My first season as a national baseball writer was 2011, the season after Jose Bautista decided he was excellent, and it scarred me. All of the crutches baseball writers were used to -- "sample size!" "regression to the mean!" -- were pulled out from under us and used to beat us about the face and torso. We watched a 29-year-old emerge from the mists, seven seasons after being waived, bought, sold and traded twice on the same day, and it turns out he was real. He's still real. So maybe this Story kid is real? At some point, "Because Jose Bautista!" became a more convincing reflexive response for me than "sample size!" and I'm okay with that.
That still doesn't mean that we've seen anything quite like Story. Here are the rookies in baseball history who hit seven or more home runs in April:
- Jose Abreu, 10 home runs (128 PA)
- Albert Pujols, nine home runs (102 PA)
- Alvin Davis, seven home runs (75 PA)
- Trevor Story, seven home runs (28 PA)
Hitting seven home runs in 28 plate appearances was news when Barry Bonds did it in July, much less a rookie doing it at the very beginning of his career. So, don't make the mistake of simply lumping it in with other great April performances in recent memory. It's more special than that.
But we need to have a taxonomy of unfathomably fast starts. In which category does Trevor Story fall?
The Barry Bonds category
In 2002, the season after setting the single-season home run record, Bonds hit .375/.600/.828 in April, with eight homers in 100 plate appearances. That's very good! He was the talk of baseball. He hit well in 2003, with eight more homers and a .290/.484/.681 line. That was also very good! It turns out that Barry Bonds was good at hitting baseballs relative to his peers, and this was reflected in the statistical account.
In 2004, Bonds hit .472/.696/1.132 with 10 homers and 39 walks in 92 plate appearances.
So, the Barry Bonds category of hot April starts is reserved for the MVP-caliber players who are going bonkers. This is clearly not the category that Story falls into. I just wanted an excuse to share those numbers.
The Albert Pujols category
Pujols was a prospect before the 2001 season. According to Baseball America, he was the 42nd-best prospect in baseball, sandwiched between Adam Johnson and Aubrey Huff, and he was the second-best prospect in the Cardinals' organization, just behind Bud Smith. So, it's not like he came completely out of nowhere.
But he pretty much came out of nowhere. He had just 14 at-bats above A-ball before making the Cardinals' Opening Day roster, and those weren't especially good at-bats, either. He went from the 13th round to the majors in a season, and he was instantly one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen.
The Albert Pujols kind of April, then, is a declaration of intent. It's a prospect handing out his business card and announcing that he's going to stick around and do this for the next 15 years, if that's okay with everyone. Even the best prospects can sputter a bit to start their careers, with Mike Trout's 2011 season being the most obvious recent example. It's nice when one of them is kind enough to hit exactly as well as they will over the next decade or so.
Story probably isn't Pujols, though. If only because no one is, sure, but also because Pujols showed off excellent plate discipline in the minors, whereas Story struggled in that category last year in the upper minors, striking out four times for every walk. While Story has seven glorious dingers in 28 plate appearances, he also has eight strikeouts and just one walk. There isn't a book on him yet, but someone is at a FedEx Office right now, printing up copies to distribute around the league.
The Chris Shelton category
Shelton was a Kevin Maas All-Star before he was a thing, a high-OBP, high-power guy in the minors who never got a shot. The Tigers nabbed him in the Rule 5 draft and hid him on the disabled list all season. The following year, 2005, he became one of the better DHs in the league, but he wasn't exactly an All-Star.
In 2006, Shelton was every bit the talk of baseball that Story is now. On April 17th that year, after 13 games, he was hitting .471/.500/1.216, with nine homers in 54 plate appearances. He had a pair of absurd performances in Class-A, with a pair of 1.000+ OPS seasons, so this seemed to be the same kind of announcement that Pujols was making.
It was not. After April 17, Shelton hit .242/.316/.348 for the rest of the season, with just seven more homers in 358 plate appearances. He missed the next year with an injury, and he never got more than 100 at-bats in a season again.
The Chris Shelton category of fast April starts exists to remind you that nothing is real and all of your dreams will burn. Sorry about that. While he was having the absurd April, he was also striking out in almost a third of his at-bats, which should have been a red flag.
But Story doesn't fit in this category, either. When Shelton was Story's age, he was a Lynchburg Hillcat. His big April came when he was 26. There's no comparing what a second-year player in his mid-20s did to what Story is doing as a 23-year-old right now. If there are concerns with Story's plate discipline, he can work on them for the next two years and emerge as a still-young and excellent shortstop. Shelton didn't have that leeway.
No, we'll have to try another category
The Trevor Story category
Yep, it makes sense to make an entirely new category for him, because we haven't seen this before and it'll be useful to have around in case we see it again. This is a combination of the Pujols and the Shelton, a mashup of optimism and skepticism.
No, Story probably isn't declaring his intent to hit his way into the Hall of Fame, like Pujols did. But he's certainly announcing himself as a viable major leaguer, someone with the tools to stick around for a decade. Jeff Sullivan notes that Story's exit velocity is already impressive, and Dave Cameron compares him to J.D. Martinez, who had a similarly surprising rise to fame with a comparable toolbox.
No, Story is not going to keep this up. Not just because one can, but also because those red flags mean something. You can believe in every player hitting better in the majors than the minors, and you'll eventually be right about a few. The skeptics will be right more often, though. So there are definitely shades of Shelton in this ... tale, even after being cautious not to draw too many parallels between a player in his mid-to-late 20s and a legitimate prospect.
The timing of the dinger frenzy is what gets our attention. This is how Story is starting the season. This is how he's starting his career. It doesn't mean he's a Hall of Famer. It doesn't mean he's doomed to be a cautionary tale about sample size. He's his own ... saga. He's creating his own ... apologue. There's nobody who's done quite what he's done. Don't look for meaning just yet, but keep an eye on him. Whatever he does will be instructive for the next prospect who does something similar.
The only thing we know for sure is that it's been very, very fun to watch.
For most of us.