Tim Tebow was invited to the New York Mets spring training again for 2018.
I’m sure there will be writers who take the Mets to task for what they perceive is a publicity stunt. There’s just one problem with that take. Tebow proved he wasn’t a stunt last year.
Nobody is going to mistake Tebow’s first year in professional baseball as the second coming of Babe Ruth. But we have to put that year in context.
Tebow hadn’t played baseball since he was a junior in high school. In high school, you see maybe three or four pitchers in an entire season who will end up drafted. You might only see one pitcher with the potential to throw a major league caliber breaking ball.
Despite that, Tebow put up an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) of .664 for the A+ Port St. Lucie Mets. Using a cut-off of 10 games played, that mark was better than 9 other players on the team.
Anyone who’s ever played any sport knows how difficult it is to pick up after not playing for an extended period of time. Tebow had a 12-year layoff. He should be commended for his performance in 2017, not denigrated.
Still, that doesn’t get Tebow any closer the major leagues. His OPS was also worse than 11 players on Port St. Lucie, and he is significantly older than all of them, having just finished his age-29 season. His NFL career was fun, but in the context of making it to the majors, that detour is actually his most significant obstacle.
Comparison of Tebow to MLB Left Fielders
That’s because Tebow’s first year in the minor leagues actually compares favorably to some players who have made it to the major leagues, and succeeded.
According to Fangraphs, there were 19 left fielders who qualified for the batting title. Of those, 12 amassed a WAR greater than 2.0, which is considered a valuable starter. Only four surpassed 4.0 WAR, generally associated with an all-star level season. Those players were Tommy Pham, Justin Upton, Marcell Ozuna, Chris Taylor, Marwin Gonzalez and Cody Bellinger.
Interestingly, both Pham and Gonzalez had very similar seasons to Tebow in the minors at the A+ level.
The chart below looks at the top-10 leftfielders in MLB in 2017 based on their WAR in their first season at the A+ minor league level. Highlighted cells are categories where Tebow outperformed the players listed. The vast majority of these players’ value in 2017 came from offense, as only Pham, Taylor and Gardner had small positive defensive rankings so the offensive statistics are really what’s relevant.
The key stat to focus on is weighted runs created plus (wRC+). This stat is an attempt to take a player’s offensive contributions all into account, controlling for the ballpark in which he plays and the run environment in which he plays. It is scaled to an average of 100, which means that a wRC+ of 110 is a player who hit 10 percent better than average at that level, while a wRC+ of 90 is a player who hit 10 percent worse.
The bad news for Tebow apologists is that he only outperformed one of the players on this list at the same level of minor league baseball. He was just slightly worse than Pham. He was significantly worse than blue-chip players like Justin Upton and Cody Bellinger.
But what this does indicate is that Tebow is not some carnival act. There are good major league players who have performed worse than he did at the exact same level of baseball. Gonzalez just helped the Houston Astros win a World Series with a wRC+ of 144. Based on WAR, Pham was the 10th most valuable player in MLB in 2017.
Of course, the average age of these players when they played at the A+ minor league level was 20.6 and Tebow is now 30. The good news is that those players took about another two years to get to the majors. The bad news is Tebow probably doesn’t have that long.
Now that steroid use in MLB has been (supposedly) greatly reduced, player performance really starts to decline around age 33 or 34. There are players who defy that, but those players usually credit their experience as key to their ability to hold on as their physical skills decline. Tebow will not be able to accumulate that type of experience.
That means that 2018 is going to be a make-or-break year for Tebow.
The chart above shows those same 10 players’ performance the year after they played at Tebow’s level. Going up one level (or more) reduced the overall performance of that same group of players compared to the previous season (wRC+ of 116.5 vs. 129.8). If Tebow sees the same percentage drop in his performance, he’ll end up with a wRC+ of 84 and will be out of baseball shortly.
But that drop in performance of the group is somewhat misleading. The average includes four players who made it to the major leagues as they rocketed up through the minors. If you remove those four, the average wRC+ drop is 2.0 points. And if Tebow were able to replicate Tommy Pham’s follow-up year (131 wRC+ for Tebow), he’ll be up in the majors this year.
Can Tebow make a push for the majors?
Is that likely? Of course not. But it’s within the realm of possibilities, which is what makes this season so pivotal. Plus, there are some interesting trends if you look deeper into Tebow’s stats.
The above chart shows Tebow’s splits by month. What we see is a player getting challenged with fastballs early on. The pitchers had no idea how to pitch Tebow, and so he was probably able to take advantage and jump on the opposition.
That ended in May, and we can see that in the spike in both his walk and strikeout percentages. Tebow clearly had trouble laying off balls out of the zone, and so the pitchers didn’t throw him anything to hit. That’s why his isolated slugging (ISO, a measure of power) was so low in May. Multiple stories about Tebow in May of 2017 indicated that he was hitting a ton of ground balls, which is a sign of a player who has poor plate discipline.
Tebow improved considerably in June. While mocked for it, the Mets promoted him from Columbia to Port St. Lucie on June 28. Tebow immediately made that move look wise, putting up his best month of the season in July.
His August (and couple games in September) were a trainwreck. But I think this is likely due to fatigue. The baseball season is a grind that taxes players mentally. With his SEC Network gig waiting, a last place team in Port St. Lucie and wearing down due to playing a sport he hadn’t played in 12 years, I think this could be an outlier.
So the question is whether Tebow’s real skill level is closer to May/August or June/July. I think it’s probably more the latter. But that is still inherently a problem.
Tebow’s ISO of .190 from July would have ranked 73rd in MLB. There are only three types of players who get to play in MLB with that little power. The first category are the defense-first players like Didi Gregorious (.191 ISO, 3.9 WAR) The second category are offensive players who don’t strike out like Alex Bregman (.191 ISO, 3.8 WAR). The third category are players who aren’t going to be playing in the majors in 2018 like Tommy Joseph (.192 ISO, -1.1 WAR). Joseph profiles much more like Tebow with a 6.2 percent walk rate and 24.2 percent strikeout rate, whereas those other players are around a 15 percent strikeout rate.
The odds are still long that Tebow will be a successful major leaguer. Because he is already 30 years old, he has an accelerated time-frame that very few other minor leaguers ever face. It’s his age – not his performance – that is really working against him at this point.
But there are examples of players who have put up similar statistics at the same level of play as Tebow just did and have become productive major league left fielders. For many of them, their stop at the A+ level of the minor leagues was not in their first year of professional ball like it was for Tebow.
Of course, there are more players on this list with significantly better statistical profiles than Tebow. And there are also plenty of players who played better than Tebow in the minor leagues who never made it to the majors.
But anyone who just dismisses Tebow’s ability to make an impact at the major league level as a pipe dream isn’t giving him the credit that he deserves.
What he is trying to do is really, really difficult. Doing it as a 30-year old is nearly impossible. And while his first year isn’t putting Tebow on any top-10 prospect lists, it does give some hope that he will be able to build himself into a player who earns time at the major league level rather than just because of his celebrity.
And of course, if he falls short we’d all like to have him back in Gainesville to recruit.