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February 13, 2012

The BP First Take

Monday, February 13

by Daniel Rathman

Football season is over. Spring training is still a few days away. That means, for multi-sport fans like me, there is little choice but to get immersed in college basketball and the NBA. And doing so during the past week meant going Linsane.

Point guard Jeremy Lin emerged as the New York Knicks’ savior, reviving a team that was struggling to stay afloat in the absence of stars like Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. A Harvard graduate who went undrafted and was rejected by two teams, Lin certainly did not take the beaten path to fame, but that only adds to the intrigue of his timely breakout. Hoops Analyst writer Ed Weiland is one of the few who can claim he saw this coming.

Being a baseball fan first, though, all of this Linsanity got me thinking: Who is baseball’s Jeremy Lin? 

One possible parallel is former Yankees outfielder Shane Spencer. A replacement player during spring training in 1995, Spencer toiled in the minor leagues for a few years after that, and then put himself in the spotlight with one of the most stunning months in recent history. In 42 plate appearances during September 1998, Spencer hit eight home runs, three of which were grand slams.  He went from September callup to part-time playoff starter, and drilled two more big flies in Games Two and Three of the ALDS to cement his legacy as the Yankees went on to win the World Series.

On the pitching side, the clear choice is 1980s Dodgers legend Fernando Valenzuela. Just as Linsanity has consumed New York during the past week, the 1980s were a decade of Fernandomania in Los Angeles. Lin has a long way to go when it comes to catching Valenzuela in terms of longevity—the latter was a six-time All Star, a Cy Young winner, and a World Series champion—but he is off to a promising start. I would think of Valenzuela as Lin’s ceiling; let’s talk when he is mentioned in an Academy Award-winning movie like Rain Man (1988).

Editor-in-Chief Steven Goldman went way back to the 1950s, suggesting Hurricane Bob Hazle. Rejected by the Redlegs after a brief stint in 1955, opportunity knocked once more for the outfielder with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, and he did far more than answer the door. After starter Bill Bruton was shelved with a knee injury, Hazle came up and hit .403/.477/.649 the rest of the way, placing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in only 41 games. Hazle went just 2-for-13 with no extra-base hits during the playoffs and was out of the league a year later, but he made quite a mark in those two fateful months.

A more recent choice might be the Rays’ Ben Zobrist. Forced to prove himself at every level after going unnoticed out of high school, Zobrist was drafted by the Astros, and then traded to the Rays in the Aubrey Huff deal. His calling card was versatility, and Zobrist showcased it on numerous occasions for Tampa Bay during its 2008 run to the AL pennant. But it was the surprising power display Zobrist put on late in the season that finally got him noticed. He hit .321/.426/.732 with five homers in 68 plate appearances that September, and gave manager Joe Maddon flexibility both in terms of lineup construction and defensive alignments.  Zobrist then went on to enjoy an MVP-caliber, 7.0 WARP campaign in 2009. Only time will tell if Lin can have that kind of impact.

With those four candidates presented, I open the floor to other suggestions: Who is baseball’s Jeremy Lin? 

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

22 comments have been left for this article.

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