Do you remember Bo Hart? I remember Bo Hart. I could never forget Bo Hart.
Bodhi J. Hart was a 26 year-old second baseman, four years removed from being a 33rd round draft pick, languishing in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals organization when, in 2003, an injury to Miguel Cairo forced the Cardinals to promote Hart to the Major Leagues. In his first game, Hart tallied a double, a triple, and a walk while batting eighth for the Cardinals. In his second game, Hart had two hits, including a double, and in his third game, he went 3-for-5 with a triple. It took until his eighth game before Bo Hart did not record a hit, and during only one of his first seven games did he only record one hit.
By July 10, 2003, Bo Hart had cooled down significantly from his torrid first week, but he was still hitting reasonably well and he established himself, at least for a while, as the Cardinals’ lead-off hitter. A huge red flag for Hart is that through July 10, he had a preposterous .442 batting average on balls in play. He was a reasonably quick player, but Usain Bolt wouldn’t be expected to have a BABIP that high. But it wasn’t completely luck—in these 102 plate appearances, he had nine extra-base hits; his .149 isolated power fell nearly equidistant between the career marks of Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan.
On July 10, Hart went 3-for-5 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and cleared the one-hundred career plate appearance mark. By the end of the night, Hart sported what is now measured by wRC+ as a 147 mark. This is an identical career mark to the ones sported by both Honus Wagner and Mike Schmidt and one which eclipsed the current career mark of Albert Pujols. Bo Hart accumulated 233 more career plate appearances, all with the Cardinals over the next two seasons, and his wRC+ during that time stood at 56.
Bo Hart is a cautionary tale against two things: getting too swept up in the moment, and getting too swept up in not getting swept up in the moment to enjoy what is unfolding. Through the lens of modern baseball statistical knowledge, it should have been incredibly obvious that Bo Hart was not going to keep this up. Maybe it was to certain early adopters of sabermetrics. But Bo Hart made his Major League debut two days after the release of Moneyball, the great foundational text of baseball analytics, and while I converted to the cult of Billy Beane years before Brad Pitt played him in the film adaptation, I can’t pretend I adapted that quickly. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. The Bo Hart experience was never meant to last for a decade. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
Comparing Tampa Bay Rays and former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randy Arozarena to Bo Hart is more than a bit unfair not only because Arozarena has been even better than Hart through the same point in his career, but because his underlying numbers suggest far less flukiness. His career BABIP of .314 is probably a tad high, but certainly less preposterous than the mark of Hart. In the regular seasons of 2019 and 2020, Arozarena has flashed legitimate power potential, hitting home runs at a 48.5 home runs per 600 plate appearances pace and sporting an isolated power of .321, which trails the career marks of only Babe Ruth and Mark McGwire. In the 2020 postseason, Arozarena has been even better—his 280 wRC+ is higher than any individual season in Major League Baseball history.
But we are talking about 99 career regular season plate appearances and 48 career postseason plate appearances (five of which came last year with the Cardinals, where he struck out three times and his lone appearance on base was via being hit by a pitch). We are talking about a player whose career-high for home runs in a season was 16, across three levels—not bad, by any means, but also hardly reflective of the second coming of Barry Bonds—and whose career-high isolated power prior to this season was .226. We are talking about a player that the Tampa Bay Rays themselves did not put into a game until August 30.
Randy Arozarena’s 167 wRC+ for his career is excellent, without question. An even higher mark through his first 99 career plate appearances emerged last season from a player who, like Arozarena, was a 25 year-old marginal prospect outfielder. Through his first 99 plate appearances, Aristedes Aquino had a 175 wRC+, and he did it in a way that on the surface looked sustainable—he had a reasonable .283 BABIP and he hit 12 home runs. In his 183 plate appearances since, Aquino has had a 74 wRC+, alongside a .207 batting average, .279 on-base percentage, and .409 slugging percentage.
A handy tool, created through horrible circumstances as it might have been, is FanGraphs’s 60-game span leaderboard, which helps to isolate relatively small sample sizes (which are larger than Arozarena’s career sample to this point), and a quick glance shows the players who had a stretch of sixty games with a higher wRC+ than Arozarena’s career mark last season include the likes of Derek Dietrich, David Freese, Scott Kingery, and Daniel Vogelbach.
Both Kingery and Vogelbach were below-average hitters in 2020, Kingery substantially so. Dietrich has been a consistently above-average hitter throughout his career, but he is decidedly not a superstar. David Freese would be the most intriguing outcome of the four for the Rays—a guy who got hot for stretches, had an extraordinary and memorable postseason, and then settled in to being a pretty good player for another eight years. No, his postseason wasn’t sustainable, but that would be a ridiculous demand.
Based on his minor league career and the size of his Major League career, for a late bloomer like Randy Arozarena to have a David Freese-esque career would be a solid outcome. Even aside from the postseason heroics, this is a guy who played long enough to reach Hall of Fame eligibility, a man who cleared 1,000 career hits and 100 career home runs and who earned over $34 million in his playing career. That’s a really good life to have. Would the Cardinals regret trading an outfielder version of David Freese (minus the sentimentality associated with Freese, of course) for Matthew Liberatore, a top 100 pitching prospect? They very well might, but if Liberatore, a player the Rays deemed expendable due to their extraordinary wealth of young pitching talent, becomes the high-end starter that the Cardinals seem to believe he can become, that winds up being a good trade for them, even if not quite a swindle.
But for now, Arozarena, and we, can dream that he surpasses becoming David Freese. And it would be a fantastic story—a player doesn’t become a full-time big-leaguer until he is 25 years old and becomes all of the audacious claims that have been said about him—that he is “the Cuban Mookie Betts” (per Rays manager Kevin Cash) or “the best player on Earth right now” (per Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow). Even if the rational part in your brain knows that this is bluster from guys who are living in the moment, living in the moment is fun!
Well, it’s supposed to be fun. I don’t find this fun at all. And I hate that I hate it.
The last few weeks have provided a constant barrage of local fan complaints amplifying the belief that Randy Arozarena was this clear, burgeoning superstar that the Cardinals gave away, when contemporary accounting from most Cardinals media was that not only had the Cardinals swindled the Rays by acquiring consensus a Top 100 pitching prospect, but that the real headliner leaving St. Louis was Jose Martinez. Arozarena, after all, was only the #8 prospect on the Cardinals by MLB.com’s account; FanGraphs only listed him at #19, trailing seven other outfielders. Now, it is fair to expect more from a professional baseball team’s internal scouts than from those who are also trying to follow the prospects of 29 other teams, and if Arozarena had put up his numbers over 99 plate appearances over a full MLB season, I would be inclined to note that.
The recent Rays-Yankees ALDS brought constant reminders of former Cardinals semi-prospects, Arozarena and New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit. There is far more proof of concept with Luke Voit, who has over ten times the career MLB plate appearances of Arozarena, even if his career wRC+ of 138, while very good, isn’t quite as electrifying as Arozarena’s current mark. Of course, Voit’s departure from St. Louis is at least partially redeemed by the fact that the return for him was headlined by Giovanny Gallegos, the team’s most consistent relief pitcher over the last two seasons, while the key Arozarena return, Matthew Liberatore, has never thrown a Major League pitch, unsurprising given his age and any reasonable expectations for him even on the day the trade was made.
Randy Arozarena has certainly surpassed my expectations, and the odds that he becomes a solid MLB player do seem quite a bit higher than they did a year ago. But elevating him to the second coming of Ted Williams every time he does anything even remotely decent, while assuredly a fun practice for Tampa Bay Rays fans, is utterly deflating as a Cardinals fan. I don’t want to deprive Rays fans of their joy; I want to alleviate Cardinals fans of their self-inflicted suffering. The numbers back it up.