Blue Jays hoping Pompey can join elite company


Dalton Pompey hits a sacrifice RBI in the eighth inning of MLB baseball action against the Chicago Cubs in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

When the Toronto Blue Jays shipped outfielder Anthony Gose to the Detroit Tigers in November it opened up an opportunity for Dalton Pompey to start in centre field.

Despite a lack of experience, the 22-year-old earned a chance with a breakout 2014 season that saw him hit .317/.392/.469 across three minor league levels. Pompey even got a few at-bats with the big club in September and held his own to the tune of a .231/.302/.436 line.

The Mississauga, Ont. native has always possessed impressive tools, but last year was the first time his production began to match his potential. For a Blue Jays team with aspirations of contending this season, deciding to gamble on someone with such a short track record is a bold move.

Whether it’s a strong belief in Pompey’s ability or a dearth of available alternatives causing the Blue Jays to put him atop their centre field depth chart, they are one of few teams to turn that spot over to such a young and inexperienced player.

Since 1914 only 27 centre fielders aged 22 or younger have accumulated at least 500 plate appearances as rookies. In other words, a rookie centre fielder Pompey’s age wins and holds down a starting position in the major leagues once every four years or so.

The list of 27 rookie centre fielders to manage that feat includes six Rookie of the Year winners, 19 players who made at least one All-Star team, and five Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Andre Dawson, Richie Ashburn, Lloyd Waner and Al Simmons.

Top Rookie Centre Fielders Pompey’s Age or Younger

Player Year Team
Willie Mays 1951 Giants
Mike Trout 2012 Angels
Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Mariners
Andre Dawson 1977 Expos
Al Simmons 1924 Athletics
Richie Ashburn 1948 Phillies
Lloyd Waner 1927 Pirates
Bryce Harper 2012 Nationals
Carlos Beltran 1999 Royals
Carlos Gomez 2008 Twins

That’s pretty good company, if Pompey can join it.

He would have to remain healthy and at least somewhat effective to do so, but the Blue Jays are counting on it as they lack other feasible starting options at the position.

The bigger question mark surrounding the upcoming season for Pompey is not if he can stave off relatively weak opposition to keep his job, but whether he will produce. Historically, some 22-and-under rookie centre fielders have performed well, but they were often especially gifted players who forced their way into the starting lineup at such a young age.

After all, 356 rookie centre fielders Pompey’s age or younger have appeared in the major leagues over the last 100 seasons. The 27 that managed to accumulate at least 500 plate appearances represent the exception not the rule.

That special group did debut very well though. According Baseball-Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement, 17 of them posted a mark above two, the standard widely considered to indicate a league-average performance from an everyday player.

The chart below shows their average production.

13 61 .280 .341 .422 110 2.8

There’s no doubt the Blue Jays would take that production from Pompey in a heartbeat, but it’s unclear if he fits with the group.

On one hand it’s easy to see him as an ascending talent who breezed through three minor league levels in a single year and earned a shot at a starting spot in the major leagues.

Alternatively, Pompey could be considered a rushed prospect with less than 100 at-bats above double-A being thrown into the fire because of the Blue Jays’ lack of organizational depth.

In all likelihood it’s a little from column A, a little from column B.

What we do know is that it’s exceedingly rare for centre fielders to earn and keep starting roles as rookies at Pompey’s age. When they do it’s a very good sign.

The Blue Jays will give their prized prospect every opportunity to join a very select group in 2015, but getting the opportunity is one thing. Making the most of it is another.

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