Jaff Decker’s First Homer

Number one. Padres history is littered with players who wore it on their back. Most couldn’t hit much. The last, Cody Ransom, went 0-for-11 before being released in mid-April.

Ozzie Smith is in the Hall of Fame, although he never hit for the Padres. He and Enzo Hernández each had 83 sacrifice hits, most in franchise history, but those aren’t real hits. Calvin Schiraldi knocked more home runs in a Padres uniform than Smith did.

Jhoulys Chacin stands atop the Coors Field mound, carrying an 8-0 lead into the seventh inning. Between bouts of thunder, he fans the first two batters. The Rockies’ win expectancy is at 100 percent. The only drama consists in how wet the few diehards behind home plate will be by game’s end.

Most of the guys wearing number one were middle infielders–Garry Templeton wore it longer than anyone else. There were a few catchers–Bob Barton, Luke Carlin, Eddy Rodríguez. And a couple of outfielders–Johnny Grubb could hit, Drew Macias… well, I always liked him too much.

Now Jaff Decker, a first-round pick out of a Phoenix area high school like Ransom before him, dons the number. One of four 2008 first-rounders on the active roster (Yonder Alonso, Andrew Cashner, and Logan Forsythe are the others; a fifth, Casey Kelly, is on the disabled list), Decker seeks another number one, his first hit.

Chacin starts with a 90-mph fastball, middle away, called for a strike. It’s his 85th pitch of the night. He will need 100 to record 24 outs, in sharp contrast to Edinson Volquez, whose latest disaster sees him use 91 to record 13.

If we were to indulge in lazy and superficial comparisons–and really, what is more lazy and superficial than noting the similarity in numbers on a player’s back–we might mention that Decker is a patient hitter like Grubb was.

Grubb ranks 11th in OBP in Padres history (minimum 1,500 PA) at .363, behind Quilvio Veras and ahead of Bip Roberts. Decker owns a .403 OBP over parts of six minor-league seasons. But it is silly to mention this, because Decker is not Grubb.

Chacin follows with what PITCHf/x calls a 79-mph slider. The Rockies telecast shows 78, and it looks more like a curveball (Padres radio announcer Ted Leitner agrees). Either way, it’s down the middle and called strike two. Decker, who has flied out and grounded out in his first two trips to the plate, has dug himself a deep hole against a pitcher who is dealing.

I’ve written about Decker in the past. Some of what I wrote even makes sense, e.g., this excerpt from the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual:

Although Decker split time between left and center field in his debut, his short, squat body (he has been compared to Matt Stairs) portends an eventual move to a corner spot. This won’t affect Decker’s prospect status–his bat will play anywhere.

Folks under umbrellas and wrapped in yellow and blue rain slickers foreshadow the coming delay, which cannot arrive soon enough for the Padres. As Chacin toys with the visiting ballclub, so does Mother Nature. The 0-2 pitch, a 92-mph sinker, misses down and in. Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario’s return throw sails past Chacin. Maybe the ball is wet, or maybe Rosario wants to mix things up a bit.

In May 2010, I saw Decker at Lake Elsinore:

I’ve identified Stairs as a comp, but I’d also heard John Kruk’s name mentioned in discussions of Decker. I’d assumed those comparisons were made on the basis of body type, but now that I’ve had a chance to see Decker in person, two things are clear:

  1. Decker ain’t that big, not even close
  2. Decker’s batting stance is reminiscent of Kruk’s

Decker has an open stance and holds his hands high before dropping them into hitting position. His swing is compact, efficient and uncomplicated. It looks (to someone who is far from an expert in hitting mechanics) like the type of swing that should be repeatable.

The 1-2 pitch is an 83-mph slider down and in that Decker grounds foul off the first-base dugout railing and into the waiting hands of Dave Roberts. If Decker has a “protect mode” swing, he is hiding it well. This is a vicious cut that carries him across home plate and into the right-handed batter’s box. He swings like Winston Churchill: “Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

As I wrote in Baseball Prospectus 2012:

Decker has legitimate power and a terrific batting eye, although some wonder if he might be too patient. He is a better athlete than he gets credit for and plays a respectable left field (even making a few starts in center in 2011).

Chacin comes back with a 91-mph fastball up and away as more thunder crashes. Decker swings late, lining the pitch down the left-field line. An usher tosses the ball to a kid in the crowd, who shows it off to all as he strides back up the aisle. The kid’s enthusiasm in a blowout in the rain provides a reminder of the joy baseball can bring. Just a game? He doesn’t believe you.

On its surface, Decker’s minor-league track record portrays a young man struggling to succeed at higher levels of the game:

Level PA OPS
Rk 249 1054
A 455 956
A+ 348 874
AA 803 760
AAA 393 839

This is, of course, the way things work. Competition intensifies as the weak yield to force.

It also oversimplifies a more complex puzzle. Development is a curious beast. Why did Ben Grieve become useless after age 26? Why did Raúl Ibañez not get a shot until age 29?

The Rockies feed cuts from the kid with the baseball to Padres left-hander Colt Hynes warming up in the bullpen. His evening is about to become miserable (1 IP, 6 ER). The camera returns to Decker just as he lays into a 91-mph sinker that isn’t far enough down or in to sneak past. It’s similar to the 0-2 pitch and probably designed to make Decker chase, but Chacin misses his spot and knows it. He looks skyward, arches his back, and grimaces almost as soon as the pitch leaves his hand.

Grieve was a first-round pick, taken one slot ahead of the Padres’ Dustin Hermanson in 1994. But being a first-rounder ensures only that you will be well compensated for your future promise and given repeated chances to fail. Nothing else is guaranteed. Just ask the Padres, who boast Matt Bush and apparently Donavan Tate among their expensive mistakes, and whose list of top 10 first-rounders as measured by WAR is less than overwhelming:

  1. Dave Winfield
  2. Derrek Lee
  3. Andy Benes
  4. Kevin McReynolds
  5. Shane Mack
  6. Joey Hamilton
  7. Dustin Hermanson
  8. Khalil Greene
  9. Joey Cora
  10. Mike Ivie

Decker doesn’t miss. The ball lands some 400 feet away, 8 to 10 rows beyond the right-field scoreboard, and Decker trots around the bases. His blast has cut the Rockies’ win expectancy to, well, 100 percent.

At age 23, Decker is a story waiting to be written. He has been highly touted by some and highly questioned by others. The truth likely lies between these two extremes. But on one rainy Monday night in Denver, toward the end of a game whose outcome was long ago decided, in a season of discarded dreams, he launched a home run off a damn good pitcher.

Decker’s first big-league hit might not have meant much in the context of this game, nor does it guarantee future success, but it gives hope. In a summer marred by Volquez’s continued presence, Cameron Maybin’s continued absence, and countless other failures, hope counts.

Is it much? No, but given the choice between failure and hope, I’ll take the latter every time. As Churchill advised in that same speech, “Never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Rooting for the Padres is more honorable than sensible, but one out of two ain’t bad.

Now if only our team could do that.

* * *

Where were you when Decker hit the shot heard ’round, uh, something smaller than “the world”? Leave a comment, send an email (geoff@sonofaduck.com), or hit me up on Twitter (@ducksnorts).

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