By Andrew Kahn
Every player who makes his Major League debut this week will want to have a performance like John Paciorek had in his first game. None, however, will want his career.
Paciorek is the only career 1.000 hitter with as many as three hits. As an 18-year-old he was called up on September 29, 1963, the final day of the season. He went 3-for-3 with three RBI and four runs scored for the Houston Colt .45s. He never again reached the majors.
Amed Rosario has already surpassed Paciorek as far as big league longevity. The second-ranked prospect in all of baseball debuted at shortstop for the New York Mets on Tuesday and started again on Wednesday. Since last Thursday, 15 players have debuted.
Occasionally a team will call up a top prospect in the middle of an important race, like Tampa Bay did with David Price in 2008. Three players debuted for contending teams this past week, including Kyle Farmer, who hit a walk-off double in his first career at-bat.
But, most call-ups have been for non-contending teams, as is customary this time of year. Teams with no chance at the playoffs figure they’ll get a head start on the future. That’s what happened with Rosario and Ozzie Albies, Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect. While this probably shouldn’t factor into teams’ decisions, seeing these prospects excites fans in an otherwise uneventful final two months of the season.
It is a time for color commentators to reminisce about their big league debuts. For fans to over-analyze every movement—Look at that swing! How about that arm!—imagining greatness. For hits to become souvenirs, tossed into dugouts where veteran teammates often feign ignorance and pretend to flip the ball into the stands. For those in attendance to save their ticket stubs in a photo album and write “Maybe Pelfrey will be in the HOF one day.” OK, so maybe that last one was just me.
Even today, when information and video content is easily accessible, a certain mystery surrounds baseball prospects. College baseball and MLB farm systems don’t provide nearly the exposure that college sports do for the NBA or NFL. Rookie basketball and football players have already played in packed stadiums, their faces and highlights shown in high-definition on major TV networks. Top baseball prospects perform mostly before sparse crowds in small towns. Their best moments tend to be captured by a single camera with a view blocked by protective netting. One can be a dedicated fan of the Mets and, before Tuesday night, not have known exactly what Rosario looked like.
There’s also the wait. It is very reasonable to expect even a future major league contributor to spend three or four years in the minors. The waiting continues on a smaller scale once the debut game is underway. Unlike other sports, where a player is out there, doing stuff, for a good chunk of the game, position players may go unnoticed for stretches. Rosario had the ball hit at him early and often in his debut, but the Braves’ Albies had to wait until the sixth inning for a play at second base. They each batted seventh and reached base once (Rosario with a single, Albies on a walk), seeing a total of 14 and 12 pitches, respectively.
Neither had a moment anything like Farmer’s. His hit was his only contribution (he was pinch hitting), so perhaps it won’t be remembered quite like other impressive debuts: Stephen Strasburg’s 14-strikeout performance and Willie McCovey’s four-hit game, which included two triples, to name two of the best.
And it’s not like Farmer hit a home run, like 121 players have done in their first Major League at-bat. Paul DeJong did it for St. Louis earlier this season. Aaron Judge did it last year, which makes sense since Judge seems to hit a home run in every game he plays. Thirty players have gone deep on the first big league pitch they ever saw.
Not surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be any link between first-game performance and future performance. John Paciorek wishes there was. I spoke to him in 2011. Back injuries, likely stemming from his unorthodox workouts, prevented him from ever returning to the bigs after that one special afternoon. He gave up baseball six years after his Major League debut and is now a gym teacher in California, where he jokes with students about being the greatest player in baseball history.
Farmer is hoping he’s not the next Paciorek. Same with Drew Anderson, who made a relief appearance for the Phillies on Tuesday before returning to the minors. He allowed two runs in his debut and, upon learning he’d been sent back down, told Philly.com, “It was a good experience. I can’t wait to do it again.” There have been about 1,000 hitters and more than 500 pitchers who thought the same thing after their debut but never got another chance.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn