“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.’” -John Greenleaf Whittier
Just 3 short years ago, Brennan Boesch swashbuckling debut splashed across a splendid April evening in Arlington; his slashing stroke on a Rich Harden delivery launching the ball into the left-center gap for a double in his first MLB at bat. A week later, at Comerica Park, Brennan ripped his first dinger – a grand-slam that helped beat the Angels and began a storybook, Chris Shelton-esque first half. At the All-Star break, Boesch’s BA was .336, with 12 HR’s and a .996 OPS.
The 6’3″, 235 lb slugger with surfer-dude good looks had it all – he could hit the gaps or blast it over the fence, ran well enough to take an extra base or steal one, and produced as well vs. southpaws as righties. His outfield defense was a work in progress, but compared to an aging Magglio and pus-armed Johnny Damon, it was positively marvelous. It certainly seemed as if Boesch would be anchoring Kaline’s Corner for years to come.
What ensued has happened hundreds of times over in the big leagues: A combination of factors conspires, and the flash-in-the-pan fizzles – the league catches up. Pitchers find holes in that flashing cut with the high finish. When plate discipline fails, those pitches that were on the corner are now on the black – and end up fouled off instead of in play. Once those weaknesses are exploited, constantly behind in the count, finding a pitch to drive becomes more difficult. The batter is dependent on the pitcher making a mistake, and when the mistake comes, it gets pulled just foul or smoked right at’em, and the confidence dips even more. Toss in the wear-and-tear of a long season, a nagging injury or two, and you are back on the bus to Visalia.
The always-asked, impossible question is when does the “prospect” become a “suspect”? Can the right coach cut some of the slack out of Boesch’s swing? Would another hot month get his wheels back on the rails? Are there underlying injury issues to iron out? Is he just destined to be one of those streaky guys that you have to take the good with the bad?
A revealing endeavor is to look at similarity scores to get a feel for how a player stands currently, and how one may project. In Brennan’s case, he is most similar to an argosy of life-raft outfielders like Wes Chamberlain, Clint Hurdle, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr, Larry Bigbie, Darryl Motley, Xavier Nady, Michael Tucker, and Jody Gerut. I didn’t take the time to sift through how many all-star appearances this Motley crew managed, assuming it was less than one. But one most-similar stood out – a late-bloomer that I remember well, certainly a player the Tigers organization regretted letting go; if Boesch were to find that balance between a refined swing and renewed confidence, he might become the next…
…Ben Oglivie. In Gentle Ben’s age-28 season, 1977, he hit .262, with a .325 OBP, 21 HR’s, 72 RBI’s and 11 SB’s, while playing in 132 G’s and logging 497 PA’s. Oglivie began his career in 1971 with the Bosox; the Tigers received him in exchange for Dick McAullife in 1974, and deployed him mostly vs. RHP. I remember Ben standing tall at the very back of the left-hand batters box, waggling his black bat menacingly, and taking a vicious cut at the ball.
After the ’77 campaign, the Tigers traded him to the Brewers for pitchers Jim Slaton and Rich Folkers. Folkers was released in spring training and never pitched again; Slaton posted a fine 17-11 record for the Detroit, but opted for free agency at the end of the year and signed with…the Milwaukee Brewers. No, Randy Smith was NOT the Tigers GM at the time.
As a Brewer, Oglivie was cast in a potent lineup, playing most every day, and posted HR totals the next 5 years of: 18, 29, 41, 14 (strike-shortened) and 34, netting 3 All-Star selections along the way. His career batting average was a respectable .273, and while not an OBP-machine (.336), he never struck out more than 81 times. Never great with the glove, he found a comfort zone in LF and managed to stay out of Gorman Thomas‘ way for the most part. Ben’s arrival in Milwaukee coincided with a nice 5-year run that included a couple of division titles.
That impetuous bat-speed subsided with age – and by 1986 he was done at 37. His compatible compatriots, according to B-R, include Jose Guillen, Aubrey Huff, Frank Thomas, Cliff Floyd, Kevin McReynolds, Jeff Burroughs, George Bell, and Pedro Guerrero. Certainly a more respectable cast of probability than Brennan Boesch at this point.
We as fans can fondly recall Brennan’s brilliant Tiger moments – he certainly gave the ballclub his best, which makes those glimpses of his best so maddening. I have no doubt he will quickly find a new team willing to take him north at the end of the month – and it is a positive referendum on the state of Detroit’s roster that a player with such a skill set is expendable. The organization deserves kudos also – by all indication, Dave Dombrowski exhausted all potential trade avenues, and by releasing Boesch now, his chances of making a major league team by Opening Day are good.
Clearly, the Tigers are built to win now, and they don’t feel he can help. The chance Boesch evolves into Oglivie is one they are willing to take.