More than 99 percent of minor league baseball players can be put into one of three buckets. Some are real prospects with a chance at one day hacking it in the majors. Other players are organizational roster fillers — “org guys,” as scouts might call them — with no real hope of a big league career. Others are what you might call Quad-A players who spend their time shuttling between the bigs and AAA.
There’s a fourth bucket: athletes from other sports who try to make the mid-career switch from some other sport to baseball. I want to talk about two of those players.
(A fifth bucket is “Bo Jackson,” but he’s different.)
Tim Tebow is currently trying what Michael Jordan tried in 1994.
The best player in basketball retired in 1993 and tried his hand on the diamond in 1994. Jordan’s tenure in pro baseball was fascinating, but it didn’t last long. He played one season with the White Sox’ Double-A affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. (Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf also owns the Bulls.) He was back on the hardwood in 1995.
Tebow, the Heisman Trophy- and national title-winning quarterback from Florida, is in the midst of the same transition. Drafted by the Broncos in 2010, Tebow didn’t play in an NFL game after 2012, and he formally left the league when he signed to play ball with the Mets in September 2016. After a brief, poor-hitting stint in the Arizona Fall League last year, Tebow started playing in-season minor league ball this year.
In late June, Tebow hit his fourth professional home run. That pulled him ahead of Jordan, who hit three in ‘94.
In July, he even smacked a walk-off.
That raised a question in my mind. The answer:
Tebow is a better hitter than Jordan ever was.
First, a comparison of two stat lines: Jordan’s as a 31-year-old in Double-A in 1994, and Tebow’s as a 29-year-old with Low-A Columbia earlier this year. (Tebow was recently promoted to High-A Port St. Lucie, and I’ll get to that in a couple of seconds.)
Jordan vs. Tebow in the batter’s box
Neither of these slash lines is good. Jordan, at 31, was already past the typical prime age for a hitter when he entered the sport. Tebow, at 29, was right around the end of it, as most research pegs a hitter’s peak between his age-26 and 29 seasons. Both were seven or eight years older than the average competition at their levels, but because of baseball aging curves, it’s not clear that either had a huge advantage in that regard.
Because Jordan played two levels above Tebow — not to mention in a different era and run-scoring environment — a definitive comparison of their abilities is impossible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a stab at one.
To do that, I asked ESPN’s Dan Szymborski, a sabermetrician, about a major league translation of Jordan’s ‘94 numbers and Tebow’s ‘17 numbers in Low-A. The question: How would either have fared in the majors? I posed it to him right after Tebow got a surprising call up to High-A and then went deep in his first game at that level. Szymborski was kind enough to run the numbers.
Jordan was a different kind of bad than Tebow is.
Jordan’s line in 497 plate appearances translated to .188/.262/.247, good for a hypothetical big league OPS of 509. That’s unacceptable for even the most valuable defensive players in the league. Dating back to 1985, there’s not a single major leaguer who’s had an OPS that low and lasted long enough to take 2,000 plate appearances. Pitcher Livan Hernandez, with a career 526 OPS across 1,113 at-bats, hit better than Jordan did in ‘94. In no universe could Jordan have made the majors and stuck.
Tebow’s translation, when I asked for it just after his call up, was .190/.264/310, suggesting a major league OPS of 574. That’s not within miles of good enough for the bigs, either. Tebow has torn the cover off the ball since then, notching a 912 OPS in his first 51 plate appearances at High-A. That’s surely just some small-sample fun, though, before the league’s pitchers catch up to whatever the new guy is doing.
Here’s a little bit on how these minor league equivalencies work. They’re not projections of what might happen in the future, but they’re a good way to look backward at how a player would’ve done in a major league environment.
The big difference between them: Tebow’s more powerful.
That makes sense given their physical builds. Jordan’s baseball size, as listed by Baseball Reference, was 6’6 and 205 pounds. Tebow’s is 6’3, 255. Tebow is only slugging .364 for his entire minor league career, but again, Jordan slugged .266 in Double-A. That’s “couldn’t hit your way out of a wet paper bag” territory. He had 21 extra-base hits in almost 500 at-bats, which is brutally hard to do if you’re not a pitcher.
Both of these guys are bad hitters by the standards of the professional game. Tebow’s extra oomph probably makes him better on the whole, though.
Jordan likely makes up some ground if we include defense.
The same physical traits that make Tebow a more powerful hitter also make him slower, and Jordan’s explosiveness was legendary. Jordan played the outfield, and he probably did it a lot better than Tebow plays the outfield corners. But there was no advanced fielding data in the minors in 1994, and the pickings are still slim today.
In ‘94, Jordan made 11 errors in 119 games against just six outfield assists. Tebow so far has eight errors in much less time, against one assist. It feels safe to say that Jordan was better in the field than Tebow is now. But that’s a long way from saying Jordan was good, because there’s lots more to defense than athleticism.
Most likely, a 31-year-old rookie would not have thrived in the field, and the absence of advanced data makes it impossible to know for sure.
Overall, give me Tebow.
If I’m a big league manager, putting either of these guys in the field is too big a liability for me. I want the player with some chance of running into a fastball and hitting it a great distance as a pinch hitter. Tebow could, in theory, do that.
Let’s agree not to tell the Mets that’s the case.