Without knowing it, the battle for the starting left field spot at the onset of the 2014 season was decided on Opening Day of the 2013 season.
In what can only be described as a case of horrendous luck, Ryan Ludwick separated his shoulder on a slide into third base after attempting to make a heads up play. It seems difficult to comprehend that after an off-season of such optimism and thought-provoking insight about how dangerous the new age Big Red Machine could be, their clean-up hitter had vanished within the blink of an eye.
Ryan Ludwick has never been known as a slouch at the plate. He is by no means an elite power threat; but he did club 37 home runs as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008. That same season was the only one in which he drove in over one hundred runs. On three other occasions though, he has powered out over 15 bombs, with his second highest total coming in 2012 as a member of the Reds. After years of being buried in the valleys of Petco Park and PNC Park (San Diego and Pittsburgh’s home field, respectively), Ludwick was able to finally see the balls that were being tracked down in the power alleys, land in the stands in 2012.
The claim that what Ludwick produced in 2012 was “lightning in a bottle” could not be any more inaccurate. As he has stated on numerous occasions, his power at the end of last season was zapped, as one could imagine. Those that followed the club religiously last summer remember the fervor in the air around the potential of Ludwick’s bat returning to the middle of the lineup due to the inadequacies of the platoon that inhabited left field on a daily basis.
Harken back as recently as 2010 when the platoon of Laynce Nix, Chris Heisey and Jonny Gomes faired extremely well. Combined, they hit 30 home runs and drove in 125 runs, an elite season had it come from just one individual player. Last year, the combination of Xavier Paul, Derrick Robinson, Donald Lutz and Chris Heisey, was severely lacking of similar production. All together, they hit 17 home runs and drove in 71 runs, or, slightly below what one could expect Ryan Ludwick to produce.
Before everyone anoints Heisey as the heir apparent to the left field position, it is important to remember what the Reds are dealing with. Nothing about Chris Heisey is foreign, the Reds are all that he has ever known at the professional level. While some have drawn parallels to Cody Ross, a once middling outfielder with the Reds who took off upon his departure from the Queen City, his time to prove his worth is running out. Now 29, Heisey seems poised to either improve his numbers exponentially, or decrease them drastically.
There is no question that Chris Heisey has been tattooing the baseball as of late. Unfortunately, for him, baseball is a game of sustainability and long-term grace, not immediate, superficial beauty. In the sport where contracts are guaranteed, players earning the big bucks will continue to get a look until they become unplayable.
A tremendous example is that of Bryan LaHair, former Chicago Cubs first baseman. At first thought, many scratch their heads to think of what year he must have played, since he is no household name. With the 2012 Chicago Cubs portraying misery all over their organizational face, they decided to take a chance on a power hitting first baseman with a sweet stroke. In fact, LaHair began the year so hot, that for the majority of the All-Star Game balloting, he led Joey Votto in fan votes. At the break, he had limped in with 14 home runs and a suspect 30 runs batted in while batting a respectable .286 and getting on base at a clip of .364. His final 56 games of the season (in which he only started 25), LaHair clubbed two home runs, drove in 10, hit .202 with an on-base percentage of .269. Where did he play in 2013? The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of the Nippon Professional Baseball League in Japan.
Hot streaks are a common occurrence. They do not necessarily indicate a player’s future performance, nor are they predictable through past performance, which is a majority of the reason that we love baseball. Any man, with a bat in his hands, can get a hit off any pitcher. Numbers say that trailing 9-0 in the bottom of the ninth may be near impossible, but there is still a small percentage that does not let the nail be driven into the coffin.
There is no right and wrong answer when it comes to who should be playing left field for the Cincinnati Reds, but there is a logical one. Chris Heisey has had his chance on multiple occasions, and has not been able to prove he is as productive as Ryan Ludwick is.
The debate will rage on while Ludwick attempts to silence the critics he has been his entire career.