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October 7, 2011

Prospectus Playoff Quickie

Enter Tatman

by Daniel Rathman

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When Ryan Roberts came to bat with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Los Angeles Dodgers leading by three in the 10th inning of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ penultimate game of the regular season, the energy at Chase Field was high, even though the stakes were low. The NL West crown had long been clinched, and home-field advantage in the NLDS was only possible for the Diamondbacks if the Brewers lost their game the next day. Yet Roberts’ grand slam—which capped an historic six-run rally that began with two outs, nobody on, and a win-probability of one in a thousand—put a cherry on top of a remarkable regular season that would have seemed incomplete without it.

Arizona inked Roberts as a minor-league free agent in November 2008, after he spent five years in the Toronto Blue Jays’ farm system and another in Triple-A for the Texas Rangers. An 18th-round pick out of University of Texas-Arlington in 2003, Roberts was never regarded as a top prospect, and instead emerged as a sleeper with the potential to be an above-average hitter and play multiple positions. Still, the Jays and Rangers were only able to serve Roberts brief cups of coffee between 2006-2008, during which he went 2-for-27 with 12 strikeouts.

Prior to the 2009 season, Roberts was known for two things: He hit a home run in his first big-league at-bat in 2006, and he had more tattoos than just about any player in league history.

The Diamondbacks, though, were intrigued by Roberts’ offensive approach—most notably, his .388 on-base percentage for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2008. Arizona handed Roberts his first Opening Day roster spot in 2009, and eventually gave him the keys to the keystone by trading Felipe Lopez that July. Their faith was rewarded with an 839 OPS in 200 at-bats after the All-Star Break.

Two years later, the Tatman is now as much an icon at Chase Field as MVP candidate Justin Upton or Cy Young hopeful Ian Kennedy. He proved that by winning the teams write-in vote to determine which player’s bobblehead would be distributed at its last Saturday home game.

While things looked dim for Arizona during an 11-15 April, Roberts started the season on a .313/.413/.594 tear in his first 21 games, locking down a full-time role for the rest of the year. Playing primarily at third base, Roberts’ 19 homers ranked third in the NL at the position. He also emerged as a legitimate weapon against left-handed pitching, logging a .278/.392/.489 triple-slash against southpaws with more walks (25) than strikeouts (21).

When they fell behind by a run facing elimination in the first inning of Wednesday’s Game Four, the Diamondbacks needed to answer quickly against Brewers starter Randy Wolf. Once again, they had Roberts at the plate with the bases loaded and two out. And, once again, Roberts sent Phoenix into a frenzy with a grand slam.

Roberts was the right man in the right spot on Wednesday night, just as the D’backs were the right spot for him when he came to the desert in 2009. Then 29 years old and on the verge of exhausting his prospect status, Roberts needed a chance and got it with the perfect team. The D’backs offered a home park friendly to Roberts’s right-handed power, a cost-conscious organization willing to see if his minor-league success would translate to the majors, and—by 2011—an opening at third base thanks to the departure of Mark Reynolds.

Now on the wrong side of 30, Roberts is unlikely to have many years of sustained big-league success. He is this year’s version of last year’s Andres Torres—a player whose heyday is likely to be short, but who captures the hearts of his team’s fans and emerges, at least for a season, as one of his team’s most valuable contributors. Torres’ table-setting and elite defense propelled the Giants to the World Series. Roberts’ power and plate discipline have helped boost the D’backs from the division cellar to within a game of the NLCS.

If the Diamondbacks defeat the Brewers and advance on Friday, they’ll be four wins away from an unlikely pennant, and eight wins away from an even-less-likely World Series championship. But they wouldn’t be here without Roberts, just as he wouldn’t have attained cult hero status without them. Whether Roberts’s breakout 2011 is a one-year wonder or just the first hurrah of a late-blooming career, in the words of Jason Aldean’s recently-released song, the Tatman has left his tattoo on the town of Phoenix.  

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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