The Irresistible Pull of a Yastrzemski in Fenway

A Yastrzemski hit a home run in Fenway Park on Tuesday night, and if you’re any kind of student of baseball history, you might have felt some goosebumps. Two hundred miles away in the Yankee Stadium press box, I certainly did, because I’m old enough to remember the final years of the career of Carl Yastrzemski, a former Triple Crown winner and inner-circle Hall of Famer who retired in 1983 while owning the all-time lead in games played (3,308, since surpassed by Pete Rose) and the number eight spot on the all-time hit list (3,419, now ninth). I also recall the flicker of promise that was his son’s professional career in the mid-1980s, and the sad news that he passed away in 2004 at the too-young age of 43. With all that in mind, I can’t help but pull for Mike Yastrzemski, a 29-year-old rookie who on May 25 of this season became the first grandson of a Hall of Famer to play in the majors.

I was hardly alone. By all accounts, the youngest Yaz — who lists at nearly the same size (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) as his grandfather (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) and swings from the left side — was welcomed with open arms for his Fenway debut. He strolled across the outfield grass with “Poppy Yaz” prior to the game, receive a warm ovation upon coming to the plate to lead off the contest, and, in the fourth inning, sent a Nathan Eovaldi fastball 401 feet to center field:

The home run made Yastrzemski the first Giants rookie in 47 years to reach 20 homers (Dave Kingman did it in 1972) and just the second Giant to hit 20 in the past four seasons (Kevin Pillar beat him by 16 days). The blast and the hoopla that surrounded his debut were the highlights of what became a grueling, 15-inning, 24-pitcher September slog; it lasted five hours and 54 minutes, which in single-game terms is about as long as his grandfather’s career. Yastrzemski made a strong effort to bring it to an end earlier by leading off the 14th inning with a ground-rule double, his only other hit in eight trips to the plate. His Giants teammates stranded him, though they did go on to win, 7-6.

On Wednesday night, the second game of the two teams’ two-game interleague series began with grandfather throwing out the first pitch to grandson and ended with Giants manager Bruce Bochy notching his 2,000th career victory, with Yastrzemski going 1-for-4 with a walk, a pair of runs scored, and an RBI.

The events clearly meant the world to both Yastrzemskis. “I think the only way that I can compare it to anything would be if I compared it to the ’67 season,” said Carl before Tuesday’s game. “That’s what it means to me and being here. It’ll be the first time that ‘Yastrzemski’ will be announced on the field since ’83.”

“That was kind of one of those things where I just had to take a second and understand what was going on and appreciate that moment and not take it for granted,” said Mike afterwards. “I made sure to kind of keep my head up and look around and soak it all in because you don’t really get an ovation at an away or opposing park for your home run.” He later added that his first game at Fenway Park had been circled on his calendar “for life.”

As was the case with Willie McCovey, it was the tiny type on the back of Carl Yastrzemski’s 1978 Topps card that first piqued the interest of my eight-year-old self, indicating that the Red Sox slugger had been around forever. Recognition of subsequent milestones such as his 3,000th hit and his claiming of the all-time record for games played — as tracked on cards and magazine covers, not to mention the occasional NBC Game of the Week broadcast — only underscored Yaz’s venerable status, as did the inevitable graying of his famous sideburns.

Yastrzemski’s 23-year major league career directly abutted that of Ted Williams, who save for his stints in the military during World War II (1943-45) and the Korean War (1952-53) spent the 1939 through ’60 seasons as Boston’s regular left fielder. Like just about everybody else who’s ever walked the Earth, Yaz was a lesser hitter than the Splendid Splinter, but he did his best to live up to the legend of his predecessor, winning a Triple Crown and an MVP award in 1967, the year of the Red Sox’s “Impossible Dream” pennant. He made 18 All-Star teams, bashed 452 home runs, and proved to be a more well-rounded player than Williams; his seven Gold Gloves line up well with the Total Zone estimate of his 184 defensive runs. Like Williams, however, he couldn’t bring Boston a championship.

Yastrzemski was 41 days past his 44th birthday when he finally hung up his spikes. Midway through his final season, his son Mike (born Carl Michael Yastrzemski Jr. in 1961) was drafted by the Rangers in the 23rd round — not the kind of placement that heralds future stardom, but notable because of a lineage that also included his grandfather (known as Carl Sr.), a farmer who founded, managed, and starred for a semiprofessional team on Long Island, the Bridgehampton White Eagles. Mike, a four-year letterman at Florida State University, didn’t sign with the Rangers, but he did sign with the Braves when they drafted him in the third round of the January 1984 secondary draft.

The younger Yaz must have been saddled with the burden of huge expectations that come with being the son of legend in the profession, particularly one with as recognizable a surname as exists in all of sports. The Sporting News‘ June 18, 1984 edition heralded his arrival in the professional ranks by noting his two-homer game for the Class A Durham Bulls on May 30 (minor league news didn’t travel fast in those days). Though he twice reached a .290 batting average and climbed as high as Triple-A, the switch-hitting younger Yastrzemski never officially reached the majors during his five-year career, though he did play in the 1986 Windy City Classic, an exhibition between the Cubs and White Sox, scoring a run for the latter as a pinch-runner for Bobby Bonilla.

The Son of Yaz walked away from the game at 27 years old in 1988, hampered by injuries and believing that his produce brokerage business was potentially more lucrative. The decision evoked that of Carl Sr., who bypassed his own professional dreams — interest from the Cardinals and Dodgers — “for the depression era security of his east end farmland.”

“I have an opportunity to earn money which I know I could never earn in baseball even if I made it to the major leagues,” Mike said at the time. “I’m like most people–I love money, and an opportunity like this could set me up for life.”

Two years after leaving baseball, Mike’s wife, Ann Marie, gave birth to Michael Andrew Yastrzemski. Though the elder Mike was an excellent tutor for his son when it came to baseball, his story met a tragic end on September 15, 2004. After undergoing a hip replacement at the relatively young age of 43, he died from a blood clot while recovering from surgery. Months later, a darker side of the already-sad story emerged when the Associated Press reported that he had “stole[n] his father’s identity and ran up thousands of dollars in debt… including an IRS lien for $46,000 in unpaid taxes and credit card debt described only as being under $100,000.” Sports Illustrated reported that Carl had no knowledge of the identity theft. “Carl isn’t responsible for his 40-something-year-old son’s debts,” said Yastrzemski’s lawyer at the time. “But it’s hard. It’s his son, God rest his soul.”

The elder Mike Yastrzemski’s troubles and sad ending ran nearly in parallel with those of John Henry Williams, Ted Williams’ only son. In a two-year period from 2002 to ’04, the younger Williams (born in 1968) made regular headlines for a bizarre string of events. Despite not having played baseball since high school, he began a professional career at the age of 33 with the Red Sox’s Gulf Coast League affiliate, playing in a league where the average age was 13 years younger (“It’s a total embarrassment. He couldn’t make a good high school team,” said an unnamed high-ranking Red Sox official at the time). Just a couple of weeks later, after he had gone hitless in seven plate appearances, his famous father died. The younger Williams announced that there would be no funeral, and had his father’s body flown to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, to be placed in cryogenic suspension — that after being decapitated! The move set off a very public battle between John Henry Williams and his half-sister, Bobbie Jo Ferrell, over their father’s true wishes and the veracity of his signature, with Ferrell leveling allegations that her half-brother wanted to extract and sell the Hall of Famer’s DNA. In the summer of 2003, John Henry Williams played 27 games for two teams in the independent Southeastern League, hitting a grim .149/.276/.189 in 74 plate appearances. That October, he was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant with a donation by his sister Claudia, who had sided with him in the Alcor dispute. He died on March 6, 2004, six months before the younger Yastrzemski, and had his body shipped to Alcor.

For whatever problems the elder Mike Yastrzemski may have had, he connected well with his son when it came to baseball. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman wrote recently, by the age of five, the younger Mike Yastrzemski was playing t-ball against kids three years older. Though his grandfather worked to teach him the game, he worked even harder to support the father-son bond:

“He was a better teacher than my grandfather,” Mike Yastrzemski said in the Giants’ clubhouse at Oracle Park last week. “I actually learned that from my grandfather more than anyone.

“He would say that to me even when my dad was alive. If I worked with my grandfather, he’d say, ‘Don’t listen to me. Listen to your dad. He knows better than I do,’ which I think speaks volumes, as a Hall of Famer saying that about someone.”

Great hitters rarely make great hitting coaches because their natural gifts are hard to convey in words. Lesser players often can explain things better.

Yastrzemski said his dad “actually had incredible insight because he wasn’t as naturally gifted as my grandfather. My dad had to work a little harder. It’s one of those things where he started to understand the mentality of baseball and the grinding aspect of how much hard work there really is, and he helped me understand that.”

Unfortunately, father Mike didn’t live to see his son get drafted by the Red Sox in the 36th round in 2009, or go on to star at Vanderbilt University. After the youngest Yaz’s junior year in 2012, he was chosen in the 30th round by the Mariners, who offered him an above-slot bonus of $300,000. He bypassed that, returned to Vanderbilt for his senior year, made the All-Southeast Conference team while hitting .312/.411/.449, and was selected by the Orioles in the 14th round of the 2013 draft. Though he rocketed all the way to Double-A in 2014 and landed at number 25 on the Orioles list in The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2015, his career stalled out on a seemingly endless loop between Bowie and Norfolk. He hit .257/.327/.413 in parts of five seasons for the former, the Orioles’ Eastern League affiliate, and .251/.342/.442 in parts of four seasons for the latter, their International League affiliate.

Yastrzemski saw his share of Grapefruit League action with the Orioles in 2015 and this year. Coming off a ghastly 47-115 record in the first full season of their long-overdue rebuilding effort, the team decided that a 28-year-old rookie who had hit a tepid .250/.339/.414 with 10 homers split between Bowie and Norfolk didn’t fit their idea of a youth movement and [checks notes] instead has given the bulk of their outfield playing time to 26-year-old Dwight Smith Jr, 27-year-olds Stevie Wilkerson and Trey Mancini, and 24-year-old Anthony Santander. On March 23, the Giants, in their first year under new general manager Farhan Zaidi, with their own rebuilding effort looming, traded going-on-27-year-old righty Tyler Herb to the Orioles for Yastrzemski, whom they stashed at Triple-A Sacramento.

On May 25, with the Giants having gone 21-29 while collectively hitting just .219/.283/.366 — including a combined .146/.217/.211 performance from Gerardo Parra (who by that point had been released), Mac Williamson, and seven other left fielders — Zaidi designated Williamson for assignment and recalled Yastrzemski. His debut was inauspicious; facing the Diamondbacks, he struck out twice, flied out once, and reached base via a hit-by-pitch. In doing so, he became the 25th grandson of a major league player to himself reach the majors, a list that includes current managers Aaron Boone (grandson of Ray Boone) and David Bell (grandson of Gus Bell), as well as Red Sox righty Rick Porcello (grandson of Sam Dente), Braves utilityman Charlie Culberson (grandson of Leon Culberson), and Reds infielder Derek Dietrich (grandson of Steve Demeter) — and the first grandson of a Hall of Famer to do so.

Though the Giants lost five of the first six games he played, Yastrzemski revealed himself to be more than just a trivial footnote. He went 3-for-4 with a double in his second game, against the Diamondbacks, and then 2-for-4 with a homer off Andrew Cashner against the Orioles in Baltimore. He survived a June swoon, then hit .316/.356/.570 in July, punctuated by a 12th-inning walk-off homer against the Mets’ Robert Gsellman on July 21. On August 16 against the Diamondbacks, he hit three homers — something his grandfather did just once in his entire career, on May 19, 1976 against the Tigers — in an 11th-inning victory.

For a hitter who had never tallied more than 15 homers in a single season, and who hit just 10 in 491 PA last year, Yastrzemski’s power is a surprise, one founded in hard work. “I just made a few small adjustments this offseason to try to be a little more impactful with the bat,” said after his three-homer game. “I knew that was something that would help me. I’ve always been known as a defensive player and always tried to show that I had the ability to hit. To be able to have a little bit of success here so far has felt really good.”

Those adjustments came with the help of former Vanderbilt teammate and roommate Tony Kemp, a onetime Astros prospect who was traded to the Cubs on July 31. Via Schulman:

“I did a lot of drills with him and we talked about mind-set,” Yastrzemski said. “He was really helpful to bounce stuff off.”

They discussed two basics of good hitting that Yastrzemski knew he needed to improve upon: keeping his bat in the zone longer and ensuring it stays on the proper plane for driving the ball.

Yastrzemski surely had coaches in Baltimore who preached the same things, not to mention his new coaches in San Francisco, but something clicked as he worked with his old friend.

It’s a story whose basics we’ve heard time and again over the past few years, and for as saturated as the game has become with home runs in this record-setting season (6,382 and counting, 277 more than the previous record, set in 2017), it takes a heart much harder than mine to begrudge a 28-year-old rookie his moment in the sun after years of beating the bushes. Hit all of the home runs, Yaz.

At this writing, Yastrzemski is hitting .265/.326/.513 for a 117 wRC+, third on the team behind Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano, who have combined for one fewer plate appearance than his 375. His 1.9 WAR is second on the team behind Evan Longoria, ahead of the desiccated remnants of the Giants’ championship years; Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and the since-released Joe Panik have combined for just 2.8 WAR while each taking more plate appearances than Yaz. As his on-base percentage suggests, he doesn’t walk much; among players with at least 300 PA, his 7.5% walk rate ranks in the 35th percentile, while his 26.4% strikeout rate is in the 19th percentile. It’s not that he’s entirely undisciplined (29.2% O-Swing%, 69th percentile), it’s that he often struggles to make contact in the zone (81.5% Z-Contact%, 18th percentile). Still, he’s made it count when he’s connected.

Yastrzemski’s Statcast profile is largely unremarkable, but not without bright spots. His 88.9 mph average exit velocity (46th percentile) and .334 xwOBA (54th percentile) are both middling, but his hard-hit rate (42.7%), Sprint Speed (27.6 ft/sec), Outfielder Jump (0.6 feet vs. avg), and Outs Above Average (4) range from the 66th to the 76 percentile. Indeed, that speed has yielded value on both sides of the ball; though he’s only 2-for-5 in steals, he’s been 1.6 runs above average on the bases thanks to his advancement proclivities, and 1.3 above average in the outfield corners (377.1 innings in left, 358.2 in right).

After years of grinding away in an obscurity that stood in stark contrast to the fame of his surname, Mike Yastrzemski is a legitimate major league player, one of the bright spots of the Giants’ dreary season. There’s no cheering in the press box, but here at home, I can’t help but clap for him.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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something tells me on Tuesday night when Yaz hit that home run, that press box cheering rule got broken just a little bit.