When Tim Tebow announced that he was pursuing a baseball career roughly one year ago most of the sports world, including myself, snickered or sneered. What did a 28-year old who hadn’t played competitive baseball in over a decade think he can accomplish, outside of boosting his brand and endorsement dollars? Tebow held an open workout on August 30th, 2016 that was attended by scouts from 28 MLB teams. Despite some rough reviews, the New York Mets liked what they saw and signed Tebow to a minor league contract in September.
Many professional players were insulted that Tebow would pull such a stunt, with Orioles’ center fielder Adam Jones tweeting that he was now going to try out for NFL career and a host of current and former minor league players openly resenting that Tebow would take a roster spot from a “real” baseball player.
While the initial skepticism was understandable, Tim Tebow’s first year as a professional baseball player is a great lesson in the folly of rushing to judgment. After a slow start, Tebow has improved by leaps and bounds, more than vindicating his controversial decision to start a professional baseball career.
But things were slow out of the gate. After signing with the Mets, Tebow made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League with a miserable .194 / .296 / .242 batting line in 70 plate appearances. His strikeout rate was a deplorable 30% and his .538 OPS was sixth worst among fall league regulars.
After hitting a meager .235 in spring training, Tebow was sent to the Columbia Fireflies in A ball to start the season, where the struggles continued. Despite hitting a home run in his first at bat with Columbia, Tebow quickly looked overmatched at the plate, striking out in close to 30% of his plate appearances and struggling to hit for power. Tebow’s triple slash line of .156 / .224 / .289 over the first two weeks of the season was even worse than his AFL performance. And not only that, his play in the field was equally poor, with the novice left fielder struggling to find efficient routes to fly balls and sporting a surprisingly poor arm for a former NFL quarterback. Prior to a mid-May game against the Lakewood Blue Claws, Tebow was playing catch and overthrew his teammate so badly that the ball sailed into the stands and hit a fan in the groin region.
The pitchforks were out in full force as Tebow’s first month in Columbia drew to a close, but the Mets stuck with him. And for good reason. One aspect of Tebow’s baseball career that is oft overlooked is just how good he was in high school. He hit for a .494 batting average in is junior season at Nease High School in Pointe Verde, Florida. His high school baseball coach asserts that if Tebow committed to baseball and played his senior season in full that he would have been drafted in the seventh to 12th round of the 40-round MLB entry draft. Obviously the decade long layoff took its toll, but the base talent level certainly seemed to be there.
Tebow began to show marginal improvement in May and June, but was still the owner of a meager .220 / .311 / .336 batting line upon his surprise June 25th call-up to high-A St Lucie. Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson was candid in his lack of a real reason for Tebow’s call-up, explaining that “He’s not really tearing up the league” but that “…it was the right time for him to move up to high A.”
But maybe Tebow just needed more of a challenge. Since his promotion to high A Tebow has silenced his critics, hitting for a robust .808 OPS and improving on all of his peripheral statistics in the process. Further analysis points to Tebow making some subtle improvements in his final 10 or so games in Columbia. Tebow cut his strikeout rate, which was at 29.7% over the first 50 games in Columbia, down to 23.1% in his final 43 at bats with the team. Meanwhile, his patience at the plate also improved, with his walk rate increasing from 8.9% to 13.5% in that same span.
Tebow carried over this newfound plate discipline to St. Lucie, sporting a manageable 21.7% strikeout rate in his 137 plate appearances with the team. With a more selective approach also came more batted ball authority, as Tebow increased his HR/AB, XBH/AB and slugging percentage across the board.
In fact, Tebow has been one of the best power hitters in the Florida high A league. Tebow’s .463 slugging percentage ranks in the 90th percentile of 155 hitters with at least 130 plate appearances. His isolated slugging rate of .190 is in the 94th percentile. His overall offensive performance resulting in a 137 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), meaning that he’s performed 37% better than league average, is in the 84th percentile. The raw power potential made possible by Tebow’s muscular, 255-pound frame is actually being achieved.
Due to the paucity of batted ball and plate discipline data available in the minors it’s difficult to delve further into the reasons for Tebow’s improvements. When asked about his sudden surge, Tebow responds with a list of standard baseball platitudes: “I’m working hard every day”, “learning a lot” and “getting more comfortable at the plate.” Such responses don’t satiate the analytical baseball mind, however in this case maybe we should accept them. Tebow is nearing his 30th birthday and spent over a decade away from the game of baseball. It’s not unreasonable to expect a steep learning curve and subsequent improvement from an athlete in that situation.
What Tebow’s done since his promotion to St. Lucie has undoubtedly silenced all the critics who laughed off his foray into baseball as a sideshow act. However, he will need to continue to learn and adapt to stay relevant, and the looming promotion to the Binghamton Rumble Ponies of AA will be the real test to see if Tebow’s baseball career can grow from a successful experiment to a sustainable career.