Seven Weeks in 1998: Comparing Shane Spencer to 2015’s Rookie Sluggers

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through

44 years after David Bowie sang about the resistance faced by youth, and 30 years after John Hughes co-opted the lyrics to represent upper middle-class teenage angst in a fictional Chicago suburb, baseball’s young sluggers have kicked down the game’s door and announced their arrival. As a result, the 2015 regular season might very well be remembered as the year of the power-hitting rookies.

As of August 27th, 16 rookies had at least 10 home runs, with another 7-10 players having realistic chances of reaching double digit totals. Amazingly, in 2014, just 14 rookies hit at least 10 home runs. In fact, 2015 rookies have already out homered 2014 rookies 476 to 471, with more than a month remaining in the season. Thanks to the season-long mashing of Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson, and the more recent surge from Miguel Sano and Kyle Schwarber, rookies are slugging at incredible rates. As you can see below, rookie power is up significantly from last season:

SLG ISO Plate Appearance Per HR
2014 .355 .119 51.00
2015 .392 .144 41.75

Of course, it should be noted that, as of this writing, league-wide power is up across the board from 2014:

SLG ISO Plate Appearance Per HR
2014 .386 .135 43.94
2015 .402 .148 38.05

Bryant, Pederson, and Sano are part of a historic group of rookie hitters, but before there was the class of 2015, there was the Yankees’ Shane Spencer. Spencer arrived in the majors in late 1998, and in 73 plate appearances over 27 games, he put up power numbers in a small window that few rookies ever have, including this year’s group. In the 73 plate appearances, he hit six doubles and 10 home runs, numbers that even this year’s stellar bunch could not match in their first 73 career trips to the plate:

Player Home Runs AVG OBP SLP ISO
Shane Spencer 10 .373 .411 .910 .537
Kris Bryant 0 .268 .439 .339 .071
Joc Pederson* 1 .228 .397 .333 .105
Carlos Correa 4 .300 .329 .557 .257
Kyle Schwarber 3 .328 .411 .531 .303
Miguel Sano 3 .271 .397 .492 .221

*Includes plate appearances from 2014

Only Schwarber, who appears to be a perennial 35-40 home run hitter, really came close to matching Spencer’s production.

The Yankees, of course, likely did not expect 10 home runs in 73 plate appearances, otherwise they would not have kept a 26-year-old in the minors. However, prior to his arrival in the Bronx, Spencer had demonstrated prodigious power in the minor leagues. After being drafted by the Yankees in the 28th round in 1990, he slugged at nearly every level. At Double-A Norwich in 1996, Spencer clubbed 29 home runs in 126 games, a season after hitting 16 home runs at High-A Tampa.

It was in 1997, though, that Spencer really provided a glimpse of what would come a season later. In 125 games for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Spencer hit 34 doubles and 30 home runs, with a .533 slugging percentage and .292 ISO. While Spencer lacked the pedigree of this year’s rookies—Bryant, Correa, and Schwarber were all first round draft picks—his minor-league peripherals were in line:

Player BB% K% ISO
Spencer 11.2% 14.5% .170
Bryant 12.8% 26.7% .340
Pederson 13.7% 21.1% .222
Correa 10.5% 16.7% .178
Schwarber 14.2% 26.7% .280
Sano 12.2% 26.0% .286

The comparison is not perfect, because Spencer’s numbers include parts of four monster seasons at Triple-A in his mid to late 20s, while 2015’s rookies are between ages 20-23. However, Spencer was not putting up dominant power totals in his early 20s, but he did have steadily improving minor-league numbers from ages 21 through 23:

Season Level (s) BB% K% ISO
1991 Rookie/Low-A 9.7% 11.3% .042
1992 High-A 11.1% 12.5% .089
1993 High-A 10.5% 12.6% .174

The power continued to improve, but despite his outstanding 1997 in Columbus, Spencer did not receive a September call-up or break camp with the big-league club in 1998.

Instead, he arrived a week into the season, entering his first game as a defensive replacement on April 10th at home against Oakland. Spencer’s first big-league at-bat came a week later on April 17th against Detroit’s Justin Thompson at Tigers Stadium. He grounded out to Billy Ripken at short, and finished 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly in the Yankees 11-2 win.

Spencer would soon return to Columbus, come back for a game in June, only to be sent down again after just two plate appearances. He returned to the team in late July, but it was still not a permanent stay in the Bronx.

Spencer’s first major-league home run came on August 7th at Yankee Stadium*. Against Tim Byrdak of the Kansas City Royals, the home run came in Spencer’s 19th plate appearance, meaning his 10 home runs came in just 55 plate appearances. Just two innings later, Spencer added his second home run, this one off of Matt Whisenant. The Yankees won 14-2 and moved 53 games over .500

 *That night, Johnny Damon led-off and played right field for the Royals.

While he also added two doubles in his breakout performance, Spencer was sent down in mid-August without hitting another home run. When the rosters expanded on September 1st, he was back with the Yankees. Nobody could have predicted at the time, but Spencer was about to embark on an otherworldly September in which he hit eight home runs in 42 plate appearances. On September 4th, Spencer hit his third home run off of Mike Sirotka in Chicago, and the Yankees won their 100th game of the season.

Spencer’s fourth home run was one to remember. On September 18th in Baltimore, Spencer hit a grand slam off Jesse Orosco, part of a seven-run Yankees ninth inning, and the Yankees moved 6o games over .500. Today, Orosco is 58 years old.

The Yankees finished the regular season with a seven-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians and expansion Tampa Bay Rays. With a 20.5 game lead and the division long wrapped up, Spencer received ample playing time. He started six of seven games, and unquestionably made the most of his opportunity. In 26 plate appearances in the season’s final week, Spencer hit six home runs, including two off of Dave Burba on September 22nd. 

On the season’s final day, Spencer punctuated his historic seven weeks in the only way possible: hitting a grand slam in an 8-3 Yankees victory.

The power surge continued into the playoffs, with Spencer hitting a home run in both Games Two and Three of the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers. He received just 20 plate appearances in the postseason, but he made his mark for not just a World Series champion, but arguably the greatest team in baseball history. Spencer was part of a Yankees outfield that, perhaps signifying the era of baseball, hit .299/.380/.482 as a group, with a remarkable .183 ISO and 11.4 percent walk rate.

Interestingly, Spencer received just seven plate appearances before July 28th, but he hit more home runs than fellow rookies David Ortiz (nine home runs in 326 plate appearances) and Adrian Beltre (seven home runs in 214 plate appearances). Granted it was a small sample (Spencer did not even reach the 130 plate appearances that qualifies a rookie), but his power numbers outpaced both rookies and the entire league:

1998 SLP ISO PA per HR
Spencer .910 .537 7.30
Rookies .382 .132 48.92
MLB .420 .154 37.19

Perhaps the most amazing part of Spencer’s season: He accumulated a 1.4 bWARP in just 27 games. A quarter of his career bWARP would come in those 27 games, as he would finish with a career 5.9 bWARP in 538 games. That year, 17 percent of his career home runs came in 3.9 percent of his career plate appearances.

As of this writing, Kris Bryant leads all rookies with 496 plate appearances.  It took Spencer parts of three seasons to reach 496 plate appearances. While he was hitting .267/.323/.496 with 26 home runs when he reached that mark in June 2000, it was clear that at 28 years old, he was not not an everyday player for the Yankees. This season’s rookies sluggers appear to be cornerstones of their franchises for the next decade, but that is not how Spencer’s career would unfold. 

Also worth noting, six of Spencer’s 10 home runs came in the season’s final week, when the Yankees opponents were expansion Tampa Bay and a Cleveland team who clinched the AL Central with 10 days remaining in the season. The  rookies discussed in this piece had the entirety of their first 73 plate appearances in the middle of the season on teams contending for the playoffs, except for Joc Pederson.

As you might have guessed from the preceding paragraphs, Spencer never replicated his 1998 numbers. He finished his career with 59 home runs, 43 coming with the Yankees, reaching double-digit home-run totals in just two of the next six seasons. Spencer left the Yankees after the 2002 season, spent the two next seasons with the Indians, Rangers, and New York Mets, and played his final game on July 22, 2004. His final home run came on July 19th at Shea Stadium, a three-run shot off of Dontrelle Willis. The Mets released Spencer in early August. A week later he signed with the Yankees as a free agent, rising as high as Triple-A Norfolk. 

In seven seasons, Spencer hit .262/.326/.428 with a .166 ISO and .268 TAv. He would never reach his rookie heights, but his 1998 stands as one of the most unique and tremendous arrivals in big league history. Spencer never rose to the level to which the Cubs and Astros hope their rookie power hitters will, but for seven weeks he was as good as any of 2015’s first-year sluggers.

Lead photo courtesy of Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


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