeared poised to keep the run of great Red Sox left fielders intact (Williams-Yaz-Rice). Ellis Burks burst onto the scene as a 22 year old in 1987 and gave the team its first really good center fielder since Freddie Lynn got away. The only position that was left unsettled in 1991 was right field. In 1990, with Jim Rice now retired, the Sox shifted Dwight Evans to DH full time. Evans, who was actually a better player than Jim Rice and should be in the Hall of Fame, was possibly the best defensive right fielder of all time and had been with the team since 1972. To replace him in the field in 1990, the Sox traded closer Lee Smith to the Cardinals for Tom Brunansky. Brunansky had a solid year in 1990, but in 1991 he slumped to a .692 OPS, paving the way for Plantier to be called up for good.

In 1991, still just 22 years old, Plantier opened the season in Pawtucket again, but he could not be contained. In 84 games he hit 16 HR, walked 65 times (against 64 SO) and put up a line of .305/.438/.557! With Brunansky struggling, the Red Sox had no choice but to call up the phenom with the prolific power. He played in 11 games with the big club in June and struggled, collecting 4 singles in 18 plate appearances. He was sent down for more seasoning, but returned in August on a mission. In 46 August PA, Plantier hit .412/.565/.794 with 6 Extra Base Hits (XBH) and 11 walks. He followed it up by playing in 29 games in September and October and logging a 1.000 OPS. For the season, he finished with a 1.034 OPS and 11 HR. In just 53 games, Plantier built up enough good will to finish 8th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. More impressively, according to several sources on the Internet (though I cannot find the original source), Bill James predicted that Plantier was the player most likely to lead the Major Leagues in HR in the 90s (of course he did not, that honor went to Mark McGwire).

The future looked bright for Plantier after his rookie season. I am assuming this is the year I officially fell in love with him and adopted him as my own (can a 7 year old adopt a 22 year old?). With that crouched stance, a beautiful lefty swing, good patience, and tremendous power, it was easy to envision him becoming the next Red Sox super star. 

In 1992, Plantier made his first Opening Day roster (here is the lineup for the day) as the starting right fielder, batting 5th behind Greenwell and Burks. In his first at bat, Plantier launched a solo shot off Yankees starter Scott Sanderson to deep center and it appeared that the phenom was no fluke. Unfortunately, this would be the high point of my favorite player’s season. He would not homer again until June 6. His average after the first week would never be higher than .252 (keep in mind that players were still largely evaluated on their averages back then) and his slugging never even reached .400. He was still getting on base at a reasonable clip (44 walks in 399 PA), but he was striking out a lot (84 SO). In August, he was sent down to AAA to regain his swing and dominated the competition yet again with a 1.300 OPS in 12 games. He was called back up in the middle of September and had a decent finish to the year, but the shadow of doubt had spread over the Red Sox front office. While he was just 23 years old, they seemed to be questioning whether or not Plantier’s power would translate to the Majors, or would his strike out issues doom him to AAAA status for the rest of his career.

Unfortunately for me and Phil, the Red Sox decided to not bother finding out what they had. On December 9, 1992, the Red Sox traded Plantier to the San Diego Padres for Jose Melendez, a 26 year old relief pitcher with pretty good numbers, but a reliever nonetheless (Melendez would go on to pitch in just 19 games for the Sox over 2 years and never again see a Major League game). What was once supposed to be one of the team’s foundation players and my absolute favorite, was now being traded away for a spare part. It was my first real experience with heart break (well maybe second, I think it was a year before when my parents took away our cable package and I could no longer watch Nickelodeon). This was a guy I had spent over an eighth of my life watching and without warning he was gone. Since it was before the internet and I no longer had cable to see him on ESPN, Plantier was essentially dead to me. Sure I could see his name in the morning box scores, but that is really no way for a 9 year old to follow his favorite player. I knew I had to move on, but it was just so hard.

The Red Sox right field position would remain unsettled for the next 7 years, featuring such immortals as Brunansky, Carlos Quintana, Billy Hatcher, Troy O’Leary and Darren Bragg until 25 year old Trot Nixon finally claimed the position in 1999. Plantier had a great first year for the Padres in 1993, finishing 7th in the league in HR with 34 and 9th in RBI with 100, but his star would quickly fade. In 1994 he would slump to a .220 average and would be traded to his third team, the Houston Astros, in a blockbuster deal involving Derek Bell, Doug Brocail and Ricky Gutierrez (among others) going to Houston for Ken Caminiti, Andujar Cedeno, Steve Finley and others coming back to San Diego. After 3 more years and 2 more teams, Plantier was out of Major League Baseball in 1997 at the age of 28. He would finish his career with 91 HR, falling 314 HR short of McGwire for the most HR of the 90s. While he never became the superstar that Baseball America, Bill James and I thought he would be, for one summer he captured the heart and mind of at least one impressionable 7 year old, forever cementing that little boy as a baseball junkie. Thank you for those 2 months Phil, and I hope you are doing well wherever you are.

I actually found Plantier writing for a site called Diamond Mind Baseball League. You can find his articles here and he has posted as recently as October 2010. If for some reason you ever read this Phil, I would love to do an interview with you, just email me at mpbergeron41@gmail.com.

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