Barry Bonds of Triple-A
Calvin Pickering is tearing up Triple-A with 11 homers in 12 games for Omaha. So why isn't he in the majors?
A friend in Tacoma writes, "Have you seen Calvin Pickering's numbers? Holy mother of everything!"
A newspaperman in Portland writes, "There's hot. There's really hot. And there's Calvin Pickering hot."
Mind you, Calvin Pickering plays for the Omaha Royals, and so far this season the O-Royals haven't ventured west of the Rockies. Word of his exploits, though, has traveled all the way to the Pacific Northwest.
What's Calvin Pickering hot? Imagine Barry Bonds at his Barry Bonds hottest. Now make the enemy pitchers throw strikes. That's Calvin Pickering hot. In one recent four-game stretch, Pickering collected 10 hits and 19 RBI in 14 at-bats. Of the 10 hits, seven were home runs. For most players, of course, that's an incredible month. But Pickering's not just some four-game (that-looks-like-one-month) wonder. His season totals through Tuesday night: 12 games, 40 at-bats, 19 hits, 11 home runs, and 26 RBI.
You read that right: 12 games, 11 home runs. Omaha Royals broadcaster Mark Nasser has seen all of them. Asked to describe Pickering's round-trippers, Nasser says, "Line drives. Left, left-center, right-center, right field. Everything's been a missile so far. Out of the 11, maybe just one long fly ball."
Historical Interlude... Calvin Elroy Pickering has been terrorizing minor-league pitchers since 1995. A 35th-round draft pick, Pickering batted .500 in 15 professional games that summer. In 1996, he played in 60 games for the Orioles' rookie-level team in the Appalachian League, and hit .325 with 18 homers and 66 RBI. Pickering followed up with powerful seasons in Classes A and AA, graduating to the major leagues (temporarily, it turned out) in 1998, before he turned 21.
At which point his career sort of stalled. Pickering did well in Triple-A, but he wasn't scary any more. Over the better part of three seasons, he had problems 1) staying healthy, 2) getting his slugging percentage above .500, and 3) keeping his weight below 300.
You read that right, too. Calvin Pickering is one of the biggest men in the history of professional baseball. He's 6-foot-5, weighed roughly 260 pounds when he signed with the Orioles out of high school, and hasn't exactly slimmed down since. Pickering's weight hasn't stopped him from hitting, but it probably hasn't helped him avoid leg injuries, either (and it certainly hasn't helped him chase down pop flies).
Pickering lost the entire 2002 season to injuries, and wound up signing for 2003 with the Vaqueros club in the Mexican League. He did what good Triple-A hitters usually do in the Mexican League, and the Reds grabbed him in August. He did well in 26 games with Louisville, became a free agent after the season, and signed with the Royals. Interlude concluded ...
So he's always been a good hitter. But he's never done anything like this. Is "this" anything more than random statistical variation?
"I first got a chance to see him in spring training," O-Royals batting coach Terry Bradshaw says. "Basically what we've done with him is open his stance, because his direction to the pitcher was kind of inward. We just tried to straighten that alignment out, and he's done a great job of maintaining that. Also, his strike-zone discipline has been outstanding."
Pickering echoes Bradshaw's comments, but throws a Hall of Famer into the mix.
|Bonds Leading Off?|
What do you do with a player who's super-hot like Calvin Pickering or Barry Bonds? If it's Calvin Pickering, you hope he's not really this good and you keep trying to get him out. But if it's Barry Bonds, you know he's really this good, so you don't really bother trying to get him out, especially if first base is open.
What do you do if you're Barry Bonds' manager? It's been suggested that Felipe Alou should shift Bonds from No. 4 in the lineup to No. 3, but how much difference will that actually make? After all, it's not like Mickey Mantle will be hitting behind Bonds. No, this situation calls for something truly radical: Barry Bonds, Leadoff Man.
Way back in the 1940s, Branch Rickey floated this notion, saying, "It's unreasonable to deprive the finest hitter of an extra chance to bat in a game." And one of Rickey's students, Bobby Bragan, later managed the Braves and occasionally used Hank Aaron in the leadoff slot. In addition to the advantage noted by Rickey and later Bragan, it's not likely that a manager would order Bonds intentionally walked to lead off the game.
No, it probably wouldn't make much difference in the standings. But we just had Jackie Robinson Day; how about a tip of the cap to Branch Rickey, too?
-- Rob Neyer
"In spring training, me, Terry and George Brett made some adjustments, trying to keep in straight to the pitcher. Just little things like that help you out a lot. ... Now I'm just being aggressive in the strike zone."
Being healthy helps, too. "After coming off two surgeries and missing two years," Pickering says, "I'm feeling a lot stronger."
Bradshaw, who like Nasser has seen all 11 of Pickering's home runs, offers a similar appraisal of them: "Long, line-drive home runs, getting great backspin. He's hit some long ones. Not just to right field. Center field, left field. ... Right now, he's showing you everything you want to see in a hitter."
Royals general manager Allard Baird wouldn't get into specifics about Pickering's current poundage -- Baird is far too nice a guy for something like that -- but he did suggest to me that Pickering has made "nutritional adjustments," and presumably he's at least made some progress in controlling his weight.
Pickering's had a couple of great weeks, but is he a great hitter? Even with the adjustments, he probably isn't. Great hitters generally make themselves known before they turn 27. But Pickering has always been a good hitter, and 27 is the age at which good hitters most commonly enjoy great seasons.
Will Pickering get a chance to be great in Kansas City? Baird says, "Well, if a first baseman goes down [with an injury], then there would be an opportunity."
But probably not until then. Calvin Pickering is a first baseman and DH (with the emphasis on the capital letters) and the Royals already have three players -- Mike Sweeney, Matt Stairs, and Ken Harvey -- for those two positions. Harvey's a 240-pounder whose only specialties are the infield single, the strikeout, and playing better defense than Mike Sweeney. But he bats right-handed. Pickering bats left-handed, which means his main rival on the depth chart is Stairs.
At this point there's a real chance that Pickering is actually a better hitter than Stairs, but the Royals are paying Stairs, an established major leaguer, one million dollars this season, and they're not just going to dump him. However, if there's any sort of market for veteran left-handed power hitters, Allard Baird should probably consider at least exploring that market. Because it would be a real shame if Calvin Pickering's entire career season was spent in the bush leagues.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.