With the departure of Aaron Rowand as a free agent last winter, the Phillies needed to find themselves a new center fielder. Rather than pick through the offerings in a thin free agent market-one that would result in Rowand’s being overpaid significantly by the San Francisco Giants-they instead found their new center fielder in-house, shifting Shane Victorino from right field to center. As the Phillies were also lucky enough to get a quality season out of Jayson Werth (Victorino’s replacement in right), they were able to replace a big part of their 2007 offense and still make it into the playoffs. Let’s take a look at how Victorino ended up where he is today, the starting center fielder for the NL East Divisional champions.

Shane Patrick Victorino was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the sixth round of the amateur entry draft. The 194th overall pick signed soon after, and was shipped off to the Great Falls Dodgers of the Pioneer League. His early years weren’t impressive, at least at the plate: he hit .280/.335/.391 as an outfielder in Rookie League, and just .246/.310/.318 the next year in short-season A-ball, but he did go 20-for-25 and 21-for-30 in stolen-base attempts those two years. The latter season featured an attempt to make him a second baseman. His lack of production at the plate and failure at the keystone didn’t stop the Dodgers from promoting him the next year, as the 20-year-old Victorino would start his first full-season campaign in 2001 at Wilmington in the Sally League, and as an outfielder once again. Baseball America rated Victorino the 17th-best prospect in the Dodgers’ organization, saying that “Those who like him compare Victorino to Lenny Dykstra…” and “Those who aren’t impressed labeled Victorino as a one-tool talent who has a long way to go in order to develop another average tool.”

Victorino was certainly young enough that he had time to develop that extra tool, but as stated, he was a one-dimensional speed guy at this stage. He needed to control the strike zone better to draw more walks and cut down on strikeouts, and needed to stop the Willie Mays Hayes power act and focus instead on reaching base and slapping hits over the infield. He would have success with some of those problems at Wilmington, as he would hit .283/.344/.400 with 21 doubles, nine triples, and four homers. His speed blossomed in full-season action, as he swiped 47 bags against 13 times caught. Though he struck out 61 times over 435 at-bats, that was still an improvement over his previous rates; along with the increase in walks (up to 36), Victorino looked much better coming out of 2001 than he did going into it. He did have issues hitting off of right-handers, something he would begin trying to address by picking up switch-hitting. Baseball America once again rated him 17th, saying that he still needed to focus more on contact than crushing the ball, but they also said that his speed was “a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.” According to scouts, beyond helping him out on the basepaths, it also helped make him one of the top defensive outfielders in the South Atlantic League.

For whatever reason, the Dodgers decided that the then-21-year-old Victorino didn’t need to face High-A pitching over a full season, and instead jumped him to Double-A for 2002, where he predictably struggled, hitting just .258/.328/.318, and switch-hitting at times. It wasn’t all bad. He also managed to cut down his strikeout rate and increase his walk rate a touch, impressive given his age and the jump in levels, and hit .305 during the last two months of the minor league season, then tore up the Arizona Fall League with a .330 showing. He also stole 45 bases in 61 attempts for Jacksonville during the regular season, good for a 74 percent success rate.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t a great year, so after the season the Dodgers left Victorino unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, where he would be selected by the San Diego Padres. Though he’d changed zip codes long enough to make it to 21st on the Padres’ top 30 prospects list in Baseball America, he played in just 36 games before returning to the Dodgers and once again finding himself assigned to Double-A Jacksonville; about the only thing he had time to accomplish during his short stint with the Padres was to become the second Maui native to play in the major leagues. Back with the Dodgers, he had a more difficult time making contact, striking out 41 times in 266 at-bats after just 49 whiffs in 481 at-bats the year before, but otherwise, it was a better-looking campaign, as he posted a line of .282/.340/.368. This was also the year that he finally committed to being a switch-hitter, later saying in an interview in Southern Bases (the official publication of the Southern League): “I started switch-hitting in 2002, but 2003 was really my first full year of doing that. I had to learn a lot in learning how to switch-hit in getting comfortable at the plate and getting used to the higher level of pitching, I think that was the adjustment that I made. I think as you mature, you become a better ballplayer as well.” Victorino found himself in Triple-A Las Vegas for 41 at-bats at season’s end, where he would pick up 16 hits, four of them for extra bases.

This wasn’t enough for Baseball America to recognize Victorino as a top 30 prospect in the Dodgers system, and Baseball Prospectus 2004 didn’t include him in that edition of the annual either. In 2004 and in his third go-round with Double-A, he hit .328/.375/.584, earning a mid-season promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas which did not go nearly as swimmingly, as he failed to crack a .300 OBP or .400 SLG over the course of 200 at-bats. Now heading into his age-24 season, Victorino was once again left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, and this time the Phillies scooped him up. With his performance at Double-A throwing him into the prospect spotlight once again, Baseball America rated him the 19th-best prospect in Philadelphia, stating that Victorino had added some pop to his game, but had suffered in the plate discipline department because of it.

That didn’t seem to matter at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, as Victorino hit an impressive .310/.377/.534 for the Red Barons over 494 at-bats. He hit 25 doubles, 16 triples, and 18 homers, helping cement the case that he could indeed hit for some power. He’d also retained some of his youthful speed on the bases, swiping 17 in 26 attempts. Though he struck out 74 times, that number was more than justified by his .224 ISO. He would finish the year with a flourish in a return to the majors with Philadelphia, hitting two homers in 17 at-bats and driving in eight runs. This performance would earn Victorino the 14th spot in the Philadelphia rankings, courtesy of Baseball America, who would say that Victorino’s performance “surprised the Phillies, who had the same scouting report as everyone else…” but would go on to say that “his breakthrough came with the simple change of adjusting his approach to make more contact (to better utilize his fleet feet), and his naturally strong wrists delivered added power as a bonus.” Baseball Prospectus 2006 also liked him-PECOTA forecast him as capable of a .279/.335/.453 weighted mean, though the annual also noted that, “Unfortunately, with Aaron Rowand and Jason Michaels in front of him, he’s going nowhere fast.”

Victorino would not be as successful as PECOTA envisioned, but he did manage to put up a solid line during his first full stint in the majors in 2006 at the age of 25, hitting .287/.346/.414 with an average .258 EqA while spending most of his time in center field filling in for the injured Aaron Rowand. He did an admirable job filling in for Bobby Abreu in right field following the veteran’s trade to the Yankees as well, though his production was nowhere near what the departed slugger was capable of. Oddly enough, Victorino swiped just four bags in ’06, with three times caught stealing; given the kind of line he had put up in the majors, one that lacked the power he had recently flashed in Triple-A, you think he would have been running more often, but there was a reason for the red light, one that Baseball Prospectus 2007 pointed out:

Rowand’s injury and Abreu’s trade gave Victorino the chance to play regularly last year, and he made the most of it. Despite only stealing four bases-he batted ahead of Utley and Howard and was understandably red-lighted-speed is a vital part of his game, whether he’s slashing across the outfield or taking extra bases with abandon. Rowand shouldn’t assume that his center field job is uncontested.

That speed would reappear in 2007, as Victorino would hit a similar .281/.347/.423 but post an EqA that was 15 points higher, due to his swiping 37 steals in 41 attempts. According to John Dewan’s Revised Zone Rating, he was also one of the top defensive right fielders in the game, with an .892 RZR and an additional 55 plays made out of his zone-that was good for third among qualifying right fielders. Though his production wasn’t a perfect replication of Abreu’s, it was more than serviceable given his total contributions, and the Phillies would reward him by moving him to center for 2008 when Rowand skipped town to head west to San Francisco in search of gold. Victorino continued to improve his game, this time finding some of that power stroke he had left at Triple-A: the Phils’ new center fielder hit .293/.352/.447 with 52 extra-base hits, 36 steals in 47 attempts (77 percent success), and a .278 EqA.

Interestingly enough, there isn’t much of a difference between his 2007 numbers and those from 2008, at least as far as peripherals go. His walk and punch-out rates remained largely the same, while his HR/FB, G/F, and BABIP rates also stayed in the same area. He had a little bump in batting average along with a teeny jump in ISO, and it resulted in an EqA a few points higher. That isn’t meant to take anything away from Victorino, as he’s even more valuable in center than he is in right, and it isn’t like we can’t expect this kind of performance in his future: PECOTA forecasted a .283/.345/.437 line for him, which is right on target with his actual season. He’s also settled into switch-hitting, doing better against right-handers in the major leagues than in the minors, and putting up an admirable .290/.348/.404 over three seasons.

In short, turning to Victorino turned into good news for the Phillies, a team with a sketchy, fly ball-oriented pitching staff in the playoffs, because they need a player with his defensive chops. The fact that he more than holds his own at the plate is just an added bonus.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

Jimmy Rollins won the MVP in 2007, a year removed from teammate Ryan Howard taking home the same award. Cole Hamels has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball the past two years, and Brad Lidge arguably staked claim as baseball’s best closer this year. Suffice it to say, making yourself known on the Phillies roster can be quite tough. Even so, Shane Victorino has become a fan favorite, not just for his hard-nosed style of play, but because, well, he’s pretty darn talented too.

This was his third full season in the bigs, and he has shown signs of improvement in each. In 2006, he posted marks of .346 OBP/.414 SLG, for a 760 OPS. Last year, each rate rose a bit, to a .347 OBP/.423 SLG, resulting in a 770 OPS. This year, the OBP steadily rose once more while the SLG jumped quite a bit; his .352 OBP and .447 SLG produced approximately an 800 OPS. Shane established career highs with 30 doubles and 14 home runs, while matching his career high with eight triples. This increase in power, as evidenced by an increase in ISO to .154, helped Shane shake the reputation as only being valuable due to his speed. Additionally, he is striking out less relative to his walks as his BB/K has risen from 0.44 to 0.60 to this year’s 0.65.

Once on base, Shane can give opposing pitchers fits. Last year, he stole 37 bases in 41 attempts. He followed that up with 36 more this season (in 47 attempts). Baserunning is not solely evaluated by base-stealing, however, as aspects like taking extra bases, getting from first to third on a single, and avoiding double plays need to be taken into account as well. Using Bill James’ baserunning analysis, Shane finished with a +34 both this and last season. The +34 put him in baseball’s top twenty last year, and number eleven this year. The numbers were arrived upon in different ways, though. Last year, his +34 was heavily comprised of the stolen bases, as they accounted for 85 percent of the number. This year, the base-running success is more balanced, with the steals accounting for just 41 percent of his success. Essentially, while his stolen-base success rate has dropped from a year ago, it seems quite plausible that he has actually become a better baserunner.

Shane moved from right to center field this year, following the departure of Aaron Rowand, and has proven himself as more than capable in both spots. According to John Dewan’s plus/minus system, Shane was nine plays better than an average right fielder in 2007, good enough for the top ten. This year, he was 10 plays better than an average center fielder, good for fifth in the senior circuit and once again in the position’s top ten. Put together, and Victorino has seemingly established himself as an upper-echelon baserunner and a top-ten defender at his position. Making just $480,000, the Phillies are definitely getting their money’s worth.

Half of his 14 home runs came in July, when he helped carry the team with a .333/.381/.619 line. The Phillies do not need that type of production all year round from the switch-hitting speedster, but if he can build upon his offensive performance this year while keeping his baserunning and fielding intact, it is only a matter of time before he becomes a household name.-Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.