Rowdy Tellez's bumpy rookie year shows the changing value of home runs

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 17: Rowdy Tellez #44 of the Toronto Blue Jays grounds out in the fifth inning during a MLB game against the Seattle Mariners at Rogers Centre on August 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 17: Rowdy Tellez #44 of the Toronto Blue Jays grounds out in the fifth inning during a MLB game against the Seattle Mariners at Rogers Centre on August 17, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

TORONTO — In front of a tepid crowd of 13,853 at Rogers Centre on Wednesday, Rowdy Tellez earned himself a minor milestone.

Faced with an 0-2 slider from Gabriel Ynoa in the fourth inning of a 3-2 Blue Jays win, the 24-year-old launched a ball well over the right field wall for his 20th home run of the season.

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For good measure he added another dinger in the six inning — an opposite-field shot off southpaw Paul Fry — making it a fine day at the office for the rookie.

Tellez reaching, and exceeding, 20 home runs feels like it should be important. If you’ve been watching baseball for a while your instinct is to assume a rookie who hits 20 home runs is the future at his position. Tellez certainly considers it a significant accomplishment.

“It’s pretty special. It’s one of those things that a lot of people dream of and work hard to do,” he said. “I couldn’t be more grateful to be in the position I am with the organization I’m with and everybody that’s gotten me to this point.”

In the Blue Jays’ 43-season history, only three guys have done it: Eric Hinske, J.P. Arencibia, and Fred McGriff. Those aren’t the three best sluggers in Blue Jays’ history (although McGriff’s criminally underrated among the best mashers the club has seen), but each caused a great deal of excitement with those performances.

On the other hand, Tellez is considered a longshot to be a difference maker for the Blue Jays going forward. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that first base is the club’s biggest weakness on the position player side.

After the game manager Charlie Montoyo was asked about whether his team needed to diversify its offence away from pure home run hitting - a question that might as well have been about Tellez - and gave an answer that was highly applicable to his big first baseman.

“We have find a way to make more contact so we can do more hit-and-runs and stuff,” he said. “It’s almost like everywhere in baseball there’s a lot of swinging and missing so we have to get to a point where we make more contact. That’s for sure.”

Tellez’s ability to smack home runs and still not be considered productive speaks to a couple of simple facts. The first is the intuitive truism that home runs aren’t everything. Tellez has well-documented plate discipline concerns and an alarming degree of swing-and-miss in his game that undermines what he’s able to accomplish with his power. It’s tough to be a middle-of-the-order presence with a sub .300 OBP and a strikeout rate close to 30 percent.

Perhaps more importantly, home runs just don’t carry the same cache anymore. The way the ball is flying these days, the words “20 home run hitter” have a completely different meaning than they used to. Coming into Wednesday’s action, 125 hitters had 20 round trippers, Tellez is the 126th and the number should exceed 130 by season’s end. Ten years ago there were only 87 guys with 20 or more bombs, just 66.9 percent of that 130 number.

It wasn’t so long ago that “double-digit power” was a phrase that was bandied about with some regularity. Now it’s been rendered utterly useless. Only five of 139 qualified batters have fewer than 10 home runs this season. Using 2009 as an arbitrary comparison point again, that number sat at 31 just 10 years ago.

Context is always crucial to player evaluation, and this brand of baseball being played right now is far different from what we’ve seen in even recent history. The democratization of home runs means players have to bring more to the table than raw power these days. That’s one of the reasons Randal Grichuk’s value was questioned even before the Blue Jays extended him.

Unfortunately for Toronto, there’s not a lot Tellez can help them with beyond hitting his share of home runs. There was a time when that made you worth a prominent lineup spot as a kind of bizarro Lyle Overbay, but that’s no longer the case in 2019. The -0.1 WAR that the rookie brought into Wednesday despite his home run total speaks to that.

Right now, Tellez looks like a bit of a one-trick pony. Unfortunately, it’s the same trick that everybody else knows.

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