Since Alex Rodriguez was slated for hip surgery last winter, the Yankees were doomed to spend the season struggling to find production at third base. Third basemen were in short supply last year, with most of the productive players in the hands of National League teams. Rodriguez's .272/.353/.430 season was weak by the standards of his career, but it still gave the Yankees above-average production at the position.
In the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, the Yankees signed free agent Kevin Youkilis to a one-year contract. In doing so, the Yankees gambled that he could bounce back from injuries to the .300/.400/.550 rates he put up from 2008 through 2010. As desperation moves go, the signing had plenty of upside. Unfortunately, it didn't work out: It seems as if injuries have destroyed Youkilis. He can no longer stay on the field, let alone hit like he once did. Having hit just .219/.305/.343, Youkilis underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back last week and will be out for up to three months.
With Jayson Nix needed to play shortstop in the absence of Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez -- not that Nix's offensive profile is anything like that of a third baseman -- the Yankees have turned to a rookie, David Adams. One hates to be critical of this for several reasons:
1. Any rookie getting a chance with the Yankees is by definition rarer than a black rhino and as delicate as a Tiffany window. After Alex Rodriguez, there's nothing the Yankees hate more than their own prospects.
2. Adams is someone you can root for given that he's made the majors despite almost never actually playing due to having a long series of disabling injuries ranging from hangnails to a torn liver to being torpedoed by a German submarine while secretly running munitions to a besieged Great Britain.
3. When he has played, he's looked decently hitterish, putting up .296/.380/.450 career rates in the minor leagues.
The problem is, Adams has been miserable. He got off to a bit of a hot start, hitting .300/.317/.525 with two home runs in his first 10 games (12 for 40). One clue that it wasn't going to last was that he had yet to draw a walk in that span, and in fact would fail to draw one in his first 24 major-league games -- when a hitter absolutely refuses to walk, he's putting a massive amount of pressure on himself to hit his way on base, and very few players are actually so good that they can do that at an above-average rate without help from the pitchers. Career game #10 was the last time Adams had a batting average over .300; he's gone 5-for-52 with no extra-base hits. He has added a few walks in that time, but still, .096/.161/.096 is an argument for being sent down. Adams is hitting .185/.227/.283 overall.
In a season in which we've seen some tremendous performances from rookies, including .400 starts by the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and the Red Sox' Jose Iglesias, Adams has been the anti-Puig, a rookie who just isn't doing it. In both cases, we're getting an exaggerated picture: Puig isn't really this good and Adams is almost certainly not this bad. The problem is, that dismissive statement doesn't necessarily mean the opposite, that he's good. In fact, as much as the numbers might seem to shout, "Small sample fluke!" the numbers are so bad that it seems hard to believe that a rookie of any real ability would be able to roll them up over 100 plate appearances, even in the doldrums of their worst slump. So, does Adams' poor showing equal destiny?
It just might. If you look at players who had these kind of slumps during their rookie years, there aren't a lot of players who later turned into Joe DiMaggio, or even half-decent major-league players. Billy Ashley, Ron Karkovice, Dann Howitt, and Felix Martinez are more typical. There are some exceptions: Dustin Pedroia had a stretch of hitting .191/.258/.303 over 98 plate appearances in 2006. Daryl Boston, a former first-round draft pick, came up in 1984 and hit .169/.207/.229 with no home runs and four walks in 87 plate appearances. He later had a handful of decent part-time seasons. Shane Victorino hit .151/.232/.178 in an 83-PA stint with the Padres in 2003 -- but here we're already into examples that aren't truly comparable, smaller than Adams' and spiked by greater patience.
An interesting, probably unanswerable question provoked by the list of super-impotent rookies is if they get fewer chances to put their early struggles behind them because they looked so bad that teams are quicker to write them off than they would a kid who had a more pedestrian .200 slump. Jose Bautista is a good example of the latter. He hit an anorexic .205/.263/.239 in 96 plate appearances with the 2004 Orioles and Rays, but was understood to have been rushed -- he jumped from High-A to the majors -- and .205 isn't an Adamsian .185.
Sure, Boston got many chances, but teams are always loathe to admit a first-rounder tanked. Most of the rest -- not counting those that got slotted into second/third catcher purgatory (also known as being a millionaire, which is one of the paradoxes of modern baseball) -- were shuffled into the guilty-until-proven-innocent/Triple-A lifer pile.
It's always worth remembering that history isn't destiny. Adams could always break with the past. He could start hitting tomorrow and go on to a long and successful career. It's also worth remembering that being a Puig is also not a marker of future success. If it were, Daric Barton (.347/.429/.639 in 84 PAs for the 2007 A's) and Chris Parmelee (.355/.443/.592 in 88 PAs for the 2011 Twins) would be on their way to the Hall of Fame. Still, he'd better turn it around soon, because his next chance might be a long time in coming, if it comes at all.