Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Another 2008 Newcomer's Nice Story: Brian Horwitz

Much like John Bowker's nice start earlier this season, or Alex Hinshaw's recent nice start (he's of Afgani descent, I heard on the radio recently), Brian Horwitz (according to KNBR morning show, first Jewish ballplayer since Steve Stone, now that's a name that I didn't think I would hear again as a Giants fan) has had a nice "Welcome to the Majors" start to his MLB career. Neither were considered to ever make the Giants when the 2007 season started. Yet, now, there they are, with a number of other players who had their debut with the Giants this season (Horwitz is the 8th to make his debut this season and probably not the last), on the 25 man roster and contributing. Horwitz has already gotten a clubhouse nickname, alluding to his heritage: "the Rabbi".

The Horwitz 911

Brian Horwitz (info from Baggarley's column today in the Merc, Chronicle account, MLB.com, and my BA book and my MacKamey book), who is 25 years old, had an inauspicious start to his professional career: he was bypassed in the draft by everyone after a disappointing senior season at Cal and was ready to apply for chiropractic school, but the Giants apparently had scouted him and offered him a free agent contract for $1,000 bonus, which he decided to take in order to at least have the experience of being a professional ballplayer. Chiropractic world would just have to wait. He used the money to pay his phone bill (that's some phone bill! I chaff at using my Go Phone for $8 per month).

He wasn't expected to do much with Salem-Keizer, apparently there were players ahead of him, but, setting an example for Henry Sosa, who got his opportunity similarly, two guys ahead of Horwitz came up lame - one dropped five flyballs in a week and the other came up with an injury - and Brian had his opportunity and took it: he hit and hit and hit until he ended up winning the Northwest League batting title by hitting .347, finishing with a batting line of .347/.394/.466/.860. And then, to show it wasn't a fluke, he hit .349 at Augusta (A-ball) to win that batting title, finishing with .349/.415/.460/.875.

The next year, he might have won the batting title in Advanced A with San Jose, batting .324/.414/.425/.839 (he still ended up 10th behind hitters like Mark Reynolds of D-backs and Reid Brignac of Rays) except that they promoted him mid-season to AA Connecticut (well, he was 23 years old anyway and still a bit old for a good prospect in AA) and, well, you know my complaints about the stadium there at Norwich, before getting a week to play with Fresno in 2006.

In 2007, he had to suffer through a half season of Dodd before getting the call to Fresno where he hit .326/.383/.432/.815, which sounds good but he was only 28th (players ahead of him including Matt Kemp, Matt Murton, Nate Schierholtz, Kendry Morales, Geovanny Soto, Tony Abreu, Ronnie Cedeno, and Felix Pie). Still, at 24, he was finally on the younger side of the league instead being on the older side, though he's only been rising one level per season for the most part, except skipping in 2006. In addition, except for Connecticutt, he has basically hit .324 or above for batting average while in the minors and had OPS in the 800's too.

Now here it is in 2008, he's in the majors and in his first start he hits a single off future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman in extra innings (apparently Dave Roberts contributed by giving him a tip on Hoffman's approach) to continue a rally that helped overcome 2 runs scored by the Padres in the top of the 11th and in his second start he hits a homerun to help the team keep a rally going and scoring 6 runs in the first inning, ending with 3 RBIs.

A dream start, he is 4 for 8, 3 runs scored, 3 RBI with 1 homerun. And the good thing was that he was able to exchange an autographed bat for his homerun ball, which Bowker was not able to finagle from the fan who had his. Only cloud in his coffee is his two strikeouts.

The neat thing is Horwitz, unlike Bowker, is not known as a bopper, so this homer so early in his stay in the majors was an unexpected surprise. He only has 14 total homers in 1,498 minor league at-bats, to show how power deprived he has been in his career, though he does have 5 in 136 ABs this season with Fresno, so this could be his uptick year, much like Bowker had his last season with Defenders when he was 23 or Niekro when he was basically like Horwitz, could hit great for average but with no power until he reached 25-26 year of age. It might also have to do with his time with the major league camp, perhaps Carney Lansford had a key tip that he gave.

Baseball America had him listed as #29 prospect for the Giants pre-season:
  • Scouts never will rave about Horwitz, but all he does is spray hits wherever he plays.
  • Every manager for whom he has played has become his biggest fan.
  • Horwitz has a great two-strike approach, loves the opposite field and doesn't strike out despite a swing that can get a bit long and choppy.
  • His arm is decent and his speed is below-average, so basically all he provides is a high batting average.
  • But it's hard to find a more dedicated worker than Horwitz, who made the most of his invitation to big league camp last spring [2007]. He usually arrived before 7 a.m. for early hitting, even beating the coaches to the cage.

Deric McKamey had this to say about him (he did not rank him among the top 15 Giants prospects):

  • Athletic outfielder whose value is tied to BA where he makes outstanding contact and is patient at the plate.
  • Medium bat speed and a flat bat minimize power and possesses below average speed.
  • Range and arm strength are average in the outfield and has experience at 1B.
  • Sees his likely position as reserve LF/1B, though he could potentially be a platoon player.

Given his nice start, I can see Bochy giving him time at both 1B and LF, particularly while Aurilia is suffering through kidney stones (almost a week now and it hasn't passed yet) and against tough lefties. Bowker has sucked against LHP though to be fair, he hasn't gotten a start yet against a lefty, they were all against left-handed relievers who typically are tough on left-handed hitters.

Given the comments by the experts, I would not expect him to break out and grab a starting position somewhere, somehow, so temper your expectations for him despite this great start. But he can become a key bat off the bench and occassional starter this season and then let's see if he can continue to beat expectations going forward. Let's take it one start, one AB, one pitch, at a time.

It is stories like his that makes baseball great, the underdog who succeeds despite the odds, working his way up and proving himself at every level. I've been rooting for him since he won the batting title at Salem-Keizer, he is the player I would have imagined myself to be had I been a pro baseball player (I'm not delusional, didn't have the talent, but as most baseball fans do, I think about how I would be if I were ever to make the pros): no speed, no power, but able to be Wee Willie Keeler and hit the balls "where they ain't".

Some quotes from and about Horwitz (Merc, Chron, and MLB.com):

  • "I've got nothing to lose. My whole career has been like that. What pressure do I have? I've just got to prove everybody wrong." (Sounds a bit like Lincecum)
  • "First home run ball I've ever gotten back."
  • After being mobbed after the homer: "There was a lot of love in that dugout. It adds to the experience. That's a great group of guys here and I just love being a part of this team."
  • "Unbelievable, extraordinary... it's an out-of-body experience and I'm really enjoying being here. How could you complain? It's great to be winning as well."
  • Horwitz allowed himself a sense of satisfaction in implicit defiance of the "people who critique me" referring to the talent evaluators who branded him bereft of power... "When I get it, I get it, though."
  • Bochy on Horwitz: "What he does is go up there and give you quality at-bats. Since he's been up here, he's done that for us."

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