August 7, 2007

Who Is ... Brian Buscher

After playing two seasons at a junior college in Florida, Brian Buscher transferred to the University of South Carolina in 2002, where he batted .323/.382/.575 as a junior. He followed that up by hitting .393/.453/.644 with 15 homers, 36 total extra-base hits, and a 32-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 67 games as a senior, which was good enough for the Giants to select him in the third round of the 2003 draft and hand him a $215,000 bonus.

Buscher signed quickly and reported to low Single-A, where he batted just .278/.318/.320 with zero homers, eight total extra-base hits, and a 25-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 54 games, showing none of the power or strike-zone control that he exhibited in college. Despite that, he moved up to high Single-A in 2004 and hit .292/.359/.408 with four homers, 25 total extra-base hits, and a 61-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 88 games, improving while continuing to show a lack of pop.

Buscher moved up to Double-A in 2005 and struggled in his first taste of the high minors, batting just .228/.304/.288 with one homer, 10 total extra-base hits, and a 36-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 games before earning a demotion back to high Single-A. He recovered to post comparable numbers to his first stint there, batting .282/.367/.422 with five homers, 18 total extra-base hits, and a 47-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 games.

Given a second shot at Double-A in 2006, Buscher again struggled, batting just .259/.321/.366 with seven homers, 33 total extra-base hits, and a 75-to-39 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130 games. At that point Buscher was a 25-year-old who had yet to experience any kind of real success at any level in four pro seasons, so he understandably fell out of the Giants' long-term plans and was selected by the Twins in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft in December.

I was actually in attendance at the Rule 5 draft while covering the Winter Meetings for, yet can't remember a single person in Orlando even mentioning Buscher amidst all the talk of Josh Hamilton and searching for scouting reports on other prospects. And rightfully so, because Buscher was the 22nd player taken in the minor-league portion of the draft and before grabbing him the Twins first selected a different Giants prospect, right-hander Jesse Floyd.

Floyd has been mediocre at Double-A, posting a 4.89 ERA and 80-to-46 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 114 innings, but Buscher has come out of nowhere to force his way into the Twins' plans with a breakout year. Beginning the season at Double-A New Britain, Buscher hit .308/.391/.478 with seven homers, 27 total extra-base hits, and a 30-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 63 games, showing significant power and totaling more walks than strikeouts for the first time in his career.

With former first-round pick Matt Moses struggling mightily at Triple-A, the Twins demoted him to New Britain and promoted Buscher up to Rochester, where he took over for Moses as the starting third baseman. Finally past Double-A for the first time, the 26-year-old Buscher picked up right where he left off. In 35 games at Triple-A, he batted .313/.385/.530 with six homers, 13 total extra-base hits, and a 13-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, again showing good power while totaling more walks than strikeouts.

Called up to Minnesota when the Twins sent Darnell McDonald down late last month, Buscher has struggled defensively while going 5-for-22 (.227) with two walks as a big leaguer. Because he was so bad prior to this season, it's difficult to get a feel for Buscher's potential. On one hand, his breakout looks like a fluke when compared with the rest of his career, which suggests that he's simply a 26-year-old who finally put together some good at-bats against minor-league pitching.

On the other hand, Buscher's sudden increase in power is even more impressive than it looks given the pitcher-friendly ballparks he played in and his strike-zone control has been tremendous. It's also worth noting that Buscher's monthly OPS totals are .919, .761, 1.013, and .892, so his emergence is truly the result of a breakout season rather than simply a product of an extended hot streak. Here's his combined hitting line between Double-A and Triple-A:

 G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     BB     SO
98 406 .309 .389 .494 26 13 44 41

That's not huge power, but a .185 Isolated Power between a pair of pitcher-friendly leagues is plenty good, especially alongside a .309 batting average. Buscher totaled 40 extra-base hits while striking out in just 10 percent of his plate appearances, and drew 44 walks for a .389 on-base percentage. Add it all up and you get a strong all-around performance with no holes in it, although it's still just 98 games in a career full of ineptitude.

To get a feel for just how bad Buscher's track record was prior to this year, consider that Baseball Think Factory's ZiPS projection system gave him a .218/.274/.309 hitting line coming into the season. Nick Punto has hit .209/.298/.271 this year, which means that Buscher's minor-league resume was bad enough to cause a respected, in-depth projection system to essentially peg him as equal to Punto's execrable performance at the plate.

Other projection systems, like Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, didn't even bother calculating a hitting line for Buscher. However, while the pre-2007 projections don't paint a pretty picture for Buscher's future, calculating a Major League Equivalency (MLE) for his performance between Double-A and Triple-A this season spits out a .282/.347/.437 hitting line, which is actually slightly above average for a big-league third baseman.

The good news is that Buscher's 2007 performance significantly improves his projection. The bad news is that, even with the sizable improvement, ZiPS still projects him to bat just .248/.308/.368 next season (ZiPS' official 2008 projections obviously aren't available yet, but I asked creator and friend of Dan Szymborski to run the up-to-date numbers for me). In other words, Buscher's breakout season radically changes the system's view of his future, but still can't overcome his track record.

I'm a big believer in the importance of a young player's minor-league track record when it comes to evaluating his potential, which is why I remain skeptical about Buscher. Prior to this season, everything he did as a pro suggested that he was incapable of being a quality hitter in the big leagues. Combined with what's considered to be mediocre defense at third base, that makes him an iffy choice as an everyday player.

With that said, there's reason to believe that Buscher's past struggles don't tell the whole story, or at least tell no more of the story than his success this season does. He put up good numbers against high-level competition in college and while perhaps not the best talent evaluators when it comes to developing young hitters, the Giants once thought enough of Buscher to take him with the 93rd overall pick. Plus, he adjusted his approach at the plate in an effort to improved his control of the strike zone.

There's no denying that his track record as a pro has been underwhelming prior to this season, but Buscher dealt with an assortment of injuries that no doubt slowed his progress along the way. Is he a 26-year-old who had a flukishly good 98 games against younger competition? Or is he a 26-year-old who's finally healthy and showing the promise that the Giants felt he had four years ago? Time will obviously tell and I probably wouldn't bet much on Buscher having a good career, but he has a chance.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.